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King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin

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S&S/Atheneum has bought Stephen Costanza's picture book biography, Scott Joplin, King of Ragtime. The story of America's greatest musical pioneers follows Joplin from his first meeting with a piano to the creation of his record-breaking hit, “Maple Leaf Rag.” The book is set for spring 2019.

56 pages, Hardcover

First published August 24, 2021

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Stephen Costanza

7 books5 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 57 reviews
Profile Image for Jon Nakapalau.
5,100 reviews723 followers
August 18, 2023
Wonderful first biography on Scott Joplin. How he had to overcome so many obstacles that society put in his way; how he kept faith in his talent even as others denied it. One has to wonder how much more music he would have left us if he had just been able to concentrate on his writing. Vibrant illustrations that flow well with the story.
Profile Image for Tasha.
4,117 reviews108 followers
September 17, 2021
Scott Joplin was a child who loved to listen to the sounds around him rather than using his own voice. He was the son of a man who was once enslaved. Their home was full of music with his father fiddling, his mother playing banjo and singing, and his siblings playing instruments too. Scott played the cornet. To find work, the family moved north to Texarkana where Giles found work laying tracks for the railway. Scott’s mother found work as a housemaid for a wealthy white family who happened to have a piano. When Scott came along to help, he saw the piano and started to play when he had time. Eventually, the Joplin family was able to purchase a piano for Scott and traded housework for lessons. Scott loved learning about the piano and music, but most of all he loved composing his own songs. He played all over town, and eventually made his way north to play in saloons and eventually in Chicago where he heard ragtime for the first time. Scott went to Sedalia, Missouri where he went to college and composed music. He tried to get his songs published and finally found a man willing to take a chance on a Black unknown composer. That’s how “Maple Leaf Rag” became a national sensation.

Constanza’s writing is full of rhythm and talks about music throughout. From his mother singing hymns to his family playing together to learning piano to getting work playing and composing, the entire book dances along to the importance of music in Joplin’s life. The writing also incorporates lots of sounds like the chirping of cicadas, the swish of brooms, the plink of the piano, and the OOM-pah! The writing is full of energy and tells the story of Joplin’s life with style.

The illustrations are bright and full of color and light. They have elements of quilts that fill the ground with patterns. The skies are blue with swirling clouds that dance in the sky. The towns are full of colorful buildings. Everything is inspiration for Joplin’s music, from the trains to the chickens to the flowers to the towns. It all comes together into one warm and bright world.

A jaunty and rhythmic biography of a musical legend. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Profile Image for Tonja Drecker.
Author 3 books191 followers
August 15, 2021
The artwork alone makes this a read to pick up, and the history grabs as well.

Scott Joplin is also called the King of Ragtime. Not only was he a talented musician, especially in this genre, but he can also be seen as the one, who introduced it to the world. This book follows his life from a child all the way to his success.

Firstly, I'm going to have to mention the illustrations because these alone make the book worth a read. The style is full of life and fun, and invites emotions as well as imagination. I enjoyed gazing at the pages and getting lost in the artwork.

With such great artwork, I was scared that the text might not hold up as well, but this fear was totally unnecessary. The story flows smoothly, brings the scenes to life and explains each stage of Scott Joplin's life in a way which young readers will understand. Plus, it gives a little glance into the time period and what was happening around that time.

This is a great book to pick up to introduce kids to an important musician and a piece of history.
I received an ARC and was surprised how well done this book is.
Profile Image for Bryan Loar.
72 reviews
January 7, 2021
Beautifully rendered gouache & collage illustrations by Stephen Costanza bring Scott Joplin’s story to life. For a picture book biography, Costanza has struck the right balance between story length and imagery. The inventive way Constanza includes the reader in multiple two-page spreads is of particular note. Preliminary Proofs were consulted. Publication date is expected August 24, 2021.
Profile Image for Beverly.
3,295 reviews19 followers
October 15, 2021
Reading for the Mock Caldecott Awards for January 2022. I loved this colorfully illustrated book telling the story of Scott Joplin who wrote and performed the first Ragtime music. A young man I had no knowledge of and yet such a boost to our musical history.
Profile Image for Katelynne.
810 reviews11 followers
June 29, 2021
I always loved playing Joplin’s pieces growing up but knew nothing about him! Lovely art, solid backmatter.
Profile Image for Becky.
5,402 reviews122 followers
May 6, 2022
First sentence: In the valley of the Red River,
where the soil was as rich
as most folks were poor,
four states sat side by side
like colors on a quilt
sewn from cotton picked
by black hands, brown hands,
tired and worn--but oh!
How they clapped at night,
as voices lifted to the stars.

