07 Mar / Operatic by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler [in Shelf Awareness]
Mr. K is one of those remarkable teachers who is memorable for what he’s not: “He doesn’t act like it’s his job to shape [students] into considerate and well-behaved individuals who’ll fit harmoniously with the rest of society.” His final assignment for his middle-school music class is the “Soundtrack of My Life Presentation,” in which each student must “choose a song for this moment in your life and write about it.” He warns, “No attitude. You know, the snobbery that says certain types of music are for certain types of people.” Of course, the kids try to argue: “But, Mr. K, people always judge people by the music they like. It’s, like, mandatory.” Mr. K won’t succumb to such generalizations: he enables and enlightens his musical explorers by exposing them to artists as diverse as Patti Smith and A-Ha, and genres as different as bluegrass and punk rock.
For Charlotte Noguchi, aka Charlie, Mr. K’s lessons become a catalyst for deep self-reflection. Learning about “Emo” makes her recall her friend Luka, and why he’s been missing from school for two weeks. Opera takes her by utter surprise: “It’s enough to make me forget everything around me.” Her immersive reaction leads her to choose Maria Callas for her “Soundtrack” assignment. Her extensive research about Callas’s difficult life beyond her fame encourages Charlie to “[refuse] to be small or ignored” and to admit she wants “to do big things” in her life.
Award-winning Canadian author Kyo Maclear has created stupendous picture books that introduce younger readers to legendary icons in imaginative settings: Virginia Wolf; Julia, Child; The Liszts; and, most recently, Bloom, about designer Elsa Schiaparalli. In Operatic, Maclear turns to the graphic novel format to speak to an older, middle-school audience. Her collaboration with Canadian artist Byron Eggenschwiler (Coyote Tales) is a spectacular, cleverly intertwined, three-part hybrid narrative comprised of Charlie’s coming-of-age, Luka’s poignant backstory, and compelling Callas biography. For each of the stories, Eggenschwiler assigns distinguishing hues – yellow for Charlie, blue for Luka, and red for Callas. The colors overlap when stories momentarily converge: Luka’s blue desk in Mr. K’s golden classroom, red tendrils of Callas’s singing flowing from Mr. K’s bronze record as he introduces opera.
Eggenschwiler’s art, not unlike the story, is wonderfully unpredictable: sometimes the action remains well-ordered in tightly organized panels, other times, the illustrations cascade off the page, especially when emotions can’t – and shouldn’t – be contained. He shows Charlie being literally swept up by Callas’s voice, as the swirling, flowery flow of her music lifts Charlie above and away from her classroom desk and chair. As Charlie attempts nonchalantly to downplay the overwhelming throes of her first crush, Eggenschwiler adds a riotous explosion of magical textures and shapes bursting from behind Charlie’s sneaker in the wake of the would-be lovers’ stroll à deux. Combining enchanting art, mellifluous music, and just the right words, Maclear and Eggenschwiler provide a marvelous composition guaranteed to resonate.
Shelf Talker: Operatic is a resonating graphic novel for middle-school audiences celebrating the sometimes surprising “Soundtracks of Our Lives.”
Readers: Middle Grade