Jazz Baby

The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend
By Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald
Illustrated by Giselle Potter
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children,New York, 2010, $16)

Mary Lou Williams was one of the twentieth century’s most famous jazz pianists and composers, renowned for her versatility and distinctive playing style. But before she became a legend, she was the little piano girl, who entertained her neighbors for coins. Williams’ talent surfaced early, and music helped her transcend the poverty and bigotry she faced as a young black girl growing up in early twentieth-century Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

In The Little Piano Girl, Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald explore Williams’ early life. Music healed the young musician when other children scorned her: “Ugly names and cruel words… Mary called them ‘bad sounds,’ and she taught herself to play them out.” One of the picture book biography’s chief joys is its evocative, jazz-inspired language, a cadence uniquely suited to its subject. The other is Giselle Potter’s illustrations, which capture the joy and surprise the girl’s playing elicited in her friends and family. Readers see happiness unfolding over Mary’s face and others as she “bashed beauty out of those piano keys.”

The Little Piano Girl is a Cinderella story – most children will recognize the (surprise) fairy tale motif – and an introduction to jazz as a genre. The book should spark both kids’ and adults’ interest in the Piano Girl’s work.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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