MUS 113 Final Project, Spring 2022: Picturing Black Music History

Some items from my collection

Reminder: The Library Course Guide for this project is home base for helpful information and resources. Check it!

As you know, I frequently use children’s books to teach even my college classes. There are so many reasons why I love picture books.

For one thing, a good picture book has the ability to distill history into a few important words and symbols, and to deliver its message with unforgettable verbal and visual force. For another, a picture book is like a portable museum of beautiful colors and images that you can carry with you. And finally, a picture book can teach across all ages and educational levels (which is why I use them to teach college), and can aid the transmission of important information from one generation to the next, using a minimum of means and resources.

As you also know, it was a capital offense for the enslaved to learn to read. Enslaved people, as well as free Blacks and whites, risked death, flogging, imprisonment, and dismemberment for the sake of learning and teaching reading in the nineteenth-century South. Because a picture book does not require literacy for understanding, it is a powerful symbol of the essential learning that even unfree people could acquire and pass on. As the old saying goes: “Each one, teach one.”

Your final project for the Spring semester of 2022 is to create a picture book about a Black musician. (I was inspired to create this project by the work of middle school students at the Special Music School in New York City, who created the first children’s book about composer Florence Price, pictured above. See “These NYC Kids Have Written the History of an Overlooked Black Female Composer.”)

For this project, you will be divided into three groups. Each group will be responsible for the creation of a children’s book about one of the following artists, each of whom has a connection to our area.

Group 1: Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten

Statue of Libba Cotten at Libba’s Grove, Syracuse

Group 2: Charles Cohen

The only known photograph of Charles Cohen

Group 3: Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman performing with S.E.M. Ensemble in Buffalo

As yet, there are no children’s books about Charles Cohen or Julius Eastman. While there is a recent picture book biography of Elizabeth Cotten, there is absolutely room for another.

Scheme of Work

A. Your first task is to read the following essays about the trope of the Hero’s Journey. The scholar of folklore Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey a “global Monomyth”: he believed that there was ONE unifying story common to all peoples throughout the world, regardless of location, ethnicity, degree of development, etc.

It is possible to think of the whole history of Black music in America as a Hero’s Journey!

“Structuring Your Story: The Hero’s Journey,” Paula Munier

“In the Belly of the Whale,” Patricia Lee Gauch

The Hero with the African Face (excerpt), Clyde W. Ford

  • Fill out the following worksheet based on these three readings, and turn it in to me. Due in class on February 8, 2022.

Hero’s Journey Analysis worksheet

B. Next, go through the books in my personal library (in the bins in our classroom) and use the books of your choice to identify the elements of a successful picture book biography. I have many such books, dating from the 1950s to the present. You can find still others in the public library.

  • At the end of every class period, I will set aside 5-10 minutes for your individual browsing of these books. You can also bring in your own books or library books and share them with the rest of the class.
  • Make notes about each book, using the following form as a guideline.

Children’s Book Analysis form

  • Type up your book notes in this form using Google Docs, or print it out and write them by hand. (You can print for free at the SUNY Broome Library — you get up to 500 pages per semester.)
  • Turn in a form to me for every book you research in your project. You can share them with me via Google Docs, take pictures and email them to me, or hand in hard copies.

All Children’s Book Analysis forms are due to me on May 3rd, 2022. I expect you to turn in AT LEAST TEN, which means that you need to read and analyze AT LEAST TEN children’s books over the course of the semester.

C. Every day, when you sit down to work on your project, log your time and efforts in the following document. Notice that I said EVERY DAY.

Personal Accountability Log

  • Beginning on February 24, your Personal Accountability Logs are due in class every Thursday. This means you will need to work on a separate copy of the log every week. If you are doing it on Google Docs, use the “Make A Copy” feature. If you are doing it by hand, print out multiple copies at the library.
  • This also means that your Personal Accountability Log, each week, will be a record of the work you did every day for the past seven days.

D. I will be giving you your group assignments on February 8, 2022. If you have any particular preference, let me know in advance by sending me an email explaining WHY you prefer to work on the subject of your choice. I cannot promise that you will be assigned to the subject of your choice, but I’ll see what I can do.

Start thinking about what role you wish to play in your group: Research, Concept, Writing or Art (see F., below). What gifts, skills, interests do you possess? What aspects of the bookmaking process do you want to learn more about? You will be choosing roles/teams within your group to work on various aspects of the project.

