Jazz books are tons of fun for kids. They tend to have wonderful, rhythmic text, colorful and dynamic illustrations, and best of all, these wonderful jazz picture books will introduce your kids to one of the few music forms that originated in North America. You do not have to be jazz fans to enjoy these books, but I bet you will be be-bopping by the end of each read!
These books include some fiction, but for the most part they are based on real life jazz musicians. Some you will no doubt heard of, others will be new to you. There are vocalists, trombone-players, pianists, and more. So pick up these snazzy, jazzy picture books and start swaying and playing. (I'm such a dork.)
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Jazz picture books for babies, toddlers and preschoolers
Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. This jazz picture book is great for preschoolers! When my kids were babies and toddlers they loved listening to the jazzy, onomatopoeic text. You won't be able to get enough of this book, which has become a true classic that should be on everyone's shelves.
Squeak, Rumble, Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!: A Sonic Adventure by Wynton Marsalis. An exuberant celebration of how everyday objects make super jazzy sounds. Wonderful and great for your youngest lap sitters!
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This Jazz Man by Karen Ehrhardt. A wonderful, jazzy, be-bobbing take on "This Old Man." My son could not stop singing it!
Jazz picture books for elementary aged children
Trombone Shorty. Troy Andrews wrote this autobiographical picture book about how he grew up in a music-rich environment and when he found a broken instrument he started playing the trombone, he earned the nickname, Trombone Shorty. He played and practiced hard and grew up to be a Grammy nominated multi-instrumentalist.
Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl's Courage Changed Music. Engle's book is nspired by the life of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, a Chinese-African-Cuban girl. Millo bucked Cuba's taboo against female drummers and became a famous musician, even playing the bongos at a birthday celebration for FDR. The book is written as a poem, following a girl's longing to beat on all sorts of drums: congas, bongos, and timbales. She practices secretly until finally she is allowed to share her gift with the world. Rafael López's illustrations are absolutely stunning.
Ben's Trumpet. Ben hangs out by the jazz club at night, listening to the various instruments. During the day, he plays his imaginary trumpet for his family and friends. One day, a few kids tease Ben but a musician comes to the rescue and invites Ben to practice on a real trumpet at the club. This is a lovely classic book about how a passion for music can enrich lives, inspire the imagination and bring people together.
Tito Puente, Mambo King/Tito Puente, Rey del Mambo. The swinging, jazzy text tells the story of Puente's life from the time when he was a small child banging out catchy rhythms on pots and pans through his time in the Navy, at Julliard, all the way to the end of his career when he was recognized with 5 Grammys. Swirling illustrations take the reader on a colorful journey. There is a biographical note at the end. A Pura Belpré Honor Award Book.
Jazz Age Josephine is another wonderful picture book about the iconic singer. Josephine Baker overcame a difficult childhood, pushed back against racist entertainment policies and dazzled audiences with her dancing. Winter’s spirited text and Priceman’s lively, jazzy illustrations, brings Josephine’s particular brand of joyful performance to life. Terrific.
The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend focuses on the childhood of amazing pianist Mary Lou Williams and her impoverished background in Pittsburg where she charmed the neighbors with her magical playing. As a biography I felt it lacked a sense of urgency and interest about an important figure in history, but as the story of an extraordinary girl who overcame hardship to be accepted for her talent it is interesting and I think music-loving kids will enjoy the story.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill. In 1958 an eclectic group of jazz musicians from the famous to the up-and-coming to the just-starting-out gathered together in Harlem and a famous photograph was born. This is the story, told in verse of how a graphic art designer at Esquire magazine, managed get this amazing photo.
Max Found Two Sticks. Not all jazz picture books need be about the great jazz legends. Show your kids than anyone can create a rhythm. I love this book about a boy who starts to beat out musical patterns with two sticks he finds during a breezy day. He taps out the sounds he hears around him in rhythmic patterns. Read it aloud to kids and encourage them to tap out or say their own musical patterns.
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is a splendid book about the singer for kids ages 7 and up, although I read it aloud to my 5 year old and he liked it, too. It’s a great blend between chapter and picture book. The text is what you might expect from a picture book: rhythmic, poetic, expressive (just like Josephine, really) but its 100 pages are divided into chapters based specific periods of her life. Bold graphics accompany the story and I love how pages are blocks of color. I found it to be a very visually appealing book. There is so much information about the singer in this book, but it is never dry and quite honestly, I found it quite suspenseful!
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown. A charming story about little known musician Melba Doretta Liston who taught herself to play the trombone when she was only 7! This is an extremely well-written jazz picture book about a musician you will wish you had known about much, much earlier!
Harlem’s Little Blackbird by Renée Watson is the story of singer Florence Mills, who used her fame to fight for civil rights in the 1920s. She was well-known for her compassion for the less-fortunate and for helping to advance the careers other African-American performers who faced profound racism. Highly Recommended.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald is the story of Ella as a young teenager until her big break with A Tisket A Tasket at the age of 21. Although I did like the book, and especially Qualls’ illustrations, it falls into the trap of a lot of picture book biographies. The story overwhelms you with dense text. There are a lot of details and I think the book could offer more of an introduction to the famous singer if it was easier to sit though. It’s not badly written, it’s just a lot.