Striking a Chord: 20 Exceptional Books on Music for Young People

The following fiction and nonfiction titles demonstrate the world-changing power of music, from the birth of the blues to today’s top 40.
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There is incredible power in music. Throughout history, music has proven again and again that it can provide people with the strength to lift their souls and threaten oppressors. From the birth of the blues to today’s top 40, music demonstrates the ability to share joy, soothe sorrow, and convey a life-changing message. Those who create through song have a passion. They have an undeniable desire to express themselves through measures of notes on a page and a drive to do what they love, no matter how great the obstacles. For those inventors, composers, dreamers, and performers, music is what helps them to find meaning in life.

For fictional characters, music often exudes that same power but on a much smaller scale. In fiction, music conquers everyday struggles, such as a young girl finding confidence in herself by finally being brave enough to use her singing voice, a boy passing a girl a mixtape on the school bus, or a young man finding his true identity not on the football field but in the choir. Music is the impetus for acceptance and love.

In all of the following fiction and nonfiction selections, music unearths deeper truths—and it brings people together.

Fiction Elementary

BARTON, Chris. 88 Instruments. illus. by Louis Thomas. 32p. Knopf. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780553538144. PreS-Gr 2 –A young boy in a music shop must pick which instrument he would like to learn. He has 88 choices, and he tries many of them, with a “honk,” a “squonk,” and a “bash,” but it is the “plink” of the piano, with its 88 keys and 88 sounds, that ends up being just right. Thomas’s watercolors perfectly capture the wondrous nature of discovery. The music-themed onomatopoeia makes this ideal for reading aloud. BERKNER, Laurie. We Are the Dinosaurs. illus. by Ben Clanton. 40p. S. & S. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481464635. PreS –Berkner’s song “We Are the Dinosaurs” is brought to life by an adorable cast of dinosaur hatchlings off on an adventure without their parents. The colorfully depicted dinosaurs go marching, have a picnic, and even take a nap. While the text is straightforward, the characters’ interactions and reactions provide depth and make this title a fun read-aloud, especially for groups. GARLAND, Michael. Daddy Played the Blues. illus. by author. 48p. Tilbury. 2017. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780884485889. Gr 2-5 –Cassie’s family moves from Mississippi to Chicago so that her father and uncle can work in the stockyards, but what they love to do most is sit and play the blues. The textured digital woodcut illustrations excellently convey the emotions of the story, while a lengthy author’s note offers more information about the Great Migration and the Chicago blues scene. Ideal for sharing one-on-one or as a supplement to U.S. history lessons. MCCUTCHEON, John. Flowers for Sarajevo. illus. by Kristy Caldwell. 32p. Peach- tree. 2017. Tr $19.95. ISBN 978156 1459438. Gr 2-5 –Based on true events from the Bosnian War, this story is told through the eyes of Drasko, a fictional boy who sells flowers in the Sarajevo marketplace. One morning, a mortar hits the bakery and kills 22 people. To honor the dead and provide solace to those still living, a cellist plays music in the market for 22 days. Caldwell’s artwork is stunning, using rich colors and panels in a graphic novel–like style. A gorgeous, quiet work that emphasizes the importance of empathy and community. TORRES, Jennifer. Finding the Music/En pos de la música. tr. from Spanish by Alexis Romay. illus. by Renato Alarcão. 40p. glossary. Lee & Low. 2015. Tr $19.95. ISBN 9780892392919. BL Gr 2-4 –Reyna’s grandfather’s vihuela (small guitar) hangs above a booth in the restaurant that belongs to her family. When she accidentally damages the vihuela, Reyna journeys through her neighborhood, learning about her grandfather and mariachi music. Alarcão’s illustrations, rendered in acrylic, are imbued with lush oranges and purples. This bilingual story is a heartwarming tale of family and friends and the music and memories that bind them together.


