Monday, January 26, 2015

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Lee & Low Books

Rating: 5 stars

Author Katheryn Russell-Brown starts out with a big promise in this nonfiction picture book: "Spread the word! Melba Doretta Liston was something special!"

She is definitely right. Little Melba definitely was something special.

Melba loved music, lived for music, breathed music--even when she was asleep and dreaming. She watched her aunties dance, she cupped her ear to the Majestic, she daydreamed of notes and chords. She signed up for a music class at seven, but that wasn't enough. When she stepped into her first music store, she saw a long, funny-looking horn. A trombone. She didn't really know what it was or how to play it--she just thought it looked cool. It was enormous for the small girl, but she insisted. Her mother couldn't say no. So, Melba got her first trombone. And Melba started playing.

She tried to push out the slide, but her arm was too short.
She had to tilt her head sideways and stretch out her right arm.
She needed help playing it at first; Grandpa John had to help her hold it. Before long, though, she taught herself to play and was strong enough to hold the trombone and play it on her own. She was only eight when the local radio station invited her to play a solo on air. (How cool is that?!)

Hard times hit her family in 1937 and Melba and her mother moved from Kansas City to Los Angelos. She found a talented band of kids to join, but jealousy ran in some of the kids' veins and they said rude things. Yet Melba still played.

When she was seventeen, she was invited to tour the country with a new band led by trumpet player Gerald Wilson. She visited cities all over and received rave reviews. She was the only female in the band, and some of the men were often rude to her, pretending as if she wasn't there. She visited towns unfriendly to "people with dark skin" and Melba sometimes had to sleep on her tour bus. Yet Melba still played.

Finally, the world knew of her greatness--her "something special"--and she toured the world and dazzled audiences by herself.

The illustrations by Frank Morrison are really my favorite part of this book. They are gorgeous and convey such a sense of movement and richness...I'm not sure how he does it but he really did Melba a huge service by illustrating her with such charisma and cool.

It was fun to walk in Melba's shoes for a little while as my kids and I read this book together. I found some clips on youtube to play for my kids as they ate their breakfast on a dark winter morning before school. None of us could imagine making an instrument sing so well at such a young age--or any age, for that matter. "Wow," was just about all we could say as we listened quietly and respectfully to one woman who definitely was something special.

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