As Glenn As Can Be – Perfect Picture Book Friday

My introduction to Glenn Gould, the amazing pianist, came in 1993 when the film, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould was released. Who knew that a skilled author (Sarah Ellis) and illustrator (Nancy Vo) could create such an engaging and masterful picture book biography about this man? (It is a master class for PB writers/illustrators.)

Note the cool color palette chosen by Vo. An acquaintance once told me that Gould was known in some circles as “The Ice Man,” someone with precise technique and standards but lacking in human emotion. Today, he is known as a gifted artist, arguably on the autistic spectrum and possibly suffering from bipolar disorder. This color palette also evokes the coolness of the landscape of his childhood.

The story opens with an image of a young Glenn snuggling with his dog, his mother holding a newspaper on her lap, depicting Canada’s entry into WWII and an ancient radio announcing “Canada has already answered that call…” Nothing in the narrative describes the year. It is all in the illustration.

Text ©Sarah Ellis Illustration ©Nancy Vo

Glenn is a boy who knows what he likes.

Note the way the illustrator depicts sounds waves. This visual thematic element repeats throughout the book.

Text ©Sarah Ellis Illustration ©Nancy Vo

The author contrasts the things Glenn likes, boats, against what he doesn’t like, fishing, because he feels sorry for the fish.

Note the interesting choice of showing what looks like newsprint through the watercolor ripples underneath the two boats. It, too, looks like ripples of a sound wave. And it creates a feeling of synethesia, or of mixing the different ways Glenn constantly receives information through different senses.

The author dives deep into a child’s perspective. Glenn likes fun, puns and pranks, funny hats and funny voices. He does NOT like bullying, and sets himself apart from those who do.

Glenn likes nature and trees covered in snow, but he hates being cold. Tough for a kid living in Canada. He hates being cold so much that he suits up for winter even in the summer.

Glenn loves animals—not people, especially groups of people. He likes his brain to be busy, doodling, talking, listening to the radio and memorizing music ALL AT THE SAME TIME!! Of course, he’s shunned by kids who think he’s weird.

The narrative continues, contrasting his likes and dislikes, sometimes depicting math properties like sine waves, musical notes, the golden ratio, etc.

When Glenn plays the piano, people LOVE hearing him play. But it turns out that’s a problem, for he doesn’t like people making noise. He doesn’t even like applause.

We follow Glenn through his career, as he becomes even more eccentric, playing as he sits on a collapsible chair and recording himself in empty concert halls. It’s the only way he can control the sound, AND the only way he can make sure the result is perfect.

The only mention of Glenn’s spiral in mental and physical health is this spread:

Text ©Sarah Ellis Illustration ©Nancy Vo

The text ends with: Sometimes he doesn’t feel well.

The illustration provides everything the reader needs to know. He took medication for a variety of perceived and real health issues.

The narrative doesn’t mention how he dies (massive stroke at age 50), because the focus is on how he adapted to his self-imposed limitations and spread his music through recordings, instead of live performances.

The back end papers provide a haunting image of the Voyager I hurtling through space, because the spacecraft holds one of his recordings. One spread of backmatter provides additional details about Glenn’s life, but it also includes suggestions on how kids and adults can learn more, including online resources such as Googling “Glenn Gould archive” or videos on YouTube.

And don’t forget to check under the jacket for the undies. I could talk about this book for hours, loving and analyzing everything about it. If your library doesn’t have it, please ask them to order it. I plan to take this to our SCBWI Craft of the Picture Book discussion group.

You can also learn more by listening to this CBC radio interview with the author, Sarah Ellis, and watching a recording of the book launch with Nancy Vo.

Activities:

Listen to his J.S. Bach Goldberg variations on Youtube. Write a poem inspired by his music. Poetry inspired by other works of art is called ekphrastic poetry. Here’s a resource that focuses on younger kids, complete with examples.

Make an origami piano.

