Vancouver-raised, Brooklyn-based author-illustrator Selina Alko first heard Joni Mitchell’s music when she was nine years old attending summer camp in B.C. It made an enduring impression. In her author’s note for Joni: The Lyrical Life of Joni Mitchell, Alko says making this picture book was not only an homage to the singer-songwriter-painter but also a “journey of self-discovery.”
Alko’s richly textured pages, which incorporate painterly and collage-inspired techniques and include snippets of Mitchell’s lyrics, are full of exuberance and colour. Joni begins biographically with Mitchell’s prairie childhood as Roberta Joan Anderson and ends with the release of her 1979 jazz-infused album, Mingus. That feels a like a random spot to stop, given that Mitchell produced at least 12 more records, so when Alko writes, “Maybe her fans didn’t like [Mingus] as much as her earlier music. But Joni didn’t care,” one assumes the point is to highlight Mitchell’s creative single-mindedness.
Joni is necessarily selective with its anecdotes, which include Mitchell performing with her folk heroes in Greenwich Village and weepily falling in and out of love. However, given Alko’s stated goal to “capture some of the many creative influences throughout Joni’s life,” it’s somewhat surprising she didn’t include the well-known fact that Mitchell gave up a daughter for adoption but then was happily reunited with her decades later. Mitchell has acknowledged that trauma as an important inspiration for her early songs. The mother-child narrative would, arguably, have been of more interest to the book’s intended four-to-eight-year-old readership than the fact that Mitchell missed Woodstock because “she was worried she wouldn’t make it back in time to go on TV the next day.” It’s not like Alko is sugar-coating things: the singer’s marriage to Chuck Mitchell, which induced “a thunderstorm of feelings, anger and tears,” is mentioned, as is Mitchell’s bout with polio, which left her crying and alone for weeks in a hospital ward.
The book includes two pages of charmingly rendered reproductions of Mitchell’s album covers, but a second chronological discography feels like overkill. For a generation of streamers and YouTubers, a Top 10 list of Mitchell’s most popular or influential songs might have been a more relevant and obvious entry point. That said, Alko does mention hits like “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Chelsea Morning,” and “The Circle Game” in the main text.
The best way to access Joni Mitchell’s music will always be by listening to it. But for a child captivated by that beguilingly unique body of work, Joni could certainly serve as an informative and even inspiring companion piece.