October 1 – International Music Day and Interview with Author Gary Golio

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About the Holiday

International Music Day was established in 1975 by Lord Yehudi Menuhin, an American-born violinist and conductor  – widely considered to be one of the great violinists of the 20th century – to promote the art of music across all segments of society and to apply the UNESCO ideals of peace and friendship among all people, with an exchange of experiences and mutual appreciation of all cultures and their aesthetic values. To celebrate today’s holiday, listen to your favorite music and take some time to discover a new style – it might just become a favorite too!

Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars

Written by Gary Golio | Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

 

As readers open the cover to Dark Was the Night, they discover a date: 1977. In this year Voyager I was shot into space carrying “a precious Golden Record, a message to the Universe from Planet Earth.” The record contained pictures of the people and things that make up our life, sounds we hear every day, music from Navajo chants and West African drumming to Beethoven and Chuck Berry. There was also one “ghostly song, about loneliness and the night….a tune of light and hope” from a blind man named Willie Johnson.

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Image copyright E.B. Lewis, 2020, text copyright Gary Golio, 2020. Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.

Who was Willie Johnson? In 1897, he was a newborn baby in a small Texas town wrapped in his mother’s love. narrator picks up the thread of Willie’s story when he’s become a small boy who “loved to sing” and play the cigar box guitar his father made him. But that joy was interrupted when “your mama died, and some light went out of your life.” Then at seven or eight, Willie became blind, “and that’s when things got darker still.” But Willie rose above these hurdles. His blindness didn’t keep him “from singing in church, or on street corners.” Using his voice to uplift people brought him “back in the light.”

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Image copyright E.B. Lewis, 2020, text copyright Gary Golio, 2020. Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.

He sang blues and learned how to play a slide by running the edge of a pocketknife along the steel strings of his guitar. “This made a sound like someone laughing or crying, as if the guitar had a voice of its own.” He traveled from town to town in Texas, wherever farmers came to socialize and shop, setting up on street corners and collecting the coins people tossed into his tin cup. Little by little, people grew to know his name. “Then a man from a music company heard you sing. You were given the chance to make a record….”

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Image copyright E.B. Lewis, 2020, text copyright Gary Golio, 2020. Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.

On that record listeners heard “the sound of one human being reaching out to all the others, telling them not to be afraid of the dark.” That first record was a hit, lauded for its unique sound. One song in particular, “Dark Was the Night,” “touched people deep in their souls” and made Willie “a shining star.” The light Willie brought to people has never dimmed; in fact it continues to shine through the darkness on Earth and through Space.

Back matter includes a discussion on what is known about Blind Willie Johnson and what still remains a mystery as well more information about Voyager I and why Johnson’s song Dark Was the Night was chosen for inclusion on the Golden Record. A link to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, where readers can access Voyager I—The Golden Record is also included.

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Image copyright E.B. Lewis, 2020, text copyright Gary Golio, 2020. Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.

Gary Golio’s ethereal tale of the life of Blind Willie Johnson and his song, which has touched and continues to move so many people, is a stirring tribute to a unique artist and the power of music to change lives. Golio’s use of the second person creates a poignant personal bond between the story and reader, which allows children to put themselves in Willie’s shoes and believe that they, too, can inspire others with their talent and life. Golio’s lyrical storytelling flows with the cadence of the blues, and his evocative vocabulary brings Willie Johnson’s voice and times fully to life for young readers.

E.B. Lewis transports readers to early 1900s Texas in his stunning watercolor paintings rendered in soft washes of grays, blues, and greens punctuated with yellows that reflect the hope and light that spurred Willie on and flowed from his music. As his mother holds him in her arms as a baby, the landscape outside the window blazes with gold that reflects on Willie’s and his mother’s face. As children learn about Willie’s blindness, the page turns dark, except for a swatch of light across Willie’s eyes, representational, perhaps, of his inner sight that sustained him.

