Review: Drummer Boy of John John by Mark Greenwood

Mark Greenwood (Author), Frané Lessac (Illustrator)
Lee and Low Books
Picture book/biography, ages 3-8

It's Carnival time in Trinidad and the residents of John John are busy preparing for the big Carnival parade. When the Roti King announces that he will give free rotis to the best mas band in the parade, young, roti-loving Winston desperately wishes he was in a band. Wandering into the junkyard one day, Winston accidentally discovers that he can produce musical sounds from old discarded containers― biscuit tins, oil cans, pots, and pans. Winston's musical prowess soon draws a following and a band is formed. Using their freshly fashioned instruments, they steal the show at the Carnival parade and drum their way to a roti feast to be remembered.

Greenwood's writing in Drummer Boy of John John strikes a pleasant note; the story is deftly and exuberantly told. In the junkyard scene and subsequent pages, Winston's discovery of the musical potential of the discarded containers is given abundant onomatopoeic treatment; a read-aloud of this book is sure to inspire a fun element of musical performance. The use of the phonetic representation "de" to convey a Trinidadian Creole pronunciation of the word "the" is unnecessary for Caribbean readers and will probably be appreciated more by a non-Caribbean audience.

Lessac's illustrations are executed in her trademark style; colorful goucahe paintings and flowing lines capture the freedom and movement of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. Lessac's rendering of Trinidad Carnival costumes will not ring true with contemporary Trinidadian readers, but it is worthwhile to remember that the story takes place in 1930s Trinidad; even so, the depiction of Carnival costumes in the book lacks cultural authenticity, as does the pastoralization of the inner city neighborhood of John John.

The character Winston in the story is based on Winston "Spree" Simon, the self-taught Trinidadian instrumentalist who pioneered indigenous steel percussion music, including the steelpan; however, the historical significance of Simon's discovery is not conveyed by the story, rather, that narrative is relegated to the Author's Note at the end of the book. Drummer Boy of John John seems to be more about Winston's triumph in the Roti King competition rather than a true-told story about the invention of the steelpan.

Overall, an enjoyable picturebook valuable for its celebratory treatment of Trinidad Carnival and steelpan music.


About the Reviewer

Summer Edward was born in Trinidad and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her poems and art have been published in literary magazines such as tongues of the oceanBIM: Arts for the 21st CenturyPhiladelphia StoriesThe Columbia ReviewThe Caribbean Writersx salon and more. She was shortlisted for the 2012 Small Axe Literary Prize in the fiction category. She blogs at

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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