Premise/plot: King of Ragtime is a picture book biography of Scott Joplin. This picture book is written in verse. It tells the story of how music shaped him and he shaped music.

My thoughts: I thought this was beautifully done. I thought the verse complimented the illustrations perfectly. I appreciated both so much. While I was familiar with a handful of Joplin's compositions--I do like ragtime music--I was not familiar with his life story. Or not as familiar I suppose.

If you do share this one with young readers--in your own home, in a library setting, in a school setting, DO make a point of sharing his music as well. I would love to see kids reactions to his music!
Profile Image for Baby Bookworm.
1,642 reviews93 followers
August 28, 2021

This review was originally written for The Baby Bookworm. Visit us for new picture books reviews daily!

Hello, friends! Our book today was King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin by Stephen Costanza, a look into the early life and career of the American composer and pianist.

Born into a labor-class black family in the very recently emancipated state of Texas, Scott took an early interest in music and sound. His entire family had a passion for music, and every member played an instrument. While Scott’s father encouraged his son to work for the railroads – one of the few industries that offered steady work for black men at the time – Scott’s mother encouraged his creative talents, trading cleaning services with a piano teacher for her son’s lessons. Scott left home to pursue his music, playing in saloons, honky-tonks, and cafés, where his unique original songs earned the praise of patrons. Eventually, Scott settled in Missouri, attending college, teaching piano, and playing at a local club called the Maple Leaf. Transposing his unique style onto paper for the first time, he had a few duds before composing his most famous song, one that would go on to transform popular music: “Maple Leaf Rag”.

Informative and visually stunning. This picture book biography does a wonderful job of introducing Joplin, the times he lived in, and the formation of his unique musical style. Describing ragtime – the genre Joplin played a major part in bringing to popularity – as a patchwork, Constanza cleverly weaves the composer’s early influences into his life story, from the work songs and spirituals of his youth, to the Germanic songs his father learned under slavery, to the mainstream instrumentals he learned as a student. Music can be difficult to convey in book form, but the mixture of Costanza’s dynamic text, strategic use of emphasis and onomatopoeia, and dramatic, colorful illustrations creates a title that looks and reads like jazz. A sequence at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is particularly gorgeous, and captures the dreamy whirlwind of musical inspiration. The length is best for older elementary-age bookworms – JJ was definitely beginning to get antsy by the end. But overall, this look at the life and early work of Joplin is a winner. Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Be sure to check out The Baby Bookworm for more reviews!
Profile Image for Roben .
2,162 reviews7 followers
October 4, 2021
Costanza has created a wonderful biography of Scott Joplin! I am sure I heard Joplin's Ragtime before the 1870s, but my first true memory of hearing it is watching the movie The Sting. The Entertainer and the rest of the music from the movie popularized Joplin's music for an entirely new audience. But I never really explored WHO Scott Joplin was - even though I thoroughly enjoyed his music. This book has remedied that problem and led me to explore Joplin's genius. His music was truly innovative. He was inspired by his post-Emancipation upbringing in Texas, especially after his family relocated to Texarkana. His father had played violin when he was enslaved and so Scott heard the music from his own community and also the more European music his father played - waltzes, gavottes, reels, and other dances. Both influences can be heard in his music.
And the illustrations are simply spectacular. I love the picture of the train near the middle of the book when Scott leaves Texarkana and heads out to make a name for himself in the world.
This book would make a wonderful read-aloud in school, especially if it was integrated with listening to Joplin's Ragtime music!
Profile Image for Lisa.
2,232 reviews15 followers
November 5, 2021
Scott Joplin loved music - even as a baby, his eyes would light up when he heard it. As a young boy, he went with his mother to help with laundry and dusting at the house where she was a maid. They had a piano and Scott could play it once all his chores were done. He made up music to match every chore. Soon, his mother was trading housework for piano lessons, and Scott was on his way - writing his own music and playing from the heart. When he was a young man, he headed north to Chicago and started playing Ragtime, his song "Maple Leaf Rag" was a hit.

