an ode to the importance of hope amidst despair

the red piano 311x400.jpg

by Andre Leblanc, illustrated by Barroux - Wilkins Farago, 2014
ages about 8 to grown-up / coffee table, emotional resilience,

The dreadful realities of history include events and times like the Cultural Revolution in China. Times that test the limits of our imaginations and our resolve.

We often talk in abstract terms about the need to understand history and echo quotes like:

"Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."
- Edmund Burke (probably)


"Those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it."
- George Santayana

Those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it.
— George Santayana

And so, we can end up learning history in a dispassionate way that has as its goal only our own limited self-interest.

But, perhaps the most important reason to learn about history is to develop the capacity to feel for others and to remember that the lives entwined with the history we read are real. And that they are our fellow human beings, from whom we may be separated by as little as 'six degrees'.

The Red Piano is a beautifully told story that takes us into the life of a young girl living through the Cultural Revolution. 

With deeply evocative pictures and words that are lyrical but not sentimental, it invites us into a world that (for most of us) will always be distant.

The inspiration for the story came from Zhu Xiao-Mei telling her experiences to the author, Andre Leblanc. She encouraged him to make it into a story that would suit the children of today and he's done a marvellous job. (Zhu Xiao-Mei is now a pianist and an author – her biography is The Secret Piano. You can see a clip of her performing here.)

In the story, an unnamed girl is being re-educated during the Cultural Revolution. She is in a camp on the Chinese - Inner Mongolian border and her family have been sent to other camps. 

Impossibly, a piano has been secretly sent by train to the home of Mother Han, who lives near the camp. With Mother Han’s help, the girl is able to practice at night after the day’s work is complete.

Eventually the piano is discovered, Mother Han and the girl are subjected to more re-education and the piano is destroyed. 

Finally, the Cultural Revolution ends and the girl walks out of the camp, the last person to leave. She takes with her the music notebooks she has secreted. 

It’s a poignant and open ending which begs for more understanding and information.

The Red Piano connects us with a girl who lived through one of the world’s great tragedies and does it in a way that allows us to think about her life and our own lives. It teaches that art and music are things of beauty and must be prized and fought for. And it teaches that although cruelty exists, so does compassion, love and bravery - lessons that deepen our empathy for others and provide us with opinion-forming ideas and tools.

Although The Red Piano is a picture book and will therefore be inevitably viewed as a children’s book, it will touch an adult or teenage mind and heart—I've tagged it as a 'coffee table book' because it has so much to offer. 

This short video is beautifully descriptive:


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