“I loved this book when I was a kid!” I plucked The Philharmonic Gets Dressed — one of my favorite music books for kids — from my friend’s shelf and flipped through its colorful pages.
My friend agreed. We’d met at a music conservatory when we were both violin performance majors. We looked through the book together, reminiscing about how we used to read it over and over when we were just beginning to dream about being musicians one day. Although my friend is currently an active performing violinist and I am not, both of us recognize the power music had on our work ethics and our creative, emotional, and intellectual lives.
In fact, research from the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation confirms the conventional wisdom that learning music benefits children educationally, cognitively, and socially. Some of the skills kids may pick up from their experiences with music include pre-reading abilities in toddlers, gains in auditory and motor function, critical thinking, compromise, creativity, cooperation, and concentration.
So, how can adults get the children they love interested in music as early as possible? One great way is by using music books written just for kids. In addition to doing a little of my own research, I talked to four musicians who are also parents to get their recommendations and experiences as well. Many of the books listed below are available in audio versions, produced specifically to enhance the story and experience.
Music Books for Kids: Fiction
Every Little Thing by Bob Marley, Cedella Marley, and Vanessa Brantley-Newton
This book brings to life Bob Marley’s song “Three Little Birds,” through the story of a boy who won’t let anything get him down. The tale of the boy’s day is told through a combination of Marley’s original lyrics and new verses written by his daughter, Cedella Marley.
Hana Hashimoto, Sixth Violin by Chieri Uegaki and Qin Leng
Hana Hashimoto is just a beginner when she signs up to play violin at her school’s talent show. Despite her brothers’ insistence that she’s not good enough, Hana is determined to put on her best performance. Taking inspiration from the memory of her violinist grandfather, she practices every day. When it’s time to get on stage, Hana almost gives in to her self-doubt, but ends up surprising everyone — even herself.
Mole Music by David McPhail
Recommended to me by Talyn Wong, a middle school choir teacher in Sacramento, California, Mole Music is the tale of Mole, who lives by himself in his underground home. When he first hears someone playing a violin, Mole discovers what he’s been missing in his life: music. While Mole learns how to play violin in the privacy of his own home, he imagines that one day, his music might reach and change the world — not realizing that it already has.
Wong told me she shared this story with her middle schoolers during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. While the students were skeptical about reading a children’s book, they ended up enjoying the story and appreciating the message that what you do in insolation can still have far-reaching positive effects on others.
The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin and Marc Simont
Not only is this book beloved by my friend and me, but it was also recommended to me by Eugenia Choi, mother and professional concert violinist based in New York and Paris. Readers of this story will get a behind-the-scenes perspective on how symphony orchestra professionals prepare for a performance — from getting ready by themselves at home to taking their positions together on the stage.
On the surface, it might seem like a very specific book about a particular industry, but Choi told me how much she appreciates the “wonderful metaphor for society: 101 individual musicians coming together to play as one harmonious ensemble.”
Music Books for Kids: Nonfiction
The Barefoot Book of Stories from the Opera by Shahrukh Husain and James Mayhew
Through lively dialogue and colorful illustrations, seven opera plots are retold in a way that’s engaging and accessible for young readers. Each story is preceded by an introduction that explains the origins of the story and some interesting facts about the composer. The collection includes retellings of Britten’s “The Little Sweep,” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and ” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Christmas Eve.”
An audio version is also available.
Benny Goodman & Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage As the First Black-and-White Jazz Band in History by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome
When a love for music brought Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman together, they not only broke color barriers, but also helped define the jazz style known as swing. The story of these two musical prodigies from very different backgrounds leaps off the page through vivid illustrations and distinctively lyrical prose.
An audio version is also available.
Respect: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford and Frank Morrison
Winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustration Award, this picture book captures the life of Aretha Franklin. Readers follow Franklin from her days as a child with a three-octave range who could play piano by ear through her storied career as a multiple Grammy-winning singer who also used her voice to speak out against injustice.
Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews and Bryan Collier
In his picture book memoir, Grammy-nominated musician Troy Andrews shares a story that begins in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans, where a boy played a trombone twice as big as he was. Although Andrews didn’t always have the money to buy an instrument, his dreams and his passion proved to be more than enough to lead him to his life as a professional musician who tours the world with his band, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue.
An audio version is also available.
The History of Rock: for Big Fans and Little Punks by Rita Nabais and Joana Raimundo
From Chuck Berry and The Beatles to Joan Jett and The Clash, this comprehensive history of popular music features industry trailblazers of the past 70 years. Colorful illustrations bring the stories of these iconic artists and bands to life in a style designed to appeal to and inspire young readers.
Music Books for Kids: Interactive Experiences
My First Music Book: Piano by IglooBooks
Recommended to me by Helen Chang, mother, violinist, and school orchestra director in Dallas, Texas, this book, for children up to 5 years old, comes with a keyboard and button that plays classic children’s tunes. Kids can sing and play along to “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Old MacDonald,” “Wheels on the Bus,” and more.
Chang told me this book and keyboard were beloved by her son from before he turned 1 year old. Chang explains that the keyboard is color-coded to match the notes on the staff, which her son picked up quickly, allowing him to immediately begin playing along with the songs.
Jack and the Beanstalk by Parragon Books
Also recommended by Chang, this interactive fairy tale includes ten buttons with sounds that correspond to the story. The sounds help bring the story to life while supporting matching and fine motor skills in young children.
Chang described it as “a mix of music and various sound effects that emphasize and support the context of the story.” She told me it held her son’s attention for long periods of time and helped him better understand storylines.
Music Theory Made Easy for Kids, Level One by Lina Ng
Music theory, the foundation of all styles of music, is introduced and made accessible in this interactive workbook designed to make learning fun. Repetition helps kids understand and grasp each concept while colorful illustrations and stickers capture their attention and keep them engaged.
The following two books aren’t traditionally interactive music books for kids, but were enhanced with multimedia experiences by some of the musicians and parents I talked to:
What a Wonderful World by George David Weiss, Bob Thiele, and Ashley Bryan
The original lyrics of “What a Wonderful World,” one of the best-known songs performed by jazz legend Louis Armstrong, come to life in this children’s book. Eye-popping graphics by award-winning illustrator Ashley Bryan bring the song’s message to life by depicting a puppet show presented by a group of kids — as well as Armstrong himself.
Although this title doesn’t have an audio version, when Choi recommended this title to me, she emphasized how much she and daughter loved listening to Armstrong singing it as part of the experience. “We discovered this book when my daughter was 2 years old and it was read to her class at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Weebop program,” she told me.” Through this book, she learned about the great Louis Armstrong and had fun finding him in the illustrations.”
The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
In this time-tested children’s book, a caterpillar spends the week eating his way through various fruits and other treats. He eventually gets strong enough and big enough to build himself a cocoon, so he can emerge as a beautiful butterfly.
Jonathan Chan, a classical and jazz musician in Niskayuna, New York, told me he’s noticed that his 1-year-old son is drawn to any book with “a deliberate and lyrical quality to its text,” including The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Chan says his son is “absolutely transfixed when it’s accompanied with the narration and music provided in the Illuminated Films rendition of the story,” and he believes it’s the combination of music and text that motivates him to spend more time reading this particular book than any other. “My take,” Chan told me, “is that judicious use of multimedia can encourage kids to like books, too.”
Clearly, music books for kids are more than just words on a page. They’re multi-sensory experiences that inspire playing or singing along, taking in visuals, and, of course, listening. But most importantly, these books help kids discover the joy of music and the power it can bring to their lives.
Looking for more books about music? Book Riot has lots of recommendations, from murder mysteries that revolve around classical works to novels inspired by heavy metal.