Among the realistic depictions of his farm home, the outskirts of a Texas town seen from a train, and a bustling city, where Johnson plays on a street corner to an appreciative audience, his tin cup hanging from a tuner on his guitar, are transcendent images of Willie performing, his face always lifted to the light. As people gather around a radio listening to Blind Willie Johnson, light once again streams into the shop, and as Golio describes how “Dark Was the Night” becomes a hit, Willie is bathed in a golden glow, his face euphoric with the joy of singing.

At once sensitive, rousing, and inspirational, Dark Was the Night is a beautiful book about one man’s talent and dream that will resonate with all readers. The book is highly recommended for home libraries and is a must for school and public library collections.

Ages 5 – 8

Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-1524738884

Discover more about Gary Golio and his books on his website.

To learn more about E.B. Lewis, his books, and his art, visit his website.

Listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.”

Meet Gary Golio

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Gary Golio is the author of the New York Times bestseller JIMI: Sounds Like a Rainbow – A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrixwinner of a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award; Bird & Diz and Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, both ALA Notables; and other books about legendary artists. A writer and musician, Golio has been featured on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”, CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning News,” and on radio stations nationwide. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich.

Today, I’m thrilled to talk with the multi-talented Gary Golio about Dark Was the Night, his love for writing and art, his father’s influence in his life, and the power of music.

Welcome, Gary! To start off, can you tell readers about your journey with this Dark Was the Night from idea to publication?

A few years back I was listening to some early blues songs, and came upon Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.” The song stunned me—and gave me the chills. I knew of Willie’s connection with the Voyager I space probe, but had no idea that blues aficionados and amateur music sleuths were devotedly digging for details of his life through the decades. So much mystery surrounded this man—revered by Jimmy Paige, Eric Clapton, and Lucinda Williams—but what intrigued me the most was that, after dying in poverty and being forgotten, Willie and his work enjoyed a revival of interest during the 1960s Folk Movement. Then, in 1978, “Dark Was the Night” ended up on Voyager‘s Golden Record, hurtling through space. And what that said to me is, you never know how a life, and its effect on others, will play out. It’s a hopeful message that inspired me to write the book.

Your father was an artist and you have worked as a fine-artist since you were a teenager. Can you talk about what inspired you to begin writing picture books? Did you always like to write?

My father is an ongoing inspiration in my life. He was a talented amateur artist who provided me with a real-life example of the Art Spirit by how he thought and created. Most importantly, he was a skilled improviser, and didn’t allow himself to be limited by what he didn’t have, something that’s always meant a lot to me. As for writing picture books, I mostly read comics as a boy, and I think it was that combination of pictures and text that really struck a chord. For me, the picture book is a modern descendant of cave painting, Egyptian wall art (images + hieoroglyphs), and Etruscan/Pompeian murals: using words and pictures to tell a story.

In your Author’s Note you talk about the dearth of knowledge about Willie Johnson’s life. Can you share one thing you learned about Willie that didn’t make it into the book?

Willie has a unique voice that somehow manages to balance the rough and the tender. There’s raw power there, but also delicacy, which is very rare. So Willie was in New Orleans at one point—during a recording session there in 1928—and the story goes that he began singing “If I Had My Way I’d Tear this Building Down” in front of the Customs House. A crowd had gathered, listening to him, and a police officer reportedly became so worried—thinking Willie was instigating a riot—that he considered arresting the man. That’s the power of music—to rouse, protest, and stir up human souls—and it’s easy to see why it threatens authority and institutions.

Dark Was the Night is your eighth biography of a musician or entertainer for children. Could you discuss what drew you to write about these musicians?

While there are no actual musicians in my family-of-origin, my parents, grandmother, and maternal aunt all had strong musical interests. Each exposed me to very specific genres and musical tastes—from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole (whom I adore), Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley. Many of these people were Black, and many were strongly influenced by blues and jazz, and I have vivid memories of watching them on TV with my beloved grandmother, even at five and six years old. That openness to all kinds of music really shaped me, and growing up I looked for clues, in the lives of artists, that would help me find my own path and direction. So my books often focus on the early years of an artist’s/musician’s life, highlighting the roots of their artistry—what inspired and shaped them—to provide young readers with roadmaps, of sorts, to a life in the arts.

