As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have a shelf full of picture books to review, use as mentor texts, and to give away. In honor of Women's History month, here's my next one, Born to Swing (Calkins Creek, 2018) by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by Michelle Wood.
"I was born to swing, that's all. Call it what you want, blues, swing, jazz, it caught hold of me way back in Memphis and it looks like it won't ever let go." Lil Hardin Armstrong
In this vivid picture book biography, Lillian Hardin Armstrong's life and love of music is depicted on every page.
From the time she was a child, Lillian loved to listen to the Father of the Blues, Mister W.C. Handy's band playing outside her Memphis boarding house window.
Although her mother called it "Devil's music," she couldn't keep Lillian away from the family organ. Her legs were too short, so her cousin played the pedals for her!
Lillian played hymns for Sunday School--albeit with a beat. She didn't know it at the time, but she was playing jazz! During a piano contest she lost her place, improvised, and won!
She got a job playing piano in a music store and earned the tile, "The Jazz Wonder Child."
She met Jelly Roll Morton (who said he invented jazz) and despite being a woman, started playing with the New Orleans Creole Jazz Band.
She was "swinging with the swingingest band in Chicago. I laid those rhythms down so hot, they called me Hot Miss Lil." That's when she met Louis Armstrong.
"Louis was not a handsome man. His clothes were out of style. But when he blew his horn, oh, gee!"
Of course, they had a jazz wedding! No honeymoon for the two of them, they were too busy touring across the country with the band.
Lil and Louis wrote songs and put a band together they called the Hot Five. Their marriage lasted for 14 years; the author reporting their divorce as Louis moving on.
Lil continued to write songs and play piano. She also started her own band, ran a restaurant, designed clothes, and traveled to Paris where the French had flipped for le jazz hot.
When she returned home, the country was wild about rock and roll. She thought maybe everyone had forgotten her, but she was labeled a "living legend" and she was on television-- a new type of entertainment media back in the day!
Interestingly, the book ends with Lil saying,
You won't believe me, but I died at the piano, playing that "St. Louis Blues"--playing hard. Oh boy, I went out swinging.
Right up to the end, I had the widest smile and the biggest brightest eyes.
In 1971, shortly following Louis's death, Lillian collapsed at the piano and had a heart attack on the way to the hospital. Wikipedia notes that the autobiography she was working on, and her personal letters, disappeared shortly after her death.
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The text is very reader friendly and inspirational. The illustrator's use of yellow throughout the book was magnificent. From Lillian's dresses, to the color of the horns, to the background of several pages--it makes the story pop from the pages.