Playing Dad’s Song
Bank Street College of Education, Best Children’s Books of the Year
Eleven-year old Gus Moskowitz isn’t too thrilled when his mom comes home with an oboe and the news that she’s arranged for him to take lessons with a retired symphony musician. “Maybe you can learn to compose,” she says, trying to convince him. But what Gus wants to compose isn’t music—it’s a different version of his life: a life without Ivan the Terrible, who taunts him every day at middle school; a life without his older sister Liza, argument wizard extraordinaire and the shoo-in star of every school play. Most of all, in Gus’s life the way he’d like to compose it, September 11th would have never happened and his dad would still be alive, singing in the subways, and picking him up on Wednesday nights, the way he always did, flinging open the door and belting, “The Phantom of the Opera is here!”
It’s an accident that gets Gus to consider trying out for Captain Hook in the upcoming school production of Peter Pan. After buying an eye patch to cover up another run-in with Ivan the Terrible, he’s got to give his mom some excuse. But then he remembers that his dad, a struggling actor, had always liked playing bad guys. Dad believed most people didn’t play villains with enough heart. If Gus could play Captain Hook with the right kind of heart, maybe he could bring his father back somehow. Maybe through acting, he’d finally be able to feel his father inside him.
But there’s one problem.
Gus has stage fright. Terrible stage fright. He can’t even do his class presentation. How is he ever going to make it through an audition?
With the help of his sister, Liza, his oboe teacher, Mr. M., and the nameless neighborhood dog tied up in the yard by the edge of Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, Gus learns some valuable lessons about auditioning, composing and life.
|The honest personal drama brings the grief and loss of the terrorist attack home to the reader.
–Hazel Rochman, Booklist (American Library Association)
|A satisfying look at the emotions and coping mechanisms of a young boy struggling with an enormous, unexplained loss in his life.
|A moving, heartfelt story
|Friedman develops Gus’s character with disarming honesty, melding it with an absorbing plot and a theme that exalts the healing powers of creativity and imagination.
–Linda R. Silver, Newsletter of the Association of Jewish Libraries
|Sometimes, between the grand scale and the purely personal, there is a gap that can only be bridged by art.
–Helen Klein, Brooklyn Courier Life
|Playing Dad’s Song is about more than music and Sept. 11. It touches on schoolyard bullies, sibling relationships and the struggle of a child coping with divorce and loss–Lauren Kramer, Western Massachusetts Jewish Ledger.|
|Tender, compassionate, and well told.
–Janice Ripley Beetle, Daily Hampshire Gazette
|A touching, beautiful, unsentimental story … As a bereavement therapist specializing in childhood and adult traumatic grief, this is an important book not only for the young reader but for adults, too. It will inspire parents and communities to rise above their own pain and reach out to bereaved children desperately in need of their guidance.
–Rob Zucker, Northampton, MA
|Emotionally strong but entirely unsentimental, this book for middle-grade readers is a gem.
–Elli Meeropol, Odyssey Bookshop, South Hadley, MA
|I am so happy to see topical, realistic fiction about a sixth-grade working-class boy from Brooklyn. The characters and setting are remarkable depictions of our real world in a story that young people can appreciate.
–Tom Shcherbenko, Teacher, New York City Public Schools
|Well written—an interesting story with likeable characters.
–Jeanne Benedict, Librarian, Steuben, Maine
|This book is an incredible read for anyone facing the loss of a loved one or just trying to get through the obstacles of everyday life.
–Noelle S. Vilella, thefreelibrary.com
1. Gus’s dad believed that all villians have heart—that there are two sides to every person. Do you agree? If so, what makes a “villain” hide his/her heart?
2. What do you think about Paganini’s blanket? How does this relate to Gus?
3. What is the role of music in Playing Dad’s Song?
4. How does Mr. M’s philosophy about the scratches on his records relate to Gus’s life? How does Gus eventually come to terms with the “scratches” in his own life?
5. How do you think Gus’s mother deals with her grief? How is her way different from Gus’s?
6. What is Gus’s relationship with Mr. M like? Can you find any parallels between Gus’s life and Mr. M’s life? How are they similar and different?
7. Gus originally tries out for the school play to feel closer to his actor father. How is this a natural response to his father’s death? What makes Gus realize he doesn’t have to imitate his father to feel close to him? Is it a gradual process or the result of a specific event?
8. What is Gus’s relationship with his mother like? What do you think of the author’s decision to have Gus’s parents be divorced? How does this add to the story?
9. Do Gus’s juggling balls symbolize anything? If so, what do they symbolize?
10. What about the dog? Why does Gus want to think his name is Bob?
11. If you could “compose your own life,” the way Gus wanted to, what would you change and what would you keep the same?