Elvis’s birthday was earlier this week. If the King of Rock and Roll were still with us, he would have turned 84 on Tuesday. (And it wouldn’t be his birthday without an Elvis sighting or two.) Released on that same day was Jonah Winter’s Elvis Is King! with art from Chris Sickels, aka Red Nose Studio. This is the second time author and illustrator have collaborated. (In 2010, they created Here Comes the Garbage Barge.)
This is a slim picture book biography that aims to capture key moments in Elvis’s early life. We follow him from birth to his initial rise to success. You won’t see, say, the Elvis of the 1970s or the Elvis just before or at his death. And it is a book that attempts to—and succeeds in—communicating the vibrant energy of both the entertainer’s personality and his live performances. When you first pick up the book, turn it over to see the illustration on the back of the dustjacket: you see a young, newly-famous Elvis during one of his first onstage performances, and he is quite literally vibrating with energy. All shook up, as it were.
The text is laid out as if in very short chapters, each piece of text on each page accompanied by a title (“The First Cheeseburger Ever Eaten by Elvis” or “Elvis’s First Apartment in Memphis”). The author doesn’t shy from communicating great enthusiasm and reverence for the subject matter at hand; more than one sentence ends in exclamation marks (“Elvis Is Born!”), and when Elvis rises to fame, some of the sentences receive more than one: “Overjoyed Elvis jumps up and down and walks on the ceiling and then flies!!!” Even caps join in the fun: “PEOPLE ARE LOSING THEIR MINDS OVER SOME PERSON NAMED ELVIS!!!”
Winter also writes with an effective Southern vernacular. “Times is hard,” he writes when the boy-Elvis’s father is arrested for forging a check. “Good Lordy Mercy!” we read during the moment Elvis first hears and is moved by gospel music. In a closing author’s note, Winter writes that Elvis, who was born in northeast Mississippi, was “always at heart a country boy.” And this inclusion of Southern dialect makes the text sing. In fact, Winter adds in this same author’s note that his own ancestors are from Mississippi and Alabama, so the cadence of such language comes easily to him. (Having lived in the South all my life, I can tell when an author who is not from here is forcing it. Usually, they throw in a “tarnation” or “dagnabbit” or “what in the Sam Hill?” and think they’ve covered it.) Winter explains that his own Texan grandmother would often say the same “Good Lordy Mercy!” that he includes in the text. “I included such phrases out of love and compassion,” he writes.
In the same author’s note, Winter writes about Elvis’s debt to African American musicians, explaining that he “owed much of his success to the essential fact that he was white during an era of massive discrimination … an era when the music world was blatantly segregated.” Producer Sam Phillips, Winter writes, “absolutely was looking for a white musician to play ‘black music’ for white teenagers.” Though Winter goes on to say that Elvis borrowed from multiple places — gospel, country, and even bluegrass — this is an important note and one that many young readers aware of Elvis as an icon may not have ever considered. (And I must say, as someone who has lived near Nashville most of her life, I wasn’t even aware that the Grand Ole Opry wasn’t initially a fan of what Winter describes as Elvis’s “rockin’ approach.” Who knew.)
As for the illustrations here … well, Chris Sickels, who goes by the name Red Nose Studio, is — and I’m sorry to use a clichéd phrase, but there’s truth to it — a national treasure. Via his intricately crafted 3D images, which he then photographs in dramatic, cinematic lighting, he brings the young Elvis to life. You can remove the dustjacket from this book and flip it over to see “How the Art Was Made.” It includes images at actual size of some of the scratch-built pieces he created. (“Scratch-built,” he explains, means it was “created with material on hand or readily available.”) You will see here that he makes these pieces out of such materials as the cardboard from a cereal box, fingernail polish, broken pens, screws, etc. There is even a tiny harmonica with a note that says that he forgot how he made it. At one point, he writes: “The best artwork is made when the artist and the viewer are surprised!” Why, yes. He just managed to capture the appeal of his incredible talent, as well as much of the energy pulsating from this book.
The final page of Elvis Is King! has the heading: “What Is This Crazy Music, Anyway?” Here, Winter tries to put words to Elvis’s appeal, as if he is thinking it through on the page: “Is it country music? Sort of. … Is it rhythm and blues? Yep ….” Eventually he writes: “It’s more than the sum of its parts.” The same could be said of this biography — magnetic and charismatic, much like Elvis himself, it all adds up to an electrifying rags-to-riches tale that you won’t soon forget.
(Note: Just this week, James Feder talked to Jonah Winter here at Kirkus about the book.)
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.
ELVIS IS KING! Text copyright © 2019 by Jonah Winter. Illustrations © 2019 by Red Nose Studio. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, New York.