Flowers for Sarajevo, a new picture book by John McCutcheon, has its roots in a senseless tragedy during the Balkan War, which inspired an act of heroism and hope on the part of a Bosnian musician. After a May 1992 mortar attack killed 22 people waiting to buy bread at a Sarajevo bakery, for 22 consecutive days Vedran Smailovic, a cellist in the Sarajevo Opera Orchestra, dressed in a tuxedo and sat near the bombed shop to perform a single tune—Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor—to pay tribute to the victims and lift the residents’ spirits. This incident inspired author, songwriter, instrumentalist, and singer, John McCutcheon to pen a song, called “Streets of Sarajevo,” honoring the musician’s bravery.
McCutcheon subsequently wrote Flowers for Sarajevo, due from Peachtree April 1, which is based on his original song and illustrated by debut illustrator Kristy Caldwell. The book centers on Drasko, the son of a Sarajevo flower vendor off fighting in the war, who is so moved by Smailovic’s bravery that he finds his own way, through flowers, to return beauty to his ravaged city. Included in the picture book is a CD featuring recordings of McCutcheon performing “Streets of Sarajevo,” accompanied by Smailovic; the cellist playing the adagio; and a conversation between the author and Margaret Quinlin, Peachtree president and publisher.
McCutcheon was moved to write his song about Smailovic, who became widely known as “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” after reading a 1992 New York Times article about his feat. “Over the course of my career, I’ve performed what I consider rescue operations on stories that I believe everyone should know,” explained the author, who also wrote a song that became the picture book Christmas in the Trenches (Peachtree, 2006), about the spontaneous 1914 Christmas Eve truce between British and German troops in the trenches of France during World War I.
“I wrote ‘The Streets of Sarajevo’ many years ago, but I didn’t think it was quite finished, so it lived in a file of songs that are in various states of completion,” McCutcheon recalled. “A decade after writing the song, I dug it out, and realized that it was finished—it was perfect. I guess I just wasn’t ready for it 10 years earlier.” Encouraged by Quinlin and by his wife, author Carmen Agra Deedy, McCutcheon used his song as the catalyst for Flowers for Sarajevo, shifting the focus from Smailovic to the fictional Drasko.
“I didn’t want to make the story about Smailovic, moved as I was by his actions,” he said. “I wanted to set up another hero who kids could identify with. Though they might be inspired by this brave musician, most readers probably can’t imagine doing what he did in Sarajevo after the bombing. But every single day, kids can do something nice for someone else or stand up to a bully. Like Drasko, kids are capable of heroic acts, no matter how small.”
Quinlin, who edited Flowers for Sarajevo in collaboration with senior editor Vicky Holifield, was moved by the song that inspired the book when she first heard McCutcheon’s recording of it, and felt that the story could reach even more children as a fictional picture book. “It is important, I think, that the book’s focus is on Drasko,” Quinlin said. “Sadly, in today’s world there are so many children, gentle beings with a great sense of fairness, who are forced to become mature far too early. In an understated tone, without blasting his message, John shows how Drasko quietly takes some measure of control in his life, and finds a way to move forward and maintain his belief in humanity. I also love the idea that a heroic act comes to life when it aspires another.”
Weaving a Web of Connections
The making of Flowers for Sarajevo involved collaboration on multiple fronts: McCutcheon welcomed Deedy’s input in shaping the narrative; Quinlin and Holifield were an editorial team; Caldwell consulted closely with the author and editors; and McCutcheon befriended Smailovic.
When Quinlin, having seen Caldwell’s work online, contacted her about illustrating the book, “I was overjoyed,” Caldwell recalled. “I spent a lot of time with the manuscript before I signed on, and I began feeling very close to the story. The journey of Drasko was so clear to me. I really liked the idea of making a book about something that’s hard to talk about to a child, and focusing on finding beauty in a world that children can’t always understand or control. Meeting with everyone at Peachtree really helped clarify my vision. Everyone was so involved in such a positive way, and so very committed to the project.”
Caldwell also drew creative energy from her own community, whose ethnic composition bears a resemblance to Drasko’s Sarajevo neighborhood. “I live in a diverse part of Queens, where there are people who originally came from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia,” she said. “A lot of my neighbors came out of situations similar to that experienced by Drasko, so that helped me think of the book in a different way, and the book made me look at my community in a different light.”
Caldwell (who is also illustrating Lori Mortenson’s Away with Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, due from Peachtree in spring 2019) traveled to Brooklyn to visit a cellist to make sure she portrayed Smailovic accurately. “I paid him to play his cello while I took photos, and then sent him some sketches I made,” she said. “I wanted to be certain I got it right: where a cellist’s hands should be, the correct posture, and even the right way to carry a cello case.”
McCutcheon did some personal outreach as well, visiting Caldwell on her home turf and Smailovic in Ireland, where he currently lives. The author and the cellist, who have a mutual musician friend, immediately connected when they met at a Dublin pub. “I knew Vedran was very stung by the situation in Sarajevo, and I didn’t want to go forward with the book if he wasn’t completely on board with it,” said McCutcheon. “I wanted him to know that he was being honored in a respectful way, and in a way that would let children appreciate what he did. He told me, ‘The story is beautiful,’ which was very gratifying.”
The cellist also agreed to accompany McCutcheon on his recording of “Streets of Sarajevo” and to record a solo performance of the historic adagio for the CD included in Flowers for Sarajevo. “When Vedran wrote to say he’d like to do the recordings, and thanked me for writing the song, I responded, ‘No, thank you.’ Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero, and I am so inspired by those who follow the high road, as he did, and respond humanely to inhuman situations, and respond to ugliness with beauty. And Vedran did exactly that. He risked his life, in the midst of war, to use his musical talent for the benefit of others. His is a story that kids should know.”
Flowers for Sarajevo by John McCutcheon, illus. by Kristy Caldwell. Peachtree, $19.95 Apr. ISBN 978-1-56145-943-8