GRIMES, Nikki. Garvey’s Choice. 120p. Boyds Mills/Wordsong. 2016. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781629797403. Gr 4-8 –This slim novel in verse tells the story of Garvey, a middle schooler at odds with many of his classmates as well as his father’s expectations. Eventually Garvey, with the help of his friend Joe, recognizes what gives him confidence, joy, and hope—singing in chorus. It also may be just the thing to bring him and his father together. Grimes’s use of the Japanese tanka form is masterly—readers will zip right through Garvey’s tale. KHAN, Hena. Amina’s Voice. 208p. S. & S./Salaam Reads. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481492065. Gr 4-6 –Eleven-year-old Amina grapples with her identity as close friendships change and her traditional uncle from Pakistan comes to the United States for a visit. When her neighborhood mosque is vandalized, Amina learns the many ways that music can heal and finds the resolve to finally share her beautiful voice. A tender, thoughtful selection sure to resonate with readers. SCATTERGOOD, Augusta. The Way to Stay in Destiny. 192p. Scholastic. 2015. Tr $16.99 ISBN 9780545538244. Gr 4-6 –In this novel set in 1974, Theo reluctantly moves to Destiny, FL, with his unfamiliar uncle Raymond, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. However, once there, Theo finds happiness when he sneaks off to play the piano at the local dance studio. A lively new friend, a baseball mystery, and the caring owner of the rooming house help Theo make Destiny home. Recommended for fans of wistful reads and recent historical fiction. WINSTON, Sherrie. The Sweetest Sound. 272p. Little, Brown. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780316302951. Gr 4-6 –Ten-year-old Cadence loves to sing—just not in front of anyone. She is happiest performing in the church choir, where she can be one among many voices. When a recording of her singing solo is leaked and a fellow member of the choir claims to be the singer, Cadence must decide if she can put aside her shyness and let herself be known. Readers of realistic fiction will love Cadence and the strong support she receives from family and friends.


EMERSON, Kevin. Exile. 320p. HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Bks. 2014. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062133953. Gr 9 Up –The first book in the trilogy introduces readers to Catherine Summer Carlson, high school student and former manager of Postcards from Ariel, a local band gaining popularity. Looking for a new group to manage, Summer befriends classmate Caleb Daniels. Struggling with their new band, Dangerheart, they fall for each other and become embroiled in a musical mystery. Coming-of-age, romance, and intrigue combine for a quick read. MASON-BLACK, Jennifer. Devil and the Bluebird. 336p. Abrams. 2016. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9781419720000. Gr 9 Up –Immediately after Blue strikes a deal with the devil to help find her sister, her voice disappears, and the devil begins making ever-changing rules to the quest. Along the way, Blue meets a cast of sometimes helpful, sometimes terrifying folks and must learn to listen to the music of others as well as her own in order to succeed. A magical adventure, perfect for fans of genre mash-ups. WALTON, K.M., ed. Behind the Song. 376p. Sourcebooks Fire. 2017. pap. $10.99. ISBN 9781492638810. Gr 9 Up –In this anthology, 14 YA authors and musicians choose a favorite song and share a short story or personal essay inspired by that song. Inspirations run from the Eagles’s “Hotel California” to Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs.” Contributors include James Howe, Ellen Oh, David Almond, and Ellen Hopkins. Great for readers just looking for something to dip into or educators in need of creative writing prompts.

Nonfiction Elementary

REICH, Susanna. Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles. illus. by Adam Gustavson. 40p. bibliog. glossary. notes. websites. Holt. 2015. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780805094589. Gr 2-5 –Reich follows John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison from their humble beginnings to their being dubbed the Fab Four and their early experiences of success. Gustavson’s oil paintings aptly capture the spirit of the band, while a glossary, notes, and sources leave readers with many options for learning more about the group. A glowing tribute. RUSCH, Elizabeth. The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori & the Invention of the Piano. illus. by Marjorie Priceman. 48p. bibliog. chron. notes. photos. S. & S./Atheneum. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781481444842. Gr K-3 –Musical terms such as pianissimo and crescendo headline each spread in this picture book biography of Cristofori and the journey that led to the creation of the piano. Notably, primary source quotations about the instrument maker and his invention are included throughout the main text. Priceman’s gouache and ink illustrations bring a vibrancy to the story. Rich endnotes also add to the depth. An ideal title to pair with maker spaces. RUSSELL-BROWN, Karen. Little Melba and Her Big Trombone. illus. by Frank Morrison. 40p. bibliog. discog. photos. Lee & Low. 2014. Tr $18.95. ISBN 9781600608988. Gr 2-5 –When she was just seven years old, Melba Doretta Liston began playing the trombone. Russell-Brown’s narrative follows Liston from her childhood in Kansas City, MO, to becoming one of the first women to be a world-class trombone player, composer, and arranger. During her career she played with performers, such as Gerald Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billie Holiday. Morrison’s oil paint illustrations vividly bring Liston’s talent to life. A splendid mix of biography, music history, and girl power. WOOD, Susan. Esquivel!: Space-Age Sound Artist. illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh. 32p. further reading. photos. websites. Charlesbridge. 2016. Tr $17.95 ISBN 9781580896733. Gr 2-6 –Juan García Esquivel developed a love for music as a child growing up in Tampico, Mexico. Wood’s text highlights Esquivel’s inquisitive nature, while Tonatiuh’s artwork reveals the musician’s playful and funny side. Esquivel’s unique approach to music led him to a successful career as a composer, band conductor, and performer—and the pioneer of lounge music and stereo sound. A picture book biography sure to get readers listening to the world of sounds around them.

