Valerie June

If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing the Grammy-nominated musician Valerie June perform live, then you’re undoubtedly acquainted with her sweet little banjolele, which she lovingly calls “The Baby” and often strums as she sings her tender Pushin’ Against a Stone tune, “Somebody to Love.”

The strings and the song served as the inspiration for June’s latest project, a picture book written by the singer-songwriter and illustrated by Marcela Avelar, entitled, Somebody to Love: The Story of Valerie June’s Sweet Little Baby Banjolele. It’s an inspiring tale – with brightly colored, vivid images covering each page – about finding your voice and having the confidence to dream big.

Proceeding the book’s release – it’s available now via Third Man Books – June shared the long journey to publishing, her favorite dreamers that inspire her every day, and how she gasped with joy when she first saw Avelar’s incredible illustrations.

“I was blown away at the detail and the way she was able to capture the moods of the instrument because instruments, to me, have personalities. Some of them are grumpy. Some are bright sounding. Some are tinny,” said June by phone. “It exceeds my biggest dreams. [Avelar] is such an incredible artist. She is amazing.”

Along with creating the perfect visual representation of The Baby, Avelar also used photographs of June’s family for reference when illustrating her parents and grandparents who were absolutely thrilled to be part of the story.

Before Somebody to Love was a book, it was a story that June shared at performances, often for children.

“It’s a story that I was telling on stage but in particular at my performances at the Kennedy Center for Turnaround Arts. Before it was at the Kennedy Center it was with Michelle Obama and President Obama’s President’s Committee on the Arts,” said June. “We were going to schools and I would tell the story. The Turnaround Arts team was like, ‘you really should make that a children’s book one day.’”

June joked that life got busy and “one day” took a bit longer than she anticipated. In many ways, Somebody to Love‘s journey to publishing mirrors the plot itself as it took three years for this little book that could to find its rightful home so its voice could be heard by readers everywhere.

Third Man Books, the publishing partner of Jack White’s Third Man Records, turned out to be the ideal teammate for releasing Somebody to Love. Along with having her book come out with an organization that, according to its website is “publishing the best in poetry, fiction, speculative fiction, SF/F, and non-fiction,” June said that she loved the enthusiasm, joy, and “whistle while you work” vibe of the Third Man entire team.

“We shopped the book for three years and we got rejections. Third Man picked it up. We found the perfect fit. I feel so grateful for all of it,” said June, adding, “I love it. Jack White is such a visionary.”

Valerie June performs at Park West in Chicago on April 22, 2019.

When reading Somebody to Love, you can practically hear preschoolers shouting along with the instrument sounds described, including electric guitars (“buzz, buzz, bang, bang, hum, hum”) and acoustic guitars (“strum, strum, strum”). Older readers who read music can look forward to learning to play the song, “Somebody to Love” as sheet music – transcribed by pianist Dave Sherman – appears in the story as well. June’s eight-year-old family members love the book and she thinks that kids seven and under will especially gravitate to its message. She also notes that grown-ups, aka kids of all ages, also find a lot to enjoy with Somebody to Love.

“I also think adults will love it because it’s Third Man Records and they are doing a limited press,” said June. “Ten percent of all the sales of it go to literacy charities that [Avelar] and I chose and they’re putting the seven inch vinyl record in the back of it. For all those people who like the things that Jack White puts out, they’re gonna love it.”

This isn’t June’s first book. She released a collection of poetry, Maps for the Modern World, via Andrews McMeel Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster, in 2021 to coincide with the release of her album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers.

“It was kind of, for me, a supplement to the stratospheric, sonic spaces that the record had. [The poems] were bright and iridescent and moon and star-like,” explained June noting that she drew dozens of illustrations for the book. “It deals with dreams and journeys similar to the kids book but it’s for adults.”

After The Baby’s story finds a happy ending, June concludes Somebody to Love with an epilogue of sorts dedicated to some of the most inspiring dreamers of all time.

“I had to start with Dr. King because I’m from Memphis but also because he was one of the most beautiful dreamers the planet has ever known, risking everything and doing it for others, so he was high on my list.” said June.

Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey, Frida Kahlo, and John Lennon, whose “Imagine” was covered by June on the deluxe edition of Moon and Stars, are also highlighted in the gallery of dreamers. June explained how she thinks about all these historic figures – and more including the light bulb’s inventor, Thomas Edison – whenever she is having a bad day.

“We might be surrounded by darkness, but we can keep a light in our lives,” she said.

Somebody to Love: The Story of Valerie June’s Sweet Little Baby Banjolele written by Valerie June and illustrated by Marcela Avelar was published on Nov. 1, 2022 via Third Man Books. June plans on doing a book tour – where she will also perform a few kid-friendly tunes – and she currently has a solo tour scheduled through mid-November.

Click here to purchase your copy of Somebody to Love: The Story of Valerie June’s Sweet Little Baby Banjolele and head over to Valeriejune.com for tour dates and much more.

Laurie Fanelli

Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and...