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Rap brings intelligence and wordplay to the table in this hip-hop-driven collection. Language never sounded so good.
Does anyone remember when mainstream media first discovered rap? Meaningless noise; obnoxious bass; misogynistic, homophobic lyrics—these were just a few descriptors hurled at “that vulgar noise.” But then my son started middle school and began bringing rap into our home. As I eavesdropped on what was leaking through his bedroom door, I was pleasantly surprised at what I heard: wit, humor, wordplay, rhymes and alliteration, literary and historical references, shout-outs to other artists, and sure, vulgarity—about as much as you’d expect in a typical Shakespeare comedy. Talk about using language creatively!
The connections to the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards are endless but especially strong when it comes to writing, speaking and listening, and using language effectively in a variety of contexts. These expectations are addressed at every grade level, in every curricular area, from kindergarten on up. Wouldn’t it be great if “flocabulary” eventually appears in future language arts expectations?
I must admit that when I first discovered the artistry of rap, back in the late 1990s, I had no idea how hip-hop fit in. The best definition I have found comes from Shaka Shaw’s Ebony online article, “The Difference between Rap & Hip-Hop” (2013): “One common understanding is that hip-hop is a culture and rapping is one of four elements contained therein—the others being break dancing, DJing and graffiti.”
This leads to inherent overlap in books about rap and hip-hop, and that will be noticeable in the following titles. These selections are sorted by background, artist, picture books, and fiction. All of these recognize rap as an important genre and celebrate its glorious, unrestrained use of language.
DJing. By John Steventon. 2009. Crabtree, $8.95 (9780778738404). Gr. 4–7.
Large text and bright, dominating photos inform readers that being a DJ is not just pressing play. The art began with Francis Grasso, a 1970s DJ who pioneered such techniques as “slipcueing” and “beatmatching.” History lessons, shots of sweaty dance floors, and all sorts of audio equipment will leave young gear hounds slavering.
Feel the Beat: Dance Poems That Zing from Salsa to Swing. By Marilyn Singer. Illustrated by Kristi Valiant. 2017. Dial, $17.99 (9780803740211). Gr. 2–4.
This upbeat, dance-centric collection names every poem after a type of dance, including hip-hop. Adults will be able to mimic the inherent rhythms, also modeled on the included CD. Beautiful illustrations exude the energy of the dancers as they twirl and spin across the pages, and the happy array of faces reflects the wide range of cultures and traditions that the poems draw upon.
Hip-Hop Insider (series). 2017. ABDO/Essential Library. Gr. 6–9.
This six-title series looks at the characteristics that make hip-hop so distinctive. Each entry provides historical perspective and then goes into surprising depth discussing major contributors, personalities, influences, and the current scene. Plentiful, vivid photos, time lines, glossaries, essential facts, references, websites, source notes, and Common Core alignment are included.
Hip Hop Speaks to Children: A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat. Ed. by Nikki Giovanni. Illus. by Kristen Balouch and others. 2008. Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, $19.99 (9781402210488). Gr. 3–5.
Poet Giovanni links hip-hop to grand opera and provides a capsule history of African American vernacular music through 51 representative pieces. The accompanying CD offers 29 selections, some straight readings, others evoking jazz, rap, pop, or pulpit-style chanting. Illustrations with vibrant colors and a dancing, free-spirited look match the general tone of the poetry.
The History of Hip Hop. By Melanie J. Cornish. 2009. Crabtree, o.p. Gr. 4–7.
Large text and bright, dominating photos attempt to summarize the history of this cultural movement in 32 pages, according to role: MC, DJ, dancer, or graffiti artist. Although dated (Run-DMC and the Cool Kids are prominently featured), its enticing format should still attract attention, especially from reluctant readers.
Meet My Neighbor, the Hip-Hop Dancer. By Marc Crabtree. 2012. Crabtree, $6.95 (9780778745631). K–Gr. 3.
Brief, boxed text and large, brightly lit, two-page photo spreads profile Marcelino, a college student who works at a dance studio, teaching a multicultural group of kids such moves as the “air freeze” and “halo.” Photos from a highlighted “dance battle” will intrigue readers, too. This offers great prompts for discussions about unusual jobs—and a whole lot of just plain fun.
The Story of Death Row Records. By Trey White. 2012. Mason Crest, $22.95 (9781422221136). Gr. 4–7.
Carefully written, with well-chosen words and images, this combined company history and biography chronicles the rise and fall of the record label that brought gangsta rap to the masses. Readers follow Suge Knight from his Compton childhood through spectacular successes, murder-accomplice allegations, legal difficulties, bankruptcy, and jail. Gritty and age appropriate.
Street Dance. By Emma Torrington. 2011. Rosen/PowerKids, $23.95 (9781448852857). Gr. 4–6.
Emphasizing the need for intense dedication, time, and work, and featuring brief text and helpful illustrations, this step-by-step guide in the Master This! series defines street dance (jazz, tap, hip-hop, breaking) and then provides tips on popping, locking, diagonal ripples, and other difficult-sounding undulations. Factoid information boxes add color, and “Star Files” highlight street-dance celebrities.
What Is Hip-Hop? By Eric Morse. Illus. by Anny Yi. 2017. Akashic/Black Sheep, $15.95 (9781617755842). Gr. 2–4.
Rhyming verse introduces hip-hop culture and its major players. Roughly 30 artists, break dancers, and “graffiti kids” are fleetingly profiled in chronological order. Dynamic illustrations use 3-D clay scenes to show rappers performing in diverse venues alongside individual portraits. The point of this book—the passion and talent that drive hip-hop—comes through loud and clear.
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop. By Laban Carrick Hill. Illus. by Theodore Taylor III. 2013. Roaring Brook, $17.99 (9781596435407). Gr. 2–4.
This picture-book bio introduces Kool Herc and his innovative hip-hop DJing techniques: stacking musical breaks on top of each other, coining the term break-dancers, sending shout-outs and offhand rhymes out over the music. The bounciness and boundless energy of musical joy are matched by the freewheeling artwork. A treat about an underrepresented part of music history.
Chance the Rapper: Independent Innovator. By Diane Bailey. 2018. ABDO/Essential Library, $37.07 (9781532113253). Gr. 5–8.
This entry in the Hip-Hop Artists series provides a concise look at Chance’s humble rise as an independent artist to a world-renowned rapper. The text offers an in-depth look at his musical influences, childhood and personal life, philanthropy, and love of Chicago. Readers should make good use of the book’s time line, sidebars, “Essential Facts,” glossary, vocabulary words, and additional resources for those passionate about the music.
Drake. By Lynn Peppas. 2011. Crabtree, o.p. Gr. 4–7.
Fans will delight at this Superstars! series title, boasting a glossy cover, colorful PR photos, images from Drake’s younger years, and text that lights on all of his incarnations (with nary a derogatory word). Readers follow the rapper’s development from teen TV idol to hip-hop icon (blossoming under the wing of his mentor, artist Lil Wayne). A cheerfully laudatory compendium of facts that concludes with a helpful time line.
Drake! Hip-Hop Celebrity. By Ally Azzarelli. 2013. Enslow, $25.27 (9780766041684). Gr. 4–7.
The Sizzling Celebrities series makes good use of high/low text, short chapters, colorful page headings, decorated white space, and numerous captioned photos, and this volume sets the stage for the story of Drake: a biracial, Jewish, and profoundly talented multimillionaire. Later chapters emphasize his many awards for music and performance as well as his extended philanthropic projects; but, alas—no time line.
Hip-Hop Headliners (series). Gareth Stevens. Gr. 4–7.
The high/low Hip-Hop Headliners series features low page counts (32 per title) and only a sentence or two per page. The information is basic—real names of artists, mention of best-selling records and songs, memorable performances, and awards—while the stylized design, including plenty of high-res color photos, is eye-catching. Brief glossaries, time lines, and lists of resources are appended.
Jay-Z. By Bridget Heos. 2009. Rosen, paper, $11.75 (9781435854383). Gr. 5–8.
Short on illustrations but great on information, this entry in the Library of Hip-Hop Biographies series brings a little attitude as it lays out Jay-Z’s formative years, the transitioning hip-hop scene of the 1970s to the nastier and grittier ’80s, the East Coast–West Coast feud, his marriage to Beyoncé, and his retirements (and unretirements). A time line, discography, and glossary provide great additional background for wannabe rappers, producers, and moguls.
Jay-Z. By Richard Spilsbury. 2012. Capstone, lib. ed., $33.32 (9781432964306). Gr. 5–7.
This bio, part of the Titans of Business series, emphasizes Jay-Z’s business acumen. In addition to being a talented musician and rapper, Jay-Z has become the founder of his own record company, CEO of Def Jam Records, creator of a business brand, and head of a huge empire that includes his own clothing line and film productions. Numerous color photos, quotes, and entrepreneurial tips should spark interest.
Jay-Z: Hip-Hop Icon. By Jessica Gunderson. Illus. by Pat Kinsella. 2012. Capstone, lib. ed., $31.32 (9781429660174). Gr. 4–7.
This graphic-novel profile spends little time onstage or amid audiences and instead sets scenes in offices and living rooms as Jay-Z wheels and deals, launches business ventures, or boycotts the Grammys. The author’s admiration for Jay-Z comes through nice and strong (for Beyoncé, not so much). This covers all the important landmarks, hopefully encouraging further inquiry.
Lil Wayne. By C. F. Earl. 2012. Mason Crest, o.p. Gr. 5–8.
Lil Wayne, the son of a drug dealer, got his break by freestyling rhymes on the voice mail of famous rappers. His amateur rapping got him signed at age 10. He accidentally shot himself at 12, and was a father at 15. Despite these distractions, he went solo at 17. Subsequent legal difficulties (illegal drugs and weapons) are downplayed but acknowledged. Age appropriate.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: Composer, Actor, and Creator of Hamilton. By Kat Harrison. 2017. Enslow, $37.27 (9780766085053) Gr. 6–8.
This enthusiastic entry in the Influential Lives series celebrates Miranda’s life, covering his Puerto Rican roots, early immersion in musicals, proficiency in freestyle rap, collaborative working style, and creation of In the Heights and Hamilton. Extensive chapter notes lead to online resources. There’s not much out there for this age group, so this should be popular, especially when the film Mary Poppins Returns comes out.
M.I.A. By Lynn Peppas. 2010. Crabtree, paper, $8.95 (9780778772583) Gr. 5–8.
Internationally known visual artist and British rap star Mathangi Arulpragasam, aka M.I.A., got her start when her single “Paper Planes” took off. Born to Tamil parents during the Sri Lankan civil war, she has been an outspoken, sometimes-controversial activist for refugees. She continues to use rap music as her platform, as detailed in this Superstars! series volume.
Nicki Minaj. By Joanne Mattern. 2013. Mitchell Lane, o.p. Gr. 5–8.
Minaj, a Trinidadian American rapper, singer, songwriter, and model, always dreamed of stardom and used music as the way to better her life. Going back to her early days, her story emphasizes how perseverance and determination can make dreams come true. The text effortlessly folds in quotes, articles, and interviews, and many color photos add lots of appeal. Part of the Blue Banner Biography series.
Pharrell Williams. By Marie Morreale. 2015. Scholastic/Children’s Press, $29 (9780531213780). Gr. 3–5.
He’s a performer, judge for The Voice, creator of the “I’m Lovin’ It” jingle for McDonald’s, pop-music producer, supporter of charities, and wearer of memorable hats. Williams gets the star treatment in this entry in the Real Bios series, which covers his many high-visibility triumphs plus fun facts, such as his favorite cereal. Crowd-pleasing color photos, factoids, sound bites, and celebrity name-dropping are all included.
Psy: Gangnam Style Rapper. By Sarah Tieck. 2013. ABDO, o.p. Gr. 2–4.
Pages featuring brief paragraphs, informational snapshots, and “Did You Know” boxes encourage readers to find out about Psy, the popular “Gangnam Style” singer. Content of this Big Buddy Biography series title covers his career, upbringing in the Gangnam area of South Korea, and wild success with Western audiences. A bright, colorful design; good-size type; and plenty of photographs will further entice young fans.
USA Today Lifeline Biographies (series). Lerner/Twenty-First Century. Gr. 6–10.
This stylish, info-packed series includes rounded accounts of several rap and hip-hop stars, from their childhoods and roots to obstacles and successes. These three titles introduce Kanye West, Queen Latifah, and Tupac Shakur, whose stories run the gamut from inspiring to sobering. Sidebars, articles, source notes, great graphics, and color photos make these enticing and edifying reads.
Usher. By Saddleback Staff. 2013. Saddleback Educational, $10.95 (9781622500093). Gr. 3–6.
This starry-eyed volume in the Hip-Hop Biographies series chronicles Usher’s humble beginnings with a church choir, stint as a stunt performer, four-month reign on Star Search, and eventual album deals, world tours, all-star collaborations, acting gigs (TV, movies, and Broadway), and charity endeavors. Unfortunately, the text is dry and fawning, but great photos will capture readers’ attention.
Hip & Hop, Don’t Stop! By Jef Czekaj. Illus. by the author. 2010. Hyperion, $16.99 (9781423116646). PreS–Gr. 2.
Aspiring rappers Hip, a slow turtle, and Hop, a quick bunny, hail from the east and west sides of Oldskool County. Preparing for an upcoming rap-off, both bomb until they team up, their complementary styles resulting in triumph. A bright, fun art style; humorous text; kinetic action layouts; and references to “Queen LaTreeFrog,” “Jay Zebra,” and “Ludafish” make this fun for all.
Hip Hop Dog. By Chris Raschka. Illus. by Vladimir Radunsky. 2010. Harper, $16.99 (9780061239632). PreS–Gr. 2.
A runt feels unwanted and unloved until he discovers music and begins to “bark it like Brünhilda.” Soon he’s “the coolest, go to school-est” pup around. Well-matched mixed-media illustrations show lively urban scenes, with our star spinning and dancing with both pooches and humans. Kids will want to chant along with the contagious beat as the text slides and swirls across pages.
I Got the Rhythm. By Connie Schofield-Morrison. Illus. by Frank Morrison. 2014. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (9781619631786). PreS–K.
A young African American girl leaves her urban home and uses all her senses to find rhythm everywhere. She gathers the playground children and inspires an impromptu marching band that fills the park with a riot of sound, color, and movement. The bright palette, vibrant tones, and loosely painted pictures echo the text’s energy. Audiences will want to stomp and bebop along.
Yo, Jo! By Rachel Isadora. Illus. by the author. 2007. HMH, o.p. PreS–K.
His older brother doesn’t notice when Jomar wanders off into his inner-city neighborhood. It’s instantly clear that Jomar has little to fear as he navigates his way through his corner of the world. Bright, cut-paper artwork casts realistic cityscapes and graffiti as backgrounds against Jomar’s personal, caring comfort zone. A loving reunion results in a reassuring ending.
Dance Class: So, You Think You Can Hip-Hop? By Beka. Illus. by Crip. 2012. Papercutz, o.p. Gr. 4–8.
Miss Anne’s ballet school is getting exciting. There’s a new hip-hop teacher—and he’s cute! Readers don’t have to be dancers to appreciate this graphic novel. The story is a quick read, broken down into mostly one-page gags, with engaging characters and lots of silliness. The cartoon art is accurate enough to please dancers but loose enough to keep things light.
DJ Rising. By Love Maia. 2013. Little, Brown, $17.99 (9780316121897). Gr. 8–12.
Sixteen-year-old half-black, half–Puerto Rican Marley dreams of becoming a DJ while living in a bleak reality: a dead father, heroin-addict mother, and lonely prep-school scholarship. Reinventing himself as DJ-Ice, his once-bright future is interrupted by tragedy, and he’s torn between worlds. This gritty coming-of-age story also gets into the subtleties of DJing and ongoing battles between vinyl and software.
Rani Patel in Full Effect. By Sonia Patel. 2016. Cinco Puntos, $16.95 (9781941026496). Gr. 9–12.
As the only Indian girl in her Hawaiian town, Rani finds empowerment in rap and slam poetry during the early 1990s. Her punchy first-person narrative—peppered with early ’90s hip-hop references; Hawaiian, Hawaiian Pidgin, and Gujarati phrases; and her own slick rhymes, packed with an empowering feminist message—stands out in the YA landscape. Rani’s strength and unique voice will resonate with many as she grapples with personal trauma.
Secret Saturdays. By Torrey Maldonado. 2010. Putnam, $16.99 (9780399251580). Gr. 6–9.
Sean is Justin’s best friend, and they’re both obsessed by dissing, hip-hop, and freestyle rap. Suddenly, Sean’s disses turn vicious, his grades tank, and he retreats behind a wall of silent secrecy. How can Justin help? The authenticity of the dangerous urban setting, engaging first-person vernacular, and memorable, sympathetic characters make this compelling and satisfying.
Tagged. By Eric Walters. 2013. Orca, $16.95 (9781459801684). Gr. 4–6.
Street art trumps local politics in this slim novel, inspired by the true-life experiences of a Toronto tagger. A rash of graffiti and guerrilla art signed “Wiz” leads to discussion about what “real art” is amid histrionic rhetoric from a conservative politician running for reelection. A crowd-pleasing show of support from an entire school derails attempts to shut things down.
This Song Will Save Your Life. By Leila Sales. 2013. Farrar, $17.99 (9780374351380). Gr. 7–10.
Bullied and depressed, 16-year-old Elise finds salvation in the unlikely form of a warehouse party. There she meets Vicky, a singer, who takes Elise under her wing, and Char, who tutors her in the art of DJing. It turns out that Elise is a natural, so much so that she soon outshines her mentor. A hopeful, honest account of teenage tribulation and the potency of musical expression.
Kathleen McBroom has worked in public, academic, and school libraries, with students ranging from preschoolers through postgraduates. She currently works with the Baldwin Public Library in Birmingham, Michigan, and with the Wayne State University School of Information Sciences as a School Library Media Practicum Coordinator.
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