________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 13 . . . . November 27, 2015


Oscar Lives Next Door: A Story Inspired by Oscar Peterson's Childhood.

Bonnie Farmer. Illustrated by Marie Lafrance.
Toronto, ON: Owlkids, 2015.
32 pp., hardcover, $17.95.
ISBN 978-1-77147-104-6.

Subject Heading:
Peterson, Oscar, 1925-2007-Childhood and youth-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 9-13.

Review by Barbara McNeil.

**** /4



On warm evenings, we sit on the back porch listening to neighborhood sounds. A train whistle wails in the distance. Daddy's train.

"That's A and F," says Oscar.

I strain to listen, but only Oscar can hear every musical note of the howling choo chooooos as Daddy's train leaves the station and clangs along the canal.

When my son was in grade seven, and without any prompting from his parents, he decided to make a switch—from classical to jazz piano; he said he wanted to be "just like Oscar Peterson". We embraced K's decision. There are other youngsters – some budding musicians and some not – who have heard of the celebrated jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and many more who will become familiar with his name owing to a fresh, radiant, and skilfully illustrated picture book appearing now (and later) on the shelves of Canadian school and public libraries. This is a very good thing. In the following, I present a systematic discussion of the picture book.

internal art      Informed and "inspired" by Peterson's childhood, Oscar Lives Next Door is a fictional autobiography, a memoir, a historical rendering of a specific period of childhood. Revealed from the point of view of Mildred, an adoring neighbour and childhood friend of Oscar's, the narrative centralizes a unique and gifted person and playmate (Oscar) and place (Montreal, PQ). Centralized as well is the notion of play—as in trumpet and piano playing and the free-spirited play of children in the site of their belonging, their neighbourhood, one marked by linguistic duality, cultural and racial diversities and other signifiers of difference/social complexities of the period.

      The story opens somewhere between late evening and night in a working class Montreal neighbourhood as Mildred's father, a "Pullman porter"—code word for an African-Canadian railway worker—returns home after his shift hopeful of good night's sleep, but that is not to be because "Oscar lives next door." "Root-a-toot toot goes Oscar's trumpet", "Bing bang bop goes Oscar's piano." Though a nuisance for her weary father, Mildred and her mother appear to be sympathetic and indulgent of Oscar's playing.

      They are neither bothered by Oscar's music making nor that of his brothers and sisters. From the eldest to the youngest, Oscar's family is depicted as being joyfully engaged with each other and in creating those important sounds of emerging musicians that only parents and appreciative neighbours, such as Mildred, can tolerate. "I love listening to Oscar's lullaby long after the shuffling, scuffling noises of our neighborhood hush" she declares. Mildred is Oscar's muse—a faithful source of encouragement and inspiration.

      It is Mildred's appreciation of Oscar's talent and friendship that carries the story forward. Readers will be charmed by their endearing friendship as the fictional playmates race down Atwater Street in what was known as Little Burgundy (La Petite-Bourgogne) in south-west Montreal. With youthful delight, they fly past a sepia-coloured "dress shop", a fish, and barber shop, rich and colourfully rendered as a mostly joyous place to grow up—a street, a Montreal of the memory's re (creation). The illustrator, Marie Lafrance, is exceptional at her craft. She merits applause for her inviting colour palette and her attention to detail in capturing the 1940's feel of a place evoked by writer Bonnie Farmer where a "farmer's cart loaded with vegetables" is at home with more modern vehicular technologies of trucks and motor car. It is Montreal in a period of transition.

      The image of the aptly yellow-dressed Mildred, effusing lightness, sunshine and happiness, and Oscar dashing from the church, having just played a trick on their reverend, is memorable and is only interrupted when Oscar's father reminds that it is time for his "music lesson". The children's playful interaction with the reverend at the church is symbolic of the strong bond they have with him and it and illustrates the importance of religion and the church as a pivotal communal place in the lives of Black-Montrealers/African-Canadians then and now. The church is a marker for the children's social and cultural location.

      Mildred and Oscar are linked by their play, "warm evenings" on back porches "listening to neighborhood sounds", Oscar's magic with music, and her esteem of him and for it. Recurrent throughout the book, this special friendship is richly documented on the double page-spread showing Oscar and Mildred side by side as she looks out and as he blows out music from his trumpet against a fabulous evening sky still flush with the brightness of sunset. Depictions of such friendships matter to children who, I believe, will relish seeing it represented in their literature.

      In addition, this picture book embeds other biographical episodes (inspired by facts) that children experience: the illness of a special friend. When Oscar does not show up for a play date, Mildred investigates and discovers that Oscar is "very sick" with tuberculosis, and, even though she is told that he "will get better", she wonders if his illness was brought on by the "trick" they played on Reverend James. Mildred's mother clears up this misunderstanding in a developmentally appropriate way. Though fictional, the verisimilitude of this episode is àpropos because many children often blame themselves for adversities that come their way, and, without being didactic, it provides a platform for parents and teachers to engage children in discussions about when bad things happen to loved ones—when things go wrong—when family members and friends become seriously ill.

