Most kids have probably never seen a silent movie, but after reading the new picture book from best-selling author Avi, they just might want to rent an old Charlie Chaplin film on their next trip to the video store.
As Avi explains in a note, until "talkies" arrived in 1929, silent movies captured the country's attention. The films featured short, melodramatic stories, with printed titles inserted to help explain the plot or provide bits of dialogue. Sometimes a piano player or organist performed in the theater to set the mood. Silent movies were a popular, inexpensive form of entertainment, especially in large cities, where immigrants often saved their pennies to go to a nickelodeon.
For the Swedish immigrant family in Avi's book, silent movies also represent the dreams of success in America. In 1909, Papa Hans leaves Sweden for a new life in America, followed six months later by Mama and Gustave. But Papa isn't able to find his family when they arrive, and mother and son struggle on their own in New York City to make ends meet. Mama takes a job in a sweatshop, while Gustave begs for money, only to have his coins stolen by a thief.
Enter Bartholmew Bunting, famous silent movie director. Catching sight of Gustave on the street, he casts the young boy in his new movie, The Thief. Taking a break from his job and his search for his family, Papa goes to the nickelodeon, where to his astonishment, he sees his son on the screen.
And then, as the saying goes, the plot thickens. To find out what happens next, you'll have to see the film or rather, read the book! Silent Movie's black-and-white illustrations, executed by C.B. Mordan, effectively evoke a silent film, and the artist also uses frames to suggest action. The book includes both author and illustrator notes, as well as "production notes" with a cast of characters. This is a warm-hearted tale that will introduce young readers to a memorable part of America's past.
Deborah Hopkinson writes from Walla, Walla Washington.