E. We will meet in the library with children’s literature specialist Dana Curtin during class on February 10th, 2022. Ms. Curtin will introduce you to the children’s book collection she curates, and will be showing you some research tools and techniques.

F. Begin work in your group.

  • Split up your group into four teams, approximately 2-3 people per team:

    – Research Team

    – Concept Team

    – Writing Team

    – Art Team
  • Designate tasks, duties, and responsibilities in your group.

  • The Research Team is responsible for:

    – Researching the life and accomplishments of your subject

    – Writing the bibliography to include in the back pages (books, articles, recordings, films, websites, etc. to point the interested reader towards more information about the subject)

  • The Concept Team is responsible for:

    – Choosing the theme for your book and brainstorming the best ways, in text and image, to present that theme (Remember: your subject’s life is too long and complicated to reduce to 32 pages of text and pictures, so emphasize one theme, narrative, major challenge or accomplishment)

    – Storyboarding and layout (see here and here for an introduction)

  • The Writing Team is responsible for:

    – Writing the story

  • The Art Team is responsible for:

    – Choosing a concept and media for the artwork

    – Making the artwork

    – Choosing font/text size, deciding on any unusual textual features

  • Within your group as a whole, work on the following questions/problems:

    – What age group is your book written for? How will you tailor it to that specific age? For example: for ages 3-8, a higher ratio of pictures to text; for ages 9-12, a page of text alternating with a full-page image, etc.? For high school and beyond, a graphic novel?

    -Who is narrating the story? The protagonist? another character? an omniscient voice? a fanciful or anthropomorphized character, like the cat narrator in the Pinkneys’ book Ella?

    – Will your text incorporate poetry, rhyme, descriptions of the way the music sounds, onomatopoeia as in Chris Raschka’s book Charlie Parker Played BeBop, or other literary devices?

    – Is there a visual or textual anchor that repeats throughout the book to drive home its point? For example: in the book Libba, various characters across time and place repeat “Dang!” upon hearing Libba play, which emphasizes her timeless virtuosity and the appeal of her music to people of diverse backgrounds in many places.

    – Will you play with the placement of text, or use the text as a feature of the art, as in Chris Raschka’s Mysterious Thelonius?

    – If you make innovative use of text and imagery, how will they “fit” your subject? (e.g., the disjunct text placement in Mysterious Thelonius is a visual corollary to his be-bop piano style.)

    – How will the concept and media you choose for your artwork reflect your subject matter?

Fill out your answers to these questions on the following form. Due on March 15, 2022.

Picture Book Planner

G. Beginning on February 15, you will be spending the last ten minutes of each class meeting in your groups/teams. The various teams (Research, Concept, Writing, Art) in each group will be working in the following ways. As you will see, each team needs to be in close contact with the other teams in your group, in order to work together on the book as a whole group. Each team will take the following steps and fill out the corresponding forms to turn in to me. Due on April 5, 2022.

You will definitely need to meet with your groups outside of the last ten minutes of class on a regular basis. You will need to set up channels among yourselves for this purpose: in-person, Zoom, Circle In, Discord, etc.

As you will see, the work of producing a picture book goes in stages — a kind of cascade or waterfall. The Research and Concept Teams’ work comes first. These teams then direct the work of the Writing and Art Teams. In turn, the writing comes before the creation of the art.

This does not mean that, if you’re on the Writing or Art Teams, you slack until the last minute. If you do, you will not pass this class. This is your ONLY PROJECT for the semester, and it REQUIRES that you work each day and each week. Writing and Art Teams need to be in constant contact with Research and Concept Teams and start drafting their work from the beginning.

P.S. I’m not saying this because I want to give you an impossible amount of work. I’m saying this because, trust me, it will be impossible for you to slack all semester and then come up with a decent amount and quality of work at the last minute. Hence, if you choose to mismanage your time in this way, it will be impossible for you to pass this class.

Do NOT let this be your M.O.

  • Research Team

    – Find out everything you can about your subject. You will be conveying this information to the Concept, Writing, and Art Teams.

    – For some subjects, this will be easier than others.

    – When you conduct your research, think outside the box. MAKE SURE that you listen extensively to your subject’s music to get a feeling for their work, thought processes, and context.

