February 14, 2019
(++++) MUSICAL MASTERY AND MORE
The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle. By David Litchfield. Clarion. $17.99.
A lovely, heartwarming and endearing sequel to The Bear and the Piano, David Litchfield’s The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle brings back the animal-and-music combination of the earlier book while expanding the theme and introducing some new ones. The tale this time centers not on the bear – who is now a musical superstar putting together an all-animal band – but on a little dog named Hugo, companion to a human street-corner violinist named Hector. Realizing that time has passed his street-music life by and that he will never get to perform in an imposing concert hall, Hector decides to give up the violin altogether. Litchfield’s always-sensitive illustrations are particularly sad on two pages that show Hector, with music no longer part of his life, spending “most of his time watching TV, listening to audiobooks, sleeping, sleeping, and sleeping some more” – the very picture of an elderly, retired man whose talent is no longer wanted or appreciated and who has no one to turn to and nowhere to go.
But those sad pictures contain a grain of happiness in the background, where Hugo is seen holding the violin and playing it: he misses the music he and Hector used to share, and if Hector will not continue making some, then Hugo will. And he gets good, really good, turning out to have so much talent that people hum and tap and sing along with Hugo’s playing, because it is “toe-tappingly, finger-clickingly, whistle-blowingly AWESOME!” Hector is amazed not only at how good Hugo is but also at “how much his friend loved to play,” and he resolves to teach Hugo whatever he can. And he does. And a crowd gathers as Hector helps Hugo as Hugo plays his heart out, and soon, “news of the incredible fiddle-playing dog spread.”
Enter the bear. Watching and hearing Hugo, he is suitably impressed, inviting the dog to join his all-animal band – but this seems a mixed blessing to Hector, who, after all, had quit playing because he knew he would never get the sort of opportunity that Hugo is now getting. Hector becomes jealous, tries to dissuade Hugo from leaving, and even tells him he will fail because he is not very good. Of course, Hector quickly realizes that is unfair and unkind – but before he can apologize, Hugo has left. Now Hector feels guilty, and sadder than ever before.
Of course, as in his previous book, Litchfield does not let the downbeat part of the story remain for long. Hugo is a big success with Bear’s Big Band, “the star of the show,” with Litchfield’s pictures of the other musical animals – Bear, of course, and also a drum-playing giraffe and a wolf playing bass – lightening the tone of the book considerably. Hector watches the band’s performances on TV, finds that he misses playing music, and misses Hugo even more – so when the ensemble comes to Hector’s city, Hector buys a ticket even though he thinks Hugo may not want to see him. But, of course, Hugo does want to see Hector. Hugo is now playing a violin of his own – but, it turns out, has carefully kept Hector’s instrument all this time, and offers it to Hector so the old fiddler can play, as a special guest, with Bear and the band. At last, Hector gets his much-wanted chance to appear on stage! So Hugo and Hector realize that “they would always still be friends,” and Litchfield knowingly concludes The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle by noting that “good friendship, just like good music, lasts a lifetime.”
This is a lovely little story even though it is not quite at the level of the original The Bear and the Piano, which preserved a fine veneer of fairy tale and focused on the sheer improbability of a bear not only learning to play the piano but also becoming a virtuoso. In The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle, animals playing instruments are not particularly unusual, and the “friendship” theme, while nicely handled, is on the ordinary side. But the tale is very well told – Litchfield paces the book expertly – and the illustrations are all charming, skillfully evoking the emotions (positive and negative) expressed in the text. Kids who enjoyed The Bear and the Piano will certainly welcome this sequel, and the book will even be fun for young readers who do not know the earlier one. The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle is a bit more superficial than its predecessor, though. So the solution for parents seems obvious: get both the books and let kids read the first one first.