There's a lot to love about this short biography. I love the onomatopoeia bumpa-bump, clickety-clackety, plinkety-PLONK! and Costanza's illustrations are perfect - with energy and movement - I can just hear Joplin playing that piano. A more thorough biography is included in the author's note, along with a "recommended listening" list and a bibliography.

Cross posted to http://kissthebookjr.blogspot.com
Profile Image for Jill.
2,190 reviews81 followers
February 23, 2023
The syncopated beginning of this book will draw readers right in:

“In the valley of the Red River,
where the soil was as rich
as most folks were poor,
four states sat side by side
like colors on a quilt
sewn from cotton picked
by black hands, brown hands,
tired and worn - but oh!
How they clapped at night,
as voices lifted to the stars.”

The setting is north Texas, where Scott Joplin was born in 1867 or 1868. As the author explains in a note, there were no schools for either Blacks or whites, but we know that at least some of the Joplin kids were tutored. They also learned about music. In his note Costanza writes: “In Black Texarkana, music was as integral a part of life as breathing, and Scott’s childhood was filled with the music of his people.” Scott was exposed to spirituals, hymns, and the call and response music developed by slaves.

Back to the narrative, we learn:

“In Scott’s home, music flowed like the great river itself.
His father, Giles, fiddled.
His mother, Florence, plucked the banjo and sang,
while Monroe, Robert, Ossie, and William played guitar, box fiddle, spoons, and fiddle.
Baby Myrtle helped with the spoons,
and Scott played the cornet. . . .

Music filled the air like a breeze from Alabama.”

The father left the family in the early 1880s, and Scott’s mother Florence went to work as a domestic in white-owned homes to support her children, often bringing Scott along. At one house, she got permission for Scott to use the piano while she worked. He taught himself to play, and Florence saved up to get Scott a piano for his own, as well as lessons from local music teachers.

In particular, lessons with a German immigrant named Julius Weiss “opened up new worlds for him - piano technique, music theory, musical, theater, and opera - that would remain with Scott Joplin for the rest of his life.”

As soon as Scott finished learning one piece, he would start another. But “most of all, he loved composing his own music.”

“All of Scott’s neighbors began talking about the quiet kid who made a piano laugh out loud.”

Scott couldn’t get work playing music in Texarkana, however, so he began to travel, playing the piano in saloons and honky-tonks all along the Mississippi Valley as he made his way to Chicago, arriving in 1893. There, he discovered ragtime. He then moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where he got work as a piano teacher, and wrote a piece called the “Maple Leaf Rag.” He was turned down by every publisher until he found John Stark, who gave him a contract. As the author observes, “It was an uncommon arrangement for an unknown composer, especially one who was African American.”

By the autumn of 1900, the “Maple Leaf Rag” was heard everywhere: “This ragtime hit had taken the nation by storm.” He was thus able to focus more on writing music, and composed many more ragtime pieces. The author concludes:

“He sat down at the piano and, with both hands, created a new music, an American music like the country itself - a patchwork of sounds and colors.”

The final illustration shows leaves issuing out of Joplin’s piano and landing on a tree made up of his best known rags.

Back matter includes the author’s note, a bibliography, and a list of recommended listening. If you put “Scott Joplin” into the Youtube search box, you can listen to a number of his works, including the “Maple Leaf Rag,” which many adults will no doubt recognize immediately as part of the soundtrack from the movie "The Sting" starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

The author, who is also the illustrator, has filled his pictures with bright colors and movement that reflect a mix of artistic styles. This serves in a meta sense to highlight the analogous mix of musical styles that Joplin poured into his ragtime stew. You can almost hear the music as you turn the pages.

