Book Feature – Herman and Rosie

The first in our regular monthly feature on books with jazz in them!

Herman and Rosie (picture book)
by Gus Gordon
Penguin, August 2012 –  32 pp, $24.99
Purchase direct from the Penguin website >

Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon

Herman plays jazz oboe by night and works in an office by day. Rosie is an aspiring jazz-singer by night and a waitress by day. Both are struggling to make ends meet and slowly giving up on their dreams, until one day their paths cross.

Gus Gordon has set his new kids’ picture book in New York City and its two main characters – Herman and Rosie – have jazz in common.

Gordon can’t remember the names of all the jazz clubs he went to in New York to research the story for Herman and Rosie, but the ones that appealed most to him, were often small and hidden away, with small but passionate audiences.

‘It’s one of the things I love about New York City’, he says. ‘You can’t beat looking around at faces in those jazz clubs and seeing the wide smiles. I love the grungy places that have flyers and papers peeling off the walls.’

He visited Smalls, Blue Note, Birdland and The 55 Bar during his research trip in 2010 but it’s the small clubs whose names he can’t remember that inspired the jazz club that Rosie sings in on Thursday nights. There’s Rosie, singing her heart out at ‘The Mangy Hound’, and a solitary duck in the audience, reading a newspaper. Rosie doesn’t mind the tiny audience, says Gordon. ‘She’s doing what she wants to do because that’s her passion and that’s what keeps her going.’

The story of Herman and Rosie is about music and connection, in an urban landscape. Two solitary souls afloat in a big city share a love of jazz that eventually helps bring them together. Herman is an oboe player. Gordon explains that he wanted Herman to have an instrument that went with his personality.

‘Most people would think the obvious instrument would be a saxophone or a trumpet, but because Herman is a conservative, quiet, vest-wearing person who is lonely – and not particularly comfortable around people – I didn’t want a boisterous loud instrument. I love the oboe because it’s quiet and slightly quirky. It has a certain charm that those other instruments don’t have.

I also thought , too, if you take a trumpet up to the roof to play, then that could be annoying to your neighbours but an oboe… where the music just seeps into the night… I thought that would be a more appealing sound.

Adrian Cunningham, snapped on Gus Gordon’s phone at Jules Bistro in the East Village, Manhattan

While researching, Gordon ran into Australian tenor saxophonist Adrian Cunningham and took this shot of him with his phone at a gig at Jules Bistro  in the East Village. Small world! They talked about Herman and Rosie’s story and the jazz scene in New York – he says it was great for research.

‘I’m not an afficionado of jazz’, says Gordon, ‘but I’ve always had a soundtrack to my books that I listen to while I’m writing. It’s another level of narrative that’s vital – a back story that seeps its way into the book by a kind of osmosis.’

He chose  New York because he had an urban tale in mind and ‘New York is the ultimate urban destination’. Researching the book, he stayed in the East Village. ‘I had to stay where I thought the characters were’, he says.

It was winter – and cold – and he sketched as long as his hands held out. ‘I spent a lot of time in coffee shops, and wandered from jazz club to jazz club.’

It was important to get a sense of what his characters’ world really felt like. ‘The characters love their music. It’s part of who they are; they have a personal relationship with jazz. I wanted them to be in love with jazz music and with LPs.’

Herman and Rosie is a lovely book for kids but will also be enjoyed by adults – as much for its quirky, rich and textured images as for the charming story. It is available now in Australia at bookshops or you can buy direct from the Penguin website.


Gus Gordon is an illustrator and author. He grew up on a farm in northern NSW and, after leaving school, worked on cattle stations all over Australia before deciding to pursue a drawing career. He moved to Sydney and studied at the Julian Ashton School of Art. Gus has now illustrated over 70 books for children. His first picture book, Wendy, is about a motorcycle-riding stunt chicken and was selected as a Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Book in the 2010 Book of the Year Awards.