When Carlos finds Uncle Jack’s harmonica ‘in a dusty old box tucked back against the wall shadow’ of the attic, he knows he has found a very special thing indeed. His mother has told him about the music Uncle Jack used to play with it, and it seems the harmonica is waiting to be played: ‘He heard the music, barely a sigh but it filled the attic with a promise.’
Carlos begins to teach himself how to play using the sounds of nature as his guide. He starts off quietly at night in his bed and slowly learns the song of the moon, the storm and the wind and rain. Keeping the harmonica a secret for now, he draws more inspiration from the grasses and crickets ‘he sat up and added the sway of the trees’ until one day he is ready to share his secret with his mum. She is delighted to see the harmonica and says she wishes he had been able to get to know his Uncle Jack; to which Carlos replies that he has met him in the music – a beautiful and poignant message. The story comes full circle as he plays his harmonica to the hills beyond, just as Uncle Jack did.
Set in New Zealand’s rural landscape and featuring a boy and his faithful puppy, Andrew Burden’s natural and almost dreamlike illustrations work perfectly with Dawn McMillan’s gentle lyrical prose. Carlos’s connections to nature and his Uncle are reinforced through the harmonica, as Carlos breathes life into it, so too does he bring Uncle Jack’s memory to life. The music imagery is presented so well in the text and illustrations that you can almost hear the harmonica playing.
The subject matter of a soldier who has been killed in service is a serious and important one to tackle for a children’s picture book, and The Harmonica has handled it respectfully and sensitively at a level that is appropriate for young children. Uncle Jack’s death is implied without the need for detail that could be unsettling. While we can guess at where he was serving, more important is the scene showing Uncle Jack sharing his music with his troop; this moment of bonding and closeness is surely what the ANZAC spirit embodies.
The Harmonica will be a welcome addition to school resources, linking history to current day for ANZAC learning. Dawn and Andrew have created a moving modern day ANZAC story which gently reminds us all that our service men and women continue to do their duty and serve our country. And that not all of them come home.
Reviewed by Vanessa Hatley-Owen
By Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burden
Scholastic NZ, 2016