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.
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.
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:
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.
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.