Fresh Lookology features books published several years ago that are too good to languish on the shelf.
Martin Pittman takes a reader’s heart and runs with it. He lives in a trailer park called Paradise, but his home life is anything but. Martin’s father is abusive, his mother completely cowed. He has no siblings. His grandma, Hazeline, who comes on Sundays to take him to the Howard Johnson Prince of Wales buffet, is quite a character—one the reader is unsure of at first. She’s a leathery, give-you-a-piece-of-my-mind, smoking, cackling sort of grandmother—but she’s on Martin’s side, thank goodness. So is his reclusive friend Wylene, a grown woman who can tolerate only Martin’s gentle presence in her trailer and her life. And so is Sybil, the new girl who comes into town—Sybil is unlike anyone Martin has ever met before.
Martin needs these good people on his side. He faces bullying at school, in town, and on the baseball field, in addition to the abuse at home. What keeps him going is music. Martin loves music—all kinds—listening to it, making up tunes in his head, playing his harmonica. Wylene says he has a gift. Hazeline and Sybil echo this encouragement. Martin wants to play a real instrument like a piano or a violin, and when a violin shows up at the local pawn shop, he can think of little else outside of making it his own.
The problem is his father. For some reason Ed Pittman thinks music—and especially the playing of it—is for sissies. He’s furious with Martin for his lack of baseball skill, his love of music, and his friendship with Wylene. He’s furious with life, really. Hazeline confirms this for Martin. Ed doesn’t like anyone, she says—not Martin, not himself.
In the course of this short novel—and with the help of Hazeline, Wylene, and Sybil—Martin learns that, although he can’t change his father, he can learn to stick up for himself. He can live into being who he really is. He can find a way to make music.
There are many jumping off points in this novel for social-emotional learning. Beethoven in Paradise is replete with scenes showing empathy, anger, sadness, happiness, and worry. It’s all about new and unexpected friendships. Although there is bullying and abuse, Martin experiences kindnesses and shows kindness to others, as well. He learns that he can’t change people, but he can change how he reacts to them. He does not have to become like his father.
A class, reading group, or bookclub could have fun learning about different kinds of music. Wylene and Martin listen to a diverse array of music, which is mentioned by title/composer/performer—easy to look up and play. There are interesting details about harmonica playing, musical practice (Martin plays by ear), violin, saxophone, and Beethoven, as well. Music might actually be considered a character in this book.
Beethoven in Paradise was published in 1997, but its timelessness—in theme, circumstance, and emotion—makes it an excellent pick for reading with middle-grader readers today. With good humor, honest looks at hard things, and a wonderful cast of characters, Barbara O’Connor gives us a coming-of-age story of friendship, community, and genius that deserves a Fresh Lookology here in 2019!