Pair this book with another about a musician whose work also went into space on Voyager I. Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars. This musician, however, was almost lost to history. Discuss why you think this is.

Title: As Glenn As Can Be

Author: Sarah Ellis

Illustrator: Nancy Vo

Publisher: Groundwood Books, 2022

Ages: Elementary school

Themes: music, performance, anxiety, STEM

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

8 thoughts on “As Glenn As Can Be – Perfect Picture Book Friday

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Good question. Here’s how (I think): The very first spread shows Glenn with his dog. And the first statement, “Glenn is a boy who knows what he likes”, connects immediately. I would ask, “how many here know what they like?” The next spread with the fishing boat shows Glenn zipping around with all of the fish below. When we find out he “feels sorry for the fish,” we discover he’s a boy who loves animals (not just the furry ones). His likes fun, puns, pranks, funny voices, and pretending to play duets with his dog. All kid relatable. In that spread, Glenn is pulling his dog on a sled in the snow. The dog is wearing a top hat. All kid relatable. In the next spread, we learn that he bundles up in the summer. Now he’s gotten even more interesting, because this will be quite strange to many. But he does it because he’s cold. Most kids know what it’s like to be cold. The next spread is all about how he loves animals, not people. Most kids love animals. The next spread shows him in school, his mind racing about many things that are outside the classroom. Every kid can identify with that. In every spread, the text and/or the art finds a way to connect to the child reader. And when we get to his performance anxiety, that’s another hook. Many kids get nervous either speaking or performing in front of a crowd. I think this book helps develop empathy for kids who may be neuro-atypical, too, because they feel the world differently. The spread where Glenn is playing the piano in front of an audience, with Glenn and the piano in the foreground in silouette, while the audience members are depicted as a mass of heads behind the silouette, creates the feeling of being alone and the focus of attention of all those people. It’s fantastic! On the spread with the medicine bottles, we read “after a while Glenn does NOT like giving concerts. Sometimes the concert hall is too cold. Sometimes he doesn’t like the piano. Sometimes, he doesn’t feel well.” The child can feel his discomfort now, because we’ve come to know him so well. The next spread makes it a little funny, because we hear that Glenn thinks “people are the problem. They cough and sneeze and blow their noses. Germs!….” And then it asks the reader, “What can Glenn do?” Here’s where kids can offer up suggestions before the page turn. I could go on, but I’m already rewriting the book here, LOL. Take a gander and see what you think. I think a huge amount of thought went into making this man relatable to kids. Cheers!

  1. Maria Marshall says:

    Definitely sounds like an interesting book. I enjoyed your additional thoughts on how this would be kid relateable. I’ve added it to me TBR and look forward to reading it. Thanks for a great review.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I was surprised when I saw that this book was coming out, and was interested in seeing how the author and illustrator would make the subject relatable. As I started reading, I decided that Gould had many childlike qualities, so featuring those was key.

  2. Mona Voelkel says:

    Anytime you say a book “is a master class for PB writers/illustrators,” that means is a book I MUST read. As I read your in-depth review, it occurred to me that this is a book to help us all see our struggles are part of our journey. Thank you for a fascinating review (and directions for an origami piano-so cute!).

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      You are so right, Mona! Everyone has struggles, some the same, some different. And it’s important to know that people who become famous have their own struggles they seek to overcome. It’s also important to develop empathy for those whose struggles we might not share. As you may (or may not) have noticed, I am a fan of origami as a way for kids to process knew information using their hands, LOL. Thanks for your kind words!

  3. Joanna says:

    Wow, I can really tell you enjoyed this book. I love reading and writing reviews when the reviewer really connects with the text. The illustrations you have shared really manage to evoke some of the inner life somehow.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      When I love a book, I have a tendency to go on and on and on… about it, LOL. I had to stop myself from describing each spread in my reply to Mike. Nancy Vo is a phenomenal illustrator. Groundwood Books is one of her “homes,” so I’ve been following her work for some time. I’m a fan of their editorial choices.

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