“5 Questions with Susan Wood, Author of Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist,” interview by veteran kidlit author James Preller

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[* Starred review *] Much as Juan García Esquivel (1918–2002) made a great contribution to music history, this title is an important addition to music biography collections. Beginning with Tampico, Mexico, the text and illustrations work together to showcase how a world filled with sound influenced and inspired a young Esquivel and continued to do so throughout his life. Esquivel is shown listening to “whirling” mariachi bands, modifying a player piano to suit his own compositions, experimenting with unusual instruments like the theremin, and conducting musicians in unique and unprecedented ways. The text explores how Esquivel’s love of sound led to new ways of making music, most notably in his pioneering of stereo sound and lounge music. Tonatiuh’s illustrations are lively and colorful—a perfect match for Esquivel’s personality and work. Occasional blocks of text make this title best suited for upper elementary students. Back matter includes an author’s note expanding on Esquivel’s influence and an illustrator’s note on how the art was created. VERDICT: A beautiful addition to music biography collections for upper elementary students.—School Library Journal

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[Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book] Duncan Tonatiuh creates a sense of sound and movement through energetic, textured collage illustrations that celebrate the life of innovative Mexican musician and composer Juan García Esquivel. Incorporating funky fonts and far-out fashions, Tonatiuh’s unique artistic style harkens back to indigenous codex art and lends cultural authenticity to this pulsating picture-book biography.—Pura Belpré Award

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This book features musician, composer, and bandleader Juan García Esquivel (1918–2002), who removed the paper roll in his family’s player piano when he was a child so that he could make his own music. At 14, he worked as a paid pianist for radio shows, and at 17, he was an orchestra leader in Mexico City. Later, he created music from his New York City studio, experimenting with tempos, dynamics, and chords. Tonatiuh’s distinctive drawings, with collage textures and photographic elements, aptly capture Esquivel’s jazzy style, as do an appended author’s note, resource listing, and photograph. —School Library Journal’s Top Ten Latinx Books

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Juan Esquivel experiments with musical instruments to discover new sounds and invent a new style. Mixed media illustrations reflect a collage of noises. —Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year

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"The work of innovative composer Juan Garcia Esquivel is uniquely portrayed in this picture book biography by Susan Wood. Brian Amador’s narration, combined with tracks of space aged music and sound effects, presents a carefully orchestrated experience, with each element of the illustrations perfectly represented in stereo sound.” —ALA Odyssey Honor Audiobook Award

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Juan Garcia Esquivel created out-of-this-world sounds, and Wood (formerly VanHecke) and Tonatiuh capture the fascinating story of Esquivel's musical talent in this picture-book biography. Esquivel was a young boy in Tampico, Mexico, when he discovered his love for music. He taught himself to play the piano, and before he knew it he was conducting orchestras and composing music. Esquivel is revered for his innovative sounds that were said to transport listeners to other worlds. His music was so popular that his fans donned him Esquivel!—with an exclamation point! Wood's story provides insight to the making of a magnificent musician and incorporates enough sound effects (wheedy-whee!, blap!, bowm-bowm!) to make Esquivel proud. Energetic collage illustrations complement the text by allowing readers to see Esquivel's sounds and his love for music. Sibert Award winner Tonatiuh (Funny Bones, 2015) draws in his well-known style inspired by the Mixtec codex, where characters are represented in profile. Back matter includes an author's note with supplementary information on Esquivel's life, an illustrator's note on the artwork, and additional resources.—Booklist

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A kid’s got to be careful in admitting a taste for grandparents’ music. Mick Jagger is acceptable, and Aretha Franklin’s not too embarrassing—and as Wood and Tonatiuh demonstrate in this picture-book biography, being part of Juan Garcia Esquivel fandom could be insanely cool. An autodidact at the piano, Esquivel had landed a modest piano gig on a Mexico City radio station by age fourteen and led a radio orchestra by age seventeen. With a keen ear attuned to urban soundscapes, he played fast and loose with popular Mexican tunes, lacing them with a kind of instrumental take on vocal scat that made him a recording star in both Mexico and the United States. Wood describes not only the quirkiness of his instrumentation but also how Esquivel arrived on the scene just in time to take advantage of new recording techniques and stereophonic sound separation, and how he was able to make a home in a range of sonic media, from Las Vegas stage shows, to television and movies, and of course, vinyl. That’s all well and good, but for kids who haven’t heard Esquivel, they’ll need more incentive, and Wood brings it. Her closing note focuses on the 1990s resurgence of interest in Esquivel’s recordings, which segues happily into the current rediscovery of the pleasures of vinyl. Tonatiuh reprises the Maya-influenced style audiences may recognize from Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras (BCCB 10/15), but he infuses its formality with some freewheeling text and swirling motif design suggestive of Sean Qualls. The [End Page 102] Resources page tosses in a couple of quotation credits and adult print references but concentrates on websites of Esquivel interviews and YouTube performances virtually guaranteed to secure the late orchestra leader a fresh following. Let the downloads begin.Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, University of Illinois

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Wood and Tonatiuh combine to tell the story of a musician and composer kids have likely never heard of.

