Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin




Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Making A Melody, Making A Memory

Music is the shorthand of emotion.
Leo Tolstoy

Regardless of our varied moods there will be music to match them.  Specific compositions or songs are used to inspire, calm, energize and replace one feeling with another.  These same melodies may be connected to vivid memories.  

In the early part of the eighteenth century a new musical instrument was introduced.  Today eighty-eight keys, some white, some black, arranged on a board, when pressed, cause hammers to strike strings.  These vibrating strings produce a range of sounds as varied as the person playing the piano.  The Bear and the Piano (Clarion Books, April 5, 2016) written and illustrated by David Litchfield is a marvelous exploration of music and friendship.

One day in the forest, a young bear cub found something he'd never seen before.

What could this be? he thought.
Shyly, he touched it with his stubby paws.

The sound coming from this new thing was dreadful.  The cub walked away that day but on the next day he returned.  He kept coming back day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year.  The harmonies now coming from this object were not dreadful, but utterly exquisite. 

When the bear played he was able to travel to places from his dreams; he was no longer in the woods.  Soon other bears congregated to listen in the evenings; enchanted by what they were hearing.  It was not long before someone else, two children, heard his music.  Their proposition changed the bear's life.

He knew the other bears would miss his nightly concerts, but the desire to venture out of the forest was stronger.  Within the clamor of the city the piano-playing bear made headlines.  Now his nightly concerts were performed before large crowds in huge halls.  He received awards for his record albums; every one gold. 

As his fame and fortune grew so did a longing to return home.  Home is where his heart was.  Home is where his friends were.  Home is where the piano in the woods was.  But sometimes when you go back things are different.  They might be even better.


When you read the first two pages of this book written by David Litchfield you are immediately intrigued.  You can hardly wait to turn the page, wondering where this story will go.  Your mind is filled with questions; some will be answered, others will remain a mystery.  

Word choices, sentence placement and spacing and punctuation provide impeccable pacing.  If it were possible to express the playing of a piano melody through story, it would be as Litchfield has written this book.  Here is a sample passage.

It wasn't long before the other bears
in the forest were drawn to the clearing.

Every night, a crowd gathered to listen
to the magical melodies coming from
the bear and the strange thing.


The red theater curtains pulled back to reveal the cub at the piano in the woods, shown on the matching dust jacket and book case, is a prelude of things to come.  Readers can sense the contrast between the two worlds, theater and forest supplied by the texture of the elements in the image.  The rich ruby red is carried across the spine to the left on the back of the jacket and case.  In an circular illustration placed on this background it is autumn.  Leaves fall from trees in the wooded clearing as the bear plays his piano.

The opening and closing endpapers both showcase the beauty of the bear's forest, trees and flowers with light streaming between the leaves and branches.  The two scenes are different though; extensions of the story.  Beneath the title text a portion of the bear is shown in his tuxedo.  

Rendered in mixed media the pictures shift in size to enhance emphasis in the narrative.  Double page spreads command our full attention, a group of vignettes shows a passing of time, and single pages ask us to pause.  The blend of the color palette and illustrative detail will have you looking at every single element in the images and then reaching out to touch the page.

One of my favorite illustrations of many is of the bear seated on a rooftop in the city.  He is wearing his theater attire, a tuxedo, with the collar and tie loosened.  Beneath the stars and full moon he gazes over the city, across the river and into the woods.  The chosen colors heighten the overall peace and thoughts of the bear. 




Playing from the Heart (Candlewick Press, April 12, 2016) brings our attention again to the allure of piano music.  This title, written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, gives readers insight, as did The Bear and the Piano, into the powerful personal connections made between a musician and their listeners.  Let's follow the lives of a father, his son and the piano.

The piano stood quietly
in the living room for years.

Little Raj finally sat down on the bench one day.  His legs were much too short to reach the pedals but he sent notes floating out into the room.  As he grew so did his ability to blend the sounds, making them longer, more melodious. 

His playing without benefit of a single lesson was so lovely, his father found him a teacher, a piano teacher.  Raj learned to read music from a printed page.  His playing was flawless.  In fact it's perfection exhausted the young man.  He stopped playing.

Raj grew up, left home and worked in the city.  His father grew older and felt the silence left by his son's absence.  Time passed until one night Raj got a call.  His father was sick.

The son hurried as quickly as he could to get home.  At his father's bedside Raj asked a question and received a reply.  A bond is reformed joining hearts together.


Like the title of this book, Peter H. Reynolds writes from the heart.  For many of the pages, a single, simple sentence conveys much meaning.  We are wrapped in his words, surrounded by the story. 

To place significance on a change in the narrative Reynolds adds more sentences.  We can feel the intensity of the moment when Raj's playing will change.  Here is a sample passage.

His father heard the dreamy music
floating through the house.  He was amazed
that his son was playing beautifully without
ever having taken a lesson.


The text on the dust jacket, book case and throughout the book is hand-lettered.  The illustrations are created using pen, ink, watercolor, gouache and tea.  As readers can see in looking at the front of the dust jacket, color is used sparingly and with purpose.  The brush strokes flow forming a distinct atmosphere.  On the back, to the left, Raj and his father, now ill and in bed, are conversing.  Peter H. Reynolds adds a very personal note beneath the image.

On the book case a swirl of colors cover the front and back.  The only other item is the title in black on the front.  The opening and closing endpapers are a dusty blue wash.  Between text on the title page we see the interior of the home; the living room with the piano after the boy has decided to stop playing and has graduated.

Most of the pictures are placed on single pages.  There are two double-page spreads, each of the father in the living room at different points in his life. The emotions they depict are at opposite ends.  The palette for all the illustrations is limited; browns, grays, blues, a little golden and a little purple.  Only the notes when the son is the happiest are more brightly depicted.  The loose delicate lines by Reynolds are distinctive, defining exactly what he wants us to see.

One of my favorite pictures is when Raj first sits on the bench to play the piano.  Childhood items, a baseball, a book, a paint brush and paper and toy fire truck are scattered on the floor behind him.  (His back is to us.)  Through the arch in the doorway a kitten watches.  Notes are placed on the wall above Raj and the piano.  He is dwarfed by the piano but he continues to play.  Reynolds outlines the piano and items on the top, leaving it and them mostly white.  The added color surrounds the key elements.

The Bear and the Piano written and illustrated by David Litchfield and Playing from the Heart written and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds are two expressive books inviting us to participate in the joy of shared music.  Music, piano music, brings people together.  It awakens creativity in some and creates an appreciation for the form in others.  I highly recommend both of these titles.  

To learn about David Litchfield and Peter H. Reynolds and enjoy more of their other work please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  There are a few interior illustrations from The Bear and the Piano at Litchfield's site.  By following this link to the publisher's website you can view additional images from Playing from the Heart.  Enjoy the videos.



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