Middle grade

PINKNEY, Andrea Davis. Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound. 176p. chron. discog. index. notes. photos.Roaring Brook. 2015. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9781596439733. Gr 5 Up –Pinkney uses a conversational tone to tell the story of Berry Gordy and the rise and fall of Motown. Skillfully woven into the narrative are stories and photos of some of the many Hittsville acts who became stars, as well as historical events such as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. An engaging look through a musical lens at a crucial period in U.S. history. SILVEY, Anita. Let Your Voice Be Heard: The Life and Times of Pete Seeger. 112p. bibliog. notes. photos. Clarion. 2016. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780547330129. Gr 5-7 –The son of classically trained musicians, Seeger went on to become a U.S. folk music legend. Through years of adversity, he persisted in his fight for justice and equality for all, while continuing to make meaningful music. This short biography creates a rich portrait of a man who stood up for what he believed in and never let his voice be silenced.


ANDERSON, M.T. Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad. 464p. bibliog. index. notes. photos. Candlewick. 2015. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780763668181. Gr 9 Up –Life in Stalinist Russia through the Siege of Leningrad is covered in great detail in this epic work of narrative nonfiction. Using Dmitri Shostakovich and the composition of his Seventh Symphony as the conduit to tell the story, Anderson provides an unflinching look at life, death, and the role of music during this tumultuous time in world history. Teens won’t be able to put it down. BAGIEU, Pénélope. California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas and the Papas. illus. by author. 272p. bibliog. First Second. 2017. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781626725461. Gr 9 Up –This graphic novel biography follows Ellen Cohen, the girl who would become Mama Cass, from her humble beginnings in Baltimore through her rise to fame. Told from varying perspectives, the story gives readers a real sense of the indomitable spirit and larger-than-life persona that led to the creation of Mama Cass. References to drug use and some language make this a choice for older readers.

Veronica De Fazio is head of youth services at the Plainfield (IL) Public Library.


Born in the Deep Woods. Performed by Red Yarn. CD. Approx. 42 min. Red Yarn Productions. 2017. $12. PreS Up –Pair this energy-filled compilation of original songs and tunes adapted from traditional folk songs with a biography of Pete Seeger and discuss how U.S. folk music has evolved over the years. Mi Viaje: De Nuevo León to the New York Island. Performed by Sonia de los Santos. CD. 40:50 min. Festival Five Records. 2015. $11.99. PreS Up –Introduce students to the music of de los Santos when studying the cultures of Latin America. She is joined by talented musicians from around the world on songs from Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. All songs are sung in Spanish with liner notes in Spanish and English. Ranger Rick’s Trail Mix: Vol.1. Performed by the Whizpops! CD. Approx. 36 min. Stretch McCoy Records. 2016. $9.99. K-Gr 5 –Enrich a discussion on nature and endangered animals with this selection of music. Clever yet highly informative lyrics about 10 endangered animals of North America will delight young listeners while also teaching them the important lesson that “Extinction Really Stinks.” Swing Set. Performed by Jazzy Ash. CD. Approx. 33 min. Leaping Lizards Music. 2017. $13.99. K-Gr 5 –All of the songs on this album are at least 90 years old and were researched and arranged by Ash for a new generation. Use this album in conjunction with books on the history of jazz, New Orleans, or famous African American women musicians, such as Melba Liston. We Stood Up: Reflections on the Civil Rights Movement. Performed by various. 62 min. Lincoln Financial Foundation. 2016. Free download to schools, libraries, and nonprofits. Gr 4 Up –Through interviews, poems, and original songs, listeners can hear from such people as Congressman John Lewis, former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, Greensboro Four member Franklin McCain, and Julian Bond, activist and founding member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who all experienced the civil rights movement firsthand. An invaluable resource.

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