Susan Goldman Rubin, the Los Angeles-based author of many nonfiction books for young people, has won the 2012 Sydney Taylor Book Award for her engaging biography “Music Was It: Young Leonard Bernstein” (ages 10 and up). Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries, the award honors new books for children and teens that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. The award memorializes Sydney Taylor, author of the classic “All-of-a-Kind Family” series. This biography is also one of five finalists for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction from the American Library Association.
The book focuses on Bernstein’s drive to succeed in the world of music in spite of great opposition from his family. It covers his early childhood life and ends with his astonishing Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 25. Although Bernstein was often stymied by his father’s concern about his choice of career, any young person watching popular shows like “American Idol” knows that when a talented person wants to achieve success, obstacles can often be overcome through sheer determination. Rubin states that she deliberately chose this focus instead of trying to cover Bernstein’s later life and successes because she felt his struggle to pursue his dream as a young adult would be more meaningful to her readers. “The conflict between doing what you want to do and following a parent’s wishes is a universal theme. And I thought that if readers didn’t know who Lenny was, they might relate to the arc of the story and be drawn into listening to his music.”
Rubin is aware that 21st century kids may never have heard of Leonard Bernstein. Even those who know about “West Side Story” may not have heard the great composer’s name. She aims to change that. She also hopes that the growing popularity of her book will encourage students and teachers to locate the New York Philharmonic’s televised “Young People’s Concert Series” that Bernstein made so popular in the 1960s, and which is now available on DVD and YouTube. “His music was so wonderful,” the author said. “He was one of the most recorded conductors of all time.”
Of particular interest to today’s readers is the eye-pleasing format of the biography. Children do not have to be assigned a “biography book report” to want to pick up this title. The cover shot of the handsome and youthful conductor in his white T-shirt conducting with his slender body (and no baton) is striking. The engaging photos and musical scores, larger type and white space, attractive chapter headings and inclusion of all sorts of additional relevant information (timeline, discography, quotation sources, plus extra short bios of people important to Bernstein later in life) virtually assure that this biography will not be sitting on the library shelf waiting for the teacher to assign that dreaded book report on a famous person.
The Jewish aspect of his story is also strong. Along with issues of discrimination that Bernstein experienced because he was a Jew, he was quite influenced by the melodies and songs he heard in shul, and he rewrote many of them. Bernstein’s father, Sam, often said to him disappointedly that he should at least become a rabbi as he clearly had no interest in the family business, the Bernstein Hair Co. The author also writes that at the height of his career, he sent a letter to Solomon Braslavsky, the organist and choir master of the synagogue of his youth, and wrote, “I will never forget the tremendous influence you and your music made on me when I was a youngster.”
Rubin said that the biggest thrill of her long odyssey of writing and researching this book came when she found a comment that Sam Bernstein made to reporters after his son’s spectacular debut at age 25 conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. When asked why he had ever objected to his son becoming a musician, Sam replied, “How could I know my son was going to grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”
The Sydney Taylor Awards will be presented in June at the Association of Jewish Libraries convention in Pasadena.
To view the other gold medal and honor winners, go to jewishlibraries.org.
Lisa Silverman is the director of the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library and former children’s editor of Jewish Book World magazine.