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 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.