STARRED REVIEW
April 01, 2017

A musical elegy for the victims of war

By John McCutcheon, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell
Review by

When young children ask about the violence that fills our world, what do we say? Folksinger John McCutcheon’s picture book Flowers for Sarajevo provides an insightful response, combining history, humanity and music in a memorable picture book that’s perfect for young elementary school students.

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When young children ask about the violence that fills our world, what do we say? Folksinger John McCutcheon’s picture book Flowers for Sarajevo provides an insightful response, combining history, humanity and music in a memorable picture book that’s perfect for young elementary school students.

The narrator is a young boy named Drasko who helps his father sell flowers in the Sarajevo marketplace. Their world changes overnight when war arrives and Drasko’s father heads to the battlefield, leaving his son in charge of the flower cart. The mood of the city has changed, as well, making Drasko’s job harder than ever, but he takes refuge near an open window outside a building where the orchestra practices. Drasko bears witness to real-life events as he describes a 1992 explosion, when 22 people waiting in a breadline were killed in a mortar attack. The next day Drasko watches a cellist dressed in a tuxedo make his way through the rubble to the scene of the explosion, where he plays “the most beautiful and heartbreaking music anyone could ever imagine.” Drasko notes: “All of us―Serb and Croat, Muslim and Christian―stand side by side, listening to a language we all understand.” That musician was Vedran Smailovic, and Drasko explains that he returns to play for 22 days, one day to honor each of the victims. Kristy Caldwell’s illustrations add dimension to the story by imbuing the central action on each spread with color, leaving the rest of the scene in muted tones. She brings the busy marketplace to life, depicting the mortar explosion and its destruction without being gruesome. Drasko and other characters possess the energy and emotion of a graphic novel, perfect for the slightly older picture book audience for whom this book is aimed.

While the narrative is simple and accessible, end notes round out the educational experience, including an author’s note about the mortar attack and Smailovic’s musical memorial, a discussion (with maps) of the Balkan’s history of unrest, suggestions of books and websites for further learning and a short biography of Smailovic.

Flowers for Sarajevo also includes a CD recording of Smailovic playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor as well as McCutcheon’s own composition, “Streets of Sarajevo,” accompanied by Smailovic. A final spread contains McCutcheon’s lyrics and music.

This book offers no easy answers or happy endings; instead, it’s a powerful story about persevering in the face of tragedy and war. Drasko and his flowers provide a sense of hope and humanity, as the boy explains: “And tomorrow―like my father, like the cellist―I’ll do my own small part to make Sarajevo beautiful once again.”

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Flowers for Sarajevo

Flowers for Sarajevo

By John McCutcheon, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell
Peachtree
ISBN 9781561459438

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