The Fastest Drummer: Clap Your Hands for Viola Smith!

by Dean Robbins (Author) Susanna Chapman (Illustrator)

Reading Level: 2nd − 3rd Grade

Clap your hands for Viola Smith--the pioneering female drummer at the heart of this bright and rhythmic biography, who rat-tat-tat-bang-crash-clink-boomed for nearly a century.

Five girls played together in the Smith Sisters Orchestra: Irene on trombone, Erma on vibraphone, Edwina on trumpet, Mildred on violin, and Lila on saxophone. But what of the littlest sister? When Viola's time came, almost every instrument was taken . . . except one. When she first sat behind a drum kit, she lost the beat, made a terrible racket, and had more fun than she'd ever had before. Viola took to the road with her family, learned from the greats, formed her own band in the face of discrimination and ridicule, mastered twelve- and seventeen-piece drum kits, and played so fast she left no room for doubt: women could not only keep the beat--they could beat the odds. At one hundred years of age, Viola was still slamming her snare and socking her cymbals.

Dean Robbins's affectionate portrait of one of the few female professional drummers of the early twentieth century includes an endnote with resources for discovering other female musicians. Susanna Chapman's swirling illustrations capture the joy and energy of Viola's stage presence while introducing young readers to the essential art form of jazz.

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Horn Book Magazine

Starred Review
Robbins and Chapman collectively convey the vivacity and joy of this exceptional musician, and back matter further describes Smith's advocacy for women in music.


This upbeat account of exuberant and innovative drummer Viola Smith is a lively newcomer to journalist and award-winning picture-book author Robbins' noteworthy collection of biographies of women pursuing big dreams with passion and persistence.

Kirkus Reviews

Pulsing with energy, this lively book shines a much-deserved spotlight on an artist who became renowned playing an instrument most commonly associated with men. 

Publishers Weekly

Legendary jazz musician Viola Smith (1912-2020) gets a much-deserved spotlight in Robbins's ringing tribute. Onomatopoeic lines describe Smith's childhood exposure to drums as the youngest member of the Smith Sisters Orchestra, which traveled the U.S. Midwest ("Viola tried out a RAT-TAT-TAT on the snare. A BANG-BANG-BANG on the tom-tom"). Even after the group disbands, Smith's passion proves lifelong. Alliterative text highlights her asking other drummers for advice and her eventual prowess as "the fastest drummer," the formation of famed women's band the Coquettes, her door-opening wartime advocacy for female musicians, and more. Chapman's retro-style multimedia artwork snaps with vibrant color that captures the volume of Smith's music, and confetti and emanata celebrate the energy of her beats. Highlighting Smith's collaborative instincts, this profile offers a resounding reason to "clap your hands for Viola Smith!" An author's note and glossary conclude. Ages 7-9. (Mar.)

Copyright 2024 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.

Review quotes

Chapman's upbeat illustrations create movement, sound, and emotion constantly swirling around "the fastest girl drummer in the world." With a decidedly mid-century feel, the art reverberates with Smith's active enthusiasm, with ripples from cymbals, starbursts from the bass drum, and twirling lines that trace the paths of her perpetually in-motion mallets. 
—The Horn Book (starred review) 

As dynamic as Viola's drumming, Chapman's art vibrates with bright colors in retro palettes, with inventive compositions pulsating across the page and energetic hand-drawn words to amp up the rhythm. . . . An engaging perspective on a vibrant life that inspires a reader to find her own unique beat.

What a thrilling way to tell the story of a thrilling woman! The pages come alive, bursting with Viola Smith's energy. Kudos to Dean Robbins and Susanna Chapman for this vibrant collaboration, which tells the story of a powerful musician who fell in love with the drums and led the charge for all female musicians to follow.
—Mindy Abovitz Monk, publisher of Tom Tom, the magazine for female drummers, and director of Hit Like a Girl, the international contest for female drummers

Famous men dominate the history of jazz. But it is often unknown women who play it, like the drummer Viola Smith, who should be far better known today than she is. This book about that wonderful drummer tells a compelling story, about the power of women and the power of the music they make.
—Simon Adams of Jazz Journal

I'm excited that kids will get to know my great aunt Viola Smith through The Fastest Drummer. This bold, vibrant book evokes her talent as a musician and her courage in pursuing her dream to become one of the first professional female drummers. It will inspire young readers to pursue their own dreams, whatever they happen to be.
—Janet Furtak, grandniece of Viola Smith

The Fastest Drummer tells a marvelous story with captivating illustrations, and it well represents my aunt Viola Smith. As the first recognized American professional female drummer, she was an inspiration to musicians around the world, and the book will be similarly inspiring for young readers.
—Dennis Bartash, nephew of Viola Smith 

Appropriately, onomatopoeic words representing the sounds of drum crashes cavort playfully throughout the eye-popping watercolor, gouache, cut-paper, and digital illustrations. Bang the drums—loudly—for this arresting account of a gifted virtuoso.
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Dean Robbins
Sarah Green is an illustrator and designer based in San Francisco. She is the illustrator of several books for young readers, including Anna Strong: A Spy During the American Revolution by Sarah Glenn Marsh, The Fight of the Century: Alice Paul Battles Woodrow Wilson for the Vote by Barb Rosenstock, and Elizabeth Warren: Nevertheless, She Persisted by Susan Wood, among others. Learn more at
Dean Robbins is a journalist and the author of the children's picture books Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, Margaret and the Moon: How Margaret Hamilton Saved the First Lunar Landing, and Miss Paul and the President: The Creative Campaign for Women's Right to Vote. His award-winning books have received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews and have been praised in the New York Times and USA Today. Dean grew up idolizing Apollo astronauts and loved working with Alan Bean on The Astronaut Who Painted the Moon. Learn more at
Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Candlewick Press (MA)
Publication date
March 05, 2024
BISAC categories
JNF007040 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Biography & Autobiography | Music
JNF036040 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Music | Jazz
JNF023000 - Juvenile Nonfiction | Girls & Women
Library of Congress categories
Drummers (Musicians)
Smith, Viola

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