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Rhapsody in Blue 100th Anniversary Q&A

George Gershwin’s famous composition “Rhapsody in Blue” turns 100 years old on February 12, 2024! THE MUSIC IN GEORGE’S HEAD, a picture book by author Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Stacy Innerst, is all about this remarkable musical masterpiece. Here, Suzanne and Stacy answer two questions about the book:

Why do you think the story of George Gershwin and his composition “Rhapsody in Blue” is important for young readers to know today?

Suzanne Slade: First, it’s a very inspiring story which shares how George tried to compose a new piece for an upcoming concert, but became very frustrated in the process. Yet, he didn’t give up, and ended up creating “Rhapsody in Blue,” which people around the world continue to enjoy. It’s such an encouraging example of how persistence can yield incredible results. 

Also, George’s story demonstrates how music and melodies are all around us (if you listen closely)–even in ordinary things, like the Rattle-ty-BANG train which helped him create “Rhapsody in Blue.” 

And according to a recent New York Times article celebrating the 100th anniversary of “Rhapsody in Blue,” after the premier of this exciting piece on February 12, 1924 “the landscape of American music hasn’t been the same since.” (So basically, his concerto changed music forever, which is kind of a big deal!)

Stacy Innerst: His is a story of creativity put into action. I love the way Suzanne presented his story as a passion to make something from the time he was a small child. He paid close attention to the world around him and used it all as raw material to make profound and lasting art. It was as if the rhapsody found HIM—it was in the air and he had to harness it. I’ve heard other composers describe music that way.

I’m just guessing, but I believe George was the kind of kid who might be diagnosed as “on the spectrum” by today’s standards—so a story like this might introduce young readers to the unique creative personality!

What was your research process like for the book, and what surprised you the most when you did your research?

Stacy Innerst: Well, let me start by saying that it was an absolute joy to paint my visual interpretations of the “Rhapsody in Blue”. 

My research went in many different directions. For instance, I went deep into the color blue as it is used in art and music and studied the Blues, Picasso’s Blue Period and read Holderlin’s In Lovely Blueness for Inspiration. I also looked at images and films from and about the 20’s and 30’s and, of course, I had Gershwin on heavy rotation while I worked on the book.

I think I was surprised most by the fact that Paul Whiteman’s 1924 orchestra was composed entirely of white musicians. Gershwin was strongly influenced by the music of Harlem, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, etc. but his composition was performed an era of segregation, even in New York City. 

Suzanne Slade: Of course, I read wonderful books about George and his compositions. My favorite was George Gershwin-A Study in American Music by Isaac Goldberg. To ensure all the musical facts in the story were correct, I interviewed a music PhD, and the Music Specialist at the Library of Congress George & Ira Gershwin Collection. Plus, there was plenty of “field research”, where I greatly enjoyed listening to George Gershwin perform.

My biggest surprise, which is a commonly known fact that I simply hadn’t heard before working on this book, is that George only lived to age 38. Due to his vast body of work (he wrote over 500 songs), I assumed he had lived a long, productive life. But unfortunately, his musical genius was cut short by a brain tumor. Just imagine what he might have created had he lived a full life!


Junior Library Guild Selection
Booklist Editors’ Top 10 Arts Books for Youth
California Reading Association Eureka! Gold Award
CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young Readers
Parents’ Choice Gold Award
Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers
Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year
Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Illustration

★ “This is fitting celebration of a musical milestone—keep a copy of the song cued up for curious listeners.” —Booklist, starred review 

★ “Innerst’s acrylic spreads are almost entirely done in blue and gray tones, with broad brushstrokes, scanned textiles, and paper adding texture; each scene is striking. Slade’s narrative is highly readable and lightly peppered with musical onomatopoeia… Highly recommended.” —School Library Journal, starred review

★ “Bravo!” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review

★ “A rousing look at one of the defining contributions to the Great American Songbook.”  —Publishers Weekly, starred review

Download the free educator guide!

Watch the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presentation, with a reading of the book by Grammy-award winning singer, Kurt Elling