cover image The Cello of Mr. O

The Cello of Mr. O

Jane Cutler. Dutton Children's Books, $15.99 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-525-46119-7

""At night, from my window, I can see the white trails of tracer fire and the orange flash of mortars in the sky. I pretend I am watching shooting stars and meteors,"" says the nameless girl protagonist of Cutler's (The Song of the Molimo) moving and, sadly, timely story of the healing power of music in wartime. With winter approaching, food scarce and her father off fighting, the high point of the girl's week is Wednesday, when the relief truck arrives and the community gathers. Most days, she sits with the other children under the stairs until their high energy levels send them running through the halls, where they taunt an unsociable musician named Mr. O. As the girl stands outside his apartment, she remembers how her father described the craftsmanship of Mr. O's cello and the command performances of the cellist's youth. When a rocket destroys the relief truck, Mr. O surprises the children by courageously playing music in the middle of the square and lifting their spirits. Couch's (Wild Child, reviewed above) soft-focus watercolors in burnished shades of gold, copper and fiery red have a dreamlike quality that effectively contrast with the unsentimental narration. He mixes realistic scenes of the war-torn landscape with a surreal sense of war's intrusion on this child's life. While more details about the mysterious Mr. O might have made his change of heart more believable, Cutler's focus on turning calamity on its head will likely have an uplifting effect on readers young and old. Ages 5-9. (Sept.)