Duke Ellington
The Piano Prince and His Orchestra

written by Andrea Davis Pinkney
illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Andrea Davis Pinkney's Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra
illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 5-10

Rendering music in words and pictures

How do you convey a style of music without letting your audience hear it?

Author-illustrator, wife-and-husband team Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney somehow manage.

Ms. Davis Pinkney does her part by shelving conventional picture book language and instead emulating the swinging slang of the Jazz Age.

Duke's name fit him rightly. He was a smooth-talkin', slick-steppin, piano-playin' kid. But his piano playing wasn't always as breezy as his stride.

Mr. Pinkney does his part by conveying the Piano Prince's music in swirls of color, and in so doing he actually has science on his side. Edward Kennedy Ellington is thought to have had synesthesia, "a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway."

(Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Duke Ellington:

"I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin."

Capture that and you have one heck of a picture book. Brian Pinkney did, earning a 1999 Caldecott Honor for his efforts. Review continues below.

Brian Pinkney images from 'Duke Ellington, The Piano Prince'

The Piano Prince is text-heavy as picture books go, as befits a biography of a man with a long and storied career. The patter makes for a fun read-aloud, especially for a reader with some performance pizazz.

Author Pinkney gets most of the way through the book before speaking to race, telling the reader how Ellington composed Black, Brown and Beige "to celebrate the history of African-American people."

Duke introduced "Black, Brown and Beige" at New York's Carnegie Hall, a symphony hall so grand that even the seats wore velvet.

Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra celebrates the color of music and the music of language.

Webmaster's note: Also touching on the Piano Prince and reviewed on this site: Ellington Was Not a Street.

More Caldecott reviews.

More African-American children's books.

More of Steve's reviews.

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