Some books for kids have a hard road ahead of them. Here’s a secret. If you want a book to sell just oodles and oodles of copies to the general public, all you have to do is avoid writing in one of two specific genres: poetry and nonfiction. Even the best and brightest nonfiction books have a nasty tendency to fade from public memory too soon, and poetry only ever gets any notice during April a.k.a National Poetry Month. I say that, and yet there are some brave souls out there who will sometimes not just write poetry. Not just write nonfiction. They’ll write nonfiction-inspired poetry. It’s crazy! It’s like they care about the quality of the content more than make a bazillion dollars or something. The latest book to fall into this category is Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill. Melding topics like jazz musicians and photography with history, poetry, and some truly keen art, this isn’t really like any other book on your shelves. I’m betting that that’s a good thing too.
It was sort of a crazy idea for a graphic designer / jazz buff to come up with. By 1958 jazz was a well-established, deeply American, musical genre. So why not try to get all the jazz greats, and maybe some up-and-comers, into a single photograph all together? The call went out but Art Kane (who really wasn’t a photographer himself) had no idea who would turn up. After all, they were going to take the picture at ten in the morning. That’s a time most jazz performers are fast asleep. Yet almost miraculously they came. Count Basie and Thelonious Monk. Maxine Sullivan and Dizzy Gillespie. Some of them were tired. Some were having a great time catching up with old friends. And after much cajoling on Kane’s part a photo was made. Fifty-seven musicians (fifty-eight if you count Willie “Lion” Smith just out of frame). Orgill tells the tale in poetry, with artist Francis Vallejo providing the art and life. Extensive backmatter consists of an Author’s Note, Biographies, a page on the photo and homages to it, Source Notes, and a Bibliography that includes Books, Articles, Audiovisual Material, and Websites.
Jazz is often compared to poetry. So giving this book too rigid a structure wouldn’t offer the right feel at all. I’m no poet. I wish I had a better appreciation for the art than I do. Yet even with my limited understanding of the style I found myself stopping when I read the poem “This Moment” written from the point of view of Eddie Locke, a drummer. It’s the kind of poem where it’s composed as a series of quatrains. The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. It was fortunate for me that Orgill mentions in the back of the book that the poem is a pantoum. I’d never have come up with that term myself (I thought it was a sestina). Most of the poetry in the book isn’t really that formal. In fact, Orgill confesses that, “I write prose, not poetry. But this story demanded a sense of freedom, an intensity, and a conciseness that prose could not provide.” The result is that most of the poems are free verse, which I much preferred.
Did you know that when publishing a book for kids you’re not supposed to turn in your manuscript with an illustrator already attached? True fact. Editors like having the power to pair authors and artists together. To be honest, they have experience in this area and sometimes their intervention is sublime (sometimes it fails miserably too, but that’s a tale for another day). I’m afraid I don’t know what Candlewick editor saw Orgill’s manuscript and thought of Francis Vallejo as a potential illustrator. If I knew I’d kiss them. Detroit born Vallejo is making his debut with this book and you’d never know in a million years that he wasn’t a born and bred Harlemite. His style is perfect for this tale. As adept at comic style panels as he is acrylic and pastel jazz scenes, there’s life in this man’s art. It was born to accompany jazz. It’s also particularly interesting watching what he does with light. The very beginning of the book shows a sunrise coming up on a hot August day. As it rises, shadows make way. This play between light and shadow, between the heat of the photo shoot and the cool jazz clubs that occasionally make an appearance in the text, gives the book its heart. It’s playful and serious all at once so that when you lift the page that reveals the real photograph, that action produces a very real moment of awe.
There’s been a lot of talk in the world of children’s literature lately about the research done on both works of fiction and nonfiction. Anytime you set your book in the past you have a responsibility to get the facts right. Part of what I love so much about Jazz Day is the extent of the research here. Orgill could easily have found a couple articles and books about the day of the photograph and stopped there. Instead, she writes that “Kane was by all accounts a wonderful storyteller, but one who did not always adhere to the facts. With the help of his son Jonathan Kane, I tried to set the story of the photograph straight.” Instructors who are teaching about primary sources in the schools could use this anecdote to show how reaching out to primary sources is something you need to do all the time. The rest of the backmatter (and it really is some of the most extensive I’ve ever seen) would be well worth showing to kids as well.
The question then becomes, whom is this book for? The complexity of the subject matter suggests that it’s meant for older kids. Those kids that might have a sense of some of the history (they might have heard what jazz is or who Duke Ellington was at some point in their travels). But would they read it for pleasure or as a kind of assigned reading? I don’t know. I certainly found it amusing enough, but I’m a 37-year-old woman. Not the target age range exactly. Yet I want to believe that there’s a fair amount of kid-friendly material here. Poems like “So Glad” and “quartet” may be about adults talking from an adult perspective, but Orgill cleverly livens the book up with the perspective of kids every step of the way. From the children sitting bored on the curb to a girl peering down from her window wishing the jazz men and photographer would just go away, kids get to give their two cents constantly. Read it more than once and you’ll begin to recognize some of them. Brothers Alfred and Nelson crop up more than a couple times too. Their mischief is just what the doctor ordered. With that in mind, it might be a good idea to have kids read different poems at different times. Save the more esoteric ones for later.
Jazz is hard to teach to kids. They know it’s important but it’s hard to make it human. There are always exceptions, though. For example, my 20-month-old is so obsessed with the book This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt that he’ll have me read it to him a hundred times over. To my mind, that’s what this book is capable of, if at a much older level. It humanizes the players and can serve as a starting point for discussions, teaching units, you name it. These men and women are hot and tired and laughing and alive, if only at this moment in time. It’s a snapshot in both the literal and figurative sense. It’ll take some work to get it into the right hands, I suspect, but in the end it’s worth it. Jazz isn’t some weird otherworldly language. It’s people. These people. Now the kids in the book, and the kids reading this book, have a chance to get to know them.
On shelves March 8th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Jazz by Walter Dean Myers
- This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt
- Before John was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford