Fall Children’s Books
At that time, 1941–1942, the composer and his family were
living through what would become the deadliest siege in history.
The Germans had invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941,
cutting off all routes in and out of Leningrad within months.
As winter set in, conditions quickly deteriorated. The Germans
learned where the city kept food supplies— 38 wooden warehouses stocked with oil, lard, meats, and grain; the Luftwaffe
bombed them. The siege continued two more years. By then,
more than a million people had died, mostly of starvation. Some
of those who lived turned to cannibalism to survive.
This was a stunning reversal for the city once (and again)
known as St. Petersburg, Russia’s cultural capital. It certainly
shattered Shostakovich’s world. Born in 1906 when Czar Nicholas
II ruled, Shostakovich showed prodigious talent as a pianist from
a young age. His middle-class family nurtured it, sending him
to conservatory. He learned to compose by playing until he was
“inside the scaffolding of music, where its wheelworks and gears
lay hidden,” Anderson writes. The Leningrad Philharmonic performed Shostakovich’s first symphony when he was 19.
Who knows what his future might have held had he not come
of age at the same moment Joseph Stalin rose to power. Like
other artists, Shostakovich lived in fear of producing work that
would displease the ruthless dictator. Falling out of favor could
mean Siberian exile, or a show trial, followed by execution. It
was no vague threat. It happened to people Shostakovich knew.
Anderson began his book as an inquiry into Shostakovich and
his symphony, but it evolved into a passion for the larger story
of a people trapped between Stalin and Hitler.
“This book took me five years to write because I didn’t know
Russian history, but what I learned blew my mind,” Anderson says.
“ I would be doing research first thing in the morning and come
downstairs and ask my girlfriend, ‘Do you know how many people
were killed in Stalin’s death camps?’ And she’d say, ‘Too early!’ ”
Anderson wondered why he hadn’t known. Few American
kids get through school without knowing certain horrific
WWII facts: six million Jews killed in Germany’s concentra-
tion camps; two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians.
“We don’t really think about the death toll in Russia the way
we do in other nations, but that’s dangerous,” Anderson says.
“[Russian president Vladimir] Putin’s father was a soldier on
the Leningrad front. Twenty-seven million Russians died
during WWII. We cannot understand Russia if we don’t understand this history.”
What would inspire a novelist whose young adult fiction has won the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and two Printz Honors to take on the history of the Russian revolution and a
composer at work during the siege of Leningrad?
For M. T. Anderson, it was the music and the composer’s role
in a WWII escapade so far-fetched it might have worked as a
plot for Tintin. In September Candlewick will publish Symphony
for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.
It’s a long way from Anderson’s first novel for the publisher,
Thirsty (1997), about a suburban vampire, or his second, Burger
Wuss (1999), a revenge fantasy set at a fast-food joint. “When
Tobin said, ‘ I’m thinking of writing a nonfiction book for teens
about Shostakovich and the siege of Leningrad,’ I probably let
out a short, barky laugh,” says Liz Bicknell, Anderson’s editor
and Candlewick’s associate publisher.
First Movement: The Music
Anderson had written about music before; he once wrote a
column for the Improper Bostonian called “Classical Noise.” Early
in his career, he authored two well-received picture book biographies: Handel, Who Knew What He Liked (Candlewick, 2001)
and Strange Mr. Satie (Viking, 2003). He has an absorbing
interest in classical music, though no musical training himself.
“The only instrument I can play is the stereo,” he says. “Well,
that’s not completely true. I was forced to play the clarinet in
seventh or eighth grade, but what I liked most about that was
the adorable way it fit into the small box. Once I took it out of
the box, it really didn’t go all that well.”
The clarinet introduced him to George Frideric Handel, a
Second Movement: Dmitri Shostakovich
fortunate encounter. “That was the beginning of my attraction
to the music of the past,” he says. “ I love the sense of history, of
listening to music created a millennium ago.”
He was in his late teens when he first heard Shostakovich’s
work—one of the composer’s concerti for cello. “ I was blown
away by the intensity of it,” he says. “It’s actually very good music
for teenagers because it’s full of darkness and passion. I mean,
there’s some joy in it, too, but, let’s face it, no one ever called him
Certainly they did not while Shostakovich was writing his seventh symphony, popularly known as the Leningrad Symphony.
M.T. Anderson Writes History...
in Four Movements The award-winning novelist urns to nonfiction.
BY SUE CORBETT