Itzhak: A Boy Who Loved the Violin

Tra­cy New­man, Abi­gail Halpin (illus.)

  • Review
By – January 4, 2021

Read­ing Itzhak: A Boy Who Loved the Vio­lin is an expe­ri­ence much like watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to a pow­er­ful musi­cal per­for­mance. A com­pelling plot, strik­ing col­or­ful images — even musi­cal notes swirling through­out the text — bring the vir­tu­oso vio­lin­ist Itzhak Perlman’s sto­ry to life. Newman’s melod­ic text and Halpin’s strik­ing pic­tures weave a sto­ry of a gift­ed child who faced obsta­cles with incred­i­ble persistence.

Born in Pales­tine in 1945, Itzhak grew up in the young state of Israel, liv­ing with his par­ents in Tel Aviv. Halpin shows the musi­cian as a baby cra­dled by his moth­er as he and his par­ents look out the win­dow of their mod­est apart­ment at the vibrant street life below. Itzhak’s father moves the dial on the family’s radio; although their apart­ment is tiny,” with no bath­room of its own,” music will be a con­stant in their home. The music is eclec­tic, includ­ing the Jew­ish ingre­di­ents of soul­ful can­to­r­i­al chants,” and live­ly klezmer folk tunes,” but also the clas­si­cal reper­toire. Text and pic­tures com­mu­ni­cate the inten­si­ty of Itzhak’s sens­es; as he hears the beau­ty of the notes, he sees a vivid rain­bow of col­ors in his mind.” For­tu­nate­ly, his under­stand­ing par­ents chose to buy him a toy vio­lin, in spite of their finan­cial limitations.

After this begin­ning, read­ers learn that Itzhak is not only a gift­ed artist but a child with a unique per­son­al­i­ty. He becomes dis­ap­point­ed and frus­trat­ed when his skills fail to reach his own high stan­dards. Tragedy strikes when he con­tracts the polio virus which, in the years before a vac­cine, took lives and left many patients with dis­abil­i­ties. Halpin con­veys the sense that each case of the dis­ease is cru­el­ly per­son­al by show­ing a hos­pi­tal room full of beds cov­ered in blue; only Itzhak has a red blan­ket. New­man enu­mer­ates the details of his strug­gle to recov­er, rais­ing his arms over his head, hold­ing a book, grasp­ing a pen­cil,” as the begin­ning of a long process. His frus­trat­ing need to con­vince skep­tics that a vio­lin­ist could per­form while sit­ting down is poignant. Itzhak under­stands that there are goals which he will nev­er reach, but oth­ers which bring him ful­fill­ment and joy.

Halpin alter­nates por­tray­als of Itzhak in every­day life with ones of him play­ing the vio­lin, liv­ing, breath­ing, becom­ing the melody” in a trans­for­ma­tive state. Yet the Itzhak tak­ing a free moment to watch con­struc­tion work­ers on the job is the same boy seat­ed in a bright spot­light, sur­round­ed by indi­go and white sil­hou­ettes of the musi­cians accom­pa­ny­ing him in his imag­i­na­tion. Chil­dren read­ing the book will come away with a pic­ture of genius expressed through lim­its, and the mes­sage that accep­tance of lim­its and deter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed are both parts of any life. Perlman’s career will be extra­or­di­nary, and the chal­lenges he faced may be eas­i­ly under­stood by the book’s readers.

Itzhak: A Boy Who Loved the Vio­lin is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed and includes a detailed and help­ful Author’s Note,” an Illustrator’s Note,” text cita­tions, and a time­line of Perlman’s life.

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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