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May 13, 2010

Security Blanket: Charlie Parker Played Be Bop

I have to admit it: I’m favoring my eldest. At least, in terms of writing about (and, OK, thinking about) his books and DVDs and such. While five-year-old Dash’s horizons are expanding and exploding, 21-month-old Griffin is still in the board-book phase. Worse still, Griff also suffers from the usual second-child “been there, done that” syndrome: Most of his current books are hand-me downs from Dash. Let’s just say I’m having a tough time summoning the proper tone of wonder for “Goodnight nobody” these days.

Happily, there are exceptions. Most are long-established classics that just never get old, the Sendaks and such. But we’re fortunate that Griff’s absolute favorite book, the one he asks for every single night, happens to...well, also never get old: the board-book version of Chris Raschka’s Charlie Parker Played Be Bop.

We first discovered the wonders of this book (originally written in 1992) when Dash was about this age, and a quick troll of the Internet shows we were by no means alone. It’s wonderfully nonlinear, managing to capture the feel of jazz in its illustrations and the pacing of its minimal text. Raschka plays off real words and context-less phrases against scat sounds in a fashion that wouldn’t feel out of place in actual jazz vocals, and the effect is marvelous: “Be-bop/Fisk, fisk/Lollipop/Boomba, boomba/Bus stop/Znnn Znnn/Boppity, bippity, bop. Bang!” (All right, I suppose it’s a little more marvelous next to Raschka’s suitably fuzzy drawings.)

Charlie Parker Played Be Bop essentially forces parents to perform it—the book doesn’t work nearly as well when read “straight.” I’m among those awkward souls for whom even this minimal level of performance doesn’t come naturally, and I often find myself resenting children’s books that require it. But Raschka makes it all so organic that I never resisted; in short order, Whitney and I had created our own sung version of the book, one that’s survived through all our readings with Dash into Griff’s current obsession with it.

This is another of the book’s charms: As with so many children’s classics (the wordless “wild rumpus” pages of Where the Wild Things Are come to mind), every family can have its own unique interpretation. Ours begins with a little hi-hat riff, which Griff (who still has only a few real words at this point) now uses to indicate he wants us to read this book. And I’m sure it’s largely because he’s my toddler, but there’s something especially radiant about a beaming toddler doing a hi-hat riff: “Tssss ts-ts tssss ts-ts tssss...

I’m sometimes surprised even now that we never tire of Charlie Parker, given how relentlessly Griff requires us to read it (and how relentlessly Dash did for years before him). It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. But I think it’s that Raschka didn’t write a children’s book about Charlie Parker; he wrote a jazz book for kids, a fact as remarkable as it sounds. It’s a delight to read, and by all appearances a delight to listen to.

[Photo: Courtesy of Orchard Books.]

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