Author-illustrator Charnelle Pinkney Barlow’s Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar: The Musical Story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Woman Who Invented Rock and Roll is a beautifully written and impressively illustrated picture book that’s as jubilant as Tharpe’s music and will surely inspire readers to seek out her joyful recordings.
The book focuses on Tharpe’s childhood, when the woman who would one day be called the Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll was a girl with a passion and talent for telling stories through music. Tharpe’s first guitar was a gift from her mother, and she found musical inspiration all over her hometown of Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Pinkney Barlow’s literary prowess is on full display as her prose sings out with wonderful rhythm and imagery. As Tharpe becomes a skilled guitar player, “her fingers [hop] around like corn in a kettle,” and when Tharpe plays in church for the first time, her music is “like summer rain washing the dust off a new day.”
It’s difficult to convey the intricate charm of Pinkney Barlow’s gleeful cut-paper artwork. Textured and patterned papers create movement and depth, while colorful musical notations and bits of sheet music are incorporated throughout. Perhaps most impressive is the sense of place achieved by both text and art: Readers will truly feel as though they’ve visited Cotton Plant and met many of its animated, expressive denizens, from Pastor Murray, “mender of souls and mender of guitars,” whose shirt is made from blue-lined notebook paper, to Miss Mable, who compliments Tharpe’s “fast finger pickin’” as she hangs her laundry out to dry.
Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar is a worthy tribute not only to Tharpe’s proud, triumphant sound but also to Pinkney Barlow’s grandfather, the late Caldecott Medal-winning author-illustrator Jerry Pinkney, to whom the book is dedicated. In her author’s note, Pinkney Barlow discusses the barriers Tharpe faced as a female guitarist in a male-dominated industry, as a gospel musician who played in decidedly secular venues and as a Black musician in a segregated country. The note also discusses Tharpe’s legacy and long-overdue induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
To turn on a radio today is to hear Tharpe’s influence. Little Rosetta and the Talking Guitar honors a woman whose sound lives on in our musical DNA.