During this first grade year I'm using Harmony Fine Art's Arts and Music Appreciation program. One of the many things I appreciate about the program is that it provides various options for picture and music study. Although some require use or purchase of various books and materials, there are plenty of options available so that even the most budget-conscious (read: budget-strapped!) parent/teacher can find all sorts of ideas. In the arts appreciation area, the program offers one option that relies almost exclusively on picture study online. They provide links to websites where you can find pictures and artist biographies as needed. We've utilized these extensively, along with materials we've found at our library to supplement what we're learning.
One of the things I've enjoyed is finding picture books to accompany our studies. We're a picture book loving family, and picture books provide yet another creative entrance into thinking about the lives of artists and musicians. There have been some lovely ones published in recent years, though I've been amused to see that we have a good selection to choose from for some artists (perhaps those considered more "kid-appropriate" or fascinating) and almost no choices for others. Case in point: finding any picture books or biographies of Manet for a first grader seems to be a nigh unto impossible task. But writers and illustrators for young children LOVE Mary Cassatt!
This month we're learning about Cassatt in art and Mozart in music. I thought I would briefly review the picture book Young Mozart, written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora.
We've known some of Isadora's other picture books about the ballet, and have always been impressed by her artwork. The pictures here are beautiful, as you can probably tell from the cover. I'm guessing they're watercolor: at any rate, she appears to use washes of color, a very light, almost pastel palette. The visual details of clothes, hairstyles, rooms and instruments do a wonderful job of evoking Mozart's time period (the latter half of the 18th century: 1756-1791).
The text is also well-written. What I like most about this as a book for young children (say, 4-8 years old) is how much the text concentrates on Mozart's early childhood. Of course it continues the story into his adulthood and shares about how great a composer he becomes, but the emphasis stays consistently on details that would interest a young child. Isadora highlights how Mozart learned to write music before he could write words (a concept that fascinated my daughter) and how he and his father would play singing games at night before bedtime. She relays a wonderful scene in which little Mozart, with his child-sized violin, wants to join in and play with his father and some of his father's friends, who are making music on harpsichord and violin. Since Wolfgang had not yet taken any violin lessons, his father discouraged him, but one of the other adults, moved by the little boy's tears, invited him to go on and play. And of course he shocked them all by being able to play beautifully. He'd taught himself how to play the violin!
Since Mozart was a child prodigy, composing and performing before audiences (even royal ones!) before he was seven, his story lends itself well to a children's biography. Not that most children will be able to relate personally to Mozart's genius, but they can relate to his growing love of music and to his desire to play it and write it. Most children have at least one special thing they too love to do (for my daughter right now, it's drawing). This book gave me an opportunity to introduce the words "prodigy" and "genius" to my six year old, but also to talk about giftedness in general...and how gifts are meant to be developed and shared.
Anyone who has ever watched the film Amadeus knows that Mozart's personal life, as he grew older, was quite troubled and troubling. Isadora doesn't gloss over the fact that Mozart struggled with personal discipline (she mentions that he spends too much money, hence his need to keep teaching, giving concerts and composing) but she doesn't keep our focus there or on anything that would be inappropriate for young children. I don't see this as revising history as much as knowing one's audience. There will be time enough later for children to grow in their understanding that not all artists, even those endowed with tremendous gifts, are always morally upright or mistake free. My daughter already knows that all of us are sinners; she's beginning to learn that even people (and characters in stories) that we admire are not always perfect or necessarily good role models. Human struggles don't have to negate someone's gifts or our appreciation for how those gifts have touched us. And thankfully Mozart's gift of beautiful music has lasted long -- long after his very short life (he died at 35) came to an end.
Young Mozart is a thoughtful book to help a young child get to know more about Mozart's life and work. It's also a book that can open up fruitful conversations about gifts and giftedness.