In addition to being an artist and writer, you also admit to being “a pretty good musician” – something you share with kids on school visits that sound awesome. Which instruments do you play and how do you incorporate music into your book events?

I play acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, banjo, and very simple piano, but love above all to improvise. Since my first book on Jimi Hendrix came out, I’ve used the guitar (both electric and acoustic) to demonstrate a wide range of effects and possibilities (Hendrix and Santana), but also to accompany singalongs I did for my Bob Dylan/Woody Guthrie book. At one school visit, the entire fifth grade and I sang “This Land is Your Land” in Spanish, which was both meaningful and fun.

Each of your books has such distinctive illustrations from incredible illustrators. Can you talk a little about E.B. Lewis’s gorgeous illustrations in Dark Was the Night and how he captured your story and Willie’s personality?

E.B. is truly a master of illustration, and specifically of the watercolor medium. His real superpower, however, lies in his ability to convey human feeling, to mysteriously imbue a person or setting with mood and life. That’s remarkable—reminiscent of watching my father draw an American Indian on horseback, straight out of his head—and it’s what lends E.B.’s work both its power and subtlety. Not surprisingly, he has a real love for human beings, a quality fed by his passion for traveling and teaching all over the world. Though we only met at a bookstore panel five years ago, Earl and I have become close friends, and spend a lot of time on the phone collaborating about the joining of text and image. He’s a pleasure to work with, and his art for Dark Was the Night is truly sublime. This book also gave him the chance to bring his use of color (in his own words) to another level, something that will be obvious to anyone who knows his artwork and sees the new images.

From your bio on your website, you sound as if you were a pretty inventive kid – creating all sorts of cool electronic devices. And I love your story about being “shocked” to find books with Van Gogh’s paintings in them as a child and how formative that was. Could you discuss the importance of nonfiction, and biographies in particular, to children?

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My father could fix most anything, and it was that spirit of improvisation and inventiveness that led me to create little electronic gadgets a la James Bond and The Man from Uncle. For a time, I wanted to be an inventor or electrical engineer, but Art won out. As for van Gogh, watching Lust for Life with my dad had a HUGE impact on me, and seeing a book in the middle school library with all those paintings reproduced made it clear to me—even at 10 years old—that there was gold in reading about the lives of artists.

While I love fantasy, myth, and good stories, the thing about nonfiction is that you’re reading about real people—with all their talents and troubles—and so it’s easier to believe that if someone else muddled through to achieve something, you can also. That’s why I don’t shy away from talking about a person’s “faults” and failures (particularly in my books about John Coltrane and Billie Holiday), because I want kids to see that great people and artists are just as human as everyone else.

What’s up next for you?

Author-wise, I’ve a book coming out next year on the revered jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins (based on many phone conversations we’ve shared), to be illustrated by the great James Ransome. I’ve also sold, just this year, two new picture book texts: one on Roy DeCarava—a gifted artist who photographed the people of Harlem in all their humanity—and another on Walt Whitman, focused on his remarkable and moving nursing experience during the Civil War. After that, who knows where Destiny will lead me?

International Music Day Activity

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I Love Music! Word Search Puzzle

 

International Music Day celebrates all types of music and instruments. Can you find the eighteen different instruments in this printable word search puzzle?

I Love Music! Word Search Puzzle | I Love Music! Word Search Solution!

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You can find Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars at these booksellers

The Village Bookstore, Pleasantville, NY | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

 

January 20 – Penguin Awareness Day

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About the Holiday

Who can resist those little black-and-white waddlers from a frozen realm? Today’s holiday gives us a chance to enjoy and learn more about one of the world’s favorite animals. To celebrate, research penguins or visit an aquarium, and, of course, read a great penguin book!

Little Penguins

Written by Cynthia Rylant | Illustrated by Christian Robinson

 

A tiny penguin stands at the window star-struck by the snowflakes floating gently down. Four more penguins join her to see this marvelous sight. There are so “many snowflakes.” Gathered around the window in their igloo home, the penguins are excited that “Winter is coming!” They rush to collect their cold-weather supplies. Out of the basket they pull mittens—a pair for each, red, blue, green, yellow, sage—“and matching scarves.”

