There are, on any given day, many new picture books about children making their way, as well as picture books about music. But today I want to highlight two new ones that are about both. One is fiction—Chieri Uegaki’s Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin, illustrated by Qin Leng. And the other is a picture book biography, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, written by Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustrated by Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award winner Frank Morrison.
Uegaki’s book is winning in every possible way. It tells the story of Hana Hashimoto, who announces on the first page to her pesky brothers that she’s going to sign up for the talent show and play her violin. They mock her and tell her it will end disastrously. But Hana has a fondness for the instrument, even if she knows she has a lot to learn; she’s only been to three lessons after all.
And that affinity for the instrument comes from Ojichan, her grandfather who once played Second Violin in one of Japan’s great symphony orchestras. Ojichan played beautiful music every morning at his home when Hana and her brothers visited him in Japan over the summer, and Hana loved to listen. The music gave her “a shiver of happy-sadness.” (Evidently, for both author and illustrator, this story was inspired by family members involved in the arts: The author’s grandfather was once a violinist, and the illustrator’s father, an artist.)
Uegaki fills the narrative with vivid imagery, and both author and illustrator paint a precise world. There are “sweet-smelling” tatami mats and “cool buckwheat pillows.” There’s her grandfather’s violin music, which mimics raindrops, crickets and more. She and her brothers eat ice cream and oranges as they listen to their grandfather play, and there are fireflies glowing at twilight. It all fits together to give the reader an eloquent and striking view of Hana’s surroundings, as well as her emotional landscape. The author also has a pleasing way with figurative language: Hana’s grandfather’s music coaxes her awake “as gently as sunshine,” yet his lullabies are also capable of bringing sleep to her, which falls over her “like a blanket.”
And Hana is brave. When she walks out onto the stage of the talent show, Leng places her tiny figure in one massive brown spread—a lighter brown for the stage, and a more ominous, darker brown for the audience beyond. It perfectly captures that very real thing called stage fright—in a way that can give you goosebumps. “[Hana] wished she could turn into a grain of rice and disappear into a crack between the floorboards,” the author writes.
Eventually, she imagines her grandfather in the audience—“Do your best,” he tells her—and she is inspired not to play the classical tunes he can; she is a beginner after all. Instead, she very playfully demonstrates on her violin how it sounds when a mother crow calls her chicks. Then she plays the neighbor’s cat at night, followed by “the sound of rain on a paper umbrella.” These are the sorts of things her grandfather had obligingly played for Hana over the summer after playing his classical pieces.
“And that,” she tells the crowd,” is how I play the violin.” She follows this up with a bow.
I love this on so many levels. Hana displays courage, creative problem-solving and lots of spunk. And something about a grandfather, who is close to his granddaughter and telling her to simply “do her best,” is refreshing in this day and age of things like competitive preschool applications.
Katheryn Russell-Brown’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is a biography of jazz great and world-class trombone player Melba Liston. Katheryn opens the book with style on the streets of Kansas City in 1926, a place where you could “reach out and feel the music.” It’s here that Melba is born.
The author chronicles the girl’s love for music and her first trombone at the age of 7. Like Hana, when Melba first plays, things don’t go so well (it sounded “bad, like a howling dog”), but she quickly learns and becomes the star player in her high school music club. At the young age of 17, she’s invited to tour with a band led by trumpet player Gerald Wilson. Before she knows it, her “bold notes and one-of-a-kind sound” is thrilling crowds all over the globe.
For a brief time, she quits music, having faced rampant discrimination and thin crowds, but by the ’50s she’s playing once again with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.
The text has just enough spunk to match Melba’s vivacious spirit, yet it never overwhelms the subject matter. And Morrison’s rich, stylized oil paints ripple with movement and energy. It’s a lively tribute to a lesser-known jazz master.
Both books are keepers—and hit exactly the right notes.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.