If you have children with an artistic or musical bent, here are a pair of biographical picture books to enrich their world.

“King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin” by Stephen Costanza. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 56 pages. Ages: 4-8. $17.99

What is it about Maine islands? They seem to produce children’s book creators like other places produce potatoes. Vinalhaven was the summer home of Margaret Wise Brown (“Goodnight Moon”). Peaks Island alone has given us Anne Sibley O’Brien, Scott Nash and Kevin Hawkes. In just the last 12 months, I’ve reviewed books by Jamie Hogan (also Peaks), Lisa Jahn-Clough (Monhegan) and Annica Mrose Rissi (Deer Isle, also home of Cynthia Voigt). And of course, there is the late, great Ashley Bryan of Little Cranberry Island.

The latest picture book by an island resident, Stephen Costanza of North Haven, is dedicated to Bryan, “my friend and mentor.” “King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin” is an ambitious book. It’s one thing to write or illustrate a child’s story about, say, a mischievous child or a lonely mouse. It’s quite another to write about music. How do you capture and convey the sounds of something as special as ragtime in a way a child can understand?

Costanza meets this challenge thorough the use of rhythmic prose, occasional rhymes and lots of alliteration and onomatopoeia. From its opening sentence, the writing itself is musical:

“In the valley of the Red River, where the soil was as rich as most folks were poor, four states sat side by side like colors on a quilt…” Playing the piano in the home where his mother was a housecleaner, young Scott “made up a ditty for dusting a wall; a waltz for washing.” And when he came to playing the idiosyncratic rags: “The left hand kept the beat, OOM-pah, OOM-pah! The right hand soared, free as a bird: syncopated, agitated, bodacious, and proud!”

Advertisement

Costanza, himself a pianist and the author of several children’s books about composers, captures Scott’s precocious early life in a household infused with music and a community where singing and dancing were vital strands of the fabric of life. He highlights Scott’s mother’s dedication not just to raising and feeding her family but to feeding Scott’s musical gift, saving for a piano and at one point bartering her cleaning services for some life-changing piano lessons. Joplin’s later career included many songs, ballets and even an opera, but he will always be known for rags, especially the Maple Leaf Rag, an irrepressibly infectious tune that became the ragtime gold standard, a worldwide bestseller, and is still played and studied today by piano students desperate for something more exciting than Au Clair de la Lune.

Costanza’s writing is equally infectious, although the length of the book and the advanced language would suggest it might appeal to children beyond the suggested age range (4 to 8). His rich and lively earth-toned illustrations bring the story beautifully to life, and the wealth of information included in the author’s note will fascinate any child eager to know more about the world of this gifted African American who began life as the child of a formerly enslaved man and ended as a world-renowned composer and entertainer.

“Breaking Waves: Winslow Homer Paints the Sea” by Robert Burleigh, paintings by Wendell Minor. Holiday House, 40 pages. Ages: 4-8. $18.99 

If it seems hard to write about music, ask yourself this: How do you paint the waves? Even harder, how do you paint someone painting the waves? Especially if that someone is Winslow Homer? How do you avoid comparisons with the master himself?

In “Breaking Waves,” Wendell Minor begs that comparison by billing himself on the jacket as “Paintings by…” rather than the more usual “Illustrations by… .” His watercolors capture the changing moods of the ocean, from glowing sunsets to explosive waves. He riffs on but doesn’t slavishly reproduce any of Homer’s best-known seascapes, knowing perhaps that his watercolors could never equal Homer’s. The final, climactic and artfully done double-page spread has a real impact as you must look closely to find where Homer’s painting of the sea leaves off and Minor’s painting of the sea starts. Kudos.

Roger Burleigh’s text is also artfully done. Each chapter starts with a short, impressionistic intro and a single word describing the quality of the ocean: “Shimmer!” “Calm!” “Roar!” It ends with an exhortation that is key to any artistic endeavor: “Look!”

Advertisement

“Calm. Charcoal lines blending into a distant horizon. Quick strokes of blue vibrating in the depths. Look!”

The intro is followed with descriptions of Homer’s life at Prouts Neck (which is the focus of this book). Burleigh is at his best when he provides us with insights (or guesses) into Homer’s artistic process: gradually building a painting, losing himself in his work, scraping things out and starting over, putting up signs to scare away visitors. Similarly, Minor’s paintings are also best when they focus on the studio, where Homer is always depicted in the dapper clothes he favored, with his faithful terrier nearby.

Burleigh deftly ends each chapter with a few relevant lines of (I assume) Homer’s own writing. These are actually my favorite bits:

“All is lovely outside my house and inside my house and myself.”

“The sun will not rise, or set, without my notice and thanks.”

And the final, inspiring lines: “At any moment I am liable to paint a good picture.”

In my book, anyone who feels that way is someone worth spending time with, no matter your age.

Amy MacDonald is a freelance writer and children’s book author. She lives in Portland and Vinalhaven and may be reached at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: