“When I was a kid, I loved music but hated to practice,” says Arlene Alda, who ultimately abandoned the piano, but went on to play clarinet in the Houston Symphony. Her latest picture book, Lulu’s Piano Lesson (Tundra, Aug.), introduces a girl who would rather listen to the squeak of a swing or the ring of her bike bell than the sound of the piano at practice time. Luckily, Lulu has a wise piano teacher who knows how to inspire his reluctant student.
“When I got older and playing an instrument was my own choice, I loved playing the clarinet and took off with it—and I had some very creative teachers,” says the author. “I drew from all of my past experiences with music to create this book. I want to spread the word that a child will naturally not want to practice, but there are ways of hooking kids on music without making them feel guilty for not practicing. It’s important to tap into the love of music that’s inside kids.”
An accomplished photographer before she became a children’s author, Alda has illustrated many of her books with her photos. She realized from the start that the theme of Lulu’s Piano Lesson didn’t lend itself to photographic treatment. “I’ve written 14 books, but have never done one on music, a subject I know and love well, because the subject is so difficult to illustrate—with photos or art,” she reflects. “This story deals with sounds and you can’t photograph sounds—but it’s also a challenge to illustrate them. I think Lisa Desimini did an amazing job of making clear what sounds might look like.”
Alda’s experience at a show of her photographs some 20 years ago led to her children’s book career. “This particular show included a lot of candid shots of animals, and, in terms of sales, I realized that people were buying them for their children’s bedrooms,” she recalls. “I saw a connection I hadn’t seen before, and I spread the photos out and said to myself, ‘There’s a story here.’ ” That story became Sheep Sheep, Sheep, Help Me Fall Asleep, Alda’s first children’s book, published by Doubleday in 1992.
Though she has attended past BEAs in L.A. and Chicago, New Yorker Alda notes she’s “happy to be able to just hop in a cab” to get to this year’s show. “With the isolation of writing and photographing, I love this exposure to other people in publishing and meeting my potential audience.”