Sweethearts of Rhythm

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Overview

In the 1940s, as the world was at war, a remarkable jazz band performed on the American home front. This all-female band, originating from a boarding school in the heart of Mississippi, found its way to the most famous ballrooms in the country, offering solace during the hard years of the war. They dared to be an interracial group despite the cruelties of Jim Crow laws, and they dared to assert their talents though they were women in a 'man's' profession. Told in thought-provoking poems and arresting images, this...

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Overview

In the 1940s, as the world was at war, a remarkable jazz band performed on the American home front. This all-female band, originating from a boarding school in the heart of Mississippi, found its way to the most famous ballrooms in the country, offering solace during the hard years of the war. They dared to be an interracial group despite the cruelties of Jim Crow laws, and they dared to assert their talents though they were women in a 'man's' profession. Told in thought-provoking poems and arresting images, this unusual look at our nation's history is deep and inspiring.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
[A] fresh perspective...rolling triple meters...drive the poems forward, the propulsive rhythms mixing perfectly with the words...Pinkney's art...provides rich harmony.
Children's Literature - Barbara L. Talcroft
Award-winning author and artist, Nelson and Pinkney, collaborate to pay tribute to an extraordinary group of musicians: racially integrated, beautiful young women who traveled the country in the 1940s with their popular swing band. Nelson's poems are written in the voices of instruments of the band. Though each poem takes its title from a song, the words reflect rhythms of the music and conditions of the time: the war, traveling in their bus, Jim Crow laws, the blues, popular dances, the end of the war, and, soon after, the breakup of the band. Pinkney conveys the intensity of the music and the players' lives, combining collage with watercolors in dark and bright colors like turquoise, swinging scarlet, bright gold, and vivid blue. There are subdued browns, too—the drab of soldiers' uniforms, the earth of a victory garden, the depressing brown of a hall with separate drinking fountains for white and "colored"—but also the warm, vibrant browns of musicians' and audiences' faces. Readers will choose their own favorites among both poems and pictures; outstanding, for example, is "I'm in the Mood for Swing," with saxophonist Willie Mae Wong sitting on her suitcase by the bus, rubbing her foot just out of its red high-heeled pump. Both Author's Note and Artist's Note expand upon the band's history. This is not really a book for children; it is for music-lovers of all ages, devotees of jazz and African-American history, or women's history, or just the history of the United States. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft
Moira E. McLaughlin
The colorful pictures make the book come alive.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
A Newbery Honor author (Carver: A Life in Poems) and Caldecott Honor artist (Noah’s Ark) execute a masterful duet in this tribute to an integrated female band that toured the U.S. between the late 1930s and mid-1940s. In 20 poems titled after swing tunes, Nelson writes in the voices of the Sweethearts’ instruments, now gathered in a New Orleans pawnshop. Connecting music to greater human truths (some dark, some triumphant), the verse strikes nostalgic yet celebratory notes, underscoring how the band’s music delivered joy and hope during an era plagued by war and racism (“The jitterbug was one way people forgot/ the rapidly spreading prairie fires of war./ Man, the house would bounce when her licks were hot!/ We gave those people what they were dancing for”). Rendered in graphite, color pencil, watercolor and collage, Pinkney’s luminous, multilayered paintings superimpose snippets of musical notation on images of the musicians and audiences in full swing. Balancing these rousing scenarios are less uplifting but no less striking signs of the times: segregated sinks in a washroom, soldiers marching off to war. On all fronts, a resonant performance. Ages 10–up. (Oct.)
Horn Book
[A] book with rich rewards.
VOYA - Marla K. Unruh
The swing music of the 1940s eased the ache in the American soul caused by World War II, with its attendant hardships and cruel Jim Crow laws. With many men away at the battlefront, an interracial women's big band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, played to overflowing crowds of mostly black audiences. Newbery Honor poet Nelson recreates their almost-forgotten story through the voices of their instruments, now gathered in the same New Orleans pawnshop. In swingy one-page poems, each instrument proudly remembers the "gal" who played her heart out. Caldecott Honor illustrator Pinkney's luxurious watercolor and gouache paintings capture the beat and the fabric of the Sweethearts' music. Radiant full-color portraits alternate with scenes in rich browns reminiscent of the sepia-toned photographs of that day. Dancers of different ages and ethnicities abandon themselves to the music in rich stained-glass hues often studded with bits of sheet music. In gorgeous full-page spreads musicians play, soldiers march, and crowds on balconies celebrate victory at last. A poem titled "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" pays tribute to Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and the Bebop movement. The companion portrait in vibrant reds resembles a collage of marquees honoring great male musicians. For all who love poetry, music, and art, two of today's greats collaborate in a stunning addition to any poetry collection. Reviewer: Marla K. Unruh
VOYA - Nicole Jacques
The excellent word choice of Marilyn Nelson and the creative art of Jerry Pinkney combine smoothly in Sweethearts of Rhythm. Although composed of poetry, it tells a clear story and holds the readers' interest so that they will not want to put it down. Strong ideas reach out of the paintings to captivate those who enjoy art, black history, and music. The feel of the 1940s is well portrayed. Reviewer: Nicole Jacques, Teen Reviewer
School Library Journal
Gr 4 Up—Nelson's syncopated poetry jives perfectly with Pinkney's layered watercolors in this look at the famous all-girl African-American swing band that toured the U.S., breaking attendance records, from 1937 to 1946. Nelson speaks in the voices of the band's instruments, reminiscing about their glory days from the shelves of a New Orleans pawnshop, recalling the excitement of the road and the difficulties of Jim Crow. Her poetry evokes the rich wail of swing music with varied meters, rhyme schemes, and free verse, calling up memories of the Dust Bowl, World War II, rationing, segregation, and music that momentarily lifted its listeners above hardship. Pinkney employs graphite, color pencil, watercolor, and collage in lusciously hued illustrations depicting night clubs, dancers, Victory Gardens, marching soldiers, and musicians in a vibrant volume that will be just as useful in high school history and English classrooms as for upper elementary general reading, not to mention music and art at any level. A chronology of the Sweethearts' history enhances the poetry.—Joyce Adams Burner, National Archives at Kansas City, MO
Kirkus Reviews
Nelson brings her signature poetic treatment of history to this outstanding collaboration with illustrator Pinkney about a racially integrated "all-girl swing band" that toured the United States during World War II. Comprehensive backmatter grounds the poems and illustrations in research while inviting reflection on the creative process. The book proper is a stellar integration of art and text: Each poem adopts the retrospective voices of the band members' instruments, while watercolor illustrations enhanced with collage elements place their music-making in rich period detail that evokes the war, Rosie the Riveter, segregation and internment camps. The poet doesn't miss a beat as she fittingly employs swinging, triple meters capturing the essence of big-band sound and highlighting the transcendent joy that the Sweethearts' music brought to audiences at the Apollo, the Cotton Club, in smaller venues and even overseas in a postwar USO concert. The illustrator is at his best in the wordless full-bleed doublespreads interspersed throughout the book, which set a contemplative pace that invites flipping back and forth through the pages documenting the Sweethearts' travels, triumphs and travails. (Picture book/poetry. 10-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803731875
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/29/2009
  • Pages: 80
  • Sales rank: 535,505
  • Age range: 10 years
  • Product dimensions: 10.30 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Marilyn Nelson is a three-time National Book Award Finalist and winner of a Newbery Honor for Carver: A Life in Poems. She lives in East Haddam, Connecticut.

Jerry Pinkney has won five Caldecott Honors, five Coretta Scott King Awards and serves on the National Council on the Arts. He lives in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

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