Silent Music by James Rumford

SILENT MUSIC by James Rumford (Roaring Brook Press, 2008).
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.

Hawaii-based author/illustrator James Rumford has put a human face on war in his 2008 picture book, Silent Music (Roaring Brook Press).

It is by turns a poignant glimpse into the life of an Iraqi boy named Ali, a gorgeous, impeccably designed celebration of the art of Arabic calligraphy, and an interesting study in contrasts that renews our faith in the resiliency of the human spirit.

Young Ali is much like any boy his age we might know in America. He loves soccer, loud music, and dancing. But his first love is calligraphy: “I love to make the ink flow — from my pen stopping and starting, gliding and sweeping, leaping, dancing to the silent music in my head. Writing a long sentence is like watching a soccer player in slow motion as he kicks the ball across the field, as I leave a trail of dots and loops behind me.”

It is this passion for making beautiful letters that sustains Ali through many horrific nights during the bombing of Baghdad. While all around him, the city and life as he knew it are being shattered to bits, Ali finds solace in his art. Huddled under a blanket in his dark room, Ali makes his own music on the page, much like his hero, the great calligrapher,Yakut, who fled to a high tower in 1258 to write while Baghdad was being destroyed by the Mongols.

“Rumford’s sense of design,” says Kirkus, “is one of the keenest in the field.” Via mixed media collage, Rumford combines computer enhanced pencil and charcoal depictions of Ali, the geometric patterns and motifs of Arabic art, flowing lines of calligraphy, and the tangible pieces of everyday life, in the form of tickets, currency, receipts, and Ali’s scribblings. The result is an exquisite visual feast, a rich montage of jewel tones and pattern on pattern texture that sings of both old and new.

In his Author’s Note, Rumford cites how important calligraphy is to Islamic culture. It is used to decorate the holy book, as well as mosques and other holy places. Indeed, it is woven into the very fabric of daily existence, and Rumford underscores this by incorporating calligraphy in clothing, mosaic tiles, and backgrounds. Ali’s bold strokes often take center stage, as he struggles to perfect his art.

I love Ali’s voice in this spare, lyrical telling. By contrasting the ugliness of war and the beauty of art, the din of bombs and the silence of writing, the scattered elements of a life and the cohesiveness of Ali’s loving family, Rumford deepens the emotional impact and broadens the scope of the story. As Ali tells it, war is easy to write, but peace is difficult. His determination to continue to practice until it becomes easy mirrors his country’s ongoing struggle for resolution and reconciliation.

Silent Music has received consistently glowing reviews, including starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. Just recently, it received a 2009 Charlotte Zolotow Honor Award, which recognizes excellence in picture book texts, presented by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Silent Music is both timely and timeless, another fine masterwork from a consummate artist that is not to be missed.

To hear Jim read from Silent Music, click here!

*Interior spreads posted by permission, copyright © 2008 James Rumford, published by Roaring Brook Press, Neal Porter Books. All rights reserved.

17 thoughts on “Silent Music by James Rumford

  1. Oh, the art is gorgeous. I love the collage technique and the colors and the patterns woven in so beautifully. And I’ve never heard of this book before!

    Did I tell you that my daughter is studying Arabic?


  2. James Rumford

    Elaine M.


    James Rumford is one of my favorite authors/illustrators of children’s books. I love the subjects he writes about–and his picture book art is exceptional. I thought the illustraions in TRAVELING MAN: THE JOURNEY OF IBN BATTUTA, 1325-1354 were elegant.

    I haven’t read SILENT MUSIC. Thanks for this review and the images of illustrations from the book.


  3. Re: James Rumford

    You’re welcome, Elaine. The paintings depicting calligraphy master Yakut remind me of the Ibn Battuta book, so I’m sure you’ll like this one,too.

    Silent Music also has some of the same touches of sandiness and gilding that speaks of the ancient, but it is juxtaposed with the modern world Ali lives in. I liked this blend of old and new, the feeling of continuity with regard to the art of calligraphy — but the fact of yet another war, so many hundreds of years later, gives the book a feeling of melancholy. And then there’s the innocence of Ali, continuing to do what he loves despite all, in a context of violence.


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