Disability in The Trumpet of the Swan

Louis the Swan from The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White is a character whose disability (he can’t speak) is just part of his life instead of what defines it. It can seem very tricky for a writer to portray a character with a disability in a way that is empathetic but not patronizing, but it’s actually quite simple. So long as the character is treated like a person first rather than just a disability, it will all work out just fine.

For Louis, his inability to speak was absolutely a problem, making it very difficult for him to communicate with other swans. But once his father came up with a creative workaround – stealing a trumpet from a music shop in Billings Montana to serve as a prosthetic voice – Louis was able to have everything he could have hoped for and more.

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Activity: Musicians with Disabilities

Have students research a famous musician who has a disability. Students may present their findings as a written report or presentation. Tell the students to remember that the disability is just one part of a person’s life, and that there are many other things that define him or her. Students should find out whether the disability was congenital or due to illness or injury. They should also find out how the disability affected the musician’s ability to learn and perform music. Sometimes the modifications a musician makes to technique because of a disability results in creative new ways of playing music. If this happened, students should explain what happened.

Some examples of famous musicians with disabilities:

Rick Allen
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ray Charles
Tony Iommi
Turlough O’Carolan
Django Reinhardt
Hank Williams
Stevie Wonder

Sources

The audio clip of a Trumpeter Swan call in this episode is from Xeno-Canto and was recorded by Andrew Spencer.

The Music of The Trumpet of the Swan

The Trumpet of the Swan is an extremely musical book, though it’s not until about halfway through that the soundtrack kicks in. Every song or composer mentioned in the story is real, and this provides subtle encouragement to young readers to go and discover great music. There’s one exception: a melody written by E.B. White called “Oh, Ever in the Greening Spring” which in the book is a love song written by Louis the Swan for his sweetheart Serena.

Learn a bit more about the songs mentioned in The Trumpet of the Swan, including the several numbers that were recorded by Louis Armstrong, the after whom the trumpet-playing Trumpeter Swan in the story is named.

Recordings of some of the songs played by Louis in the book as well as sheet music can be found at childrensliteraturepodcast.com/music. These recordings can be played while reading the book so children can hear the tunes, or the sheet music can be used for a live performance.

Activity: Louis’ Repertoire

Have students research one or more of the songs or composers mentioned in The Trumpet of the Swan. Students could produce a written report, give a presentation, or give a musical performance.

Composers mentioned:

Johann Sebastian Bach
Ludwig van Beethoven
Irving Berlin
Johannes Brahms
Stephen Foster
George Gershwin
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Jean Sibelius

Songs mentioned:

“Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster
“Cradle Song” by Johannes Brahms
“Gentle on My Mind” by John Hartford
“Mess Call”
“Now the Day is Over” by Sabine Baring-Gould and Joseph Barnby
“Oh, Ever In the Greening Spring” by E.B. White
“Ol’ Man River” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
“Reveille”
“Summertime” by George Gershwin
“Taps”
“The U.S. Air Force” by Robert MacArthur Crawford
“There’s a Small Hotel” by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart
“Row, Row, Row Your Boat”