Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World by Marilyn Nelson

sweetheartsLynn: One of the most delightful things about writing this blog is that we get packages on our porches. Even after a lot of years on committees, I haven’t gotten over the thrill of receiving a mysterious parcel from a publisher. We try not to blog books too far in advance of publication date so I try to read by date but I have very little will power when it comes to tempting books and sometimes I lose all control! So when I pulled this new book out of the package I didn’t even check the date, I sat down on the spot and started to read.

Sweethearts of Rhythm (Penguin/Dial Oct. 2009) is the story told in poetry and pictures of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-girl swing band that toured the country in the 30’s and 40’s. The band was organized by Rae Lee Jones at the Piney Woods School and while it was largely composed of African American girls it included Chinese and Mexican Americans and whites. The band set attendance records and was incredibly popular, even touring with the USO in 1945. The end of the war brought the men home to reclaim their jobs, the big band era ended and the Sweethearts were disbanded. Sadly, few people today know about the band or its gifted musicians.

This is my parents’ generation and I grew up hearing their stories of the huge events that framed their youth – the Depression, World War and the genocide of the Holocaust. They also talked about happier things and one of those was music. My mother loved the big bands and swing and I cannot wait to share this book with her. And what a gift this book is! The book begins in a pawn shop after hours as the instruments recall their days with the band. Marilyn Nelson uses a swingy triple meter in the poems that dance across the page and beg to be read aloud. Jerry Pinkney’s marvelous illustrations in colored pencil, watercolor and collage beautifully reflect the subject of the poems while interpreting the events of the period. Individually each poem and each picture are wonderful, rewarding time and attention. As a whole, the book is glorious, all aspects working together perfectly to tell not just the story of the band but also the story of the time, the culture and the spirit of its people. Ideal for those 20th Century History classes!

nonfiction_mondayCindy: Marilyn Nelson and Jerry Pinkney collaborating? Be still my heart. The talent drips off the pages. This is a rare nonfiction book that is like my favorite fiction–it’s a book that has sad bits but also makes you laugh and think. There are the tragic events of WWII and the impending arrival of Hurricane Katrina at the end of the book. Then there are the descriptions of the prejudice faced by the women in the band. For instance, it was illegal for blacks and whites to play in the same band, so the white women wore dark makeup, a dangerous thing when they worked up a sweat playing and the white skin showed through. If caught, they’d be arrested. The band played mostly in the North, to avoid the Jim Crow laws firmly in place in the South.

But Lynn is right. This book also sings and the joy springs from the pages. I feel completely inadequate to describe it. We’ve reviewed a lot of books with collage art this year, a favorite form of mine, but this one is simply stunning. The titles of the poems are song titles from the Big Band era and sheet music from one of the songs was used in the collage. Together these two artists, award-winning poet and illustrator, create a perfect duet. Somehow their song not only entertains us, but captures all that music brings to our lives.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

2 Comments on "Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World by Marilyn Nelson"

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  1. terilesesne@gmail.com' Teri Lesesne says:

    I am over the moon about this book, too. It is a double whammy with the glorious illustrations that seem saturated with color and the words that drip color as well. A real treat!

  2. Just read it and am with all three of you (Lynn, Cindy, and Teri) — this is a spectacular work. I got the F&G at ALA and saw the art, but sitting down and properly reading the poems with the art — wow, wow, wow!

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