Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Searching For Sound

There are those clever and inventive few who can take apart any kind of gadget and put it back together with no extra parts.  They are also able to take bits and pieces from a collection of devices no longer working and make something else entirely new.  The most wondrous thing of all is this innovative contraption works like a dream; doing exactly what they designed it to do.

When individuals like this have the added gift for making melodious sounds, something special is added to the world.  Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered The Solid-Body Electric Guitar And Rocked The World (Chronicle Books, April 9, 2019) written by Kim Tomsic with illustrations by Brett Helquist recounts the life of a man who genuinely enhanced the field of music, specifically guitar music.  At an early age his talent for making something out of nothing was apparent.

In a three-story schoolhouse near the Fox River in Waukesha, Wisconsin, children scrambled into the music room.

One student in particular, Les, loved making sounds on all the instruments even though he couldn't read a line of music.  One day after school, his music teacher, pinned a note for his mother on his shirt.  His mother ripped it up, telling Lester he could do anything he believed he could do.  (The teacher said he would never be musical.)

First Lester built his own crystal set when he saw the one built by a neighborhood friend.  Then he saved money from his paper route and bought his first guitar.  He learned to play through practicing and practicing and practicing.  He was so good; he was invited to play on a radio show.  His next invention was to build a recording lathe.  By listening to his recordings, he could make necessary improvements.

Every time Lester wanted his music to be better, he built something to make this happen.  Using a hanger he crafted a gizmo so he could play both sides of his harmonica while playing his guitar.  He figured out how to make sure those in the back of a crowd could hear him as well as those in the front.  His next innovation would be one of his best.

At seventeen he started road travel as Rhubarb Red.  By the time he was in his early twenties he formed a band called the Les Paul Trio.  By twenty-four he performed at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  It was now time to put into action an idea he's tossed and turned around in his mind for a lot of years.

With the help of a night watchman at the Epiphone guitar factory Les Paul built his dream.  He had to make modifications, but it was the sound he wanted.  So did his audiences.  This man never stopped crafting those things which made music better.  (Even in the year of his death (2009) at the age of ninety-four, he still received an honor; one of many during his lifetime.)

The meticulous research this author, Kim Tomsic, did is evident in the personal elements included in the narrative.  Her word choices are a reflection of sounds and rhythms.  Dialogue is placed within the body of the book; making us feel as though we are walking side-by-side with Les Paul.  Kim Tomsic also uses terms common to the historic period by having Les Paul say hot dog when he is thrilled with an accomplishment.  Here are two passages.

He scrutinized the family's newfangled gizmos, tinkering in his mother's living room and his father's garage.  And then he took everything apart---things like the phonograph, the player piano, the telephone, and the radio.
"Ma," his big brother hollered.  "The kid's at it again!"
"Leave him alone, Ralph," his mother said.  "He's just trying to learn." 

It worked!  Harmonica sounds floated from one radio speaker---bazzooie-buzzlebahhh.  Guitar strumming amplified from the other radio speaker---strum-twang, strum twaaaaang. EVERYONE could hear.  It was a smashing success!  Almost.  The problem was it wasn't just strings vibrating---the hollow space in the middle of the guitar vibrated, too, making the speaker echo and screeeeeeeeeech.

One of the first things you notice about the open and matching dust jacket and book case is the color palette.  It has a kind of retro aspect to it.  Every element complements another element.  I like the word stereo along the top framed by arrows as if this is a record album.  Arrows frame the word Guitar Genius on the spine, too.  Notice on the front how the pieces of the guitar are separated.  Artist Brett Helquist does this frequently within the book, clearly showing us how Les Paul put his inventions together.  (Sometimes the parts are labeled.)

To the left, on the back, the same teal covers the canvas.  Within yellow circles we see Les Paul at work on one of his creations.  Certain items in the images break the borders.  The yellow on the jacket and case is used for the opening and closing endpapers.

Rendered in oil paint on watercolor paper the illustrations span full pages, double pages and sometimes are smaller and circular on white space.  The technique Brett Helquist uses for the guitar sounds is a series of circles set in other colored circles.  For the music from Les Paul's harmonica lovely-hued waves are presented.

The facial features on the people are signature Brett Helquist work with distinguishing eyes, noses and mouths.  They are lively.  Readers will enjoy observing the clothing, architecture, inside and outside, in keeping with the historic settings.

One of my many favorite illustrations is on a single page.  Les Paul has just figured out how he can play both sides of his harmonica and his guitar at the same time.  He is wearing the device for his harmonica.  The harmonica rests in his mouth.  He is strumming his guitar with one hand as he moves the other on the frets.  His eyes are closed in concentration and pure bliss.  Beautiful circles and waves of color burst forth from the guitar and harmonica.

Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered The Solid-Body Electric Guitar And Rocked The World written by Kim Tomsic with illustrations by Brett Helquist is informative, entertaining and will have you wishing you played guitar.  This man's achievements truly did rock the world of music.  Kim Tomsic has a three-page author's note at the end along with a list of works cited.  You will want to have this in your professional and personal collections especially for those with an appreciation for music and who love all aspects of music. 

To learn more about Kim Tomsic and Brett Helquist and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Kim Tomsic has accounts on Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.  Brett Helquist has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  Here is a link to The Les Paul Foundation and their take on this title.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to enjoy the titles selected this week by others participating in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. My older granddaughter plays guitar, and will love this Thanks, Margie, great review.