Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Harmonica

Henryk doesn't remember his parents faces, but he does remember "their love, warm and enfolding as a song." Thus begins the story of a boy remembering the joy of being with his parents and singing "so off-key we could crack crockery." The family was poor and loved to listen to Schubert. One day Henryk's father came home with a harmonica and taught him to play it. Then the Nazi's came and "like a length of kindling in one stroke, they split our family." Ironically, the commandant at the concentration camp loves Schubert and Henryk plays for him. Henryk muses, "He worked us, beat us for no reason, without mercy. Yet he recognized beauty. I could not imagine how that could be." When the other prisoners whisper "Bless you," Henryk realizes that in this inhumane place his harmonica gives everyone, good and evil, hope; and so, he chooses to play his harmonica with all his heart.

The illustrations, by Ron Mazellan, are gorgeous. In the beginning of the story when Henryk remembers his family the color is warm and glowing. On pages 5 and 6, the lace curtain is blowing in the room while his mother hugs him and his dad looks on with joy. The movement and happiness is captured quite beautifully. It is one of my favorite pages along with the next one that shows a close up of the father and son's hands as Henryk's father gives him the harmonica.

While at the camp the colors shift to cool and are grim and dark, portraying the bleak surroundings. The commandant has a hat on one page with a skull on the brim. Another page shows Henryk playing the harmonica and surrounded in light while the commandant in front of a red backdrop listens to him with his hand over is heart and a blissful expression on his face, a bullwhip in his hand, and dogs at his feet. The white blackdrop bleeds into the red suggesting the music touching the evil and reminding the commandant of what was once good in life. On the page where Henryk wonders how the commandant can love Schubert there is a skull lightly painted in the background above the commandant. The boy is in the front and his striped pajamas look like prison bars but in front of the commandant as well as on Henryk. The picture suggests that while Henryk is in prison, so is the commandant whose life is hollow and bankrupt of all beauty. It is a powerful painting.

While this book is written at a grade 3 level the content is for grade 5 and up. It is a picture book that requires discussion and is not really appropriate for young kids. It would be a great mentor text for teachers.

Reading Level 3.6

:-) :-) :-) :-) :-) 5 out of 5 Smileys

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