Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Mozart Question, by Michael Morpurgo

Title:  The Mozart Question
Author:  Michael Morpurgo
Publisher:  Candlewick
Year:  2008
Pages:  80
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes: The Holocaust, Music
Age Range:  3rd Grade and Up

Summary:  from Goodreads
Like any young boy, Paolo becomes obsessed with what he can’t have — in his case, a violin. Hidden away in his parents’ room, it beckons the boy to release the music inside it. The music leads Paolo to a family secret, a story of World War II that changed the course of his parents’ lives. But once the truth is told, the family is reunited in a way no one had thought possible. 

This slim little book-something between a novella and a picture book-is beautifully written.  The story is very moving, and evoked strong emotion in me when I read it.  I related to Paolo pretty strongly.  As a musician myself, I know what it is like to have music inside of you and want to get it out into the world.  And his relationship with his violin teacher resonated with me as well.  When I was a child there were a couple of older people who taught me various skills, and wisdom.  Neither one was related to me, but I remember how valued and comfortable I felt with them.  

Writing about the Holocaust for children is a task that more than a few authors have taken on over the years, with varying degrees of success.  I remember reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as a child, and  being so sad and heartbroken and scared at how Jews and other minorities were treated in the concentration camps.   I also remember watching documentaries and made-for-tv movies about the Holocaust with my parents, and being oddly fascinated with the ways that the Nazi's came up with to torture and murder people.  I especially remember a movie called "Playing for Time", with Vanessa Redgrave, which was actually a very similar story to the story in this book.  What is slightly different about The Mozart Question is that it is told with a certain distance, since the children first see Paolo as an old man.  And Paolo was not the victim of the Nazi's, at least not directly; it was his parents who had witnessed the horrors of the camps.  Morpurgo does an excellent job walking the line between realistic descriptions and "scary" when he talks about the camps.  It is clear that many people died, but there are few specific details that could frighten a younger reader.

If you are teaching about the Holocaust, chances are pretty good that you have older students.  The reading level on this is a little low for middle schoolers learning about WWII for the first time.  But, if you are doing a literature unit based on the Holocaust, and you are doing guided reading, then this book would be good to use with those lower readers who may not be able to read Number the Stars or The Devil's Arithmetic or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Book Thief.  If you are an upper elementary teacher, then this book would be a great addition to your classroom library-as long as you were willing and able to answer the questions that may come up when some 9 or 10 year old gets their hands on their first look at one of the most terrible chapters in world history. 

Teacher Resources:
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Reading Guide
London Philharmonic Orchestra Teacher Resources

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