The Young Art Tatum
by Robert Andrew Parker
Schwartz & Wade / Random House 2008
This year's winner of the American Library Association's Schneider Family Book Award is a picture book biography of legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum' early days. It follows Tatum as a young prodigy who can barely reach the keys of the family piano up to his days as a young man when he starts to make a name for himself and move out into the world on his own. Rendered in Parker's loose watercolor illustrations, the book has the cozy feel of American nostalgia, the warm fuzzies of a bygone childhood era free of strife and fear.
That isn't entirely a sarcastic summary, but there are may things about this book that stick in my craw the wrong way.
Let's talk about first-person for a moment. The book opens with Tatum introducing us to the house he was born in, to his father the mechanic and his mother the church singer, and the room where the piano is located. In these first four pages author Parker accompanies narrator Tatum's tour of his early days in simple language and images that are placed on the page like snapshots in a photo album. The initial feeling is that of sitting in the room looking at the images as Tatum stands over your shoulder explaining what you're looking at.
But then there's a shift, and a young Tatum is shown on tip-toe plunking away at that piano as he explains in the text how one day he just started playing. His mother enjoys his etudes than suggests he go outside and play while there's still light.
But because of my bad eyes, day and night, dark and light, don't really matter to me.
Because Tatum had cataracts in his eyes from an early age, was blind in one eye and could barely see out the other. That information isn't in the text, and coming five pages in on the picture book I'm suddenly struck with the question: How could Tatum be narrating what I'm looking at if he can't even see himself? If day and night mean nothing to him, how can this narrator explain that I'm looking at the house he was born in. And with a young Tatum's appearance in the illustrations we jump out of the detached viewpoint and into a more observational mode. It's an odd shift, and this change of perspective goes toward a lot of my confusion over this book.
Only in childen's books do we see stared reviews for biographies written in the first person; in the adult world we call his "historical fiction" no matter how well researched. To have Parker, speaking in Tatum's voice, describing to us what Tatum himself could not have seen calls to question a great deal of authenticity. We are being shown the world through Tatum's eyes, which is a pretty good feat for a nearly blind man.
Now I'm an adult (by age at least) and I can tell when to send up the flashing warning signs, but the young readers this book is aimed at aren't necessarily going to have the same abilities to question what they are being shown. They'll understand the difference between an illustration and an photo of a house, but not that the first-person voice is a construct of an author to tell a story. It may be accurate to a degree, but not factual in the sense we would normally expect from a biography.
I jump to the back of the book at this point, hoping to find that the author is quoting Tatum from his own autobiography. Nope. Parker lists over half a dozen titles, only one specifically about Tatum, and leaves us no clue as to whether or not he's paraphrasing other's research or rephrasing Tatum's own words for the audience. I'm on guard now.
Two pages later Tatum talks about a summer night being too hot to turn on the lights, about playing the piano while the neighborhood kids go around catching lightning bugs in bottles. For a kid who can barely see I find it curious that from his distanced perch inside the house, at night, he can see their jars grow lighter as they continue to catch the luminous insects. I've seen my share of lightning bugs, and I'm having a hard time believing a nearly blind boy can see the glow of these bugs growing from a distance.
I get what Parker is doing, He's showing us a slice of Tatum's early days, about how he was segregated from a normal childhood, listing the titles of songs he did (or might have) played on the piano during those years. But what does Tatum think about this, how does he feel? Does he wish he were out there running around, or has he found such a home and refuge in music that he no longer misses these magical moments. The image on the page isn't even of Tatum but of silhouettes black against the dark blue of night catching little flecks of gold. This is as it would look to normally sighted children, this magical nighttime scene, and the absence of Tatum from the illustration suggests his point of view. It becomes as deceptive as the authenticity of the narrative, it makes the cautious reader wary of every depiction. If nothing else the image and words convey an emotional weight that might not be accurate or honest. A reader could walk away from this book imagining Tatum happily playing the piano on a summer's eve, enjoying the magical glow of jars full of lightning bugs when the truth could be the exact opposite.
The story proceeds with some more troubling undertones that might escape a younger reader. Tatum's father and a friend take the boy to a nearby bar where he performs songs he has learned by ear. There are coins stuffed in the boy's pockets and late at night they have to sneak in so as not to wake Tatum's sleeping mother. Clearly what Tatum's father is doing wouldn't meet with his mother's approval, and in fact might be more exploitative that the text lets on. Even if he didn't object -- and many young boys might have found it exciting to perform in bars for adults -- we still have no idea what Tatum thinks about any of this. Did he resent these clandestine performances, did he suspect his father taking a cut of the money, would his mother have put a stop to it if she found out? It was as if Parker, in showing us the world through Tatum's eyes, has extrapolated the boy's blindness to include his thoughts and feelings.
Another curious omission comes between Tatum's barroom days and his performance on local radio. During that time Tatum attended a school for the blind and was given structured musical training. As depicted in the book Parker would have the reader believe that Tatum merely progressed to larger and larger venues. Even if Tatum's developed his unique style on his own it is impossible to know how much of an influence this musical training had on him. Even if he rejected what he learned -- and that he learned it from another visually impaired black musician named Overton Rainey -- his style would be informed by what he learned or rejected.
Yes, a picture book is limited, and concessions need to be made, stories need to be condensed for the audience. But for a book set in the 1920's and 30's I would think that readers would be interested to know that there were schools for the blind with instructors who were African American. And speaking of history, I think I'd like to know that this story took place in the Toledo of the 1920's and 30's; without and real points of reference this story could have been set in the rural parts of the South during the 1960's. Both eras might seem long ago and far away to today's readers, but there's a world of difference between the two and there's no reason for the reader to be kept in the dark.
The American Library Association says "The Schneider Family Book Awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences." I'm left wondering if the "artistic expression" of Tatum's experience, as depicted by Parker, trumps the authentic emotional aspects of the subject's life. I question whether young Art Tatum's life as warm and, as depicted by Parker, innocently carefree, and if that's really an honest expression of the disability experience.