DUKE ELLINGTON, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, with illustrations by Brian Pinkney. (Hyperion, $15.95; grades 1-4.) It’s hard to imagine a better introduction for kids to Duke Ellington than this vibrant collaboration by the Pinkneys, a husband-and-wife team. Andrea’s soulful text, shot through with rhythm and occasional rhyme, coupled with Brian’s color-drenched scratchboard illustrations, will give young readers a feel for both the man and his music.
Duke, as the young Edward Kennedy Ellington liked to be called, learned to play the piano as a child, but like most boys his age he preferred sports to music. And so he quit the instrument--until a steamy summer night years later when he heard his first rag. “The ragtime music set Duke’s fingers to wiggling,” Pinkney writes. “Soon he was back at the piano, trying to plunk out his own ragtime rhythm.” Before long, Duke was writing his own tunes, playing at clubs, and dressing sharp.
This minibiography touches on the highlights of Ellington’s life: his first band, the Washingtons, named after the nation’s capital, his hometown; playing the Cotton Club, Harlem’s swankiest joint; and the debut of his famous “Black, Brown, and Beige” suite at Carnegie Hall. After becoming regulars at the Cotton Club, the Washingtons changed their name to Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, and to their credit the Pinkneys pay tribute to some of the band members. They give entire spreads to drummer Sonny Greer, trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, saxophonist Otto “Toby” Hardwick, and trumpeter James “Bubber” Miley. Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn--composer of the hit “Take the ‘A’ Train"--gets his due, too.
The Pinkneys also included little slices of American life from the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s that may be new to many young readers, like a family crowded around an old-fashioned radio, zoot suits, and record players. Still, Ellington is the star here, and the text and illustrations strike the perfect note. You can practically hear the music on every page.
BAT 6, by Virginia Euwer Wolff. (Scholastic Press, $16.95; grades 4-6.) The year is 1949, the 50th anniversary of Bat 6, an annual softball game between the 6th grade girls of Barlow and Bear Creek Ridge, two small towns in Oregon. To be chosen for the competing teams is considered a great honor, and this year the roster of each includes a newcomer. For Bear Creek, it is Aki, a Japanese American who has just arrived in town with her family after spending the war in an internment camp. The other new girl is Shirley, or Shazam as she prefers to be called, who has just been sent to live in Barlow with her grandmother. Shazam’s father was killed at Pearl Harbor, leaving her mother too dysfunctional to care for the child.
Wolff, the award-winning author of The Mozart Season and Make Lemonade, tells her story through the 20 girls practicing for Bat 6. Each take turns as narrator to describe the events leading up to the momentous game--the training, the friendships, and the disquieting incidents that hint of trouble to come. It’s an effective device; each girl offers a telling view of family and small-town life in postwar America and points to the tensions underlying the seemingly placid era.
As it turns out, Shazam has been so influenced by the death of her father and her mother’s paranoia about Japanese Americans that she attacks Aki in the middle of the big game. Everybody is shocked, both by the act itself and by the community’s collective failure to spot--or heed--the warning signs. Kate, who plays second base for Bear Creek Ridge, remembers hearing from teammate Ila Mae that Shazam had used the “bad word that begins with a J” to describe a young Japanese child. “Ila Mae should of told somebody right away,” Kate writes, “and the tragedy of our Bat 6 game would not of happened, because maybe Shazam would not be allowed to play.”
Wolff has written a unique story with memorable young characters and an unusual conflict. But this is just part of the book’s appeal. It is also a compelling historical novel sure to provoke lively discussions on both bigotry and responsibility.