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Image copyright Christian Robinson, text copyright Cynthia Rylant. Courtesy of Schwartz & Wade

With abandon the penguins raid the bureau, scattering socks like colorful confetti. Warm, dry boots get to leave their cubbies after a looong nap. Bundled up, the penguins tumble out into the winter wonderland. They sled and slide on the deep snow. In places they find the snow is top-of-their-boots deeper, and then suddenly waist-high, “very deep.”

Uh-Oh! Suddenly the landscape is blank-page white! Four of the little penguins look in all directions. “Where’s Mama?” No need to fret—Mama’s coming, skimming down the hill on her belly with the fifth tiny penguin. But the sky is darkening and it’s time to head for home. “In the door and off, off, off, off, off!”

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Image copyright Christian Robinson, courtesy of Schwartz & Wade

On go the jammies then warm cookies and filled “sippies” satisfy the tummy. Finally, it’s time to snuggle tight under colored blankets and watch the flurries fly because “Winter is here.”

Cynthia Rylant captures the exhilaration kids feel upon the first snow of winter in her delightful concept book. The flurry of activity to dig out the accoutrements of winter provide little readers the perfect opportunity to learn or—in the case of a bit older kids—to show their knowledge of cold-weather apparel, colors, counting skills, and other ideas. Rylant’s gifted way with even the simplest words turns the question-and-answer format of Little Penguins into a lyrical frolic little ones will love.

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Image copyright Christian Robinson, courtesy of Schwartz & Wade

In Christian Robinson’s cozy igloo, the eager brightness of the little penguins is highlighted against the mottled textures of sage walls and reflected in the gleaming gray-blue floor. The little home with its fish weather vane and tall chimney sits at the edge of an icy peninsula, perfectly placed for winter play. The five penguins joyfully don their mittens, wave their scarves and toss socks to and fro in their hurry to get dressed and get outside and enjoy the fat, fluffy snowflakes.

Once there, the penguins become tiny dots on the vast, white hill as they sink waist deep, glide on their bellies, and welcome Mama, who’s joined the fun. As the penguins remove their snow gear back home, Robinson cleverly stripes the two-page spread in the favorite colors of the individual penguins, creating a striking counterbalance to the snug kitchen to come. An old-fashioned stove, retro accents, and fish, whale, and boat décor wrap up the comfy charm of this superb book for young readers.

With its sweet characters and beautiful illustrations, Little Penguins would be a happy and often-asked-for addition to any child’s bookshelf.

Ages 2 – 7

Schwartz & Wade, 2016 | ISBN 978-0553507706

To learn more about Cynthia Rylant and her books, visit her website!

View a gallery of illustration art by Christian Robinson on his website!

Penguin Awareness Day Activity

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Copyright Celebrate Picture Books, 2017

Spicy Cool Penguins

Don’t throw away those empty spice bottles—instead make these cute penguins with their colorful hats who are just waiting to play!

Supplies

  • Empty glass or plastic spice bottle with cap
  • Black paint
  • White paint OR White fleece or felt
  • Black paper
  • Yellow foam or heavy paper
  • Googly eyes
  • Styrofoam ball (optional)
  • Glue
  • Paint brush
  • Scissors

Directions

  1. Paint the inside of the glass or plastic bottle with the black paint, let dry
  2. From the white fleece, cut an oval for the penguin’s belly and glue it on. Alternatively, paint a white oval on the jar to make a belly. Fleece may be a better option for younger children, as the paint can scratch off glass and plastic surfaces.
  3. Glue googly eyes near the top of the jar, but below the cap
  4. Cut a triangle of yellow foam or paper for the beak and glue it on
  5. Cut two tear shapes for the wings from the black paper. Glue the top of the shape to the body of the penguin, overlapping the belly a little. Fold the tips up
  6. Give your penguins Styrofoam ball snowballs to play with!

Picture Book Review