One rather successful formula for middle-grade books is the story of outsiders who triumph; a group of friends who are not among the most popular students, who perhaps lack conventional accomplishments in sports or social activities, support one another and stand up to those who look down on them. Allison and Wayne Marks’ new novel features that basic plot, but also transcends it by focusing on a particular obsession that does not play a big part in most middle schools: traditional Jewish klezmer music. The protagonist Benny’s odyssey follows his progress from gangly kid tormented by his nemesis, Jason, to confident violinist backed by a talented band of “all-stars.” Middle-grade readers will identify with Benny’s fears, isolation, and romantic crush on a girl as lovably odd as he is, and they will also learn a great deal about the music that accompanied Jewish life for over two centuries and still has a vital presence today. Benny Feldman is a wonderful reminder that authors need not limit themselves to the most easily identified cultural references when writing for children.
Eleven-year-old Benny lives with his parents and his younger brother, Sam, and is a student at the Sieberling School. When the book opens, he and his classmates are preparing for a class trip to the local potato chip factory — not evidently of the greatest educational value. Throughout the book, humorous details about the oddities of life in middle school mix with an authentic sense of dread, as Benny struggles to cope with typical problems of his age group. His public school parallels the Hebrew school that he and some of his Jewish classmates attend. One fellow student, Jason Conroy, is determined to resolve his own emotional issues by relentlessly bullying Benny, reminding him of every catastrophe that Benny has ever experienced. An early disaster in a Hebrew school play has left Benny with the cruel nickname “the Amazing Exploding Grape,” and it seems that he will never live it down.
Yet Benny has a much richer component to his life. He loves music and takes violin lessons with his empathetic Uncle Maxwell, who brings Benny in touch with his family’s past by relating stories of Great-great-grandfather Moshe, a humble musician who performed every type of composition, from freylekh to doina with incredible verve, in spite of many setbacks: “They called him tshudne. That’s Yiddish for ‘weird.’ He could not have cared less.” Moshe becomes a symbol of courage for Benny, who imagines his ancestor speaking to him and encouraging him in challenging situations. When introverted Benny signs up for the school’s talent show, promising to perform with a klezmer band, which as yet does not exist, he needs all the encouragement he can get.
Benny succeeds in putting together his dream band, the greatest ensemble of young musicians, each with his or her own quirky backstory. Jennifer Kominsky is Benny’s perfect match, a smart, wisecracking, and talented drummer with a great voice as well. Other band members are not Jewish, proving klezmer’s universal appeal and the connections that unite kids who crave acceptance but refuse to compromise their true selves. There is African-American Royce, a gifted clarinetist as well as a spelling maven, and Stuart, an initially hostile accordionist who just needs a chance to thrive.
The story of Benny and his friends proves how middle-grade fiction can be versatile, delivering believable characters in accessible situations that appeal to readers, while also opening a window to new worlds. While klezmer music may not be central to most children’s lives today, after reading this book, they may want to download Abe Schwartz and his orchestra’s rendition of “Tantz, Tantz, Yiddelech.”
This recommended story includes a helpful glossary of “Klezmer Terms” as well as all the musical forms referenced in this review.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.