In Banjo of Destiny, Jeremiah Birnbaum wants the one thing his parents won't let him have—a banjo. Classical piano is their idea of good music, and they forbid their son the instrument of his dreams. But that doesn't stop Jeremiah from scavenging leftover parts to build his own banjo, and then he just has to learn how to play it. That’s easy, right? Cary Fagan shares the music behind Jeremiah and his banjo, revealing his own passion for that ancient sound and his ultimate admiration for the kid who takes on a seemingly impossible task.
What was the seed for the story in Banjo of Destiny?
When I was a kid I really wanted to play a musical instrument, and I often was drawn to quirky ones. I tried to play ukulele for a while because it wasn’t cool back then—now it’s cool to play the ukulele—and I convinced my parents to buy me a round-backed mandolin. I had no idea what you were even supposed to play on a mandolin.
And I actually never learned to play any of these instruments. I never had the “sticktoitness” to learn to play. When I was an adult in my 40s I started to play music and go to bluegrass festivals, where I saw kids who were amazing players. Even though no doubt their friends were listening to Justin Bieber or whoever, they were into this music that people had been playing for 200 years. It amazed me that they had the focus and passion for this music. My own unfulfilled desires as a kid combined with seeing other kids who had this interest and this boy came to me, this boy who desperately wanted to play and wasn't allowed to.
Jeremiah has everything except the one thing he wants, a banjo to play, so he has to make his own. Why is this important for kids to read about?
I think there are drawbacks to growing up in the upper-middle class, when you don’t have to work hard for what you want most of the time. I wanted Jeremiah to explore how working hard to get something can be vastly more rewarding than just having it handed to you. Jeremiah learns how to find out how to build something, he learns how to use tools, how to measure and then he learns over a long period of time how to play. I wanted the reader to know that he loved doing it but that he gets discouraged sometimes. I know we’re not talking about car chases, but I thought in its own way it would [be] quite gripping to see someone struggling to learn something he really wanted to do.
Are all of the musicians and songs you mention in the book real?
Yes, they are all real. Anyone who plays old-time music, especially the banjo, would know those names. When Jeremiah’s learning a tune and describing it—I listened very carefully to those tunes and tried to convey the music in words. It’s very hard to give the sense of what the music sounded like, because many people won’t have heard it. But it’s all out there, with the Internet, every kid who reads the book and wants to can find all this stuff very easily. I’m not a very good banjo player, but in my 40s I started playing the mandolin, and it really worked for me. I play with friends every week and at festivals. It’s really become a part of my life. It was very easy for me to write about it the way Jeremiah feels about it.
You include real details about building banjos—have you built your own?
Yes, I did! Part of the idea for the book came from when I built my first banjo. I was having friends over to play music, and one of them sat on this folding Ikea chair and broke it. It wasn’t his fault, it was already cracked. I had it against the wall for a while, and I kept looking at the chair and thinking, “That looks like a banjo neck to me!” I’d never built anything in my life [and] I had no tools, but with my daughter—who was 8 at the time—keeping me company in the kitchen, I built a banjo using the counter as a work space. And it worked—I learned my first banjo tunes on it. And then I built a second one. When I started writing the book, I wanted to build one that looked exactly like the one I imagined Jeremiah building so that was the third, and I sent artist Selçuk Demirel photos of that one to use for the illustrations.