Friday, February 05, 2010

Silent Music

Image courtesy: Macmillan

Author/Illustrator: James Rumford
Reading level: Ages 4-8

Publisher: Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan (March 18, 2008)

I was moved to tears when I first read Silent Music in the library. When it was time to check it out, I hesitated. Was my 4yo ready for heavy topics like war? Should he already know that there are kids in parts of the world who survive in the backdrop of battle?

The book does not talk about the war itself, it is not filled with horrific pictures or descriptions. It is in what is the unsaid, the subtleties. It is in how it zooms in to the life of one particular boy and how he copes. That creates a stronger impact than any statistic can.

Author/illustrator, James Rumford excels in presenting a story of such depth in words and brief lines that would reach out to even a preschooler. We are introduced to Ali, a preteen, whom one might find in a street corner of Baghdad, Iraq, playing soccer with his friends. Ali loves loud ‘parent-rattling’ music, and writing.

Of all his hobbies, Ali's favorite is writing in the native art form of calligraphy. The delicate art of holding the pen just at the right angle applying just the right pressure to create beautiful strokes and loops and curves fascinates him so much that he writes on every writable surface – on old receipts, newspapers, used envelopes, fogged bathroom mirrors. The graceful up and down strokes and loops of his pen keep tune with the silent music in his head.

He sees calligraphy even in the rugged game of soccer. The way the ball is tossed from player to player and moves across the field, in loops and curves and straight lines is very similar to the way his ink flows from his pen. He idolizes Yakut Al Musta'asimi, a 13th century calligraphist who locked himself in a tower to shut out the noise of the Mongolian invasion and sought peace in writing poem after poem.

One night in 2003, Ali finds himself in a similar situation. He too hears the loud noises of war ravaging his country. He too shuts himself in and starts writing, seeking the ever elusive solace.

That war has long ended, Ali tells us, only to be replaced with war of another kind. He points out the irony, how easy it is to write the word war, how easily the ink flows from his pen, but that other word, the one he yearns for, that other word that the white dove symbolizes, resists him stubbornly, and demands a lot more practice.

The illustrations deserve a review of their own. It is not black text and color pictures on white paper, but embossed regional designs on gold hued pages. Repeating patterns of hexagonal shapes and minaret domes are interspersed with graceful strokes from the Arabic script. Each page is assembled as a collage of assorted images to supplement the text. One particularly moving page is the one in which Ali compares his situation to Yakut's, and we see him huddled under a dark blanket with his white cat, writing. The background is dark with Arabic verses scattered randomly, much like the chaos of voices that might accompany the beginning of war.

Despite my initial hesitation, I did not water this down for my 4 year old. He is at an age where guns awe him, so I thought he should know the other side of the coin as well. I did have to insert in facts at relevant parts of the story because we'd never discussed the that part of the world before. After the first reading he fell silent and for a long time as he chewed on what he'd just heard. In subsequent readings, we talked about how quickly we can pick a fight with our friends, but how much more difficult it was to use words and make peace, but how the latter leads to happiness for everyone. I'm sure it will need a lot more reinforcing, but I'd go so far as to say that this book was a step up in his emotional maturity.

With us, Silent Music left a profound, thought provoking echo.


James Rumford said...

Thank you for what you wrote in your blog. I always wonder, sitting here alone, what effect my books have. It was I who was moved by what you wrote.
Aloha, James Rumford, Honolulu, HI

Meera Sriram said...

As always, beautifully written KM. Somehow, subtlety makes a stronger impact; the context of a little boy and his art to talk about war and peace. I like how you diluted it even more to your son. Thanks for this review. And Thank you James for your book and comment.

Artnavy said...

sounds beautiful = need to find it in india

ranjani.sathish said...

KM, much like the book itself as you have described, your review had a quiet dignity to it and the characteristics of the book have been brought out very well. It is almost like I can imagine the book in my hand. Thank you Kodi's mom and James Rumford.

sathish said...

"Silent Music left a profound, thought provoking echo."
It definitely did in your review too

Vibha said...

KM, Ranjani described exactly my feelings too when I read the review. It felt like I am actually holding the book in my hand.

Choxbox said...

I have not seen this book but it feels like you have done justice to it not just via this review but also through the way you have not watered it down to your son - that needs courage IMO. Hats off to you.

And thanks for bringing this book to us. Sounds like a gem.

Poppins said...

Am speechless. A really deep review, very touching.

Sheela said...

Echoing Poppy... had to sit back, take a deep breath and read this again... Very thoughtful of you to introduce it to your son, KM, breaking it down to his level, yet not taking away the profundity.

I am not there yet, but, you are beginning to inspire me. Thanks!

RingtonesCloud said...

Very good music! Thank you for sharing. You can see more music at:

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