Sunday, June 24, 2007

Module 2: Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa

Pinkney, Andrea Davis. Ella Fitzgerald: the Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa. Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children. ISBN 0786805684.

Plot Summary
The story begins in Yonkers, New York when Ella Fitzgerald is young and teaching herself how to dance. Ella goes to Harlem and enters a talent contest when she is 17 years old. She is nervous and unable to dance so she sings instead and wins the contest. Ella gains popularity and becomes a featured singer at the Harlem Opera house. Ella soon joins the Chick Webb Orchestra and continues to gain popularity, performing to white audiences and recording an album. Bebop becomes more popular than swing so Ella turns to this music, adding in scat, and performs with Dizzy Gillespie. Her scat singing makes her a star around the world.

Critical Analysis
Brian Pinkney's illustrations in Ella Fitzgerald are beautiful scratchboard creations. In his note he says that he added authenticity to the drawings by studying the works of Harlem Renaissance artists who were around at the same time as Ella. The artist William H. Johnson incorporated energy and a beautiful depiction of black people into his works. This influence can be seen in Pinkney's illustrations since in his portrayal of Ella he captured the energy that would have been present while she was singing or dancing. His characters have a natural looking brown tone to their skin and are wearing dresses or suits and hair styles that would have been worn in the 1930s.

Many of the illustrations have a dream like quality since the characters are shown flying in the night sky. In these pictures Pinkney is often making a play on the words used in the text. Chick is described as a finicky bird so he is always shown with wings. One line says, "He took her under his wing, and the two of them flew to the Savoy Ballroom," and in this picture Chick is flying in the sky, holding onto Ella so she can fly with him. Benny Goodman is the king of swing so in his picture he is wearing a crown. Dizzy Gillespie "turned jazz on its head. With his trumpet, he could blow notes into back flips." In his first illustration he is shown upside down. The text later says, "Ella went along for Dizzy's ride," so both are shown sitting on Dizzy's trumpet, flying through the sky.

The story is told by Scat Cat Monroe, who is pictured as a real cat in a suit. His voice is lively and musical and helps bring the 1930s jazz setting to life. The text mainly focuses on the music and the way the musicians played, and does not include physical descriptions or dialogue. The one description of Ella comes from her talent contest and says, "the girl was hardly dressed to impress. She wore work boots and hand-me-downs."

The descriptions of the music are very creative. Many different words for dancing are used. Some of them are hoofin', pretty-steppin', shake their tales, and stomp. Ella's singing is commented on a lot. One passage says, "Her voice was quick-fried rhythm, with a brassy satin twist." Another says, "They backed up Ella's vocals, which gave new meaning to the word divine." When Ella sings scat she uses "her voice like a runaway leaf flying high on a breeze." The author uses this type of language well, helping the reader to understand the rhythm of the music and phrases that would have been used during the 1930s.

Review Excerpts
"Scat Cat seems an unnecessary addition to the text and even more so to Brian Pinkney's fantastical images--Ella singing onstage at the Apollo, her head surrounded by a concentric haloes of light; Ella flying with an angel-winged Chick Webb over the Savoy; Ella seated behind Dizzy Gillespie, sailing through the starry night sky on his trumpet--but even so, the illustrations have an explosive energy that suits their subject." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Provide more information on Ella Fitzgerald by sharing the books, videos, and albums listed in the book by Pinkney.

Share information about Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson, the artists who inspired Brian Pinkney. Find some of their works to share so that children can compare their art to Pinkney's illustrations. A lot of William H. Johnson's art can be seen online through the Smithsonian American Art Museum by conducting a search for his name at

Invite presenters to the library who can share information on jazz music. An interactive program that gives a brief introduction to the music and provides swing dancing lessons would be fun for older children and teens.

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