Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Little Melba and Her Big Trombone Book Poster Image
Engaging, inspiring bio of jazz great has superb art.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Tells the fascinating history of a jazz great and gives historical context for what it was like for touring African-American musicians in the pre-civil rights South. Also names many African-American musicians with whom Melba played, which could spark an interest to read more about them. 

Positive Messages

Follow your dreams. Work hard to be the best at what you do. Don't get discouraged when you encounter bullies or racists who put you down and try to stand in your way.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Melba achieves great things through hard work, dedication, and talent. The afterword notes, "A true pioneer, she was the first woman, of any race, to become a world-class trombone player, composer, and arranger." She's strong and resilient. Even when she's lonely or ill-treated by her fellow band members, she keeps going: "Melba let the music in her head keep her company." 

Violence & Scariness

No violence, but there is mention of being shut out of segregated restaurants and hotels when Melba toured the South with Billie Holiday


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison, won a 2015 Coretta Scott King Book Illustrator Honor. This engaging picture book tells the story of pioneering female jazz trombonist Melba Doretta Liston, who played with Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday, among many others, and composed and arranged music for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ray Charles, Bob Marley, and more. The vivid pictures and crisp text combine to draw young readers into the story of a woman they may never have heard of, who paved the way for other female musicians and composers to be taken seriously. There's no violence, but there is mention of being shut out of segregated restaurants and hotels when Melba toured the South with Billie Holiday. 

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What's the story?

LITTLE MELBA AND HER BIG TROMBONE is a picture-book biography of jazz great Melba Doretta Liston, who was born in 1926 and died in 1999. It shows her passion for music and the trombone from age 7 -- she played on the radio when she was only 8 -- and how she toured the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. She encountered racism while touring the South with Billie Holiday (one full-page illustration shows Melba on the tour bus passing a hotel sign that reads "The Best Service for WHITES ONLY") but continued to perform as an in-demand instrumentalist, as well as compose and arrange music. An afterword gives more detailed biographical information about her life and career, in which she played with Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, and Quincy Jones, among others. She composed and arranged for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, and Bob Marley, to name a few, and continued composing and arranging though the 1990s, even after a stroke in 1985 left her partially paralyzed.

Is it any good?

It's easy to see why Little Melba and Her Big Trombone won a 2015 Coretta Scott King Book Illustrator Award. Frank Morrison's vivid, evocative paintings use a brown and burnt-orange palette. Closeups and long shots capture Melba's emotions as well as her physical style of playing by throwing her whole body into the notes. They also provide a colorful backdrop for each era, from her aunties dancing in the '20s to the Depression-plagued '30s to the Big Band '40s and cool jazz '50s. 

Katheryn Russell-Brown's storytelling is crisp and engaging as it mixes relatable moments and emotions with biographical information that should inspire but not overwhelm young readers.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about music and how musicians have a passion for their instrument. Do you play an instrument? Would you like to learn how to play one? 

  • What other artists or musicians have you read about or seen in movie biographies? 

  • Do you think Melba Doretta Liston is a hero in African-American history? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love books about the African-American experience

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