It’s hard to say whether the Changeling was first more interested in music or in musical instruments. She loved songs, and she loved music. But she also loved watching her daddy play the violin. So, at one point I joked, “Would you like your own violin?” And she said, not joking at all, that she would. A few months later I mentioned a present, and she said, “Is it a violin?” And that’s when I realized she was absolutely, deadly serious: she wanted a violin, and, while she was willing to be patient, she wasn’t going to forget it. And so she has her very own little 1/16 violin now, just like Daddy’s, and I help her play hers while he plays his, and she’s as happy as can be. Just don’t let anyone else touch her violin, all right?
And so I realized at one point that we had a gap in our music book collection: we could talk about symphonies and orchestras, we had storybooks, but we didn’t have a nice simple book to methodically talk about her very favourite instrument: the violin. And that’s when I went to my favourite bookstore and asked for one, and they provided me with exactly what I needed, as they so often do: Violin: Making Music, by Kate Riggs.
A word about availability: this came out in 2014 and you should still find copies around (I did at my local children’s book shop!), but it looks like it’s already out of stock on Amazon and Powell’s, which is a crying shame. That said, look around and you’ll find it, no problem.
The lovely thing about this book is how straightforward it is. It’s not a frilly book; it’s just a straight introduction to the violin for small children. By straightforward I mean that it’s extremely logical: it goes from the broad to the specific. First we meet the string family, then the parts of a violin, including a separate page for strings and pegs. Later it talks about more particular topics: sizes of violins, playing the violin, early violins, what sort of music violins are used for (orchestral and chamber music), and an introduction to a violinist (Joshua Bell). It’s all useful, basic knowledge for a small child (my toddler daughter likes it, but it could be useful through early readers, too, I think).
That’s not to say there are no cute details: the words on each page are written on a music staff, making me think about how the words are just a stand in for music: music and words, how different are they, really? (Wait for the answer to that when we get to another book in this music series, A House Filled with Music.) It’s also filled with pictures. When reading it with the Changeling, it’s often hard to get passed the “String Family” page because she will stare at each picture memorizing which one’s a mandolin and which one’s a banjo, and asking about the lute. She loves to have her violin out at the same time so she can compare it with the pictures, learning about the different parts and how they work: where’s the bridge? Where are the pegs? Where’s the frog and the tip of the bow? She flips through and talks about how she has a little violin, but Daddy has a big violin, and he also has a very big violin called a viola. And then she’ll find a picture of the viola to show us.
In other words, this isn’t a narrative book at all, nor should it be. It’s a purely informational book, a kind of large encyclopedia entry, beautifully laid out, aimed at helping children understand their first instrument a little better. I won’t say we often read this book from cover to cover, although I do like the logical progression you get from doing so. More often, we put the book into the Changeling’s hands, and she leads us: first she’ll look at the “String Family” pages, and she’ll run through the names and ask about the instruments. Then we’ll look at how the violin is made and how it works for a little bit. We’ll talk about the sizes. And so on. We’ll absolutely refer to the text, which is nicely simple at directing how the conversation could go, but it’s not strictly necessary to follow it on each and every page. This is a beautifully malleable book: it provides topics, words, pictures, and ideas; the reader can mix and combine to suit the needs of the child audience.
So how does a typical reading go? It’s more of a conversation than a reading (which I suspect Kate Riggs would appreciate). The Changeling will ask for the book and ask for us to sit down to read it. I’ll open it up and start at the first page. She’ll flip to look at the “String Family,” and name the instruments, then select her favourites for a bit more chat: “Who plays the cello, Emeh?” “Your uncle does!” And so on. Then we’ll name everyone who plays the violin. We’ll flip to look at the page about the violin, and she’ll run to take out her own violin. We’ll talk about the different parts. When we get to the page about playing the violin, the Changeling will usually have a go at that herself (she likes to “play” Frère Jacques). If she decides to come back to the book and not just play with her violin, then she likes to hear about Joshua Bell and chamber music for a bit.
So, you see this isn’t at all how we normally read books; this one has a different mode all its own. We’re usually of the sit down, snuggle, and plow through a few stories type of family. Instead, this is what I guess we’d call an interactive read. It really gets her active and excited. And that’s what makes me love it: it’s a starting point, a jumping off into conversation and activity book. It’s not a book which wants to be used for its own sake– it wants to be useful to you, at your level. That’s a nice, companionable book if there ever was one. It’s straightforward, as I said: “Let me give you what you need, and you can find what’s useful to you here.”
I think, perhaps, it’s time for the Violin to come forward and take a bow. Thank you for your sterling service in educating my child as to who and what you are, where you came from, and how you’re useful to musicians. I appreciate that.