Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978

Parents' Choice Awards : Books : Picture Books
What Charlie Heard

What Charlie Heard

Spring 2002 Picture Books
Ages: 4 - 8 yrs.
By: Mordicai Gerstein
ISBN: 0374382921
Hardcover Price: $17.00
Adults are not too old-- and four is not too young-- for author-illustrator Mordicai Gerstein's exuberant and profoundly moving picture book tribute to groundbreaking composer Charles Ives.

With finely drawn, colorful illustrations and read-out-loud, simple storytelling, Gerstein draws readers into the surprising life of a composer whose Third Symphony was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, but who, during most of his lifetime, earned less respect for his unorthodox "new music" than for his day job: his innovative, financially rewarding work in the insurance industry.

Children will easily respond to the heart of Gerstein's book: the bond that Ives shared with his eccentric father, revered by his son as a gifted, open-minded, inspirational confidence-builder and kindred spirit. (Ives wrote that his father possessed "a remarkable understanding of the ways of a boy's heart and mind.") A tender memorial to that bond occurs unexpectedly, midway through the story.

Playful anecdotes make it clear where Ives' fascination with sound began, relating how Ives senior, a respected music teacher and band leader, once had two bands march towards and past each other while playing different tunes, just to see how it would sound. Or how, during a storm, he got soaked running in and out of doors, listening to church bells and thunder, then trying to re-create the sound on his piano.

Gerstein's illustrations, meanwhile, are alive with words for the natural and human-made sounds that made up "Charlie's" aural tapestry from his babyhood in the late 19th century to his adulthood in the 20th, from drums, bells, birds and fire trucks to the quiet tick-tick of a clock and the purr of a cat.

Reading them out loud with kids is enormous fun ("Blam! " "Bang!" "Twitter," "Clop," "Whoooooosh"), but there's something else going on with these "sound words." Their various sizes, colors and deliberate placements on the page not only add emotional resonance to Gerstein's remarkable book. They serve as visual expressions of the nerve-thrumming masses of complex, clashing sounds and polyrhythms-- fed by religious and patriotic music, poetry, ragtime, "parlor" songs, and references to other composers-- that made Ives a uniquely American musical voice.

Lynne Heffley   ©2002 Parents' Choice
A freelance writer and editor for the arts and non-profit organizations, Lynne is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, where she established the paper's first weekly children's arts and entertainment beat.

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