Book review: The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano, by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

Rusch, Elizabeth. The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano. Illus. by Marjorie Priceman. Atheneum, 2017. $17.99. 48p. ISBN 978-1-4814-4484-2. Ages 7-10. P8Q9

Cristofori’s inventive drive was to develop a musical instrument that would combine the abilities of the harpsichord and the clavichord by playing both soft (piano) and loud (forte). Fortunately, he found patronage from a Florence prince, one of the famed Medicis, that allowed him the time and funding to explore his dream for over a decade until he produced the first “pianoforte” in 1700. Lively text about his adventures is accompanied by somewhat naif-appearing gouache and ink illustrations from the Caldecott honor winner. End material adds more information through a timeline, subsequent developments to the piano, recommendations of both classical and modern music, and detailed notes following the author’s search for her sources. Also included is a list of locations of surviving Cristofori pianos and a website where people can hear the sound from one of them.

Verdict: The energy of the narrative and visuals bring a fascinating period of time to the pages of a children’s book, and the end-notes add more to the education of the book—timeline, comparisons between Cristofori’s and the current pianos, an extensive discussion of Rusch’s sources, and suggested listening that includes the sound that Rusch’s piano made. Rusch is a Portland (OR) author. Highly recommended.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien, by Caroline McAlister, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

McAlister, Caroline. John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien. Illus. by Eliza Wheeler. Roaring Brook Press, 2017. $18.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-62672-092-3. Ages 6-8. P9Q9

As a lonely child, later at a boarding school, and then fighting in the first world war, Tolkien loved dragons, a lifelong interest that led him to write the famous Lord of the Rings fantasy series. Wheeler carefully illustrates the connection between his real world and the one he creates, explaining the sources and similarities in notes at the end of the book. Fluttering curtains, fireplace flames, and plumes of smoke and steam evoke the mythical beings that later populate Tolkien’s Middle Earth, accompanied by simple text about Tolkien’s early life and dreams, culminating in the huge, elegantly menacing Smaug.

Verdict: Lovely illustrations reveal Tolkien’s feelings and ideas for his stories in an exploration of a mostly-isolated child who shared his dreams with the world. An excellent introduction to the classic Tolkien writings.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: John Deere That’s Who!, by Tracy Nelson Mauer, illustrated by Tim Zeltner

Mauer, Tracy Nelson. John Deere That’s Who! Illus. by Tim Zeltner. Holt, 2017. $17.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-62779-129-8. Ages 5-9. P6Q7

At one time, the name John Deere was known far and wide because of the farm machinery bearing his name, but his humble beginnings in the early 18th century came from his blacksmith trade that led to his developing an effective plow design to cut through rich soil. In fact, Deere had nothing to do with the invention of the tractor. The narrative has charm and gives an image of life in the West during his earlier years, but the narrative makes almost no mention of his last 40 years. A brief inclusion of this information in the author’s note would have been helpful. During his earlier life, Deere managed to pay off his debts after his plow became wildly successful although the book doesn’t explain how it did it. The naif acrylic and stain/glaze illustrations on plywood sometimes have the feel of colored woodcuts and present a feeling of the open spaces of Illinois—then the West.

Verdict: Teachers will enjoy have another book about little known adventures, but young people may not grasp the book’s message or the time period. The illustrations outshine the tale.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Newton’s Rainbow: The Revolutionary Discoveries of a Young Scientist, by Kathryn Lasky, pictures by Kevin Hawkes

Lasky, Kathryn. Newton’s Rainbow: The Revolutionary Discoveries of a Young Scientist. Illus. by Kevin Hawkes. FSG, 2017. $17.99. unp. ISBN 978-0-374-35513-5. Ages 8-12. P6Q9

Born prematurely, sent to live with his grandparents when he was three, and bullied in school, Isaac Newton became one of the most famous scientists of the 17th century because of his introspection about the world around him. Lasky concentrates on his failures at farming and indifference in school because his curiosity kept him busy thinking about motion and gravity as well as light, studying prisms to discover how these changed colors. The book also covers the bubonic plague and great fire in London during the 1660s.

Verdict: The dense text makes this book suitable for young readers older than the customary picture biographies, but the colorful watercolors will move youth through the pages. It would also make an excellent readaloud, and classes might want to replicate his experiments.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of light and Lines – Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Harvey, Jeanne Walker. Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of light and Lines – Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Illus. by Dow Phumiruk. Christy Ottaviano/Holt, 2017. $17.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-250-11249-1. Ages 6-9. P7Q8

Forty-seven years ago, a 21-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants won the competition for designing the memorial that would sit beside other famous ones in Washington commemorating George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. One of 1,421 entries, Maya Lin’s design followed the rules for the memorial that it include the almost 58,000 names of those killed or missing in the Vietnam War and blend with the park setting. In describing Lin’s childhood, Harvey focuses on her hard work, her interest in nature, and her attention to her parents, artists with clay and words. The book explains her process in developing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design and the reason for its quiet simplicity before she supervised its building. Digitally scanned watercolors from debut illustrator Phumiruk detail Lin’s early life and include labeled objects necessary for the work of an artist-architect.

Verdict: Quiet minimalist text and clean illustrations deftly demonstrate how thoughtful attention to nature and art combined with hard work can result in a monument that can last through the ages. Maya Lin also communicates the important of accepting immigrants to the United States.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports, Phil Bildner, illustrated by Brett Helquist

Bildner, Phil. Martina & Chrissie: The Greatest Rivalry in the History of Sports. Illus. by Brett Helquist. Candlewick, 2017. $16.99. unp. ISBN 978-0-7636-7308-6. Ages 7-10. P8Q8

This enthusiastic view of the careers and friendship of tennis greats, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, exhibits the action of their playing and the closeness that they experienced off the court during the 1970s and 1980s. Bildner also describes the differences between the two, one growing up behind the Iron Curtain in a Communist Country and the other a daughter of a professional tennis coach, and how their backgrounds were reflected in their approach toward the game. The acrylic and oil illustrations display the same energy as the text, with a play-by-play view of the competition between the two women.

Verdict: The message of how competition doesn’t need to destroy friendship is important for young people. The drama and excitement of the book will draw in readers and make them want to learn more about these two amazing women.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.

Book review: Shell, Beak, Tusk: Shared Traits and the Wonders of Adaptation, by Bridget Heos

Heos, Bridget. Shell, Beak, Tusk: Shared Traits and the Wonders of Adaptation. Houghton, 2017. $16.99. 32p. ISBN 978-0-544-81166-9. Ages 6-9. P9Q9

Survival—the way that animals find food and avoid being food—comes from traits developed through the millennia as species adapt to their environment. Heos explores the interesting development of similar traits between unrelated species, a system called “convergent evolution.” Vividly colored closeup photography highlights specific traits and relationships between dissimilar animals on double-page spreads showing adaptations such as spikes on porcupine and echidna, beaks on parrot and octopus, tusks on walrus and elephant. Also emphasized are animals’ different habitats and geographic locations.

Verdict: Superb photography and simple explanation make this book highly useful for all children’s collections.

May/June 2017 review by Nel Ward.