I was excited to discover this picture book in our community libraries. I knew that it is not only perfect for our Girl Power and Women’s Wiles theme, it is also a great fit for Nonfiction Monday – a regular event in the kidlitosphere. Our host this week is Anastasia Suen from Booktalking.

Dancing for Nickels and Rhythm Imprinted in One’s Veins. Very few people may know that Ella Fitzgerald started out as a dancer. It was music that soothed their family’s tired souls – allowing her mother to forget everything else as she pressed white shirts at the Silver Lining Laundry, making them forget the household chores – who needs washing, ironing, or even supper when you have rhythm in your veins. The same passion for music was demonstrated by Tempie, Ella’s mother who despite having very little moneycould always manage to scrape together seventy-five cents for a new record.” Music was not perceived to be frivolous or an unnecessary luxury – it was a way of being.

Ella was thirteen. Her mouth was too big and her eyes were squinty. Ella was not pretty, but she could dance. She practiced outside the apartment on School Street with her friend Charlie. When they did the Susie Q around the corner on busy Morgan Street, people reached into their pockets for change – and folks did not have much change to spare in 1930 in Yonkers, New York! Toss a nickel on the sidewalk for Ella and Charlie.

Harlem, Seventh Avenue, and the Search for One’s Place in the World. As with the life narratives of most creative people, Ella suffered from a series of misfortunes at a young age. Her mother died and her step father did not treat her well. Ella moved to her Aunt Virginia’s home in Harlem (she lost her friends and everything she loved and her dancing jobs) – where she was given a roof and a meal, but nothing more. She started skipping school and mixing up with an unsavory crowd, until she ran away and ended back again in Harlem – but to a different part of town – she ended up in Seventh Avenue “where ladies in furs and men in checkered suits went to strut their stuff.”

ca. 1920s-1940s, Harlem, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA --- The night spot that best evokes glittering images of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s is the Cotton Club. While literary urbanites appreciated Harlem Renaissance writers like Langston Hughes, more fun-loving New Yorkers were attracted to the neighborhood's vibrant cabarets. If you were white and well-heeled, you could enjoy African American entertainers like Louis Armstrong and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson at the elegant Cotton Club. --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS - Click on Image to be taken to the websource.
The raggedy Ella, half-starved girl with no home, looking on as the dazzling ladies perform in New York - beautiful illustrations by Sean Qualls
The fluffy glamorous style during this period - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

The role played by Fate, Chance, and Circumstance. Ella started joining Amateur Nights and Auditions – any chance of performing and showing what the tough skit scat raggedy girl – with nothing but gumption and pizzazz and raw talent – can do. This particular episode in Ella’s life has been the subject of much speculation and exploration among scholars, researchers, biographers:

Showtime, 11 P.M., the Apollo Theater, November 21, 1934. Behind the crimson curtain, Ella was so nervous, her legs felt like water. She couldn’t remember the words to her song, and she was the first amateur! What if they didn’t like her?

Somehow she managed to push herself onto the stage, and then she started to sing off-key:

The object of my affection… 

Her voice cracked.

Despite such a dismal beginning, Ella’s notes eventually became light and airy – she forgot everyone else but the rhythm, the sound of her voice, the music that soothes the soul. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the literature on creatives and gifted/talented education, the role played by chance has increased considerably. Whereas previously, researchers assumed that it is enough for one to have talent in order to succeed and to attain eminence and world class recognition – narratives such as these show otherwise. Sometimes being at the right place at the right time can make a world of difference.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.
The skit-scat raggedy cat is now one of them glamorous ladies in New York.

Book Layout – The function of Text in the Narrative. I have read a few brief biographical sketches of Ella Fitzgerald and I would say that this one happens to be a favorite. For a picture book, I would say that it is text-heavy – and might not sustain the attention of the usual younger audience. I personally, did not mind, but I admit that I was a bit surprised since the average picture book would have very few words supplemented by detailed illustrations and a rich Author’s Note found at the end of the book. I find, though, that the entire layout worked for me. The illustrations are captivating and I also loved the lyrical quality of the narrative. I also liked the fact that I came away knowing more about Ella Fitzgerald’s life than one might usually expect from a picture book biography which usually seems to favor the spare three to four lines per page-spread. I have also done another book review related to Ella Fitzgerald when we had our Picture Books that Sing theme in 2010: A Tisket A Tasket is also another picture book that you might want to check out. Meanwhile, enjoy this lovely video clip of Ella Fitzgerald singing about a brown and yellow basket. 😉

About the Authors (as taken from the book jacketflap)

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Roxanne Orgill is an award-winning writer on music and the author of several biographies for young readers, including Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire. She is also the author of Dream Lucky,a book for adults about big-band jazz, race, and politics in the 1930s. She says, “Although I’d known Ella Fitzgerald’s singing for ages, I didn’t ‘get’ her until I saw a film clip of her singing ‘A Tisket, A Tasket’ standing in the aisle of a bus. She was both guileless child and determined adult, a combination I had never encountered. The image plus the sound was like opening a door.” Roxanne Orgill lives with her husband and two children in New York.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Sean Qualls is the much-honored illustrator of many books for children, including Dizzy and Before John was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane. He says, “My earliest memories of Ella Fitzgerald were seeing her glass-shattering elevision commercials for Memorex. When the ad came on, all of the adults in the house would get quiet as if the president were about to speak. I was in total awe. Now, whenever I think of Ella, I think of her with that same sense of majesty.” Sean Qualls lives in New York with his wife and their two children.

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgerald written by Roxanne Orgill and Illustrated by Sean Qualls. Candlewick Press, 2010. Book borrowed from the Community Library. Book photos taken by me.

A Junior Library Guild Selection Winner for 2011, and a CYBIL (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Literary Awards) Finalist. AWB Reading Challenge Update: 28 of 35

Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge Update: 8 of 12

PictureBook Challenge Update: 42 of 120

PoC Reading Challenge Update: 11 of 25

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Singapore. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she serves as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads or meeting up with her book club friends, she is smashing that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life.

12 comments on “Nonfiction Monday: Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgerald

  1. What a great find. Oh man I love her music. When I was in New Orleans I loved all the jazz.

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  2. Myra, I’m so excited to read this book! Just up my alley. And, I loved learning that she was a dancer first. Thanks so much for sharing this book — sounds terrific!

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    • Hi Jeanne, I knew about the fact that she was a dancer when I read James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code and he explored the life story narratives of a few talented/eminent individuals. This particular picture book though highlighted that particular fact so creatively.

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  3. I’d like to get a copy of this book. I fell in love with Sean Qualls’s illustrations in Margarita Engle’s The Poet Slave of Cuba. It’s nice to his full-color illustrations in this picture book. 🙂

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  4. This book sounds absolutely wonderful! Thank you for such an in-depth look at the book and at Ella Fitzgerald’s life.

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  5. Pingback: Nonfiction Monday « Booktalking

  6. I loved finding at that Ella Fitzgerald began as a dancer at that music was seen as an essential part of life. The Haarlem Renaissance truly gave so much to the world!

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  7. Pingback: List of Girl Power Themed Books and Poems: Picture Books, YA, Adult Lit, and Poetry «

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