    – The team working on Charles Cohen will need to set up an interview with Theresa Lee-Whiting, who lives in Charles Cohen’s former house. There is not a lot of information about him on the web, and Theresa is the authority. Also, get in touch also with Roger R. Luther, the Broome County Historian.

    – Each member of the Research Team needs to fill out this form and hand in to me on April 5.

    Research Team Planner

  • Concept Team

    – Decide what aspect(s) of your subject’s life should be included in the book.

    – Decide on an overarching theme for the book. Will you be emphasizing your subject’s music? Their life experiences? Their professional accomplishments? Their origins? Their triumph over adversity? Etc.

    – Think about how your concept can facilitate the use of your book as a teaching tool (“Each one, teach one”).

    – Imagine how your theme can be translated into images, and convey this information to the Art Team. What feeling or vibe should the artwork have? What color scheme, media, etc?

    – Each member of the Concept Team needs to fill out this form and hand in to me on April 5.

    Concept Team Planner

  • Writing Team


    – Based on information from the Research and Concept Teams, write out the first draft your story freehand, or type it.

    – Convey your ideas in simple language. Your first draft doesn’t need adverbs. Subject, verb, object will do. You’ll be rewriting later.

    – Make it roughly 350 to 1000 words.

    – Have fun!

    – Each member of the Writing Team needs to fill out this form and hand in to me on April 5.


    Writing Team Planner

  • Art Team

    – Choose your method and materials for art and text. Will you use just one medium, or multiple media? Standard media or a software program? Will you change font or size of text at any point?

    – Decide what elements of the story you will be illustrating.

    – Decide where the text will be placed on the pages.

    – Decide on the dimensions and orientation of the book.

    – Each member of the Art Team needs to fill out this form and hand in to me on April 5.

    Art Team Planner

H. Rewriting, Editing, and Organizing; Mock-Up: All Teams/All Groups

  • We will spend two class periods, April 12 and 14, working on rewriting, editing, and organizing, and another class period, April 26, on making a mock-up of your books before they are printed by Copy Services.

  • Tips for this process:


    – Think about how many pages will be in the book (32 is standard for picture books)

    – Think about how to “chunk” the text into passages that are easily readable, and where each chunk of text should go on these pages

    – Think about the best placement of text and images. Not every page needs text; not every page needs an image. Conversely, you might want some pages to have BOTH image and text, and other pages to have ONLY text or ONLY illustration.

    – Refer to the picture books you’ve analyzed for some examples.

    – How will you pair the text with the illustrations that “fit”?

  • Use the following form to help with organization.

    Organization Tool

  • Use the following form to help you make your mock-up.
    NOTE: This is a tool to help you with the final organization, pagination, placement of images and text, etc. The mock-up you turn in to me on May 1 should be on 8.5″ x 11″ paper.

    Mock-up Tool

I. Grading Rubric

Timeline of Project

Feb 8: “Hero’s Journey” Analysis worksheet due

Feb. 10: Class meets in the library

Feb. 15: Group assignments announced

Starting Feb. 24, and every Thursday thereafter: Personal Accountability Logs due

March 15: Picture Book Planner due

April 5: Team Forms from G. due

April 12-14: Editing sessions

April 26: Mock-up session

May 3 : Libba Cotten and Charles Cohen mock-ups due to me (hard deadline!)

May 5: All Children’s Book Analysis forms due (minimum number is 10)

May 6: Extra credit opportunity: attend Professor Michael Gee’s Children’s Literature class meeting at 11 AM in Titchener 106 to discuss your work.

May 10: Julius Eastman mock-up due to me (hard deadline!).

May 12: 9 AM: Libba Cotten and Charles Cohen groups read books to children at Horace Mann Elementary School.

Class writing session: personal statement about the project, what you learned, how it affected you, and what you plan to do with your new knowledge going forward.

Appendix: Helpful websites.

This is a place to begin; you will find other resources in your research.

If you find a particularly good website or other resource, please post it on the Discord server so everyone can have access.

The Monomyth: The Hero’s Journey

What Are the Elements of a Narrative Arc?

Literary Devices and Terms

An Illustrator’s Guide to Creating A Picture Book

Picture Book Dummy, Picture Book Construction: Know Your Layout

How To Write A Picture Book Biography

Picture Book Standards

Design of the Picture Book

The Secret of Writing A Multicultural Children’s Book

How to Write a Children’s Book: All You Need to Know