October 21, 2015

Oscar Lives Next Door

A story inspired by Oscar Peterson's childhood

by Bonnie Farmer
Illustrated by Marie Lafrance
Owlkids Books
978-1-77147-104-6
Ages 4-8
September 2015

Canadian jazz lovers will all know pianist Oscar Peterson very well.  But with Oscar Lives Next Door, author Bonnie Farmer and illustrator Marie Lafrance will introduce younger readers to the legendary musician and his musical beginnings while providing a glimpse into a less-than-famous life-changing event that sent the young Oscar to the piano.

Told from the perspective of Mildred, the little girl who lives next door to Oscar in the predominantly black community of Little Burgundy in Montreal, Oscar Lives Next Door focuses on the musical family of brothers and sisters of which Oscar is but the trumpet player.  Yes, the trumpet player.  And as much as she is Oscar’s playmate running the streets of Little Burgundy, Mildred sees Oscar as a magician of music.
He blows a few notes and, like magic, a turbaned genie curls out of the trumpet’s mouth and floats above the telephone wires. (pg. 13)
Then Oscar’s red handkerchief, a common accessory of horn players, which was usually flying out from the boy’s pocket, is drawn lying useless on the ground. Oscar is ill with tuberculosis and hospitalized, and the music, the play with Mildred, and even the talking stops for Oscar. It is only after a year’s hospitalization and his return home that Oscar tries to find the magic again,  first taking apart his trumpet and then looking within the family piano.
Oscar sits at the piano.  His fingers pause over the keys for a moment before playing.  When they finally touch the keyboard, it sounds like rolling thunder. (pg. 29)
While Oscar Lives Next Door is a fictionalized story, his love of the trumpet, his life-threatening illness (the same illness from which his brother dies), and his subsequent though temporary lack of speech were all key events in Oscar Peterson’s life, helping to create the pianist he became and for which the world loved him.  Bonnie Farmer gets the right tone of reality and fiction by creating a neighbourhood friend who experiences Oscar’s musicality–sometimes to the chagrin of her hard-working, sleep-deprived father–and is there to offer a child’s perspective on his music and his illness.

Be sure to take note of Marie Lafrance’s touching illustrations which transport the reader to the working-class neighbourhoods of Little Burgundy and adjacent Saint-Henri of the 1930s.  With the easily-identifiable Union Church and the train tracks, smokestacks and cars, trucks and horse-drawn carts, Little Burgundy comes alive and becomes the playground and home of Oscar and Millie and a character in its own.  Marie Lafrance, whose artwork has graced numerous youngCanLit classics (including The Tweedles Go Online and The Tweedles Go Electric reviewed here on CanLit for LittleCanadians) conveys a time and place when children could play safely on the streets, when music streamed the air, and life was full, following the seasons and the workings of fathers.  What a treat it would’ve been to have Oscar live next door.

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