Learning and Development

Inspiring picture books for budding musicians

  • Inspiring picture books for budding musicians

Open up a magical world of music for young children with these picture book recommendations from children’s author and illustrator Caroline Magerl…

As someone who never really played a musical instrument, musicians are in the realm of magic to me. Even the language of music is more incantation than instruction; Allegro, Allargando, Poco… Mysterioso.

My daughter’s adventure in music began very early, with a cheap xylophone and a clay ocarina. By the time she was five, we had bought a secondhand piano. Once this lumbering sombre brown clanking box became a fixture in our house, family life changed and music became a central focus. 

What I remember most is the way music became a part of the very air in our lives. My latest picture book, Piano Fingers, pays homage to all of this. It also facilitated a desire to see how others handle the same love.

Here’s a selection of musical-themed picture books that each explore music in their own way.

Once Upon a Tune by James Mayhew

James Mayhew’s book does a wonderful thing. Not only does it function beautifully as a picture book; it also draws back a curtain on another scene.

Some of the best loved orchestral pieces, which most of us know by ear if not by name, were inspired by epic folk stories. The picture book format demands a condensed version of such works as The Kalevala, (which inspired Sibelius to write The Swan of Tuonela). However, Mayhew retains the magic of this and the five other tales.

The necessity for brevity results in wonderful, headlong momentum from one story to the next. The illustrations and design are worth many words – I will simply say that there is a seamless and powerful world created through the book even while representing widely varying content.

Once upon a Tune  gives children a narrative frame to adventure into the world of orchestral music, even without the sound turned up. This book is enriching and inspiring on every level.

The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

One of the odder sights I’ve recently seen was a dumped piano in the car park at the local forest reserve. When I say dumped, it had been neatly, invitingly, offloaded under some trees. It would have been a forlorn act to not give this old piano one last chance at a useful life, to touch someone’s heartstrings.

The first thing I saw, in my mind’s eye, was David Litchfield’s bear hunched over the keys.

One of the more enjoyable by-products of an interest in children’s books is to find echoes of stories everywhere.

The setting of The Bear and the Piano  is immediately appealing and intuitively right. Music is a force of nature and Litchfield’s bear discovers music in much the same way children do – bang, crash, tinkle!

Bear’s playing and his dreams of other, wonderful places hint at where the story will take us – fame and fortune, and a long journey far from the forest and friends.

This lovely tale ends in a satisfying place, where it began. A passion for music took bear far, but only served to deepen his place in the hearts of his friends.

Trubloff  by John Burningham

I once glimpsed a photo somewhere, of John Burningham’s work desk. I explored the image with interest, but was unsurprised at the festoon of art materials. 

As an illustrator, Burningham seemed a brilliant, ebullient, industrious adventurer in paint and was extraordinary at using his discoveries to great effect. He could make you love the character be it in the spindly world of Mr Gumpy or, in this case, the world of Trubloff; the mouse who wanted to play the balalaika. 

Written and illustrated by Burningham, the world of Trubloff seems hewn from wood and artfully chiselled into being.

This is a story of how powerfully music acts upon us, and in the case of this small, aspiring musician, sweeps him off on an adventure, much to his family’s dismay. But ultimately, it was Trubloff’s brave plunge that changed the fortunes of his family.  

First published in 1964, Trubloff remains a beautiful picture book adventure. I would also venture that this story was written by someone who understood a thing or two about following your heart.

Because by Mo Willems (Author) and Amber Ren (Illustrator)

This picture book accomplishes a wonderful thing in its scope and spirit. There is a sense of dominoes falling as the pages turn. The opening scene is an illustration of Ludwig van Beethoven composing and Franz Schubert, who was famously inspired by Ludwig, catches the tune. 

Willems’ story pulls us along in the wake of events, as those dominoes tumble. Person to person, the inspiration passes; until a small child attends a concert, and she too is inspired to follow the music.

Celebrating not only the musicians, as the events unfold, the spotlight is shone on figures behind the scenes too.

With a relaxed grace and skill, illustrator Ren gives us a world of diverse people. Her handling of the story has a great part in making this feel like a night out at a concert; buoyant and celebratory. The concert hall scenes are grand in scale but nonetheless intimate and gently humorous, keeping in step with the text.

Because will make any child who is moved by music feel like they are part of something much bigger, a gift that is passed on. When practice gets tough, this might be the nudge that is needed – to keep going, to keep playing. As Willems said, “That is how it happens”.    

In Caroline Magerl’s latest picture book, Piano Fingers (published by Walker Books, £12.99), we are invited to celebrate the moment a young child first falls in love with music. 

Main image © Caroline Magerl 2022, from Piano Fingers