Mara Rockliff is the author of the new picture book Born to Swing: Lil Hardin Armstrong’s Life in Jazz. Her many other children’s books include Anything but Ordinary Addie and Around America to Win the Vote. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book about jazz pioneer Lil Hardin Armstrong?
A: It started when I brought home a documentary about high school jazz bands to watch with my family. My daughter played trumpet, and I thought a film about older students would inspire her. Instead, it made us all angry, because although both boys and girls played in those school bands, the filmmakers focused only on boys. The one girl they showed (briefly) was a singer. It was as if girls with instruments didn’t exist.
This is how the story of jazz is told. We hear about women singers, but the great musicians are all men. It’s not true now, and it was never true. There were always women jazz musicians, band leaders, and composers. Lil Hardin Armstrong was all three. And she was there right at the start.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the book, and what surprised you most?
A: I dug into primary source material: oral histories, interviews, newspaper articles from the time. One thing that surprised me was the contrast between how Lil has been dismissed by historians and how she was admired and respected by the men she played with—including her husband, Louis Armstrong, who pretty much owed her his career. In 1925, the Chicago Defender asked, “Louis Armstrong. Who is he? ...Louis is the feature man in Lil’s jazz band at the Dreamland.” Nobody had heard of Louis Armstrong then, but everyone knew Lil.
The most fun for me was listening to Lil’s recorded voice. She had a great way of talking, full of energy—lots of “oh, gee” and “boy, oh boy!” When I wrote her story, I tried to capture that authentic voice.
Q: What do you hope young readers take away from Lil's story?
A: I want kids to know that women can do anything, and women have done so much more than we’ve been told. A swinging jazz musician, an astonishing magician, a pair of daring suffragists dodging bullets and driving through blizzards—I love digging up the stories of forgotten heroes and giving them back their place in history.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Lights! Camera! Alice! The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo, will be published by Chronicle Books in fall 2018. Alice Guy Blaché was one of the very earliest pioneers of film. Decades before silent black-and-white films started coming out of Hollywood, Alice made movies with sound, color, special effects and crazy stunts, from jumping onto the roof of a speeding train to blowing up a pirate ship. And anything she asked her stars to do, Alice did first. She even climbed into a tiger’s cage!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Both Lil and Alice are easy to get to know online! If you’d like to listen to some of Lil’s songs, try "Chimes Blues," "My Heart," "Perdido Street Blues," "Brown Gal" (later remade as "Bad Boy" by the Beatles’ Ringo Starr), "Just for a Thrill," "Born to Swing," and "Eastown Boogie."
A couple of short, funny films by Alice Guy Blaché: La Glu (The Glue) about a mischievous boy who ends up caught by his own prank, and Le Piano Irrésistible (The Irresistible Piano), in which no one can hear the sound of the piano without dancing. (Speaking of irresistible, don’t miss the little clip at the beginning, in which Alice herself turns to the camera and smiles!)
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mara Rockliff.