I love it when illustrator John Manders visits 7-Imp. Actually, “illustrator” isn’t technically correct anymore, as his latest release is his debut title as both author and illustrator. It’s called The Really Awful Musicians (Clarion) and was just released this month.
“Once upon a time, in a kingdom amazingly far away,” the book opens, “music sounded incredibly . . . well, bad. The king couldn’t even stand to listen to his own royal musicians. One at a time they weren’t so awful, but together they sounded horrible.” Reaching his limit, he throws them all out, orders some mimes, and declares that anyone caught playing music will be fed to the royal crocodiles. (”The king’s men-at-arms were everywhere, rounding up musicians. The royal crocodiles never had it better.”)
A young boy named Piffaro, nearly caught by the king’s men, escapes on Charlemagne, an old horse. He finds Espresso, the fastest musician in the kingdom. Espresso joins Piffaro in the escape, and they notice (barely) tiny Serena the Silent: Plinky-plinky plink-plinky-plink, she plays on her wee harp. “I hope I’m playing quietly enough.” She joins them, and they all ride on, playing as they go.
You get the picture. They eventually meet Fortissimo, who has just won the Loudest Musician in Boombardy Award (Boombardy is three days’ away if that tells you how loud dude is), as well as sad Lugubrio. After Charlemagne snaps (”You guys sound terrible! Why don’t you all play together?”), he decides to draw lines in the dirt, noting with hoofprints the low and high notes:
They looked at Charlemagne’s hoofprints and followed his stick. While they played, each musician listened to the others. When they all played together, the music sounded beautiful, for the first time ever.
Needless to say, the king is happy upon their return, though having to feed those royal crocodiles something, he decides they can eat the mimes, while the musicians play at the castle. First picture book instance of hinted mimeicide? You tell me. (Oh yes, it’s a word. Or at least slang.)
Mime-lovers everywhere can rest assured: “No mimes were harmed in the making of this book,” a disgruntled crocodile notes in tiny print on the book’s final page.
In an Author’s Note, Manders notes that “[s]ome things in this story are almost true,” explaining that when Emperor Charlemagne came to power in A.D. 800, each choir throughout the empire of western and central Europe sang music in different ways, such as the same words of one hymn but with varying tunes. After Charlemagne decided that consistency and one songbook would be good, his minister, Alcuin of York, devised musical notation. (Manders also notes that the story is partly inspired by this band.)
“This nifty riff,” Kirkus writes, “is greatly enhanced by Manders’ bright gouache-and–colored-pencil illustrations, which give each player a distinct personality, and onomatopoeic instrument sounds that literally filled the air. Undeniably a lesson, it is delivered with a sense of fun….” But of course! As I noted earlier this year, I love the brisk, riotous energy Manders brings to picture books. (Also, when he visited in 2009, he brought cigars. Bonus!)
So, you may wonder, how is it that John will satisfy my Inner Illustration Geek today? Look below. He sent thumbnails, tight sketches, work-in-progress photos, and the final painting for pages 16 and 17 of this picture book. “Piffaro and his friends,” John adds, “are shown here escaping the kingdom with some help from an old dray horse.”
You may click on each image to enlarge it and see in more detail.
THE REALLY AWFUL MUSICIANS. © 2011 by John Manders. Published by Clarion Books, New York, NY. Images reproduced by permission of John Manders.