I happened upon this Perfect Picture Book recently in my local library. Based on the cover and title, I thought it was solely about music. But it is so much more and is a story that will stay with me – I hope you agree.
Title: Imani’s Music
Written By: Sheron Williams
Illustrated By: Jude Daly
Publisher/date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster, 2002)
Suitable for Ages: 6-9
Themes/Topics: Slavery, origin myth, music, crickets, ancestors, storytelling
Opening: “Born during the planting season of eighteen nine and aught, my grandfather W.D. was a man of the ‘Used-to-Be’ who resided in the ‘Here-and-Now’ ‘cause time and living life had dragged him there. He was hailed in five counties as a storyteller that could wrestle a tale to the ground. He danced on the path ‘tween the ‘Used-to-Be,’ the ‘Here-and-Now,’ and the ‘What’s-Gon’-Come.’ Shoot, it was folks like him that fed the path and kept it alive.”
Brief Synopsis: The narrator’s grandfather relates the story of Imani, a grasshopper, and how Imani brought music to the world in Africa and across the oceans in a slave ship, to the slaves in America.
Links to Resources: Make music in traditional ways, either by whistling through blades of grass or flutes fashioned from reeds, or drumming on hollowed tree stumps or even pots and pans.
Make and play your own musical instruments.
Tell the story of a journey you or an ancestor has taken. Or ask older relatives about journeys they have taken.
PBS.org has a list of child-friendly books exploring slavery.
Why I Like this Book: This story-within-a-story weaves together two narratives: the experience of enslavement and the origin of music, both told by the narrator’s grandfather, W.D., a master storyteller.
Imani’s Music has a much higher word-count than the norm in picture books today, and the title character, Imani, isn’t even introduced until page 5. But I believe that the addition of a storyteller serves an important purpose: it helps distance the listener from what, arguably, is one of the most difficult topics to explain to young children, slavery. Weaving the story of Imani, a music-loving grasshopper who accompanies his enslaved friend to the new world, into the narrative allows the listener to focus on the beautiful music from Africa that survives and evolves in the new world, bringing hope, solace and a glimmer of goodness into that world.
I’d only recommend this book for older children, despite the distance Sheron Williams builds into the story. Imani, like his friend and fellow captives, is torn from his beloved Africa and family. He bewails the helplessness he feels, unable to provide food or water to so many or even let the folks back home know where their loved ones disappeared. The images of hopeless captives is heart-wrenching, with only a cricket’s sad tunes to console them.
The voices of the young narrator, Grandfather W.D., and the other characters come through so clearly in Imani’s Music. Descriptions such as W.D. “could step over the river of time like it was a rain-puddle pond”, or a “wallop of tune fell on Imani, and the world soaked up the rest like a sponge” drew me into the narrative, as did South African artist Jude Daly’s illustrations. I really felt like I entered another time and place – the “Used-to-Be”.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!