Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier Saint-George
by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome
Let me get this out of the way. I do not like the title. Yes, I understand the need to quickly explain that Joseph Boulogne was a classical period musician of note, and that the shorthand to do that is invoke a Mozart comparison. But as someone who minored in music in college, the allusion annoys me the way children’s authors can’t stand that every fantasy book is lined up with Harry Potter. All right — got that out of my system.
The book itself is fascinating. Joseph Boulogne was born in the West Indies to a slave and her master. While many of these stories end in heartbreak, in this case Joseph was treated as a son by Guillaume-Pierre, and when the French nobleman returned home, be brought Joseph and his mother along. Joseph grew up there experiencing discrimination for his skin color, but also growing in musical talent as a violinist and composer. Given a title by his father, he was somewhat accepted in society, met the King and Queen of France, and had a tenuous connection to Mozart. Good stuff. The illustrations are bright, engaging, and altogether perfect for the story. I enjoyed the book, but do wonder about the audience. It certainly widens the range of topics available for Black History Month, but it will be hard to find a readership for a picture book on an obscure classical musician. Those who do venture a read will be rewarded with an interesting story.
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