Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George

Written by: Lesa Cline-Ransome

Illustrated by: James E. Ransome

For ages: 5-9 years

Language: English

Topics Covered: Enslavement, Music, POC-Centric Narratives, Historical Figure, Historic Events, Musician, Activism, Abolition, Racism, Trailblazer.  

Summary: This is an interesting and historic tale of a gifted musician, which begins on a West Indies sugar plantation in 1739.  The plantation owner Guillame-Pierre is awaiting the birth of his first child, an interracial boy birthed by Nanon, one of the Guillame-Pierre’s enslaved women.  There is an underlying message that the plantation owner and Nanon were in love but unable to be together in a traditional capacity throughout the book, which will be discussed later on.  The baby is named Joseph, and contrary to a lot of historic narratives from this time he enjoys a life with a very involved father and no labor.  Joseph is free to play and spend time with his father, as well as a private tutor and music lessons.  Nanon and Joseph lived in the main house with his father, but loved to listen to the music played by the enslaved people who lived in their own quarters.  When Joseph was 9, his father moved himself, Nanon, and Joseph back to France.  Nanon was now a free woman, and had her own apartment in a village outside of Paris while Joseph and his father lived in the city.  This is another clue that Nanon and Joseph’s father were in love, as he financed her move and her life as a free woman in France.  Although Joseph was of noble birth, because he was interracial he was unable to fully assume the title he was born into and instead held Chevalier, which was a noble title but the lowest ranking one available.  He continued to receive high class academic education as well as excelled in many sports, which delighted Guillame-Pierre.  Joseph would visit his mother at her apartment every night and tell her about the things he did, knowing she would be unable to experience them due to the color of her skin.

When Joseph was 21, he decided to fully devote himself to music.  In 1769 he was offered first violin and timekeeper for the les Amateurs orchestra, an extremely high honor.  He created new techniques and elevated the orchestra to new heights, playing for the elite night after night.  He composed 6 operas, and a myriad of other musical pieces.  True to the title of his book, he inspired Mozart to continue with his musical undertakings and the two began to play alternating nights at the concert house.  Joseph eventually met and played for French royalty, and was appointed the Queen’s personal music instructor.  In an Author’s Note in the back, we learn during the French revolution he was falsely accused to misusing public funds and imprisoned, but was released and became an abolition activist.

This book is hefty, with a lot of information on each page.  While the age says suited for 5 years and up, most young readers will need assistance in the form of our good old Zone of Proximal Development.  The reader gets a sense of the privilege Joseph was born into, and how it enabled him to become known worldwide for his enthralling musical abilities.  Joseph was the product of two people in love, unable to be together because of both social stigma and legislation.  This is a fascinating story of a little known historical figure and trailblazer, being the first person of color to perform for royalty in the French palace.  The complexities of Joseph’s social situation can be more easily understood by older readers, but the main points of the story can be understood and enjoyed by readers much younger.  The illustrations by Ransome are in typical fashion, beautiful and evocative.  Highly recommend this book, but definitely needs a read through by the educator beforehand!

 Reflection Questions:

  • Have you ever moved to a new place?
  • What do you think was going through Joseph’s mind when he was on the ship back to France?
  • Why do you think some people are upset by different skin tones?
  • Do you think Joseph wanted his parents to be able to live together?
  • How proud do you think Joseph was when he worked very hard and was given the first violin position because of that hard work?

Continuing the Conversation:

  • Why was the West Indies a popular spot for sugar plantations?  Learn about the history, and why Guillame-Pierre would have moved there temporarily to make money before moving back to France.
  • Joseph was a prolific composer.  Listen to some of his music.  What does it make you feel?  Does it sound different than the music you listen to?

About the Author & the Illustrator:

lesa_nola-2Lesa Cline-Ransome grew up in Malden, MA, a suburb just outside of Boston, the daughter of two nurses and the youngest of three. She considers consider herself very lucky to have grown up with a mother who loved to read. Each week Lesa’s Mom would take Lesa with her to the local library so that she could stock up on books. As Lesa grew older she would venture off into the children’s section and gather up her own collection to check out. Through her mother Lesa realized that reading could become a wonderful escape and writing even more so. When her mother gave Lesa a diary as a gift, she first filled the pages with the “very important” details of her life—adventures with her friends, secret crushes and the many ways in which her family drove her crazy. Then Lesa began creating my own stories! Lesa became interested in children’s books the year she married. Her husband, James was working on illustrating his first book which allowed both of them to look at picture books in a new way. When they’d browse books in bookstores, he studied the illustrations, she read the stories. Lesa eventually completed a graduate degree in elementary education and through coursework became truly immersed in children’s literature.

james-e-ransome-1261135The Children’s Book Council named James E. Ransome as one of seventy-five authors and illustrators everyone should know. Currently a member of the Society of Illustrators, Ransome has received both the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and the IBBY Honor Award for his book, The Creation. He has also received a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for Illustration for Uncle Jed’s Barbershop which was selected as an ALA Notable Book and is currently being shown as a feature on Reading Rainbow. How Many Stars in the Sky?and Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt were also Reading Rainbow selections. PBS’s Storytime featured his book, The Old Dog. Ransome has exhibited works in group and solo shows throughout the country and received The Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance award for his book, The Wagon. In 1999 Let My People Go received the NAACP Image Award for Illustration and Satchel Paige was reviewed in Bank Street College of Education’s “The Best Children’s Books of the Year.” In 2001, James received the Rip Van Winkle Award from the School Library Media Specialists of Southeast New York for the body of his work.  How Animals Saved the People received the SEBA (Southeastern Book Association) Best Book of the Year Award in 2002 and the Vermont Center for the Book chose Visiting Day as one of the top ten diversity books of 2002.  In 2004 James was recognized by the local art association when he received the Dutchess County Executive Arts Award for an Individual Artist.  He has completed several commissioned murals for the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Hemphill Branch Library in Greensboro, NC. He created a historical painting commissioned by a jury for the Paterson, NJ Library and a poster for the 50th Anniversary Celebration of Brown vs the Board of Education.  His traveling Exhibit, Visual Stories has been touring the United States since 2003.  His work is part of both private and public children’s book art collections.

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