Fuse #8

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Review of the Day: A Horn For Louis

Some people have been asking me to do a couple more reviews on titles for younger readers. So I was delighted when I came across this book. This year I'm on list committee that is forever in need of good 2006 books for early chapter readers. Imagine my heartbreak then when I discovered that "A Horn For Louis" was published in December 2005. What on earth was the publisher thinking?

Children’s books that take place in New Orleans have started popping up like daisies in a field. Not too long ago I discovered “Maggie’s Amerikay” by Barbara Timberlake Russell which discusses the mixing of Irish and former slaves in The Big Easy. And now I’ve found Eric A. Kimmel’s, “A Horn For Louis” ... which discusses the mixing of former slaves and Jews in The Big Easy. Now I consider myself to be a number one fan of Kimmel’s remarkable picture book, “Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock”, so I was intrigued by this particular title. Kimmel has attempted to write an early chapter book on the slightly fictionalized youth of Louis Armstrong. Early chapter books, by the way, are rarities. Finding a well-written story that has simple words but STILL seems interesting... well that’s a toughie. Few writers are up to the challenge. A big round of applause then to Mr. Kimmel who not only brings us some great factual information but a story with a full helping of heart, guts, and sass. A rare and wonderful find.

It’s 1907 and young Louis Armstrong is off to work. He may only be a kid, but with his job at the Karnofsky junkyard, he’s bringing in a much-needed dollar a day for his mom and kid sister. It doesn’t hurt that the Karnofskys are wonderful people. They feed Louis delicious food like kasha and black bread and treat him like a member of the family. On this particular day, it’s the first night of Hanukkah. Louis doesn’t know much about the holiday, but he knows how to do his job on the junk cart. With a little dinky tin horn that he keeps in his pocket, his job is to toot loudly and let people know when the cart is around. Louis yearns to someday be a brilliant musician like his idol Joe Oliver, the man the people call King. Unfortunately, a clash with some local boys ends with Louis destroying his little tin horn. What he’d love would be to own a beautiful new horn, but he just doesn’t have the money. Fortunately for him, it’s Hanukkah and the Karnofskys are not going to rest until Louis Armstrong gets a horn of his own.

In his Author’s Note, Kimmel mentions that he personally went to New Orleans to do some research on this book. It seems to me that he must have written the story just before the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina. The book deftly captures street names, neighborhoods, and little details that most young reader titles would eschew in favor of plot. That’s what sets “A Horn For Louis” aside from the pack. Add in the multiple facts about Jewish immigrants to American and a full glossary of Yiddish terms AS WELL as a really remarkable Bibliography, and you have one of the finest titles for early chapter readers to hit the market in quite some time. That’s not even mentioning the black and white illustrations by James Bernardin either. Bernardin gives us a Louis Armstrong that feels and looks realistic. This kid has a spark of life to him. The pictures in this book are plentiful and just as adept at portraying a New Orleans mausoleum as they are showing Louis buttoning and unbuttoning his shoes.

So let’s do some recap here. You’ve got an award-winning author with a gift of the gab and an illustrator with some artistic chops to match. You have tons of factual information, great source notes, and a glossary of terms for spice. Top it all off by noticing that this is an early chapter book (one of the most neglected literary forms in children’s literature) and you’ve got yourself a fabulous, nay necessary, addition to your library. There is no excuse for not purchasing this book. It’s as good as it gets and then some.

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