________________ CM . . . . Volume VI Number 15 . . . . March 31, 2000

cover The Composition.

Antonio Skarmeta. Illustrated by Alfonso Ruano.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 2000.
32 pp., cloth, $16.95.
ISBN 0-88899-390-0.

Subject Heading:
Dictatorship-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 3 and up / Ages 8 and up.
Review by Valerie Nielsen.

**** /4

image Reviewed from prepublication copy.

Pedro is disappointed with the plastic soccer ball his parents give him for his ninth birthday. He had wanted a white leather ball with black patches, like the ones real soccer players use. To Pedro, living in an unidentified Latin American country, life is confusing. He wonders why the streets of his town are filled with soldiers, and why his mother and father spend every evening listening to the radio. Then, one afternoon in the middle of a soccer game, something terrible happens. Soldiers drag his friend Daniel's father away. Pedro learns that Daniel's father has been arrested because he is against the dictatorship. He remembers hearing the phrase "military dictatorship" on the radio, and he soon learns that his father is also against the dictatorship. Pedro is worried. Is his father going to be taken away? Is Pedro, himself, against the dictatorship? The next day, a representative of the government, Captain Romo, visits Pedro's school and invites the children in his class to write a composition. The student who writes the best composition will receive a gold medal and carry the flag in the Patriot's parade. The title of the composition is to be: "What My Family Does at Night." Pedro is stumped. His head is "...as empty as a piggy bank with no money in it." He tells his friend, Juan, that, if he wins, he will sell the medal and buy himself a size five soccer ball made of leather with black patches. "Then he wet his pencil lead with a bit of spit, took a deep breath and wrote: 'When my father comes home from work...'"

Written by Antonio Skarmeta, world-renowned Chilean author of The Postman, The Composition is a subtle and moving story. Through the eyes of a sensitive nine-year-old, the author shows readers the struggle of ordinary people to resist a repressive system. The terrifying impact of such a system on families is powerfully presented in Skarmeta's deceptively simple prose. Wonderfully detailed full-page illustrations by Spanish artist Alfonso Ruano give the reader a sense of being there. The artist's portrait of Captain Romo, hugely superimposed against the backdrop of Grade 3 children, is particularly chilling.

This is a story which can - and should - be read and discussed with children from grades three through six. It is one of a growing number of picture books in which the author develops a serious theme by placing an appealing young protagonist in a harshly realistic setting. School librarians might well consider purchasing multiple copies of The Composition or using their influence to persuade classroom teachers to buy extras for use in literature circles. Discussions arising from the reading of this book will certainly be lively and guaranteed to expand young readers' understanding of the world beyond their experience. If the excellent explanatory note, entitled "Dictatorship" and found at the end of the book, is presented as an introduction to a reading, discussions should prove even more fruitful.

Highly Recommended.

Valerie Nielsen is a retired teacher-librarian living in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364