King of Ragtime – Perfect Picture Book Friday

In my early teens, ©️I learned to play The Entertainer, loving its rhythm and the feeling that my hands were somehow accomplishing great feats while I enjoyed the song (after many hours of brainwork and practice that it took to keep my left hand hitting the backbone notes while my right hand capered off to play the extravagant melody). My piano teacher told me that the style of music  was called Ragtime, but all I cared about was how much fun it was to play. Thanks to Scott Joplin, we have this glorious genre of music! And thanks to Stephen Costanza, we have this amazing biography.

The cover immediately catches the eye, and the words on the first spread pull the reader in:

In the valley of the Red River,

where the soil was as rich

as most folks were poor, 

four  states sat side by side

like colors on a quilt

sewn from cotton picked

by black hands, brown hands,

tired and worn—but oh!

How they clapped at night,

as voices lifted to the stars.

Text/illustrations ©Stephen Costanza

Each page is a feast for the eyes and for the ear, rich in images and poetic language. A perfect match for its subject matter. 

The story sets the stage for Joplin’s life, beginning with being the child of a former slave (his father) and mother who had been born free. The boy is surrounded by the rhythm of music, in the form of song, musical instruments played within his immediate family, and sounds from nature. 

His mother takes him with her to clean rich people’s houses, and one of those houses holds a grand piano. Couple this pivotal event in Joplin’s childhood with his obvious talent, an astute and loving mother who finds an old piano for her son to play, and a generous piano teacher, and the rest, as they say, is history.  

The author includes an extensive note in the back matter that provides more details about Joplin’s life, a list of recommended recordings, and bibliography. The note also provides more insight into the author’s invested interest in Joplin, writing:

…Listening to his pieces fosters lasting memories; to play them brings him into your soul. What’s more, the music simply feels good under the fingers—

Yes, yes it does! The art (created with gouache, wax pastel, and collage) and text of the story captures the vibrancy of the rhythmic energy of how it feels to play Joplin’s compositions, making this book a tremendously enjoyable read aloud. A potential Sibert, Coretta Scott King, and Caldecott candidate, for sure!

Activities: 

Listen to Scott Joplin’s songs on YouTube

Make a simple upright origami piano or a grand piano that’s more complex

Write a poem that’s inspired by the sounds of nature, or one that’s inspired by one of Joplin’s songs. Practice using onomatopoeia (words that imitate sounds, like ping, buzz, hiss, crackle, sizzle, and BOOM)  in your poem.  Here is a site with some examples of poems, a brief list of sample words, and links to more extensive examples.

Title: King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin

Author/Illustrator: Stephen Costanza

Publisher: Atheneum, 2021

Ages: Elementary school

Themes: biography, Ragtime music, Scott Joplin

For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.

8 thoughts on “King of Ragtime – Perfect Picture Book Friday

  1. Patricia Tilton says:

    What a treasure of a find. Those illustrations are so warm, inviting and magnificent. Draws you into the story as does the lyrical free verse. Perfect for young musicians and Scott Joplin fans. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      And what he put up with so he could play his music…playing outside the confines of Chicago’s World’s Fair in the 1890s because he wasn’t allowed to play inside. Playing at saloons until he found someone who believed in his work enough to publish it. Persistence. Such talent, and such a short life. Gone way too soon.

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