February 24


The Power of Persistence by Caitlin DeLems

When I received an email invitation to write a blog for the Nerdy Book Club, I didn’t hesitate. “YES!” I said to myself, and pressed “send”—and almost immediately self-doubt knocked on my door.

Not only had I never written a blog post, but as a debut author, what could I contribute as meaningful content to the followers of Nerdy Book Club? Could it possibly serve useful?

Then the waves of self-doubt quieted to pianissimo.

I do have a word—or two—to share about the evolution of Pitch Perfect and Persistent! The Musical Debut of Amy Cheney Beach, illustrated by the remarkable Alison Jay (and coming in March from Calkins Creek/Astra Books for Young Readers).

Let’s face it. When it comes to book selection, classical music composers may not top most reader’s selection list, especially children. So why did I choose a classical musician/composer as my subject? To elaborate, I need to step back in time . . .

As a child, the thrill of opening to the first page of a new book, finding the first word, first paragraph, and diving in brought sheer contentment. Throughout my youth and as an adult, the gratification of reading remained, as did writing.

Crafting stories lived inside me. Getting thoughts out of my head and onto paper transported me in time, soothed me. Seemed natural. My mother always carried a small notebook and jotted down words. Both she and my father dabbled in poetry—written on snippets of paper, inside cards, on grocery lists—to share their affection. For me, words appeared inside my diary as a child, followed by journaling and writing across genres as an adult.

I had no intention of writing nonfiction, no intention of writing about a female classical music composer and her quest—until, as an elementary teacher, I attempted to locate books available to young readers on classical women composers. Only a handful existed.

Upon pursuing my writing full-time, I joined SCBWI and met other writers and illustrators. One SCBWI event jumpstarted my writing career—a writing workshop for children’s magazines, with guest speaker Carolyn P. Yoder, who at the time held the title of Senior History Editor at Highlights for Children in addition to her job editing books for Calkins Creek, then the American History imprint of Highlights’ book division. She opened the door to the art of crafting meaningful, succinct articles for children. Eager to hone my writing skills, I immediately accepted her invitation to delve further into nonfiction.

It was only the beginning. Year after year, I traveled to Pennsylvania to attend writing workshops and retreats for children’s writers and illustrators hosted by the Highlights Foundation. There, in a small cabin in the snowy Pocono Mountains, I undertook serious, intensive writing. I polished my craft and built lifelong friendships.

Ideas for my future writings first developed from my travels with my violinist husband while attending magical symphonic concerts. I realized if I was going to write about music, I better learn an instrument. As a child, I dabbled in piano. It made sense to begin at the piano as an adult. Soon I added violin, and later joined an ensemble for several years.

My list of subjects grew as I researched potential composers for my picture book biography. After much investigation, I was convinced Amy Cheney Beach’s story must be told for at least two reasons.

First, it sends a message to ALL young girls who one day desire to undertake a career dominated by men to persevere, and it matters for ALL children who doubt that they, too, can dream BIG.

Second, I thought again about the limited number of books on female composers for young students. For the most part, the nineteenth century male-dominated classical music world did not step aside easily, nor passionately welcome their female counterpart. Many believed a woman belonged in the parlor of her home, not on stage.

In-depth research caught me by surprise. How I admire and listen intently to other authors speak of their research. Initially, I found the process painstakingly slow as I fumbled my way. What did I discover? The only way out of the process is through it. How jubilant, and how rewarding, to reach the other side!

Carolyn’s reminder always stuck with me. Thorough research is CRITICAL! A manuscript lacking research can easily be spotted. Pearls are hidden in the research.

Beach’s personal letters, articles, interviews, in addition to her mother’s diaries, captured the essence of her quest for a musical career and provided a wealth of primary documentation. The Library of Congress, the University of New Hampshire Archives, numerous New Hampshire historical societies, a Beach biographer, and my expert reviewer all provided essential information.

Amy Beach’s determination to play piano and compose music, coupled with her perfect pitch, hooked me. My research started in 2018. I finished the first rough draft three months later, followed by the back matter. I polished and revised, revised and polished. Submission, acceptance, and overwhelming pure gratitude arrived in 2019.

Carolyn once reminded me that Beach’s story is not about her lifetime accomplishments, nor is it about being the first American woman composer to have a symphony performed by a major U.S. orchestra. Her story is about PERSEVERANCE!

From early on, Amy Marcy Cheney (Beach), born in 1867 West Henniker, New Hampshire, always knew she wanted to make music. But she faced one huge problem—her mother. Clara Marcy Cheney maintained rigid and narrow beliefs in child rearing. She refused to allow her only child to make a spectacle of herself, or to be recognized as a child musical prodigy. She simply wanted her to grow up like other girls of her time.

Pitch Perfect and Persistent! is not a cradle to death account. Instead, it spotlights a struggling young child’s attempts to play piano, coupled with her determination to compose. Mother’s countless “Nos” did not thwart her efforts. With every “NO!” Amy grew more determined. She never gave up! But would Mother ever concede?

Amy Cheney Beach blazed her own trail as a female classical composer/musician. She helped ward off nineteenth century societal strictures in a male-dominated musical world. And she helped pave the way for future female composers.

Notwithstanding, this book is a joint effort. My words are empowered through the vibrant illustrations created by Alison Jay. From her undeniable, magical, and detailed art emerges Amy’s emotion and connection to music. It is a privilege to share the honor of this book with her

In addition, it has been a privilege to work with Carolyn Yoder. Her keen insight, vision, and natural ability to make each word count brought Pitch Perfect! to life.

Debut author Caitlin DeLems enjoys playing piano and violin and the magic of symphony concert halls. She delights in the discovery of unknown and determined female artists who are role models for young girls. Caitlin’s second picture book biography—on another little-known woman composer—is forthcoming. Caitlin lives with her husband in the California Sierra Nevadas.  Visit caitlindelems.com.

Watch the book trailer and access the discussion guide!