      The next episode in the book features Mildred, Oscar's concerned and curious (fictitious) friend concealing herself as she listens to her mother and Oscar's mother talk about him when Mrs. Peterson is invited over for tea. Historically accurate in terms of how children were often perceived and treated, the episode depicts a reality that still plagues childhood: children often have to listen in concealment as adults discuss subjects that are equally important to them but from which they are often excluded. The impressive double-page spread that shows the two mothers in conversation is an excellent complement to Farmer's well-controlled narrative. It shows a secluded and shocked Mildred—eyebrows raised and eyes wide open when she overhears news of Oscar's mutism—his refusal to talk after his illness.

      For me, the scene of the conversing female neighbours is a special moment in Canadian children's literature because it features two Black mothers seated at a kitchen table over tea and in supportive and caring dialogue about the well-being of a child that matters to them both. It is an ordinary moment and yet simultaneously extraordinary because it is a rarity in Canadian children's literature. Bravo to the author and the illustrator! The caring solidarity, the tenderness (the hand on the elbow) that often exist between women, their kitchen and living room togetherness are infrequently captured in children's literature yet such relationships are important and necessary to reveal and be visually available for children in support of our common humanity. Lafrance's digital images of the commiserating women are crisp and clear; her palette of blues—some near purple (the table cloth), others near green (the stove, chairs and the cupboards) and periwinkle (Mildred's dress) are contrasted with the stylish brown shoes of the women, the yellow mixing bowl and deep orange teapot on the stove (possibly pointing to the ascendance of orange and waning of yellow—the passage of time, summer to autumn). A fabulous delight!

      The reader's delight is carried over to the next development in the episodic plot of the story. Separated from her next door friend Oscar, Mildred writes to him with the consoling message that the "trick played on Reverend James did not make him [Oscar] sick" and a reminder of her love underscored by many Xs and Os at the end of her letter. The delight we experience as readers comes from Mildred's tender letter to Oscar, the walk to the hospital to deliver it to a nurse who will give it to Oscar, and the oh so magnificently rendered scenario of Mildred and her mother, both in orange skirts and coats trudging up the hill to see Oscar.

      They do not "trudge" unwillingly, they trudge out of sadness—that Oscar is sick with tuberculosis, that he has decided to be mute, and that they will not be able to see him—the trudging is undergirded by neighbourliness, friendship and love. These are all acts worthy of noting, but so too is the hand-holding between mother and daughter. This is Mildred's mission; it is her story. She leads the way, clutching an envelope marked "Oscar." And the mother, understanding and holding on to the hand stretched backward toward her, empathizes with, nurtures, and supports her daughter. I am not indifferent to this poignant scene of care and compassion, of mothering, and of child and parent bonding. I welcome and cherish the richness of the scene for its artistry and beauty and also because it is not often that I see the representation of a deeply caring relationship between a Black mother and her daughter in Canadian children's literature. I am grateful for it. Children need to see such representations.

      Mildred waits a "long, lonesome time for Oscar to get better", but that time does come to an end. At Christmas time, she receives a letter "with musical notes doodled all over the envelope." To signal the movement of time, the illustrator pictures a lonesome and worried looking Mildred wearing a green coat and skirt that are nicely contrasted with her red toque and mittens; the letter comes just in time. In it, Oscar tells her of his new tractor, signals his recuperation, and confesses that he was "scared and lonely" and that he wished that she "were there too." It is a friendship of reciprocity and mutuality. Many children know this experience and will appreciate its validation in literature; those who do not, need to see and learn about it for they, too, desire it. This is part of the work of children's literature—to represent imaginatively, to suggest, to shape, and to provoke children's imagination about positive relationality.

      Though Oscar gets better, it takes some time for him to be well enough to return home. Without Oscar's musical "lullaby", Mildred finds it difficult to sleep, and then one spring night, she spies him through the kitchen window: "Oscar is home." Here again, Farmer's text is richly told through the vibrant orangey red colour of a nearby potted geranium while Mildred's strong emotions of joy and relief are expressed via her orange sweater and white and orange floral dress. Visible here and throughout the book is Lafrance's adroit handling of colour—well-balanced hues and palettes that work well together and provide a pleasing complement to the skin tones of the characters.

      As the story advances, readers come to see that Oscar's childhood was marked by personal difficulties and that his journey to success and fame was a bumpy one. After returning home from his long convalescence in hospital, Oscar is constrained by legacies of his illness: Mildred's father tells her that "Oscar's lungs are no longer strong enough to blow into a horn." This is a powerful blow to the emerging musician. He takes apart his beloved trumpet in hopes of finding "where the magic comes from." It is at this point that Mildred intervenes to help her friend. She suggests that "maybe there's a genie inside the piano too," and, with this, the children investigate while Oscar's baby sister looks on.

