As the cold temperatures and stormy weather continue across the northeastern US, many kids, I’m sure, are busy with indoor activities, including arts and crafts. I believe the joy of creation is universal, even, as in today’s Perfect Picture Book, in times and regions of war.
Title: Silent Music: A Story of Baghdad
Written & Illustrated By: James Rumford
Publisher/date: Neal Porter Books, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press/2008
Suitable for Ages: 4-8 (or older)
Themes/Topics: calligraphy; war; coping mechanisms
My name is Ali. I live in Baghdad.
Brief Synopsis: A young boy in Baghdad loves the art of calligraphy and finds solace in the art as war rages across his city.
Links to Resources:
- Try calligraphy and learn more about this ancient art, including from the Author’s Note;
- Learn about Iraq, the setting of today’s story;
- Ali loves to write and when he’s scared, he does it to calm himself. What do you do when you are scared or upset?
Why I Like this Book:
Silent Music provides a window into the arts and everyday life in Baghdad in the early twenty-first century, when much of the country was a war zone. I think older kids, especially, will relate to the main character, Ali, who likes and does the things that so many children enjoy: sports, friends, “parent-rattling music” and dancing. I think they’ll also appreciate the many analogies that Rumford utilizes to explain the art of calligraphy: the ink “dancing to the silent music in my head”; a sentence like a “soccer player in slow motion”; “masts” that become “tangled knots of ink”. And, as in real life, peace is difficult to write. While Ali’s pen “glides down” the letters that form the word for war, he must practice writing peace until, he hopes, the word “flows freely from my pen”.
Rumford is an illustrator/author who has learned the art of calligraphy. The gorgeous artwork in Silent Music is a combination of computer-enhanced pencil and charcoal drawings collaged together and combined with calligraphy, examples of which appear on almost every page. Rumford explains on his website how he generated the illustrations using Photoshop.
I’d not recommend Silent Music for younger children. It is, however, as Rumford intended, a reminder for school-aged kids that art exists, and is a form of solace, even in war-torn regions or regions affected by natural or other human-made disasters.
A Note about Craft:
In his acceptance speech for the Jane Addams Award for Silent Music that is reprinted on his website, Rumford explains how, in 2003, in the midst of the devastation of the Iraq War, he wanted to “write something positive about its culture.” At first, he explains, he desired to write about a 13th century calligrapher who lived and worked in Baghdad as the Mongols invaded. But as he struggled to craft the story, he realized that the story should be set in modern-day Iraq, with a contemporary main character. He also realized, however, how controversial the subject was and wondered whether the story would be published.
As we know now, not only was Silent Music published five years after Rumford conceived the story, but it also was an award winner. For authors and illustrators wanting to tackle difficult subjects in picture books, I think Rumford’s persistence, and Neal Porter’s willingness to publish a picture book set in a war zone, should inspire us to persevere, too.
This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!