At 6, Juan García Esquivel figured out how to disable the paper roll in his family’s player piano, leaving him free to experiment and learn how to play the instrument himself. This spirit of experimentation never left Juan, who went on to become a pioneer in a quirky, innovative style of lounge music popular in the 1950s and ’60s. Esquivel!, as he became known, combined Latin rhythms, jazz, human voices, and unusual instruments in order to create unique musical textures and effects. During his career, Juan became popular in both Mexico and the United States, and he wrote many songs for TV shows and movies. The narrative presents the biographical facts of Juan’s life in an engaging and accessible manner. Young readers who have never before heard of this musician may find their curiosity piqued. However, it is Tonatiuh’s illustrations that truly spark the imagination. Tonatiuh employs his signature style of Mixtec codex–influenced design, combines it with playful tributes to the fashion and style of the 1960s, sprinkles in text blocks of onomatopoeia that seem to vibrate on the page, and fills in the empty areas with a watery mix of purples and blues that perfectly complements the spacey style expressed in the music.

A lively introduction to a somewhat obscure and profoundly innovative musical figure. (author’s note, illustrator’s note, resources) (Picture book/biography. 6-9) —Kirkus

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Recommended for children ages 6–9, but it makes an informative and fun read aloud for younger kids too…. The illustrations are bright and cheerful—they really complement the story well as the characters are dressed in outfits from the 50’s and 60’s era.

I think the kids favorite thing about this book is repeating all the unique musical sounds like: “rah-rah-rah-ree”, “blop-bleep-bleep-blop” and “squiddle diddy squee”!… My favorite thing about this book was learning about someone completely new (and lesser known) from a diverse background.  We don’t see too many books about successful Mexicans so this was a real treat for me to read.

The back matter contains both an author’s and illustrator’s note as well as a list of additional resources. Highly recommended for music lovers as well as Mexican or Mexican-American children to allow them to see themselves represented in a book.  I think many little readers will be inspired by Esquivel! to follow their dreams just like he did. —Here Wee Read

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Esquivel! Space Age Sound Artist (Charlesbridge, 2016), written by Susan Wood and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh, captures the story of musician Juan Garcia Esquivel, bringing both his story and music to life on the page. This picture book not only expands a reader’s knowledge of the life and work of Esquivel, it also helps expand ideas of sound and musician are dependent on one another.

Throughout the book, the reader gets a comprehensive view of the life of Juan Garcia Esquivel, from a small boy in Mexico with a huge musical talent to a star musician composing, performing, and arranging music for concerts, recordings, and films. The scope of the book powerfully and artistically details Esquivel’s arc to success. The reader is able to understand Esquivel’s music in relation to the society and the cultural framework in which he lived as well as within the context of the contemporary music scene at the time. It is both important and relevant for the young reader to learn about the triumphs and the struggles this musician lived through. One of the greatest strengths in the book is explaining how Esquivel was largely self-taught, lacking a formal musical education. Despite this, Esquivel achieved his dreams. The book is a celebration of the man and his music.

Esquivel mixed a variety of sounds together like an artist mixes colors for his paintings – an entire palette of colorful sounds! Throughout the book, the reader sees examples of Esquivel’s sounds highlighted across the pages, adeptly explaining and showing his unique style including lounge music, stereo recording, and the mixing of traditional Mexican songs with jazz-like idioms, his orchestra, and with new or “exotic” sounds which all made up his instrumental, wordless musical compositions often called space-age sound.

Author Susan Wood’s voice is distinct, strong, and lyrical throughout the book, allowing the reader to fully connect with Esquivel as both a person and musician. The reader is able to imagine what the music sounds like as the biography unfolds because of the strong literary quality of the text. Sound and music equal life to Esquivel, and the book delivers this message solidly throughout, like a clear distinct trumpet blaring or the call of a saxophone melody heard in Esquivel’s music.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s stunning illustrations add so much to the text. His style is “inspired by the ancient Mexican art, the Mixtec codex of the 14th and 15th centuries,” as he states in his illustrator’s note, and just as Esquivel used traditional Mexican songs reworked into his own new style, so does Tonatiuh emulate this same concept in his illustration style, mixing the old with the new and thusly connecting young readers to the past through his one-of-a-kind art. 

Just how far can the power of his sound and music reach? All over the world! Everywhere! Through this book, the reader discovers the true power of music and how Esquivel took on the world with his new style. Space-age sound lives on…forever. Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist is a must-read.

PA-BA-BA-BA! Roo-Roo-Roo!

Loo-Loo-Loo! Rah-Rah-Rah-Ree!

Bravo, Esquivel!Nerdy Book Club

© Susan Wood 2024