Marilyn Nelson and Jerry Pinkney’s Sweethearts of Rhythm


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!



Filed under History, Poetry

9 responses to “Marilyn Nelson and Jerry Pinkney’s Sweethearts of Rhythm

  1. You have so captured this book as I experienced it when visiting with Pinkney at a literacy festival in South Carolina two weeks ago; he shared a proof with me and I wanted to take it and run! I already know the people on my holiday list who will get this book as it SO evokes memories of the south as my parents’ generation and the beginning of mine grew up there experiencing swing bands exactly like this one and in the settings portrayed. Thank you for this post!


  2. I’m just a little confused–the artwork looks more Jerry Pinkney than Brian. Is it Brian or Jerry? Either way, looks like a great book.


  3. It is absolutely Jerry’s. Sorry for the confusion.


  4. Monica, Thank you, this book does look wonderful. I think Stacy in her earlier comment was trying to point out that the title for your post reads Brian rather than Jerry P., so you might want to change that. Hope you are having a good fall.


  5. Yikes! Didn’t realize I’d put Brian’s name in the title (and url). Thank you SO much. Hopefully it is all fixed and Jerry isn’t irritated with me (as I happened to see him the day I wrote this and told him about it). How horribly embarrassing!


  6. leftoverkumquats

    This is published as YA; is it appropriate for a 4 year old that loves to read and learn?


  7. I don’t think so. Just too sophisticated for a 4 year old, I’d say. Hadn’t planned on showing it to my 4th graders either.


  8. Pingback: Thoughts on Newbery: Seven Distinquished Books « educating alice

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