Review: Nathan's Song

 Nathan's Song

by Leda Schubert, illustrated by Maya Ish-Shalom

Dial Books for Young Readers (imprint of Penguin Young Readers)

Category: Picture Books
Reviewer: Ruth Horowitz

Nathan’s Song is a charming, well-told tale about creative drive, family love, immigrant pluck, and the benevolence of good luck.

Growing up in a Russian shtetl, Nathan loves to sing, and longs to study opera. His family scrimps and saves, and when Nathan is sixteen, they send him to Italy to pursue his ambition, vowing to join him when he’s famous. When Nathan accidentally boards a ship bound for New York, it seems that all is lost. But Nathan sings on the boat to earn his passage, sings on the streets to make a start in New York, where he finds a music teacher, a singing career and a wife. His dreams are not complete, however, until he is able to send for his family and greet them on Ellis Island with a celebration of song.

Maya Ish-Shalom’s folkloric illustrations are blocky and bright, with deeply saturated colors and expressive poses and proportions reminiscent of Chagall. Nathan’s developing voice floats through the pages as swirling, soaring, sometimes distorted and finally bold and strong musical notation that celebrates the reunification of families from many parts of the world.

The flap copy identifies Nathan’s Song as a Jewish immigration story from the early 1900s, and Schubert’s author’s note mentions the hardships and persecution that led so many Russian Jews to come to America the turn of the 20th century. Although the text itself never explicitly identifies Nathan as Jewish, readers familiar with Jewish culture will recognize the Ashkenazi tropes sprinkled throughout: how people dress in Nathan’s village; the fact that the village is called a shtetl; someone speaking Yiddish, a bride and groom being lifted on chairs. While Nathan’s Song tells a very Jewish story, it speaks to the experiences of all people who find themselves torn between following their dreams and being with their loved ones.

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Reviewer Ruth Horowitz is a writer living in Rhode Island. Her most recent books are SAVING ELI'S LIBRARY (Albert Whitman 2020) and ARE WE STILL FRIENDS (Scholastic 2017).