Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald
by Roxane Orgill
illustrations by Sean Qualls
Candlewick Press, $17.99, Ages 8-11
Biographer Orgill uses her award-winning talents as a writer about music to capture the rhythm and beat that characterizes Fitzgerald’s musical and dancing abilities, beginning as a young child. Ella and her friend Charlie practice on the Yonkers streets, take a trolley to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom to watch, learn and dance some more, and later get a few dancing jobs in neighborhood clubs.
But after her mother dies and she must live with her aunt, Ella’s raggedy toughness gets her in trouble and sent to a school for orphans up the Hudson River, where she is mistreated before she runs away. Back in Harlem by 1934, Ella’s experience of being homeless and out of work is not uncommon, and she gets by on soup at the Baptist church, used clothing and more toughness. What is uncommon however, is Ella’s courage, persistence and determination to audition for Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater and later at the Harlem Opera House, where she wins first prize both times.
Her big break comes when, despite being dressed in big second-hand boots and raggedy clothes, Ella holds her beloved mother’s memory in her heart and, using her voice with a dancing beat, convinces the reluctant Chick Webb to offer her a chance to swing with his band at the Savoy. It’s a few successful years later that her idea to record a swing version of the children’s game tune, “A Tisket, A Tasket,” brings the band its first number one hit song on the radio.
Illustrator Qualls brings his much honored skills with acrylic, pencil and collage to set the pages for the dancing text, with words from Ella’s music interspersed. Flat paintings with bubbles and ribbons of color provide a rhythmic backdrop for action throughout this story, contrasting the poverty of Ella’s early life with the sparkly gowns, jewelry, shoes and stage lighting of her later success. A Bibliography for Further Reading, Listening, Viewing, and Web searching is included at the end.
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
illustrated by Brian Floca
Roaring Brook Press, $17.99, Ages 7-11
While this is initially the story of Martha Graham’s dance about America, it is ultimately a collaboration of three artists whose collective work produces a masterpiece. However, “before it was a dance it was a story.” And although Graham begins by writing her story as a script, fundamentally the story is told through movement and music.
Graham asks composer Aaron Copeland to create music for her ballet. And as he begins, a lilting old Shaker melody, “’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free . . . seems to draw out the story, winding its way through his musical score, which also includes a Virginia reel and rodeo themes. As Martha constructs steps and patterns for her ballet, she and her dancers allow Copeland’s music to suggest movement. They listen to their bodies, imagining and trying many different kinds of motion, searching for what works, by discovering what doesn’t.
Graham contacts her friend, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who is skilled at transforming materials like wood, and stone into art. She hopes he will be able to transform an empty stage into a space where dancers can perform.
With its angular shapes, slanted steps, and thin skeleton-like edges, Noguchi’s invented stage set is something of an obstacle course for the dancers as they practice and perfect their movements. Graham’s title for the ballet comes from a poem, and it is ready for the premier performance, at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC on October 30, 1944.
Award winning artist Floca, with authors Greenberg and Jordan, in a cooperative effort reminiscent of the story itself, adroitly uses his signature watercolors to bring both the crafting of the ballet and its performance to life. Motion and power are contrasted with quieter moments of rocking a baby as the painter uses line and color to generate a sense of energy, celebration and hope that characterize this artistic love letter.
As a frontier story, Appalachian Spring is a “legend of American living,” showing how pioneer families put down roots in a new home, and create a new family and a new life. As a favored masterpiece, it is performed year after year, a continuing synergy of teamwork. At the end are biographies of the three featured collaborators and a list of source notes.
Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx
by Jonah Winter,
illustrated by Edel Rodriguez.
Atheneum, $16.99, Ages 5-9
Effectively written in both English and Spanish, (including front and back covers and flaps) this picture book biography of the first Latin American to be seated as Supreme Court justice follows the life of a little girl from New York City whose parents were born in Puerto Rico. Comparing her to a moonflower growing next to an abandoned building, best-selling author Winter shows readers how Sonia’s mother worked hard, despite only a third grade education herself, to make it possible for her children to go to school. She set high standards for herself, and Sonia and her brother stretched to reach their own high goals, following their mother’s loving example.
Although the children’s father died when Sotomayor was only nine years old, the extended family surrounded the three with much love, good food, wonderful parties and game nights. Sonia also read books, lots of them, all the time, or at least as much as she could.
She began to think about the power held by a judge in her favorite TV show, Perry Mason, a courtroom drama. As her interest bloomed, she continued to study harder, winning a highest achievement award in high school, and being accepted as a student at Princeton University, where later, after continuing to study rigorously, Sotomayor again graduated with highest honors.
Rodriguez’s bright illustrations, with their sunny orange cast, use pastels, acrylics, oil-based inks and spray paint to fill many of the double page spreads. The latter gives, especially the partial page paintings, a soft focus, with contrasting shadings and texture, even on the night pages.
Her work as a judge brought her recognition, and later attention from President Barack Obama who nominated Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, where she works as a justice, proud to be Latina. (An Author’s Note, also in both English and Spanish is included at the back.)