What’s Up, You Cool Baby?

Esquivel! Space-age Sound Artist by Susan Wood, illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh. Charlesbridge, 2016. 9781580896733.

esquivelThe story of the life of out-there pop composer and conductor Esquivel! (the exclamation point is a part of his stage name) illustrated with images in the style of the ancient Mexican Mixtec codex, with photographic textures as color.

The Cosmo-biography of Sun Ra: The Sound of Joy Is Enlightening by Chris Raschka. Candlewick Press, 2014. 9780763658069.

cosmobiographyThe story of the life of the legendary jazz composer and performer Sun Ra illustrated in paintings bursting with color and movement.

As much as writing about music is like dancing about architecture, is a child’s picture book about lesser-known musicians even more so? The stories are fine on their own (probably why they got into books in the first place) but there is no way to convey the power of the artists’ music, much less its impact. Best case scenario, a child will recognize the names from these books when they hear the music. I’m guessing it’s all a part of trying to give a child a cultured (or impressive, or quirky) taste in music. Not matter how interesting his life was, there probably won’t be a picture book biography of Lawrence Welk, he’s just not cool enough. (Though I will admit that Esquivel!’s is pretty close to lounge music, even if it is very experimental.) That said, I think Esquivel! and Sun Ra are good kid-music choices: fun, weird, and enjoyable even outside their cultural contexts.

Sarah’s Database Picks: Freegal and hoopla

Hey, does your local public library subscribe to the music streaming service hoopla or Freegal? They’re pretty fun, you get access to a lot of music (and maybe movies and comics as well in hoopla, depending on the service subscribed to). Here are the albums that are the auditory equivalent of my BookThreat reviews.


Kyle Kinane, Loose in Chicago
If Jerry Seinfeld is the comedy equivalent of arena rock, Kyle Kinane is a kick-ass indie rock show. I appreciate that he pushes the edges of my comfort without being intolerant or hateful, which is too rare in comedy.

Staple Singers, Faith And Grace: A Family Journey 1953-1976
The Staple Singers were not only amazing artists but managed to be influential in every genre they work in: gospel, R&B, pop, and protest. This album includes protest songs for the Selma marchers that will give you goosebumps now, decades later.

Jon Benjamin (Jazz Daredevil), Well I Should Have*
*learned how to play piano

In the first two tracks, comedian and voiceover actor Jon Benjamin (Archer, Bob’s Burgers) tries to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for being able to play jazz piano. The devil refuses, miffed that Benjamin didn’t even try to get better by practicing first. So he plays jazz piano like a beginner, with an accomplished band backing him. This is high-concept comedy.

Wyatt Cenac, Comedy Person

I loved that his bit about liking cat videos transformed into a bit about having to live in two cultures as an African-American — poignant and still hilarious.

Al Green, Greatest Hits

I borrowed this to hear a song that a writer cited as an influence on a story I was reading, and ended up listening to the whole thing over and over. A warning: your day will become much sexier, so be ready for some lovin’.



U900 is a ukulele duo from Japan, a tiny rabbit and a tiny bear. They do covers (Michael Jackson, The Ventures, The Beatles, and Christmas songs) in childlike voices with elementary school instruments like recorders and melodions backing their ukuleles. Show your indie-import cred and look down on the people still listening to The Chipmunks’ early releases.

Washington Phillips

In the early days of mechanical recording, people went from town to town in the US recording musicians in rural areas. Generations of folk and blues compilations were built on those historic discs and they influenced musicians for generations — you’ll recognize the styles. Washington Phillips was one of those rural artists. His renditions are influential and well-loved by musicians, even though his life and even the instrument he plays remain a mystery.

The Bran Flakes

Musician and writer Dana Countryman used to publish a magazine called Cool and Strange Music that covered the kind of music you could only find in thrift stores. His [Oops! Correction: Countryman isn’t in the band, but Cool and Strange contributor Otis Odder is. More actually correct info is on the band’s website] band creates cheerful remixes of the kind of oddities Countryman collects: instructional albums, kid’s music, religious stuff, and all kinds of music.

Bacao Rhythm And Steel Blues Band

For all I know, this band could be topping the charts, but because I troll databases for cool music instead of listening to the radio, I found them by searching for steel band music. Their cover of 50 Cent’s “PIMP” is extremely groovy, and the rest of the album will keep your butt moving.

Congress Woman Melinda Jackson Parker

Do you believe in your cause enough to write and perform a fairly goofy yet earnest song about it? Liberian lawmaker Parker sings about mosquitoes (bad) and palm trees (good), among other things.