Bookmonger: Author Judy Cox writes a tuneful middle-grade novel

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 16, 2013 

School's back in session, and students once again are hitting the books. But nowadays they're less apt to spend time doing art projects or playing an instrument during the school day.

I lament the trend that puts arts education first on the chopping block when school districts are in budget-cutting mode. Even in our state, where arts education is a core academic subject and schools by law are required to deliver a certain amount of arts instruction to every student, arts education is far from robust. Often it is only by dint of involved and vocal citizens that school boards and administrators are reminded of their legal obligation to provide substantive arts curriculum to every child.

Which brings me to a charming new middle-grade book just out from Holiday Press. Judy Cox, an Ontario, Ore. children's author, has written "Ukulele Hayley," a story about a third-grader who starts a ukulele club at her school.

Hayley had always felt she was lacking in talent, until she stumbled across an old ukulele at a garage sale. Once the new music teacher at school, Mr. Y, shows her how to strum a few chords, her confidence blossoms. She screws up the courage to perform in the school talent show, and her number is such a hit that other kids ask her how to play.

Acting on her own initiative, Hayley starts a uke band that meets in the cafeteria before school, but as more kids join, they create a distraction that dismays the school staff.

Hayley persuades the music teacher to offer his room as a place where they can practice during lunch recess two days a week, and things are going along fine until the school board announces that the music program will be discontinued as a cost-cutting measure and the music teacher will be laid off.

But students and parents don't take this news lying down, and Ukulele Hayley is among those leading the protest.

Cox, a former elementary school teacher, writes pitch-perfect renditions of scenarios that regularly repeat themselves in real classrooms and real communities across the nation: Arts education is constantly in jeopardy - there isn't enough space for it, there isn't enough time in the school day for it and there aren't enough offerings to engage all of the kids.

The author also does a good job of creating relatable characters, from the unemployed dad to the students who don't quite fit in, and Hayley is a fun and spunky heroine.

The outcome of the story is hard-won but optimistic, and I like the various ways Cox riffs on the idea that individual participation matters, and activism can make a difference.

See if you agree. And in addition to looking up this book, check into what your own local school district is doing. With the general election coming up, now's the perfect time to find out where your local school board candidates stand on the matter of ensuring arts education. You can learn more by visiting artsedwashington.org.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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