Written and illustrated by Tom Leonard
Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2017
Grades K and up
“New sounds, happy sounds, quiet sounds, yellow sounds, red sounds, blue sounds. All the sounds in my head.” In Becoming Bach, a picture book biography written and illustrated by Tom Leonard, the early life of legendary musical composer Johann Sebastian Bach takes center stage. Surrounded by music from the very start, young Johann’s imagined first-person narration notes his long family lineage of musicians, as well as the origin of his name: “In our part of Germany, musicians were called bachs.” As readers, we learn that Johann played a variety of instruments, loved copying music by hand, and when tragedy struck, used music “to say things [when] words weren’t enough.” Johann notices not just the musical patterns on the page, but the ways patterns filled his head and surrounded him in life: “Patterns like the designs on my mother’s dress. Patterns like the ripples on the surface of the river.” Needing to create his own patterns and fascinated by the way different patterns created different sounds, Johann began scoring his own music. Leonard’s straightforward language and simple sentence structures make this an accessible text for young readers, while his vibrant and detailed illustrations reflect the Baroque sensibilities of Bach’s work and time period. A brief author’s note and some additional resources are included in the back matter. Becoming Bach is a fine addition to classroom libraries for young readers and musicians.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
- Musical Composers. Use Becoming Bach as one of a number of materials to introduce students to musical composition and composers. Other titles you might share include The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue; Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist; Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George; and Play, Mozart, Play! Play numerous samples of each composer’s work so that students learn to identify the unique styles and sounds of each composer. How is each different and similar to the others? How might they be inspired by, build upon, or challenge the others? Collaborate with your school’s music teacher to create engaging activities that further teach students about musical composers.
- Introduction to Bach and Baroque Music. Use Becoming Bach as an introduction to the famous composer and the Baroque era of music and other arts. Supplement this book with other texts and articles about Bach, as well as other Baroque composers, such as George Frederic Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, and Johann Pachelbel (some titles are listed below in Further Explorations). Play their music for students to compare, contrast, and appreciate. Each Friday, the Netherlands Bach Society performs a new recording of one of Bach’s work and makes it available at the All of Bach website (http://allofbach.com/en/). How does each composer convey the characteristic focus on ornamentation and harmony conveyed through their music?
- Composing Music. Music is composed by arranging a variety of patterns of notes and rests. With the help of your school’s music teacher, have students try their hand at composing and scoring music. Some knowledge of musical symbols and notes is needed, but otherwise, students can be encouraged to experiment and create their own compositions. You might have students do this on real musical instruments, such as a keyboard, and then either show them how to translate the music into sheet music or do the musical notation yourself with the help of your school’s music teacher or advanced music students. Or you might have students compose music online, using websites such as those listed below in Further Explorations. Play all of the compositions in a concert for your class, their families, and/or the school.
- Musical Patterns. Teach students some fundamental symbols and patterns in music. You needn’t worry about the particular notes unless you feel your class is capable and ready to learn them. For younger students, recognizing the difference between whole notes and quarter notes may be enough. Share some excerpts of famous musical patterns (e.g., “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Jingle Bells”), showing how they look on the page as well as playing them for students to hear. Challenge students to identify and challenge some of these patterns either visually on sheet music or aurally when listening to music.
- “Patterns Everywhere I Looked.” Young Bach saw patterns everywhere around him. Brainstorm with your class the kinds of patterns that exist in our world. Provide students with iPads, old smart phones, or other photography equipment, and take them on a walk around the school or local community to photograph the many kinds of patterns around them. Print out or project the various photos taken to discuss the patterns students found.
- Patterns, Math, and Music. Though not often brought together in traditional academic curricula, patterning in math and music share an inextricable relationship. In collaboration with your school’s music teacher, use music to help teach math skills, and vice versa. Some lesson plans and websites to help with this are listed in Further Explorations below.
- Becoming Bach Illustrations and Baroque Art. Share samples of Baroque art and architecture with students (some museum websites are listed below), and have them analyze and compare it with Baroque music. What are the attributes of the Baroque period that are highlighted in each? How are they similar and different in art and music? Then, have students closely analyze Tom Leonard’s illustrations in Becoming Bach, discussing how they reflect not just the book’s narration, but also the Baroque artistic period in which Johann Sebastian Bach lived and composed.
- First Person Biography Narration. Use Becoming Bach as a mentor text for writing biographies in the first person. Have students closely read the text again, paying attention to the writing craft moves that Tom Leonard uses to realistically write as though he were young Johann. Pay attention to traits such as voice, word choice, and sentence fluency in addition to the content. Have students then try their hand at writing a brief biography about a person in the first person, using some of the same craft moves they observed and analyzed in Becoming Bach. Some other biographies written in the first person that can serve as additional mentor texts include A Boy and a Jaguar and Brown Girl Dreaming.
- Female Composers. Although men dominate the history and fame of musical composition, that doesn’t mean they were the only musical geniuses. Share the biographies of several female composers, such as Maria Anna Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s phenomenally talented older sister; Fanny Mendelssohn, who had some of her songs published under her brother Felix’s name; and Clara Schumann, who also helped introduce the world to Johannes Brahms (some titles are listed below in Further Explorations). Guide students to do further research about these and other female composers throughout history. Have them present their findings in a multimedia presentation, including audio samples of the composers’ music they may be able to find.
Tom Leonard’s website
The American Bach Society
All of Bach
Baroque Art and Architecture
Compose Your Own Music
Math and Music Websites and Lesson Plans
Brewster, H. (2006). The other Mozart: The life of the famous Chevalier de Saint-George. Ill. by E. Velasquez. Harry N. Abrams.
Cline-Ransome, L. (2011). Before there was Mozart: The story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George. Ill. by J. E. Ransome. Schwartz & Wade.
Constanza, S. (2012). Vivaldi and the invisible orchestra. Henry Holt.
Reich, S. (1999). Clara Schumann: Piano virtuoso. Clarion Books.
Rusch, E. (2011). For the love of music: The remarkable story of Maria Anna Mozart. Ill. by L. Fancher. Tricycle Press.
Sis, P. (2006). Play, Mozart, play! Greenwillow.
Shefelman, J. J. (2008). I, Vivaldi. Ill. by T. Shefelman. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Slade, S. (2016). The music in George’s head: George Gershwin creates Rhapsody in Blue. Ill. by S. Innerst. Calkins Creek.
Stanley, D. (2009). Mozart: The wonder child: A puppet play in three acts. HarperCollins.
Venezia, M. (1995). George Handel. Children’s Press.
Venezia, M. (2017). Johann Sebastian Bach. Children’s Press.
Wood, S. (2016). Esquivel! Space-age sound artist. Ill. by D. Tonatiuh. Charlesbridge.
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
SLJ Blog Network