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Notes from a Children's Librarian

Notes from a Children's Librarian: Picture Books About Music

Music comes to life on the page in these rich and absorbing books for primary students.

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.

Book Cover The Fabulous Song

The Fabulous Song, by Don Gilmour, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay, is a fabulous book. At his birth, Frederic’s parents decide he is a musical prodigy. They send him for lessons, beginning with piano, then clarinet, but “the best thing about the clarinet was that it was small enough to leave on the bus, which Frederic did.” (The transit Lost-and-Found is filled with instruments, presumably abandoned by children like Frederic.) His trumpet-playing “sounded like a frog trying to spit.” The banjo was “like a frying pan hitting a frozen fence post.” The language in this book is as fun as Gay’s illustrations. In the end, Frederic surprises everyone by discovering his exceptional skills as an orchestra conductor. (Kindergarten to Grade 3)  


Book Cover Leon's Song

Finding one’s talent is also the theme in Leon’s Song, by Stephanie Simpson McLellan, illustrated by Dianna Bonder. Leon has been a frog for 40 years and still hasn’t found his groove like his frog friends, one of whom is a great swimmer, another a jumper and yet another, a sweet singer. But when a threat enters the pond, Leon overcomes his fearful nature to defeat it and finally find his voice. (Kindergarten to Grade 3)


Music acts as a window to geography and history in the next four picture books.

Book Cover Canadian Railroad Trilogy

Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy, illustrated by Ian Wallace, is an ode to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Each two-page spread features a few lines from Lightfoot's iconic song, beautifully illustrated in this large book. It depicts the land prior to the railroad, the life and hardships of the immigrant navvies (manual labourers) and the ultimate cross-country connections created by the railway. There is an underlying theme of displaced Indigenous peoples. A thumbnail glossary of illustrations at the back describes the historical figures/events referenced, along with facts, for example, Chinese navvies who were paid the least, did the most dangerous work in British Columbia. (Grades 3-6)


Book Cover Northwest Passage

Northwest Passage, the Stan Rogers song, illustrated by Matt James, follows the hopeful and tragic events of early explorers of the Northwest Passage, focusing mainly on the Franklin expedition. James’ illustrations show Rogers’ own struggle to understand the trip: “How then am I so different from the first men through this way?/Like them I left a settled life, I threw it all away./To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men./To find there but the road back home again.” A theme of Indigenous peoples also runs through this book—if Franklin’s men had relied on their knowledge of how to survive the elements and battle scurvy, the explorers might have survived. Their reliance on tinned goods ultimately poisoned them with lead in their bloodstream, contributing to their demise. (Grade 4 and up)


Book Cover Our Song

Our Song: The Story of "O Canada," by Peter Kuitenbrouwer, illustrated by Ashley Spires, is the history of the anthem. The song was written in 1880, by Caliza Lavallee, a musician who "heard" the French lyrics in the rush of a Quebec waterfall and performed the anthem at Quebec City festivities. He died penniless, and the English translation, written in 1901, was the first of many renditions, including lyrics garnered in a nationwide contest. It wasn’t until 1927 that the current version stuck, written by Montreal judge Robert Stanley Weir. The history of the song is cheekily illustrated by Spires, alongside a timeline of major Canadian events. (Grade 3 and up)


Book Cover O Canada

If a picture is worth a thousand words, O Canada, by Ted Harrison, is a great book to teach the provinces and territories of Canada. Each page offers iconic imagery associated with each province and territory (minus Nunavut). Harrison begins with P.E.I. and its pink sand-beaches and a lighthouse, and moves from coast to coast. Saskatchewan, where the RCMP first rode, shows a mountie, golden fields, and a grain elevator. In the Northwest Territories, there’s a moose, an inukshuk and icebergs breaking in dark blue water. Ontario includes kids playing baseball in Blue Jay style, with the CN Tower in the background. Each page has a line of the anthem, along with Harrison’s impression of that region. (Kindergarten to Grade 6)


The next two books are based on the story of renowned violinist, Joshua Bell.

Book Cover the Man With the Violin

The Man with the Violin, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, tells the tale of a boy named Dylan being pulled by his mother into a crowded subway, where he hears the world’s saddest music. Dylan is one of the few who actually stop and listen. All the sounds in this book are made visual—the music appears as swooping bands of colour amidst the angular black and white lines of the rumbling subway and the noises of the people heading home. While his mom makes dinner, the same song comes on the radio, informing them the world-famous musician played in the subway that day. This story is based on a true story and Bell’s subway appearance is confirmed by the brief timeline of his life at the back of the book. (Kindergarten to Grade 3)


Book Cover The Dance of the Violin

The Dance with the Violin, by Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dusan Petricic, illustrates the real life of Bell as a child making sounds using household objects. At age 12, he enters an international violin competition, makes a mistake on stage, and has to ask the judges if he can start again. This one is a great example of the insecurities and bumps in the road of a very talented boy. (Kindergarten to Grade 3)


On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press.