Kid Lit Review of “King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin” by Stephen Costanza

The syncopated beginning of this book will draw readers right in:

“In the valley of the Red River,
where the soil was as rich
as most folks were poor,
four states sat side by side
like colors on a quilt
sewn from cotton picked
by black hands, brown hands,
tired and worn – but oh!
How they clapped at night,
as voices lifted to the stars.”

The setting is north Texas, where Scott Joplin was born in 1867 or 1868. As the author explains in a note, there were no schools for either Blacks or whites, but we know that at least some of the Joplin kids were tutored. They also learned about music. In his note Costanza writes: “In Black Texarkana, music was as integral a part of life as breathing, and Scott’s childhood was filled with the music of his people.” Scott was exposed to spirituals, hymns, and the call and response music developed by slaves.

Back to the narrative, we learn:

“In Scott’s home, music flowed like the great river itself.
His father, Giles, fiddled.
His mother, Florence, plucked the banjo and sang,
while Monroe, Robert, Ossie, and William played guitar, box fiddle, spoons, and fiddle.
Baby Myrtle helped with the spoons,
and Scott played the cornet. . . .

Music filled the air like a breeze from Alabama.”

The father left the family in the early 1880s, and Scott’s mother Florence went to work as a domestic in white-owned homes to support her children, often bringing Scott along. At one house, she got permission for Scott to use the piano while she worked. He taught himself to play, and Florence saved up to get Scott a piano for his own, as well as lessons from local music teachers.

In particular, lessons with a German immigrant named Julius Weiss “opened up new worlds for him – piano technique, music theory, musical, theater, and opera – that would remain with Scott Joplin for the rest of his life.”

As soon as Scott finished learning one piece, he would start another. But “most of all, he loved composing his own music.”

“All of Scott’s neighbors began talking about the quiet kid who made a piano laugh out loud.”

Scott couldn’t get work playing music in Texarkana, however, so he began to travel, playing the piano in saloons and honky-tonks all along the Mississippi Valley as he made his way to Chicago, arriving in 1893. There, he discovered ragtime. He then moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where he got work as a piano teacher, and wrote a piece called the “Maple Leaf Rag.” He was turned down by every publisher until he found John Stark, who gave him a contract. As the author observes, “It was an uncommon arrangement for an unknown composer, especially one who was African American.”

By the autumn of 1900, the “Maple Leaf Rag” was heard everywhere: “This ragtime hit had taken the nation by storm.” He was thus able to focus more on writing music, and composed many more ragtime pieces. The author concludes:

“He sat down at the piano and, with both hands, created a new music, an American music like the country itself – a patchwork of sounds and colors.”

The final illustration shows leaves issuing out of Joplin’s piano and landing on a tree made up of his best known rags.

Back matter includes the author’s note, a bibliography, and a list of recommended listening. If you put “Scott Joplin” into the Youtube search box, you can listen to a number of his works, including the “Maple Leaf Rag,” which many adults will no doubt recognize immediately as part of the soundtrack from the movie “The Sting” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

The author, who is also the illustrator, has filled his pictures with bright colors and movement that reflect a mix of artistic styles. This serves in a meta sense to highlight the analogous mix of musical styles that Joplin poured into his ragtime stew. You can almost hear the music as you turn the pages.

Evaluation: The lyrical prose and lively art work would provide a fine accompaniment for listening to Joplin’s music, whether at home or in the classroom.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021

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