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Sweethearts of Rhythm



Last updated Monday, March 5, 2012

Author: Marilyn Nelson
Illustrator: Jerry Pinkney
Date of Publication: 2009
ISBN: 0803731876
Grade Level: 5th    (GLCs: Click here for grade level guidelines.)
Date(s) Used: Mar. 2012

Synopsis: Nelson's syncopated poetry jives perfectly with Pinkney's layered watercolors in this look at the famous all-girl African-American swing band that toured the U.S., breaking attendance records, from 1937 to 1946. Nelson speaks in the voices of the band's instruments, reminiscing about their glory days from the shelves of a New Orleans pawnshop, recalling the excitement of the road and the difficulties of Jim Crow. Her poetry evokes the rich wail of swing music with varied meters, rhyme schemes, and free verse, calling up memories of the Dust Bowl, World War II, rationing, segregation, and music that momentarily lifted its listeners above hardship. Pinkney employs graphite, color pencil, watercolor, and collage in lusciously hued illustrations depicting night clubs, dancers, Victory Gardens, marching soldiers, and musicians in a vibrant volume that will be just as useful in high school history and English classrooms as for upper elementary general reading, not to mention music and art at any level. A chronology of the Sweethearts' history enhances the poetry.

Note to readers:
•  We don't usually read books to 5th graders with so many pictures – do a ‘picture walk’ with the kids, asking them what they think is happening in the pictures. Use the pictures to anchor the kids to the story and the poems.
There are very sophisticated themes in this book. After reading a poem discuss what they mean and how they relate to the pictures.

Discussion topics for before reading:
•  Pre-discussion. It’s important to set up this book -- look at the back of the book to see the Chronology of the band. Explain how unique and unusual it was to have a multi-racial band of just women.
Each poem is ‘written’ about an instrument (or in the instrument’s voice) and the woman in the band who played it.

Discussion topics for during/after reading:
•  How do poems tell a story with so few words?
•  When did World War II take place? 1939 - 1945
•  Why did people have to ration things? During the Second World War, you couldn't just walk into a shop and buy as much sugar or butter or meat as you wanted, nor could you fill up your car with gasoline whenever you liked. All these things were rationed, which meant you were only allowed to buy a small amount (even if you could afford more). The government introduced rationing because certain things were in short supply during the war, and rationing was the only way to make sure everyone got their fair share.
•  What was a Victory Garden? Vegetable, fruit and herb gardens planted at private residences and public parks during World War II to reduce the pressure on the public food supply.
•  What was the Dust Bowl? A period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to prairie lands from 1930 to 1936.

Craft ideas:
•  Write a poem. Try using a different voice – your pet, your favorite toy, etc.

*Note: These craft ideas are just suggestions. You can use them, but you don’t have to use them. You can expand upon them, or add your own twist. Remember, though, that the focus of your time should not be on the development and execution of a craft; the focus should be on the read-aloud and the enjoyment of the book!