Hold On to Your Music: The Inspir­ing True Sto­ry of the Chil­dren of Willes­den Lane

Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, Emil Sher (Adap­tor), Sonia Pos­sen­ti­ni (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – January 28, 2022

Pianist Mona Golabek has pre­vi­ous­ly writ­ten the sto­ry of her mother’s life for adult and young read­ers. Now, in an adap­ta­tion by Emil Sher, a pic­ture book ver­sion based on the ear­li­er works offers a new way to present Golabek’s family’s past. The book fol­lows Lisa, a young Jew­ish girl, through her expe­ri­ence of suf­fer­ing and loss under the Nazi occu­pa­tion of Vien­na, her find­ing refuge in Lon­don, and the begin­nings of her musi­cal career. With­out min­i­miz­ing Lisa’s anx­i­ety and haunt­ed feel­ings about the past, Golabek frames the nar­ra­tive as an inspi­ra­tional one; Lisa learns to inter­nal­ize her mother’s advice, find­ing solace in music even when con­front­ed with dis­cour­ag­ing obstacles.

The book opens with a descrip­tion of Vienna’s majes­tic build­ings and of the city’s tra­di­tion of musi­cal great­ness. Lisa hopes to play the music of Mozart and Beethoven in pub­lic one day. Of course, that dream ends as the Nazis seize pow­er, and Lisa’s music teacher refus­es to teach Jew­ish pupils any longer. Lisa con­tin­ues to play the piano with her moth­er, but soon her par­ents send her to safe­ty in Britain on the Kinder­trans­port. Only a lim­it­ed num­ber of Jew­ish chil­dren were per­mit­ted to par­tic­i­pate in this pro­gram, and their par­ents could not accom­pa­ny them. Lisa’s moth­er urges her to hold on to your music,” as she boards the train full of oth­er fright­ened young refugees.

Many of the Jew­ish chil­dren res­cued this way con­front­ed an ambiva­lent wel­come in their new home, some­times placed with fam­i­lies who exploit­ed them or who sim­ply failed to under­stand the emo­tion­al con­se­quences of this abrupt uproot­ed­ness. Lisa is for­tu­nate to find a place in a group home on Willes­den Lane, where thir­ty-two chil­dren live in com­fort under the super­vi­sion of Mrs. Cohen. How­ev­er, this is not a fairy tale where a benev­o­lent pro­tec­tor shel­ters her in lux­u­ry; the book is real­is­tic in describ­ing how Lisa is required to work in a fac­to­ry sewing uni­forms. But she does have access to a piano and she con­tin­ues to prac­tice, even as the Blitz sub­jects London’s res­i­dents to night­ly bomb­ing. When Lisa is offered the oppor­tu­ni­ty to audi­tion for the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Music, she assumes that her sta­tus as a Jew­ish refugee will pre­vent her from being admit­ted, but her fears are not real­ized. Her debut con­cert is not only a musi­cal per­for­mance but an expres­sion of her endur­ing con­nec­tion with her mother.

The illus­tra­tions by Sonia Pos­sen­ti­ni are unusu­al, com­bin­ing real­ism with intense emo­tion. Build­ings and inte­ri­ors are ren­dered in great detail; Lisa’s piano, her sewing machine, and the thick­ly tex­tured cloth­ing in deep col­ors add dra­ma to the sto­ry. Char­ac­ters’ facial expres­sions are styl­ized and impres­sion­is­tic. Crowd scenes have a cin­e­mat­ic effect, con­vey­ing the enthu­si­asm of a con­cert audi­ence and the excite­ment of Lon­don­ers cel­e­brat­ing the war’s end. Togeth­er, the text and pic­tures present an uplift­ing sto­ry but also a child’s aware­ness of injustice.

Hold on to Your Music includes an after­word by the author and his­tor­i­cal back­ground information.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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