Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2002. ISBN 078682493X
With bright colors, a nearly square format, and the four sections of the book called “tracks,” Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa reads a lot like the insert in a CD case. To emphasize Ella’s particular musicality, the book is narrated by the Scat Cat, who tells the tale of Ella Fitzgerald in the rhythm of both jazz and scat.
While the first section starts in Ella’s childhood, only part that directly relates to her music is mentioned. While that may be a problem in an in depth biography, it was a good choice for this picture book. The book is about Ella as a singer, so the narrow focus makes sense. In addition, the book mentions that Ella “remembered that her first work as a performer had been on the street.”
The illustrations complement the story perfectly, from pages that only have Ella to those that have the Chick Webb and Benny Goodman Orchestras. Many of the pages have large swaths of uninterrupted color, which makes Ella, the Scat Cat, and anyone else stand out.
There are two primary cultural hallmarks in the book, Scat Cat’s speech and the illustrations themselves. The only confusion in the illustrations is that it is hard to tell who isn’t African American. For example, one page describes the battle of the bands between the Chick Webb Orchestra and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. While it is clear the Chick Webb Orchestra is African American (and the text said so), the ethnicity of the Benny Goodman Orchestra is hard to determine. Similarly, the “Stompin’ at the Savoy” pages show a slight variation in skin tone, but not enough to say who isn’t African American.
While Ella Fitzgerald does have an author’s note that tells more about Ella, this book acts more as an introduction to a person rather than a history of a person. It could also be used as an introduction to scat, jazz and swing or as the starting point to a topic like the history of music in New York City.
Kirkus Starred Review-2002
Storytelling World Resource-2004 (honor book)
Kirkus—“The prose is jazzy and rhythmic in the voice of a hipster, and it’s expertly illustrated with images inspired by the works of Harlem Renaissance artists, clueing readers to several departure points for further study. In this vein, the team provides useful afterwords explaining their methods and the historical backdrop to the story.”
Booklist—“The lengthy text, filled with jazzy colloquialisms, keeps its focus solidly on the music, describing the thrill of Fitzgerald’s performances in language that rhymes and slides with the swinging beat of its subject and places readers at the center of the action. Younger children won’t understand the sense in many of the phrases, but heard aloud, the rhythm in the words will give them a feel for the music; older readers will enjoy both the similarities to rap and spoken-word poetry.”
Engberg, Gillian. Booklist. 2002. (Vol. 98, No. 15). Accessed via CLCD at http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/jbookdetail/jqbookdetail?page=1&pos=0&isbn=9780786805686
Kirkus. Kirkus Reviews. 2002. (Vol. 70, No. 7). Accessed via CLCD at http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/jbookdetail/jqbookdetail?page=1&pos=0&isbn=9780786805686