      Surrounded by them, Oscar touches the keyboard, and it "sounds like rolling thunder." And according to this fictional memoir/biography, here marks the beginning of Oscar's enchantment with the piano. His father employs a piano teacher, and Oscar submits to its calling; he "practices and practices". In this instance as well, Lafrance creates an eye-filling spread that gives full expression to Farmer's words. To the left is Mildred the muse in a striking orange dress, standing on a chair beside the piano and gazing with encouragement at Oscar. She epitomizes warmth and amicability. To the right, holding on to a leg of the piano, is his baby sister looking on with curiosity and enchantment. As for Oscar, he is seated, eyes fixed on Mildred while his fingers tinker with the keys of piano—the dominant object on the page and in his future life.

      On the final pages of the story, Mildred reports that, though she and Oscar do not have time to "play anymore", they "still like to sit on the back porch." Their touching friendship still intact, the children watch the setting sun and daydream "while jazz music bubbles up from a dance club" and Mildred's mother's cornbread "cools on the windowsill." From Farmer's text, we get a strong sense of place and identity and their intersection. The African-Canadian presence in the setting is not only marked by Mildred and Oscar but by references to jazz music and to cornbread.

      Lafrance's visual articulation of Farmer's text picks up the storyline of the cultural markers of place found on the last double-page spread. Her illustrations are commendable and are a fitting tribute to Oscar as a unique and gifted person, to Mildred his playmate and to place--Montreal and Oscar's neighbourhood of Little Burgundy. Moving from left to right of Lafrance's charming double-page spread, we note that the text is placed on a lovely background of carnation pink wash and pink tinged window panes—suggestive of hues of the setting sun. Viewers/readers also see a curving, twisting metallic external staircase that is a marker for and typifies some older neighbours of the real Montreal. The staircase on which Mildred and Oscar are seated is adjacent to the curving one but is different—it is straight flight, made of wood and is traditional. Together, the stair cases represent the bricolage/melange characteristic of Montreal—a city whose architecture represent the varying cultures and historical periods that have shaped its identity. Now attired in a rose pink dress, Mildred sits in front of a potted red geranium near Oscar (the flower perhaps symbolic of her gentility, and esteem* for him). Two friends in contentment, looking at each other and looking out while dreaming: him, of being an explorer and her of being a ballerina. (Mildred's dream appears historically anachronistic and unconventional given the history of ballet in Montreal and elsewhere in Canada. However, this is a work of fiction. The ballerina dream likely reflects the author's 21st century sensibilities and interest in inspiring contemporary readers).

      Oscar Lives Next Door is an exquisite picture book. A fictional work inspired by the life of Oscar Peterson, it offers readers and viewers a source of considerable pleasure. Farmer's playful use of language "root-a-toot toot toot", "choo chooooos," its richness, "the scuffling, scuffling noises of our neighborhood hush," and the variety of font sizes ("Oscar! Mildred!" he calls, "Come out from those bushes!") as well as styles not only add to the playfulness and musicality of the text but serve to underline what is verbally important—what the author wants readers to notice. These features will be enticing for young readers. In addition, Lafrance's expressive extension of the text into visual images is superb—ravishing! An illustrator well-matched to the text—an illustrator very much enamoured of the person and place featured in the book. In this picture book, the marriage of words and images is impressive. The subject (Oscar Peterson) is very well served by this work as is the fictitious character Margaret—she is an endearing and unforgettable s/heorine. A good example of a self-confident and stalwart friend!

      There is much for parents and children, teachers and students, and children with their peers to enjoy in this unforgettable work. And as in many picture books (e.g., Fatty Legs; Stranger at Home; The Red Scarf (Villeneuve, 2000; 2010); My Great Big Mamma), there are words and/or ideas in the book that are likely to provoke questions and may need further exploration through dialogue and research. Such questions and queries are opportunities to gain knowledge, engender empathy, understanding and critique in the interest of justice, respect and social harmony. For example, children may want to know more about Pullman porters, their history and that of Blacks/African-Canadians in Montreal and Canada. They may also wish to know more about tuberculosis--its past and present manifestation in Canada and especially its impact on children. Additionally, the author's reference to the "beauty parlor, where hair sizzles between hot comb's teeth", is a subject fraught with complexity. These topics call for careful, respectful and sensitive handling by teachers, parents, and more knowledgeable others.

      My time with Oscar Lives Next Door has been well spent. Such pleasure! Such learning! This highly recommended work with its not-to-be-missed author's note and list of sources consulted, is worthy of the audience who will embrace it—children and adults everywhere! They will definitely want to know more about the real Oscar Peterson. Therefore, I recommend that Farmer's and Lafrance's winning and praise-worthy work should be paired with Jack Batten's (2012) notable biography about the subject, Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz.

Highly Recommended.

Dr. Barbara McNeil is an instructor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina in Regina, SK.

*Ginsburg, E. (2015). The meaning of a red geranium. Retrieved from http://www.gardenguides.com/130990-meaning-red-geranium.html

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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