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All I Want for Christmas Is a Music Book

December 5, 2013

Unlike the toys that are used for four months and then discarded or broken, books have a habit of sticking around and being remembered. If you’re looking for a music gift for a child, often a book can be an eye-and-ear-opener. Here are some recommendations from the SFCV staff; all of the books can be found easily enough, even in some brick-and-mortar stores.

1. Baby Beluga by Raffi (Ashley Wolff, illustrations).

Baby whale meets the rest of the world, and so a little tale about interdependence. With the author’s most popular and beloved song, “little white whale on the go.” Ages: Preschool.

2. Play, Mozart, Play, by Peter Sis.

MacArthur Fellow Peter Sis wrote and illustrated this 2006 classic about the boyish genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with a kid’s-eye view of his demanding, overbearing father. Each spread is full of details to explore. Conclusion includes a page-long biography of Mozart. Grades Pre-K to 3.

3. Zin, Zin, Zin A Violin, by Marjorie Priceman.

Marjorie Priceman won a Caldecott Honor award for her illustrations in this book that serves as an introduction to 10 orchestra instruments and the musical ensembles they create. A “counting book,” but so much more. Priceman is the author of such books as Princess Picky and an unusually good writer. Grades Pre-K to 3.

4. The Carnival of the Animals by Jack Prelutsky.

A true classic. Children’s Poet Laureate Prelutsky offers new verses to accompany Camille Saint-Saens’ The Carnival of the Animals. The book comes with CD. Terrific illustrations by Mary Grand Pré, of Harry Potter fame. Grades K-3.

5. The Jazz Fly, by Matthew Gollub (Karen Hanke, illustrations).

Scat-singing fly catches various animal sounds that he incorporates in a riff back at the insect jazz club. A little story about improvisation, and in that sense, not just about finding new ways to play jazz. Book with audio CD. Grades: PreK-3.

6. The Story of the Orchestra by Robert Levine.

This is an excellent music appreciation text, full of information about the orchestra instruments, history, and famous composers. It comes with wonderful illustrations and a 70-minute CD. Grades 3-7.

7. Green Golly & Her Golden Flute, by Keith Torgan, Barbara Siesel.

Hip recasting of Rapunzel, who gets a golden flute and learns to navigate through her distress with classical music. Message to music students: When you play music, you’re also telling a story. Includes 57-minute audio. Winner of the 2011 Parents Choice Award. Siesel, a professional flutist herself, performs the music. Grades Pre-K to 3.

8. Sebastian, A Book About Bach by Jeanette Winter.

Simple, straightfward biography, for small children. But the book also has this benefit; the story ends with Bach’s death and his journey to the stars. A useful story to help small ones through the painful and confusing mystery of mortality. Grades: K-3.

9. Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti, (illust. Michele Lemieux).

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Gian Carlo Menotti wrote this still-popular Christmas opera in 1951, inspired by the story of his own cure from lameness as a child. He recast it as a children’s book with some of the original libretto included. For slightly older, young children, this is a great story with terrific illustrations. And of course, it’s about miracles. Grades K-3.

10. This Land is Your Land, by Woody Guthrie, paintings by Kathy Jakobsen.

Highly acclaimed picture book and story of Guthrie and his music, with original lyrics, and gorgeous folk paintings by Jakobsen. Includes all kinds of notes and the music for the song. A serious book, for all ages. Grades: Preschool and up.

11. Opera Cat by Tess Weaver (Andrea Wesson, illustrations).

In essence, a diva-cat and ventriloquist in the wings, awaiting her moment to be heard but not seen. Lots of text; wonderful illustrations. Written in 2002, followed by Encore Opera Cat in 2009. Anonymity continued, until …. Grades: Pre-K to 3.

12. The Dog Who Sang at the Opera, by Marshall Izen, Jim West (Erika Oller, illustrations).

How a mutt finally eclipsed a very vain wolfhound! Inspired by a true story of Renee Flemmng, the prima donna upstaged at New York City Metropolitan Opera. Funny, with great illustrations. Grades: K-4.

13. Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra by Andrea Davis Pinkney, Brian Pinkney (illustrations).

Great introduction to jazz and Ellington’s life and career, featuring Caldecott Honor-winning illustrations. The language is tricky but also dazzling. If one children’s book catches the spirit of American jazz, this is it. Grades: K-4.

14. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, by E.T.A. Hoffmann (Gail de Marcken, illustrations).

A true classic. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffman is the 19th-century German composer, and author of both horror and fantasy, whose novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was the basis of the Tchaikovsky ballet. Here, with absolutely stunning illustrations, is the whole story. The book is 56 pages. Grades: K-4.

15. The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven, by Jonah Winter (Barry Blitt, illustrations).

“How hard is it to move five legless pianos 39 times?” This is the to-be-or-not-to-be question here. Funny bits all through it and best enjoyed if the reader knows something of Beethoven, as well as his music. Great illusrations, reminiscent of James Gillray, the great, early 19th-century British political caricaturist. Grades: K-4.

16. Summertime: From Porgy and Bess, by DuBose Heyward, Mike Wimmer, illustrations.

The lyrics to this famous song are accompanied by Wimmer’s highly realistic illustrations. A lovely introduction to the music and the life in the music. Play the music, then read the book. Invites parental comment. Grades: K-5.

17. What Charlie Heard, by Mordecai Gerstein The book begins, “Charles Ives was born with his ears wide open.” It’s about the American composer who spent his life as a successful insurance executive and whose transcendental vision of music included noise, old popular tunes, marching band music, and religious visions. The book is cacophonous, too, brilliantly illustrating the ambient sounds that Ives took in to his compositions. Grades: 3-6.

Mark MacNamara, a writer and journalist based in Asheville, North Carolina, has written for such publications as NautilusSalonThe Stanford Social Innovation Review, and Vanity Fair. From time to time, his pieces in San Francisco Classical Voice also appear in  Noteworthy examples include a piece about Philip Glass’s dream to build a cultural center on the Pacific Coast; a profile of sound composer Pamela Z and an essay on the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. MacNamara recently won several awards in the 2018 Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards presented by the San Francisco Press Club.  His website is