Review: The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra / Jubilee!

Two books, two very different celebrations of two very different men from Candlewick Press.  Or how very different were they?


Jubilee! features the subtitle One Man's Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace, and from that wordy subtitle you may not be surprised that the book focuses on a story from the last part of the nineteenth century, when florid descriptions ruled the day.  Author Alicia Potter recounts the story of Irish-born bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, creator of the National Peace Jubilee in 1869, which he conceived of to celebrate the return of peace at the end of the Civil War.

I was completely unaware of Gilmore and his Jubilee, and so I found that Potter does a good job of maintaining narrative tension in the story.  If you, too, are unfamiliar, after reading the story you might wonder why, as it involved the construction of a building (the Temple of Peace) which stood 500 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 100 feet tall at its highest point.  Or you might be amazed that a concert featuring a thousand musicians (including a hundred firemen hammering time on anvils) and ten thousand singers has faded from historical view.  Potter's text is accompanied by clear, detailed illustrations from Matt Tavares, who nicely captures both the small-scale scenes (Gilmore, awake at night from worry about whether the concert will come off) and the very large-scale scenes.

Jubilee! will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9 (the text itself is probably more for kids in 2nd grade on up, but the pictures make it appropriate for reading to those younger than that).  While the Jubilee itself was a celebration of peace, this book is a celebration of grand plans and the ability of music to capture the imaginations of tens of thousands of people.


America has long been a nation of immigrants who've fully embraced, and been embraced by, their new country -- see Gilmore, above -- but does that apply to those who visit from other planets?  Two-time Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka's new book The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra captures in impressionistic illustrations the life of Herman P. "Sunny" Blount.  If you know Blount, you probably know him as Sun Ra, the musician and poet (among other things) who claimed that he was from Saturn.

As Raschka writes in the start of the book, "No one comes from Saturn.  And yet.  If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much."  The story Raschka tells is of a person who fully embraced life and the many opportunities in America.  He played piano, leading his own ensemble before leaving high school, and was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards.  His band, the Arkestra, made its own clothes.

If it seems like Ra was a little out of the mainstream, you'd be right, and Rashka's text celebrates that "follow your own drummer" path without glossing over the difficulties (one of my favorite lines in the book: "One disadvantage of coming from Saturn, though, was that Sun Ra could never really understand or care too much about money.  The New York landlords, on the other hand, did, and kicked the Arkestra out…").  Raschka's watercolor and ink illustrations contain riots of color and feel true to life even if they aren't completely faithful to "real life."  This artistic choice is perfect for Sun Ra, known for his eclectic jazz compositions.

The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra will appeal most to readers ages 6 through 10.  It's not a huge book, dimensions-wise, and the swirls of color rather than precise drawings may make this book better enjoyed side-by-side than shared with a classroom of kids for optimal appreciation.

Both these books celebrate musical heroes whose names will be unfamiliar to kids and probably their parents.  In their own distinct ways, they honor the memories of these two visionaries.  Recommended.

Note: I received copies of both books for possible review.