Evaluation: The lyrical prose and lively art work would provide a fine accompaniment for listening to Joplin’s music, whether at home or in the classroom.
182 reviews17 followers
April 30, 2022

If you enjoy listening to Ragtime, you will like reading this biography of Scott Joplin. Dubbed as the "King of Ragtime", Joplin composed such hits as "The Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer" to name a few. His music makes me think of those silent-film comedies from around a century ago. I can picture Charlie Chaplin--dressed as his most-famous persona the "Little Tramp"--walking about and twirling his cane around. Or the Keystone Cops ineptly chasing down a bad guy or a Model T Ford zooming down the road and barely missing getting hit by a speeding train.


Scott Joplin was the second-oldest of six children born to Giles and Florence Joplin in Texarkana, Texas. Scott's birthdate varies though most historians believe it was on November 24, 1868. Giles was a former slave from Texas while Florence was born in the free state of Kentucky. The Joplin family moved to nearby Texarkana, Arkansas in 1880.

(Note: "Juneteenth" marked the end of slavery on June 19, 1865 and, a year later, would become the oldest holiday celebrated in the African-American community in the United States. Kentucky was admitted to the Union in 1792 as the 15th state and had outlawed slavery in 1833. Meanwhile, in 1865, the U.S. Constitution's 13th Amendment declared slavery to be illegal in America.)


Scott inherited his talents through a musically inclined family. Before he played piano, Scott could perform a tune on the cornet. Florence sang and strummed the banjo while Giles played a mean fiddle. Since Scott was a quiet and introverted lad, he would listen to sounds while he worked or played outside, trying to replicate them back as best as he could.

During the 1880's, Giles left his family behind to work on the railroad--laying tracks for a dollar a day. Work was scarce for African-American men back then, and the railroad paid good money. Giles hoped that Scott would follow in his footsteps, but the younger Joplin had other plans. Florence was soon hired as a cleaning woman for the Cooks, a wealthy white family who had a piano. She would take Scott along to help her with the chores. He discovered the Cooks' piano and wanted to play it. Once he completed his share of housework, Florence and the Cooks allowed Scott to play their piano.

But Florence saw potential in her son. Even amongst five other siblings, Scott's talents stood out. Florence and Giles searched for a long while before locating a piano for him. Around the same time, Scott takes piano lessons from Julius Weiss, who taught the lad about music and parts of the piano. Dr. Weiss would teach Scott for free in exchange for Florence cleaning his house. She accepted the deal, and Ragtime fans will always be grateful for this.


Unlike his father Giles, Scott Joplin didn't want to lay railway tracks for the rest of his life. Scott, however, did take the train to the end of another line. While still a teenager, he moved to St. Louis and began playing piano with a band in saloons and bars to earn a living. Scott's material on the piano was all original music. He didn't like performing "covers" (as they were known long after his passing.)

Though Scott Joplin attended the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, he and other black performers were prohibited in playing music within the central venues there. But this didn't deter Scott, and word did get out about this amazing performer. He also felt that attending the 1893 World's Fair helped inspire him and his music. Joplin moved to the thriving music town in Sedalia, Missouri a year later.


"Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast"--Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin thrived in Sedalia, Missouri. To supplement his income, he gave piano lessons as well as played piano at the local Maple Leaf Club. He also attended the nearby (and now defunct) George R. Smith College where he studied harmony and composition. Scott's first and one of his most popular ragtime pieces was titled "The Maple Leaf Rag" (1899)--named in honor of the local piano bar that gave him one of several breaks during his lifetime.

But just like the melodies and rags he composed on the piano, Scott Joplin was never one to sit still. It would take him almost five years before he hit it big. John Stark, a music publisher, signed Scott to a contract in 1899 upon hearing "The Maple Leaf Rag" and seeing people dancing to his music. Joplin's other hits included ragtime music such as "Easy Winners" (1901), "Weeping Willow" (1903) and one of his most popular hits--1902's "The Entertainer".


