For Kids

January 01, 2000 4 min read

Fiddlin’ Sam,by Marianna Dengler, with illustrations by Sibyl Graber Gerig. (Rising Moon, $15.95; K-3. ) The title character of this outstanding new picture book is a vagabond, a man of few possessions, who wanders the backroads of the Ozark Mountains, playing his old lionhead fiddle wherever he goes. When Sam struck up a tune, Dengler writes, something would happen, “something magical.” People would clap, laugh, and start to dance-and, presto, their aches and pains, worries and cares, would disappear. Although this opening description about the magic of music is clichéd and sappy, Dengler soon launches a dramatic and immensely satisfying narrative about Sam’s travels and the seesaw nature of life’s troubles and pleasures.

The story takes off on the third spread when a huge rattler, coiled in Sam’s path, buries its fangs into his leg. Sam thinks he’s a goner, and his heart fills with sorrow-but not because he’s facing death. Years before, his Pa had told him that musicians have a certain obli gation. After teaching Sam to play the fiddle, he said, “This ain’t a gift. It’s a loan. You gotta pass the music along.” But Sam never had the chance, and now it looks as if his music is going to die with him.

Luckily, a young man finds Sam lying by the road delirious with fever, and he nurses him back to health. Sam lives with the man awhile, hoping the fellow will take up the fiddle. But music isn’t his calling, and so Sam returns to the open road. There is still time to find someone else, he tells himself.

But the years pass, and Sam never finds his apprentice. Old and sick at heart, he sinks to the side of the road one gray autumn afternoon, too weary even to stand. As he despairs, a sad-looking boy trudges up and sits beside him. The boy tells Sam his story-how he’d become restless on his father’s farm and set out to find something better. “Now I gotta go back and tell him I ain’t found it,” the boy says. This, of course, is the person Sam has been looking for all these years.

Sam joins the boy on his long trek home and each night by the fire teaches him to fiddle. Contented at last that he’s passed the music on, Sam dies with the first snowfall. The boy buries him under a pine and contin ues on home to show his father what helearned. In a lovely twist of fate, the father turns out to be the young man who had saved Sam’s life so many years before.

Dengler’s impressive prose has an easy, folksy flow. But it is Gerig’s watercolors that elevate the story to a near masterpiece. Unfortunately, the editors put the only weak illustration on the cover, a pretty pastel-drenched painting of children dancing hand-in-hand to Sam’s fiddling. The image’s soft colors and bland cheeriness give the book a banal look that might make it easy to pass over on the shelf. Don’t. Like Dengler, Gerig makes a quick comeback. Particularly stunning are her vivid portraits of the story’s central characters. Her skilled use of color and detail gives these people personality and depth; we know their joys and feel their heartache.

In the end, this bittersweet story about a peripatetic fiddler leaves the novel impression that a life of music and travel might just be a noble and worthy calling.

--Blake Hume Rodman

Monster,by Walter Dean Myers, with illustrations by Christopher Myers. (HarperCollins Publishers, $15.95; young adult.) This powerful and disturbing book tells the story of Steve Harmon, a 16-year-old who lives in Harlem and attends an elite New York public school. Steve is accused of serving as the lookout for a drugstore robbery gone horribly wrong. The store owner is murdered, and the police charge Steve and another man with the crime. Myers, an award-winning author of books for both children and adults, chronicles Steve’s harrowing passage through the criminal justice system and his plunge into self-doubt, despair, and alienation.

Steve’s story is told through journal entries and a screenplay that the budding film student writes to make sense of his surreal situation. “I’ll call it what the lady who is the prosecutor called me,” he writes. “Monster.”

Myers masterfully interweaves Steve’s journal and screenplay to depict the strange rhythms of a trial: One minute, court officials are discussing Fourth of July picnics; the next, a crucial witness testifies.

Steve’s struggle to recapture himself and his humanity is painfully present throughout. Myers forces us to question the often unspoken judgments made about young black men on trial: Even the people who want to believe in his innocence-his father, his defense lawyer-often wonder if he might be guilty. Myers brings to life the corrosive self-doubt that eats away at Steve, without making pat excuses or seeking to justify his behavior.

This novel is even more remarkable in that it does not avoid the doubts that surround any attempt to reconstruct the truth. The very ambiguity of Monster-a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-makes it a thought-provoking and challenging source for classroom discussion.

--Stephen Del Vecchio