This post continues February’s My Take/Your Take conversation on books that have won the Schneider Family Award for their portrayal of the disability experience. The conversation started with The Deaf Musicians, A Splash of Red and The Pirate of Kindergarten, and continues this week with Piano Starts Here.
SUSAN: Piano Starts Here tells the story of the great jazz pianist Art Tatum, an artist I was not familiar with, but who is revered by other musicians as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Of course I wanted to hear his playing for myself. Thanks to YouTube I could listen to his incredibly fast finger work and his skill at transposing and weaving melodies together (in this case, “I Got Rhythm”). It is amazing to listen to him play, and, like all great pianists, he makes it look effortless! So why isn’t he more well-known? Perhaps because he died fairly young, at age 46 (1910-1956).
Piano Starts Here gives us a window into Tatum’s early life and the people who surrounded him and enabled him to develop as a musician and play the way he did. Born blind, his parents arranged surgeries for him to help him gain some sight, but the surgeries were not really successful. Instead his family members and neighbors rallied around him to make sure he got back and forth to school. Not one to sit on the sidelines, Art would join in neighborhood games like basketball and football. That can-do spirit mixed with his love of making music led to him playing for church parties, neighborhood bars, and eventually clubs across the U.S.
Tatum’s musical training started at home, plinking on the piano when he could barely reach the keys. His father teasingly asked that he not wear out the piano because he loved playing that much. What is clear, even in the space of 32 pages, was his parents’ support of his musical ability. They allowed his curiosity about music to develop.
Author Robert Andrew Parker juxtaposes Tatum’s failing eyesight with his incredible musical memory. Tatum could hear a song and reproduce it. Parker also describes the way Tatum would insert a song into another song, and even a song into a song that was inserted into a song. One of his favorite “insertions” was “Humoresque” by Czech Dvořák.
DESIREE: I was also unfamiliar with Art Tatum’s music prior to reading this book. As part of my background research, I ordered a copy of The Songs of Blind Folk (2009) by Terry Rowden. This is a book of critical theory that looks at how disability, like blackness, has shaped the music produced by a number of artists throughout history including the Blind Boys of Alabama, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Art Tatum. Of all the musicians in this group, I only recognized Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.
I continued reading Rowden’s book, alongside Piano Starts Here, and was amazed by the connections. In the picture book, Tatum tells readers, “because of my bad eyes, day and night, dark and light, don’t really matter to me. Not the way sounds and smells do — piano notes, streetcar bells, corn bread baking in the oven.” Obviously, being blind, he was more reliant on his hearing and sense of smell. But the way this shaped his approach to music is what I found to be fascinating. He could not learn to read music or chord symbols. Instead he had to rely wholly on his aural perception of the music. This was interesting because, thus far, the books we have read have focused on characters who have had to overcome their disabilities. This book might very well fit into that category. Yet, it could also be reframed as a book that represents disability as a strength.
When I read through the long list of blind musicians outlined in The Songs of Blind Folk, I couldn’t help but question whether these artists would have achieved greatness if they had not lost sight. What are your thoughts about how this book might be framed? Also, have we missed something in our exploration of previous books? Could or should this strength-based perspective be applied to our entire text-set?
SUSAN: I appreciate your question about whether the artists you mentioned would have achieved the same level of greatness without their disability. I landed on the same question as I read about books and materials for kids with disabilities in an essay by Heidi Boiesen, the former librarian of the IBBY Documentation Centre of Books for Disabled Young People (now housed at the Toronto Public Library). She was talking about the kinds of materials blind children need in order to learn about their world and learn to read Braille. She mentioned that these children need to experience their world through audible means or through touch. She described the adapted books they usually use to learn: tactile picture books, audio books, or books with sound illustrations.
I was familiar with at least one example of a tactile picture book (The Black Book of Colors by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría) but I had never heard of a book with sound illustrations! What this aha moment did for me was help me realize what extraordinary gifts Tatum’s hearing and musical memory were. As a person who is blind, he could not read notes printed on paper. As a musician who needs both hands, he could not read Braille notes and play at the same time. He was dependent on his ability to reproduce what he heard.
This aha made me wonder if the lack of ability to read musical notes may have given him the creative space to experiment with sound. He was known for his ability to interweave compositions. That mixing takes creativity but also tremendous skill because the musician is weaving tunes that may be at different tempos and in different keys, and he/she needs to transpose at least one of the tunes to fit the other. On top of the technical challenge comes the challenge of playing collaboratively with other jazz musicians. I understand jazz to be a very fluid type of music where one person is soloing and the others are supporting. At the same time there is a tempo that is stable across the different instruments. Understanding the complexity of what jazz musicians do helped me understand the level of Tatum’s creativity. It was astronomical!
I think you asked an important question about books that portray the disability experience. Do they portray the disabilities in a way that describes assets (like musical memory) as compensation (for limited or no visual ability), or do the descriptions portray assets as going beyond just compensation? Did Tatum compensate for lack of visual ability by flexing his musical memory muscle, or did he go way beyond and develop musical creativity? All of us have areas of strength and weakness but do not want to be looked at on the basis of that list. I am guessing that a person with disabilities is the same way and that our focus in books needs to be on what they did to go beyond compensation for a disability.
But I also think a caution is in order. The books we looked at this month have portrayed two people who were geniuses (Art Tatum, Horace Pippin). The books portraying the extraordinary gifts of these men need to be read alongside books like the Pirate of Kindergarten so children who have disabilities do not get the idea that in order to live a wonderful life you have to have an extraordinary gift in another one of the senses. Research has demonstrated that children need to see themselves in a book. This includes the stories of dealing with letter reversals and eye patches. But they also need heroes who have gone above and beyond daily life with a disability.
DESIREE: Susan, I’m glad you mentioned how these books might serve as mirrors for children with different types of disabilities. Historically, children with disabilities have found few accurate representations of themselves in literature. At the same time, non-disabled children have not, historically, encountered these books as windows. Nor have they been invited to think critically about disability as a social construction, on par with race or gender.
When our group started to explore this set of books, I was struck by the changes in representations of the disability experience in children’s literature. It was far different from what I experienced when I was growing up. Many of the changes we found were informed by research in disabilities studies, which has developed as an academic discipline in the past 20 years. Because of this research, formerly unquestioned representations of people with disabilities have faced interrogation and the disability rights movement has gained momentum.
Moving forward, children’s literature has an important role to play in continuing the momentum. Publishers have an obligation to seek insider perspectives and to increase the diversity of disability experiences being portrayed in children’s literature. The set of books that we selected for both issues of My Take / Your Take are the kind that bring fresh perspectives to classroom conversations about disability. Not only do these books reflect the struggles by people with disabilities for equal rights and provide global representations of the experiences of people with different disabilities, but they also avoid evoking pity or a charitable response. Instead, these books introduce unique perspectives, and strong characters with whom readers can identify. They provide a space for critical conversations and for the creation of new knowledge.
Title: Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum
Author and Illustrator: Robert A. Parker
Publisher: Dragonfly Books
Date Published: January 26, 2016