Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Portrait Of A Prodigy

Sitting among other musicians as sounds swirl around you and feeling the beat deep in your bones is one of the finest things in the world.  Our band director was a master at bringing the best out in all of us.  Memories of practicing and performing with classmates for more than six years are lasting for all the right reasons.

In the beginning it is not always easy to perfect your musical abilities but for some their special gifts shine at an early age.  It's as if the rhythms of the world are calling to them.  Little Melba and Her BIG TROMBONE (Lee & Low Books Inc., September 1, 2014) written by Katheryn Russell-Brown with illustrations by Frank Morrison is an uplifting tribute to the life and work of an extraordinary instrumentalist and composer.

SPREAD THE WORD! Little Melba Doretta Liston was something special.

From the time of her birth, 1926, and

as far back as her memory would go,

Melba was surrounded by music; raised in an era and home thriving on beautiful beats.  As early as seven years old she knew she wanted to study this in class at school.  Looking for an instrument to play, a trombone caught her eye.  Her mother simply could not say no.

Her grandfather, a guitarist himself, gave her pointers and encouragement.  There was no bedtime for Melba the first night she owned her trombone.  She worked and worked until an easy melody could be heard.  And she kept right on practicing.

Within a year her talent was noticed by a local radio station; her horn's sounds broadcast over the airwaves.  The effects of the Great Depression caused Melba and Momma Lucille to move from Kansas City to Los Angles.  Changes were coming to eleven-year-old Melba.  Her intelligence was noted moving her up two grade levels.

By the time she was in high school her abilities as a trombonist were superior to all others her age.  Her skills as a player continued to grow as did her accomplishments at composition.  At seventeen she left home to begin playing with a band led by Gerald Wilson on tour in the United States.  She toured in another band with Billie Holiday through the south.  When tough times came, the tunes helped to sustain her.

Even when she wasn't sure, people were certain they wanted to hear the sound this remarkable woman made with her trombone.  They wanted to play the music she created.  Her notes were heard then and now around the world.

The first thing you notice when reading the words penned by Katheryn Russell-Brown in this title is the passion; passion she has for Melba Liston and the passion Melba Liston had for music.  Specific details reveal Russell-Brown's  meticulous research.  She is as much a composer as Liston using word choices rather than notes to supply a tempo throughout her text.  Beginning and ending her narrative with the same sentence is further evidence.  Here is a sample passage.

Traveling with the band was a thrill.  Each city, from Salt Lake to New York, was an eyeful of something new.

Melba became a master musician.  She composed and arranged music, spinning rhythms, harmonies, and melodies into gorgeous songs.  And when Melba played the trombone, her bold notes and one-of-a-kind sound mesmerized the crowd. 

When you look at the matching dust jacket and book case painted by artist Frank Morrison you immediately want to know who this girl is playing an instrument bigger than she is.  Her happiness revealed by her body posture very nearly sings off the page.  On the left, back, is the complementary color purple with only the trombone and a quote from Melba Liston about her first trombone.  The golden hue on the opening and closing endpapers appears frequently on other images.  In fact all the illustrations painted in oil by Frank Morrison seem to glow.

The layout and design of Morrison's art is marvelous, shifting from two-page pictures with framed text, to visuals crossing the border to make a column on the left or right for the narrative, edge to edge double-page illustrations with embedded text, framed smaller images on a page with text above and below and full page wordless pictures.  Details reflecting time and place take us into Melba Liston's world.  His people's faces are beautiful in their expressions and in the play of light and shadow.

Two of my favorite illustrations are of Melba playing her trombone.  The first is of her and her grandfather working together the first night.  His arms are stretched to hold the instrument for her as she stands close to him.  He is seated on a bench next to the brick wall of their home, a guitar leaning against the side.  In this picture the word stretch breaks the border of the image mirroring the slide on the horn.  In the second picture Melba is older with a closer perspective as she plays.  Behind her are a keyboard with notes and memorabilia, playbills of her shows.  With little imagination you can hear her song.

Little Melba and Her BIG TROMBONE written by Katheryn Russell-Brown with illustrations done in oil paint by Frank Morrison is one of the most inspirational biographies of 2014.  This girl crossed barriers with a heart full of music, determination and perseverance.  It makes you want to find your own music and follow it the best you can for the rest of your life.

To explore and discover more about Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Follow these links to the publisher's website to read an interview with Katheryn Russell-Brown about her research, an interview with Frank Morrison about his process and a post about his playlist when working on this book. John Schumacher, teacher librarian extraordinaire chatted with author Katheryn Russell-Brown about this book on his blog, Watch. Connect. Read.

Please remember to check the other books featured by bloggers this week who are participating in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.


  1. I've been interested in this book since I saw John's post. I'm fascinated with the passion for the trombone this girl had. I'll check it out :)

    1. Seeing this title on several best lists I knew I had to read it Michele. I think you are really going to enjoy it.

  2. I think this is a must have for my class. LOVE the cover. It screams - spunk and passion! I have some children playing stringed instruments who would love this story.

    1. From what I know of your students Carrie, your children are really going to enjoy learning about Melba. She knew what she wanted and followed that dream.

  3. I WANT THIS BOOK! I have had such a hard time in finding it. Might just have to order it.

    1. I wrote my post using a library copy Alyson but I am going to get it for my own personal collection. It's a must have title.

  4. Little Melba looks absolutely stunning - I admit I judge a book on the basis of its cover. Will be on the lookout for this one.

    1. It is stunning in the story and the illustrations Myra. I hope you can get a copy soon.

  5. It looks like a fabulous story, & since I played the trombone, & now my grandson, too, it makes it more enticing. I didn't have Melba's gifts, but certainly loved being in the band & orchestra! Thanks for this wonderful review!

    1. It is a fabulous story Linda. Thank you for sharing your personal story connected to this book. I completely understand your feelings about being in a band. You are welcome.

  6. Dear Xena's Mom,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful, thorough, and kind words about Little Melba. Writing the book was a labor of love. I'm so glad that Melba Liston is getting the notice she so richly deserves.
    All the best,
    Katheryn Russell-Brown

    1. Dear Katheryn,
      You are most welcome but I have to thank you for presenting Melba's life through a picture book. Every time we read a book written with love all of us are the richer for it. Her story is one we need to know; picture books like this are ageless.
      Best to you also,

  7. Replies
    1. You won't be disappointed Barbara! It's a treasure.