Scott was also a jack-of-all-trades with his 1909 habanera "Solace" and two operas: "A Guest of Honor" (1903) which told of Booker T. Washington's visit to see President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House; and "Treemonisha" (1911) in which the title character was inspired by Florence Joplin, Scott's mother. Joplin collaborated with fellow ragtime composers, too.

Scott Joplin passed away in 1917 at the age of 48. His work was largely forgotten for decades. However, a revival of his music emerged during the 1970's. "The Sting" which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1973, contained several piano rags of Joplin's. There was also a 1977 film starring Billy Dee Williams as the King of Ragtime. Joshua Rifkin released a 1970 album on Scott's piano rags. (Joplin did not record his music within his lifetime; instead they were printed on piano rolls.)

It is a shame that a lot of artists and musicians do not get the recognition they deserve during their lifetime. Posthumous honors for Scott Joplin include: the special Pulitzer Prize during America's bicentennial year (1976); a stamp printed of him in 1983; and a star on the St. Louis (Missouri) Walk of Fame in 1989. Joplin's House on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, where he wrote "The Entertainer", is a national historic landmark while a crater on the planet Mercury in 2012 was named "Joplin" in his memory. There is no doubt that Scott Joplin's music and talents will live on forever.


This book is a great read to those who enjoy the history of Ragtime and its most famous composer Scott Joplin. Stephen Costanza writes and illustrates a great book on the "King of Ragtime". I also think that Costanza should have received the Caldecott Prize or an Honorary Medal for his symbolic use in his illustrations. Recommended for both music fans and historians alike!

