Words that sing

A child's life is full of music, from 'Happy Birthday,' to 'Hickory, Dickory, Dock.' What better way to capture the delight of childhood than with picture books built around the magic of music? Polly Shulman reviews five new books who's words leap and sing in harmony.

Published September 14, 1998 8:41AM (EDT)

Picture books belong to the age of music, the era when children learn
to mark their most important triumphs with song: "Happy Birthday to
you"; "Nyah, nyah, I know something you don't know." Sadly, though,
books can't sing -- unless you consider one of those maddening novelties
with a whining chip wedged in its spine a book. Rather, they depend on
the human voice for their music. Even when you read them to yourself, children's
books refuse to be silenced. Again and again, their authors find ways of
capturing the drama, self expression and power of song in their flat,
still pages.

One way to borrow a musical voice is to illustrate a song, as Kathy
Jakobsen does in "This Land Is Your Land." A small, upright Woody
Guthrie strides through Jakobsen's folk-arty paintings while his song
plays itself out in the reader's inner ear and perhaps even aloud if
there's a parent around who can carry a tune.

Like the music, the
illustrations in Jakobsen's book draw strength from their seemingly
naive passion, keeping just this side of sentimentality. As Guthrie does
in his lyrics, Jakobsen alternates sweeping natural images -- that endless
skyway, those diamond deserts -- with busy scenes populated by people like
you and me. Her pages illustrating the chorus are particularly clever
and intricate: She fits together carefully posed snapshots into spreads
laid out like antique postcards. She lines the margins with vertical or
horizontal images of quintessential America -- the Washington Monument, a
great sequoia, Yosemite Falls, a space shuttle launch, the Brooklyn
Bridge, a train, a dog sled.

Song and book include the freedom to protest and a social conscience
in their celebration of America. Woody sits by a New York City subway
entrance playing a guitar marked "This machine kills fascists." Soup
kitchens put in an appearance, as do picket lines. But Jakobsen readily
turns back to blossoming fruit trees and sing-along picnics before it
gets too political.

Like Jakobsen, Miguelanxo Prado draws power from a musical work
popular among children, transforming Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the
Wolf" into a graphic novel. Building up his pictures from layers of
saturated color, he creates a shadowy, frightening, yet slightly goofy
atmosphere that's in keeping with Prokofiev's world. Peter's animal
friends -- the sneaky cat, the slow, plump duck, the quick-moving bird --
are illustrated the same way their theme music sounds. The bird even
leaves behind a visible trail to show how it darts through the air, much
the way Prokofiev's music trills and leaps when the bird enters the
story. Peter's grandfather, warning the boy to stay home where the wolf
can't get him, seems almost as threatening as the vast forest. And the
scenes where the wolf plunders, gulps and gloats remind me that I
always ran out of the room halfway through the Leonard Bernstein version
of the piece when this section played. As is fitting for our
environmentally guilt-ridden age, Prado adds a note of regret once the
wolf is safely dead, but Peter quickly gets over it and learns to
delight in his kill like any successful predator.

Another musical number ripe for an update is "The Sorcerer's
Apprentice." Artist Ted Dewan has reinterpreted Goethe's Romantic
ballad, adopting the pacing of Paul Dukas' famous scherzo -- a
sprightly humorous instrumental musical -- and ignoring Disney altogether. In Dewan's hands, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is clearly a
tale for our time. A musician and former physics teacher, Dewan uses the
story to raise an eyebrow at technology. His sorcerer sports
shoulder-length gray hair and a baseball cap, and it's not hard to
imagine the next generation's answer to the personal computer coming out
of his cluttered workshop.

Dewan gives his sorcerer-geek the requisite sense of mysterious
antiquity by filling the workshop with machine-age tools and parts. The
magician-techie's lamps have goose necks, his electrical cords are
wrapped in cloth, and he keeps his nuts and bolts in an oak drawer file.
To reduce the clutter, he builds himself a robot assistant whom he asks
to vacuum and straighten up. The disk he slips into his apprentice's
head is a 45 RPM -- you can almost hear him flick the dust off the needle
before lowering it gently and letting it play.

Naturally, the assistant sees the blueprints that created him and
decides to build helpers of his own. One robot becomes two, two become
four and four become eight, while illustrations of a whole note, two half notes, four
quarters, eight eighths and so on dance
across the page. Like the audible scherzo, the book builds to a boom.
Dewan's housekeeping hint in an age of mechanical reproduction seems to
be: Do your own dirty work.

In "Music Over Manhattan," author Mark Karlins and illustrator Jack
E. Davis use a different tactic to bring music into their story. Instead
of cribbing from musicians, they use them as characters. Bernie, a
Brooklyn youngster plagued by a cousin so talented at penmanship that
the family can't stop kvelling, takes up the trumpet in hope of
consolation. Uncle Louie, his teacher, is such a talented musician that
he can make the pigeons strut and coo when he plays. Even the laundry
dances in time. In fact, Uncle Louie plays so well that the music lifts
him into the air. Inspired, Bernie practices diligently. The story ends
with a fanfare of fantasy: When Uncle Louie invites Bernie to play at a
family wedding, his talent floats the whole party over Manhattan to
their homes. Jealous Cousin Herbie of penmanship fame lands in a trash
can (nyah, nyah).

For the young narrator of "My Friend the Piano" by Catherine Cowan,
an artist's life is not nearly so straightforward or triumphant. "It all
started the first time I hauled myself onto the piano bench, touched the
keys, and began to compose. As I grew and my feet reached the pedals, my
music swelled with passion. At times the piano wept. At other times it
shrieked with laughter.

"One day Mother announced it was time I took lessons and learned how
to play. 'But I already know how to play,' I said.

"'That is not playing,' said Mother. 'It's noise.'"

The piano, it turns out, doesn't take kindly to lessons. When the
heroine tries to practice her scales, the instrument immediately goes
out of tune. Kevin Hawkes' illustrations show its lid growing spiky and
its keyboard curling in distaste. It's only really happy when the girl
plays her own "symphonies."

The narrator's parents soon lose patience and decide to get rid of
the piano. The heroine pleads in vain and when the piano is on its way
out the door, she decides to rescue her friend. She hops on the lid and
off they speed together down the driveway, out through the neighborhood
and over the highway. At last, in a heroic dash for freedom, the piano
flings itself over a cliff into the sea while the heroine stays behind,
clinging to a tree branch. In the last picture we see the piano leaping
with dolphins in the moonlight.

At the end, the piano is free and our heroine is glad to have it out of the reach of interfering teachers and unappreciative parents: "If you go to Symphony
Rock, you will see where my friend the piano escaped to the sea with my
music safe inside," says the narrator. "Now I compose concertos for pots
and pans."

Music needs a different kind of freedom -- the freedom to jangle and annoy, to get stuck in a listener's ear, to repeat itself over and over, to call up a lost thought from long ago, to be seen as well as heard. And picture books provide it with the perfect soundproof auditorium.

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B O O K++I N F O R M A T I O N

"This Land Is Your Land"

Words and Music by Woody Guthrie, paintings
by Kathy Jakobsen

With a tribute by Pete Seeger

Little, Brown, 1998, 34 pages

"Peter and the Wolf"

By Sergei Prokofiev, adapted by Miguelanxo Prado

Nantier Beall Minoustchine Publishing, 32 pages

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice"

By Ted Dewan

Doubleday, 32 pages

"Music Over Manhattan"

By Mark Karlins, illustrated by Jack E. Davis

Doubleday, 32 pages

"My Friend the Piano"

By Catherine Cowan, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 32 pages

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

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Disney Music