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Once Upon A Tune

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

Stories From The Orchestra

by James Mayhew

Image: The front cover of Once Upon A Tune by James Mayhew /

James Mayhew's new book Once Upon A Tune: Stories from the Orchestra introduces young minds to classical music through six wonderful stories from many lands that inspired great music.

Scrolling through the Sunday Times' Culture magazine this weekend, The Hub's eye hovered over Children's Books editor Nicolette Jones' review of her Children's Book of the Week: James Mayhew's new book for 5 to 8 year olds.

Image: Nicolette Jones retweeted this celebration of her Children's Book of the Week by Tamsin Rosewell, Bookseller @KenilworthBook

Writers working with illustrators are a standard feature of children's literature. Colourful and playful drawings can break up the text for young readers, bringing characters to life and engaging children with the words on the page. Roald Dahl's dystopian writing coupled with Quentin Blake's indelible drawings come to mind. EH Shepherd may be less well-remembered but his illustrations of AA Milne's stories of Pooh Bear and friends are timeless.

Katie's Picture Show

Image: Make Art an Adventure! - The front cover of Katie's Picture Show /

Credit: Orchard Books

Illustrator, author, concert presenter and storyteller James Mayhew studied illustration at Maidstone College of Art, graduating in 1987 with first class honours. Mayhew's first book, Katie's Picture Show, published in 1989, introduced children to the great works of art via a series of "Katie" titles. Now a classic, that first adventure is the story of a visit to London's National Gallery – where five famous paintings come alive.

Katie's adventures take in works like Constable’s Hay Wain, Rousseau’s Surprised! and Renoir’s Umbrellas!. The books can be found in museums and galleries across the world. In 2015 the National Gallery launched a Katie range of merchandise, followed in 2017 by a series of art activity books.

Stories Inspiring World-Famous Music

James Mayhew's new book does for classical music what the Katie series did for classic art. Once Upon A Tune presents children with "six wonderful stories that inspired world-famous music, accompanied by brilliant illustrations." Mayhew the Concert Presenter combines classical music and painting in a unique way.

Music is a wonderful way to tell a story, and many of the great composers were inspired by myths and folktales. From The Four Seasons, to fairy tales and firebirds, James Mayhew’s unique way of presenting classical concerts has him joining musicians and orchestras to narrate and illustrate live on stage during performances; the illustrations are projected onto a screen so the audience can watch the pictures grow in time to the music.

Vimeo video: Heroes & Villains Showreel - James Mayhew teams up with Robin Browning and de Havilland Philharmonic

Once Upon A Tune brings this cross-genre musical story telling into book form. Mayhew says the idea for the book began at the cinema when he was 4. "The film was Fantasia, and I was terrified! The Sorcerer’s Apprentice! Night on Bare Mountain, with the demons and dead souls! I was rooted to my seat. Yet I longed to hear the music again, to once more thrill at the awe and splendour of the sound.

At school, a music teacher quietly explained how music tells stories – I remember him asking the class to listen out for the cockerel, at dawn, in Saint-Saën’s Danse Macabre. Meanwhile, my parents had a few old LPs at home. They told stories, too… Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty; Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (oh, how I wept for the duck); Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade."

YouTube video: James Mayhew Presents Once Upon A Tune - 5 Scheherazade

The stories presented are: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Swan of Tuonela, The Flight of the Bumblebee, In the Hall of the Mountain King, Scheherazade and William Tell. As Nicolette Jones says, it is: "...a vibrant collection that shows the influence of the source countries. The images are made using collages of textured and patterned paper, including sheet music, and depict floods, mountains and forests, Russian domes, a pagoda, an icy blue landscape with a swan, and such magical images as genies, even a fiery horse..."

To help support the book, Mayhew has created six short films about each story in the collection. The Hub has posted the fifth film Scheherazade above. But you can start at the very beginning just like Maria in The Sound of Music here: Introducing "Once upon a Tune" by James Mayhew: 1. The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Listen to the Music

"You don’t have to be a painter to visit a gallery. You don’t need to be a musician to go to a concert. Open your minds, your hearts, your ears… LISTEN, and let this music take your hand – as it whispers…"

Mayhew has curated a playlist to encourage his young, and not so young, readers to explore the music inspired by the stories in Once Upon A Tune. You can listen to the playlist by clicking on the link below.


James Mayhew is the creator of the much-loved Katie and Ella Bella Ballerina series and has written or illustrated many other books, including Koshka’s Tales, Mouse & Mole (by Joyce Dunbar) and Gaspard the Fox (by Zeb Soanes). Alongside his work in publishing, James performs live on stage during concerts for children, combining live classical music, storytelling and art.

You can explore James' imaginative world for children, and the young at heart, via his website and YouTube channel.


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