Rating: *****
99 reviews
April 17, 2023
This is an amazing and inspiring biography about the musician Scott Joplin, who is famous for his ragtime compositions. Readers can learn about his life and how his love of sounds from the time he was young, his growing up around music, and specifically his introduction to the piano led to him becoming the wonderful musician and composer he was, and they can learn about the discrimination against African Americans that he experienced during his lifetime. Readers also learn that his father was a former slave. Readers can learn from the fact that, despite the challenges Scott Joplin faced, such as poverty and racial discrimination
he moved forward with determination. This book is written in a lovely, rhythmic way, and the illustrations are bright and colorful. These details help to create the mood of the fun music that Scott Joplin loved. The onomatopoeia in the book reflect his undying love of sounds.
20 reviews
April 30, 2023
Scott Joplin grew up in a musical family in Texarkana, Arkansas. His parents encouraged his talents by buying him a piano, not an easy feat for the impoverished family, and got him lessons when his mother offered to clean the music teacher’s house. When Scott was old enough, though, his father told him he should get a job on the railroad, one of the only opportunities for a young African American man to find steady work. But the pull of music was too great, and Scott started playing in saloons, working his way up to more respectable establishments and a chance to go to college. His love of a new form of music, ragtime, led to his most famous composition, “The Maple Leaf Rag”. I have always been a fan of Scott Joplin, especially his song "The Entertainer". It was interesting getting some background on how he came to his success.
Profile Image for Lynn Plourde.
Author 71 books142 followers
December 1, 2021
This book is BEYOND BRILLIANT! The art & the text of his picture book biography not only tell us who Scott Joplin was and how he overcame incredible odds/poverty to create a new kind of music, but the words & images bring Joplin's music to life with the "OOM-pah! OOM-pah! plinkety-PLONK!" onomatopoeia and the swirling art and bright colors. The author's note in the back provides many more fascinating details of Joplin's life, but also the author-illustrator's connection to Joplin's music. Stephen Costanza was a professional ragtime piano player himself and his talent to play Joplin's music infuses and lifts up this story. One of the best picture book biographies I have ever read. I cannot recommend it more highly. BEYOND BRILLIANT! BRAVO!
Profile Image for Jennifer.
477 reviews4 followers
March 26, 2022
WOW! Just opening this book and looking at the artwork is an uplifting experience! It is a patchwork quilt of color and motion. It looks like ragtime feels. The story tells of Scott Joplin growing up with lots of music surrounding him, learning the piano and in the end becoming the King of Ragtime!
Read as a part of a American History through Music unit. There is extensive back matter on Joplin's life and the times. Of course, listening to the music is an extra joy. There are recordings on YouTube that are supposedly Scott Joplin himself playing.
Profile Image for Kati.
578 reviews12 followers
September 23, 2021
A beautifully illustrated book about composer and "inventor" of ragtime music, Scott Joplin. The one thing I found a little odd was that they named many of his pieces and repeatedly mentioned "Maple Leaf Rag", which I think many people would recognize, but no where in the book is "The Entertainer" mentioned, which I would have thought would be the piece of music by Scott Joplin that most people would be familiar with.
Profile Image for Chrissy.
700 reviews10 followers
January 21, 2022
On the first page of this picture book biography, the text mentions quilts, and the theme follows through the illustrations throughout, in a lovely way. The pages are locked in squares or anything that literal, but all the colors are so well balances, and everything on the page is laid out so well. I particularly love the spread of the train with it's smoke creating a piece of colorful art above it. This is a pretty straightforward musical biography, but the art elevates the work quite a bit.
20 reviews1 follower
April 3, 2022
The way that Joplin new what he wanted to do with his life and didn't let anybody tell him no is so impactful to readers; he wanted to do music so he pursued music. Not only did this book paint the story of Joplin but it always gave readers an idea of what African Americans went through during the era it took place in. Also the way that they used color to show emotions. Overall I would recommend this book!
1,090 reviews1 follower
September 23, 2022
This book was awesome! As a kid who took piano lessons, I learned how to play Maple Leaf Rag (although probably a simplified version), so Scott Joplin's name was familiar to me. I loved the art style and text of this book, and would recommend reading the Author's Note at end. It's very informative and you can feel the author's passion for this subject. A must-read for music and music-history fans.
Profile Image for Lisa Yee Swope.
305 reviews18 followers
February 8, 2021
Gloriously illustrated, this glimpse into the South during Reconstruction made me hear my childhood piano lessons and the syncopations of Scott Joplin's ragtime melodies. There is so much detail in the multimedia illustrations which include single measures of actual sheet music clippings. It makes me want to pull out my album of The Sting (I know it's anachronistic, but I love it!).
Profile Image for Anthony.
5,584 reviews26 followers
October 1, 2021
The story of how a young man born in East Texas as slavery was ending, and became known as the King of Ragtime. Influenced by a family who played music, and a mother who saw something special in her young son, Scott went on to develop his musical skills and talents until he emerged as the best Ragtime composer of his era.
7,495 reviews28 followers
December 20, 2021
Well written biography of Scott Joplin for elementary level readers. Constanza shares Joplin's life from childhood through many challenges to success as a musician and writer. We see how he studied sounds and translated them to an entirely new style of music - ragtime. The illustrations show readers how Joplin absorbed his experiences and persevered to follow his passion for music.
Profile Image for Patricia.
2,316 reviews43 followers
December 22, 2021
Intricate and interesting illustrations accompany the story of Scott Joplin. And there are suggested Joplin pieces to listen to in the author note.

The author note also says that Joplin's father had left the family by the time his mother started looking to purchase a piano, but the illustrated page shows both parents searching out the piano.

Read for Librarian Book Group
Profile Image for Sherry.
218 reviews3 followers
January 11, 2022
Wow! Caldecott contender for sure... Stunning artwork throughout carries the well written biography. Admittedly, I am fully biased towards Joplin's work; as a pianist born in the late 1890's, my grandmother (and piano teacher) grew up with ragtime and played rags to entertain us all until her passing. Regardless, this is one of the most beautiful picture books I have ever seen.
Profile Image for Jessie.
1,995 reviews27 followers
March 13, 2022
Tells the story of Joplin from childhood through the success of the Maple Leaf Rag (with many of his other works listed as branches of a tree on the last page) with a really strong sense of place and time throughout. Lots of onomatopoeia in the text.

The illustrations have so much color and I think portray the music and movement really well.
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