Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down: How Elvis Shook Up Music, Me and Mom. By Mark Alan Stamaty. Knopf. $17.99.
Child of the Civil Rights Movement. By Paula Young Shelton. Illustrated by Raul Colón. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.
The grand lessons of the past are not what these books for ages 4-8 are all about. Yes, there are major trends and occurrences invoked here – in music and in human rights – but both books take those big societal matters down to a personal level, in attempts to forge a stronger connection with young readers in the 21st century. Mark Alan Stamaty’s Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down is done in comic-strip style, taking readers back to the long-ago days of 1955, the year the author turned eight, when “lots of things we now take for granted did not even exist” and “television was black-and-white.” Stamaty talks about the music education he got in school and the way his birthday present – a radio of his very own – thoroughly upset the care and order of his life: “A howling thunder of sound exploded in my room, engulfing me in a hurricane of excitement.” In lovingly detailed drawings with text that runs all around the panels, in multiple sizes and colors, Stamaty goes on to show the influence that Elvis Presley and his music had on him, his friends and family, his school, his Cub Scout den, and even on his adult life: at the end of the book, he includes photos taken when we did an Elvis impersonation for then-President Clinton in 1993. Stamaty’s explanations of historical details, even though they are incidental to the story, are especially well done – for example, his drawing of a 45-rpm record and his discussion of how those vinyl disks had “the ‘good’ song, the one they played on the radio,” on one side, and “a crummy song just to fill up space” on the other side. There are also some wonderful illustrations of pop singers from and after Elvis’ early years, and of some musicians whose influence on rock ‘n’ roll was significant. And yet, despite the undoubted quality of the art and the sincerity of the narrative, Shake Rattle & Turn That Noise Down is more a period piece than anything else. It does not fully communicate to today’s young people just how revolutionary Elvis and his music were to an earlier generation – and perhaps there is no way to show that effectively, given the state of music today. This is a book that, despite its official target age range, may actually appeal more to adults of Stamaty’s own generation than to their children and (gasp!) grandchildren.
Sincerity practically oozes from another period piece, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, whose author, Paula Young Shelton, is the daughter of civil-rights leader (and former United Nations ambassador) Andrew Young. The story opens in New York, where Shelton was born, and continues in short chapters as she and her family move to Atlanta to help with the civil-rights protests of the 1960s. There is a great deal here about “Uncle Martin” – Martin Luther King, Jr. – and his influence on the Youngs as well as on the civil-rights movement as a whole. Raul Colón provides carefully drawn, elegant illustrations of King, the Youngs, and many other leaders of the time: Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, et al. And then comes the story of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and the momentous Voting Rights Act of 1965, the latter being handled almost dismissively: “we’d won just one battle and there were many more to come.” The entire book is about passing the torch of civil rights to a new generation – in fact, Shelton writes that “the baton would pass to us and we would march on.” Shelton now teaches first grade in Washington, D.C., and her book is clearly intended to have a specific educational purpose. Everyone she portrays in it is one-dimensional: the civil-rights marchers 100% good, the whites of the South 100% bad. This is perhaps understandable in a story for six-year-olds, but it does an injustice to the civil-rights struggle itself and to those real, three-dimensional human beings who pursued it. There is more to be learned from the successes of fallible and imperfect human beings than from the triumphs of godlike heroes. By making the civil-rights story such a straightforward tale of good vs. evil, Shelton limits its value to the children of today, who – even as first-graders – can surely handle more ambiguity and complexity than this enormously well-intentioned book provides.