With a twilit velvet musky tone
as the pawnshop door is locked,
an ancient tenor saxophone
spins off a riff of talk.
“A thousand thousand gigs ago,
when I was just second-hand,”
it says, “I spent my glory years
on the road with an all-girl band.”
So begins Marilyn Nelson and Jerry Pinkney’s outstanding collaboration, The Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World. Through the voices of the instruments, Nelson’s series of poems capture the story of this band as they performed throughout the United States in the 30s and 40s. From fancy ballrooms to dusty picnics, these girl musicians were heard by a huge swath of the American population during a very challenging time period. Nelson does a spectacular job with each separate poem slipping in historical facts about life in that time, the individual performer, the band, and the music. Jim Crow, war and peace, pain and happiness, a myriad of fascinating details of 30s and 40s life suffuses these poems. And boy do they shine — bouncing, crooning, tootling, moaning, and blaring by way of those instrument storytellers. Nelson respects her young audience, using big words and big ideas that swirl amidst sound, rhythm, pain, joy, and history in these captivating riffs of verse.
The poems would be fabulous enough, but add in Jerry Pinkney’s gorgeous illustrations and you have a truly remarkable work of art. Pinkney’s style will be familiar, but for the first time he has added collage to his work and it brings these images to a really heightened level, bright and brash like the music, quiet and sad like aspects of the life of the band members and their loved ones during this time. Sweet.
This book has definitely joined my pile of favorites of the year. It will be out in a few weeks — do look out for it!