Three on a Theme: Music

This past weekend, Jake and I went with his grandparents to western Massachusetts to see the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform at Tanglewood (featuring Yo-Yo Ma as a soloist). We had beautiful weather, I managed to avoid getting sunburnt (a true feat if you know me), and I got to experience my first professional orchestra concert (and only my second ever orchestra concert).

It’s safe to say that music is on my brain. So, I’m trying something new and am sharing book recommendations all centered around a theme. I’ll share three picturebook recommendations, three middle grade recommendations, and three YA recommendations! For the record – I have read some but not all of these books and am relying on the expertise of others in these recommendations.

Three on a Theme might stick around, so if you have suggestions for future themes, let me know in the comments or through my contact form!


Because – Mo Willems and Amber Ren

This picturebook is unlike any other Mo Willem’s picturebook (there is no pigeon begging to drive the bus here), perhaps because it’s not illustrated by WIllems himself. Rather, Willems weaves the tale of a symphony, music, discovery, passion, and chance. This book tracks the process of artistic inspiration so well, and is a true delight to read. This book is also Ren’s debut as a picturebook illustrator and it’s so delightful. She has since illustrated a few little golden books and has another full-length picturebook illustration project arriving later this year.

The Music in GEorge’s Head – Suzanne Slade and Stacy Innerst

This beautifully illustrated non-fiction picturebook is about George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, one of the composer’s most well-known works. I know of this piece because of my boyfriend, and picked up this picture book to share with him and we both enjoyed the way Innerst’s brushstrokes really felt like they captured the sense of movement found in music.

Trombone Shorty – Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier

There’s nothing like a good picture book biography, and this picturebook biography won Bryan Collier a Caldecott honor. Technically, written by Andrews, who goes by the nickname Trombone Shorty, this is a picturebook autobiography about how he fell in love with the trombone and achieved success. The brightly colored and expressive illustrations really add to this book and capture the power of Andrews’ story and the bold sound of the trombone.

Middle Grade

Genesis Begins Again – Alicia D. Williams

Genesis Begins Again was on the syllabus for my Young Adult Realism class this past spring, but at my library we shelve it in the tween room, so I’m choosing to include it in middle grade. Genesis deals with internalized racism, racism at school, and a verbally abusive family. When she starts at a new school, her choir teacher encourages her to sing and even try out for the talent show. Along the way, Genesis makes some friends and begins to stand up for herself more and more. Music falls a little more to the background in this book than in some of the others, but Genesis’s powerful story is a must-read.

The first Rule of Punk – Celia C. Pérez

Malú has a rough first day at her new school when she upsets a queen bee, breaks the school dress code, and disappoints her mom. Malú loves rock music and assembles a group of like-minded misfits at school to start a band that helps her feel at home. The First Rule of Punk was Perez’s debut novel, and received critical acclaim. While this is one of the books in my theme that I haven’t read yet, it’s definitely on my list!

Amina’s voice – Hena Kahn

Amina is a Pakistani-American Mulsim girl who wants to be able to share her vocal talent with others and is struggling to stay true to her family’s culture and customs. She wants to overcome her fear of singing in front of others, while also dealing with starting middle school. Amina’s voice considers friendship, family, growing up, and faith. This book is a valuable mirror for Pakistani-American readers and for others offers a window into a different culture and religion. You can follow up Amina’s Voice with the sequel, Amina’s Song.


Rise to the Sun – Leah Johnson

I really loved Johnson’s YA debut, You Should See Me in a Crown, which led me to pick up her sophomore novel, Rise to the Sun (which I conveniently finished just a few days before seeing the BSO). This novel takes place at a music festival and follows Toni and Olivia who are both at the festival for different reasons, but who both love music. I appreciated the way Johnson created a sense of atmosphere surrounding the festival and the fact that both of the leads were incredibly messy and complex characters. Come for the music, stay for the romance.

Audrey, wait! – RObin Benway

I read Audrey, Wait! in middle school and then again as a junior in college and honestly it held up pretty well. Audrey’s ex-boyfriend wrote a song about their breakup that became a surprise hit, and suddenly she’s receiving residual fame because of it. This book speaks to the late 2000s really well (it was published in 2008) and might also make you weirdly nostalgic for Hey There Delilah.

If I Ever Get Out of HEre – Eric Gansworth

Gansworth is a big fan of the Beatles, as revealed in his 2020 memoir in verse Apple, Skin to the Core. Gansworth’s 2013 YA debut, If I Ever Get Out of Here shares that love for the Beatles as Lewis “Shoe” Blake, who live son the Tuscarora Indian reservation in 1975 becomes froends with newly arrived George Haddonfield. This novel is about “friendship, memory, and the joy of rock’n’roll” according to the book description, and reviews confirm the power and importance of this book.

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