Book Review: Biographies of art and music

Both within the Charlotte Mason and the Montessori worlds, there is an emphasis on exposing children to beautiful things.  One large aspect of that is allowing them to experience the works of famous artists and musicians.

In our home, we focus on one musician and one artist each semester.  This semester, we chose Bach as our composer, simply because one of my friends was doing a Bach presentation at a local school at the very beginning of the semester.  She invited us to attend that presentation, where we were able to learn facts about his life and listen to some of his music.  She also sent us home with a CD of some of his pieces.  Drama Queen and Mr. BANG absolutely love listening to the CD during meals, and also prefer for me to have a picture of him for them to see as they listen.  (I just pull up a picture on my computer and set it where they can see.)

Our artist this month is Georgia O’Keefe simply because Montessori Print Shop had free O’Keefe nomenclature cards at the beginning of the semester, and I had previously purchased a calendar of her paintings which meant I had some of her artwork on hand. (January and February are perfect times to get discounted artist calendars.)  I let each child choose one painting from the calendar to display in each of their bedrooms, and put the others up in the playroom, their bathroom, and the hallway connecting their bedrooms.

   The nomenclature cards

I also definitely wanted to include some child-appropriate biographies to allow us into O’Keefe’s and Bach’s lives a little bit.  l had previously discovered a series of composer biographies that are wonderful.  My first experience with these books, by Anna Harwell Celenza, was a book about Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” my own favorite piece of music as a child.  The book tells the story of how that particular piece of music was written and then introduced to the public.  It came with a CD of that piece, so we could listen and pick out the aspects of the music that were described in the book.

This time, I knew to go to her for a book about Bach, and she didn’t fail me.  I purchased her book, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which tells the story of a young boy, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who played harpsichord for Bach’s friend, Count Keyserlingk.  The Count gave Goldberg a new musical challenge each week, and the boy worked hard to find or write an appropriate piece and practice it until he was ready to play it perfectly for the count.  One day, the Count asked for a piece that was “filled with dances and difficult runs.  It must also have canons and something quite new.  A surprise that will trick me – how about a riddle?”  In despair, Goldberg went to his teacher, Bach, who pulled out a piece he had already written, which fit the bill perfectly.  (Bach’s name for the piece was “A Keyboard Practice Consisting of an Aria with Thirty Variations for the Harpischord.”  You can see why the name “Goldberg Variations” is the one that stuck!)  The book also comes with a CD of the piece.


Celenza herself is a music professor at Georgetown University.  She has written 6 children’s books (the most recent was released this year, so hopefully she’ll write more!), telling the stories of pieces by Duke Ellington, Beethoven, Mussorgsky, and Haydn, in addition to Bach and Gershwin.

The other fabulous series that I’ve discovered is both written and illustrated by Mike Venezia.  My children absolutely LOVE his books, because in addition to pulling together an interesting short biography of the person, he includes funny cartoons throughout the books.  We have the ones for Bach and O’Keefe, but he has written nearly 50 biographies of artists, 14 biographies of composers, 43 biographies of U.S. Presidents, and 16 biographies of inventors and scientists.

Johann Sebastian Bach includes portraits of Bach, some of his family members (including one of him playing harpsichord with many of his numerous children around him), and places he lived.  Venezia tells about Bach’s musical family (more than 70 of his relatives were professional musicians), his early experiences (he got a good job as a violist in a royal court, but also had to remove slop from the kitchen every morning), and several of the different jobs Bach had during his lifetime.


Georgia O’Keefe includes pictures of many of her paintings, as well as a couple of photos of O’Keefe herself.  Venezia describes what types of paintings O’Keefe liked to make and what inspired her.  He tells about the different places she lived, and how each impacted her artwork.  He also walks through the development of her relationship of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whom she eventually married.  And, of course, it has plenty of silly cartoons!


If you know of other great biographies for children, please share!

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Biographies of art and music

  1. Jenny, thanks for inspiring me to get moving with artist and composer study again. It’s one of those things I’ve had to lay aside during our move, but I’d love to get rolling again. I have also enjoyed the Venezia books and wanted to pass along a couple of other recommendations. We enjoyed Beethoven Lives Upstairs by Barbara Nichol (I’ve heard the audio is even better). A little boy and his mother rent out their upstairs room to Beethoven. There is also another in that series whose name escapes me, but is about Vivaldi in Venice (we enjoyed the audio because it has snatches of Vivaldi’s music). Another picture book the kids loved was Linnea in Monet’s Garden by Bjork and Anderson, in which a little girl and her grandfather visit Monet’s home and garden. The artwork was very well done and the book provided a good context of her visit to Paris. My kids have been fascinated by baguettes ever since we read it. I believe that there are other titles in that series as well.

  2. These sound really interesting. We will head to the library tomorrow as we do each Tuesday, so I will have to look for one. Just not sure where to start! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I did not find the ones you had suggested, however, I had both kids and was limited in time to look. I did find a good book that introduces kids to the musical instruments: “Zin! Zin! Zin! a Violin” by Lloyd Moss. Also, I found a book/audio cd combination for Sergei Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”. I has a fully orchestrated and narrated CD. Wesley enjoys listening to the story and music and picking out which instrument is which character. These two books are going together nicely to introduce the different musical instruments and their sound. When I go home for Christmas, I think I will dig out my clarinet and bring it back.

  4. Pingback: Partying Mozart-Style | Our Montessori Home

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