Review: When the Beat Was Born

“Kool Herc’s music made everybody happy. Even street gangs wanted to dance, not fight.” p. 19

When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip-Hop by Laban Carrick Hill, Illustrated by Theodore Taylor III.
Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2013.
Elementary to middle grade picture book biography, 30 pages.
Winner of the 2014 John Steptoe Award for New Talent
Lexile:  AD910L  (What does AD mean in Lexile?)
AR Level:  4.2 (worth 0.5 points)

Have you ever heard of DJ Kool Herc?  He was a Jamaican immigrant who was instrumental in the development of hip-hop.  Step into his world and learn how hip-hop came to be with this picture book biography.

When the Beat was Born cover 2

While I’m sure an avid fan of hip-hop would get more out of this book, I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible it was to myself as a not-so-musical person.  Context is given to everything that makes it understandable, and the pictures and words work in beautiful harmony.

I’ve already reviewed another book featuring this illustrator, so as you probably could guess, I was quite pleased with Taylor’s illustrations.  They were somewhat different from the other book but similar in style.  These have a texture to them from what looks like paper, but the drawings I think were digitally layered over the paper, as pages repeat with the same texture.  The drawings in this book also have a bit more whimsy – while overall the effect is realistic, there are some pages such as the one depicting people dancing on top of piles of records.

[I took some photographs for this review, but you can find much better ones at the publisher’s website.]

My absolute favorite pages in this book are the ones with a variety of hip hop dance moves portrayed as the performer swirls.  This was so educational to me and so vibrant and attractive for the children.

When the Beat was Born p20-21 cropped resized
When the Beat was Born p. 20-21

At first, I didn’t feel that this book would make a great read-aloud for large groups at school, because some of the pages have as many as two paragraphs.  However, I gave it a try and the words flow so nicely, this is actually a great read-aloud.  There are a lot of cyclical elements that weren’t obvious to me until reading it aloud, like the repetition of “everybody who was anybody”.  I wouldn’t use it with the preschool or kindergarten students, but it’s nice for the second and third graders to listen to in between chapter books.  I think some other grades might like it too, depending on the group.  Many older children up to middle school enjoyed it for independent reading as well.

Sometimes librarians have to make tough choices.  This is a picture book biography, but the beautifully flowing words are a little difficult for picture book readers (jiving trumpet, sorrowful twang) and almost every page has a paragraph of text (one has two).  At my school, students begin using the middle grade nonfiction around the end of third or beginning of fourth grade, although there are always some outliers who start early or late.

This book could go either way.  It is definitely a picture book, not a chapter book, but more challenging to read than the typical picture book.  The deciding factor for me was that at my school, the kids who like hip-hop tend to be older.

However, for those parents and teachers who worry about content, this book is definitely appropriate for the youngest children.  Savvy kids and adults will be able to read between the lines to see the gang violence and desperate poverty that permeates the background, but the focus in on Herc’s music, not his economic situation or dangerous neighborhood.

Clearly a lot of thought and detail went into this book.  All of the shout-outs and rhyming are done in a special all-caps font to distinguish them, which was very helpful.  There is a nice juxtaposition of clause-filled detail-rich sentences with simple declarative sentences.  “Little Clive really wanted to be a DJ” is not an arresting sentence, but the way it is set up in the book gives the reader pause, especially as it is followed with his unhappy move to America, and then several pages of him finding other interests before gradually returning to music.

When the Beat was Born p 4-5 cropped resized
When the Beat Was Born page 5

The author’s note reveals how he came across hip-hop and how viscerally it affected him as a young man.  Since this is the first book I’ve read by Hill, I was actually shocked to discover he was a white man when I looked him up for this review.

A little digging around his website tells more of the story.  Hill’s family was violently opposed to the civil rights movement, and his grandfather brutally murdered a young black boy before in turn mysteriously dying.  Hill, who is considerably more open-minded, consciously chooses to promote stories of lesser-known black figures because of this legacy.  He also has done considerable research on the murder committed by his grandfather and how it affected both the victim’s family and his own for many generations.

It’s funny how finding one illustrator you like can send you down a rabbit hole.  I purchased this book because I loved Taylor’s work on Little Shaq and wanted to see what he would do with a whole picture book.  Now, I’ll be purchasing several books by Hill (with various illustrators) because I loved his writing in this book.

The kids gave this an “I loved it” recommendation, and I heartily agree.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

8 thoughts on “Review: When the Beat Was Born”

    1. Picture books are definitely for older readers too, although some classes are more open to them than others. One middle school teacher I know reads a picture book to her class every week and they learn so much by analyzing even basic books. Radiant Child is on my TBR, I was so excited when it won the Caldecott!


  1. Thank you for your wonderful in-depth review – it sounds a really well thought through book on every level. Thnk you for sahring with #diversekidlit.

    Liked by 1 person

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