Rubin lives in a tiny town next to a large forest, and at school, he likes to listen to the orchestra, including his sister and her cello. He leans through an open window, resting his arms and head on the sill, listening reverently and wishing he could join. Rubin is thrilled when the maestro hands him a violin and suggests he learn to play. Although Rubin can only produce screeches, the maestro assures him that he’ll soon play at a concert.
Eventually, Rubin heads into the forest to practice, where a crowd of cats gathers around him to hear him play. Zhang writes with verve about the cats and their impassioned singing: “Miiaaoooo,” goes the feline crowd in a “thicket of cacophonous sound,” their howls “a leaping crescendo.”
When at last Rubin performs with the school orchestra at their concert, the pace quickens and the mischief ramps up as a group of waltzing cats appears. Delightful depictions of cats crowd the pages—sometimes nearly every inch—with their leaping, dancing and singing, and soon everyone gets “caught in the whirlwind of Rubin’s sound, flying.”
Ezra Jack Keats Award winner Gracey Zhang (Lala’s Words) fills the illustrations of When Rubin Plays with vivid colors: plenty of scarlets, blues and greens, as well as backgrounds of vibrant yellow and orange. There is an infectious energy to Zhang’s loose lines, particularly the hand-lettered “eeeeiiii” sounds of Rubin’s violin.
Zhang states in her author’s note that she was inspired to set her story in Santa Ana de Velasco, Bolivia, after learning about the rich tradition of baroque classical music in the Chiquitos Province and its former mission towns. As a tale about the joys of creating music, When Rubin Plays lands a triumphant ending.