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BOOK REVIEWS, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade Readers, Music, Read-Aloud Suggestions, The Arts


This was one of my accidental finds at the library.  I was looking to check out some of the Superfudge books by Judy Blume (for the hundredth time because my children love reading and re-reading them) and this wonderful book was alphabetically next to Judy Blume’s work on the shelf.

The cover was a piano keyboard, which caught my eye.  I am always on the lookout for books about the arts that might be fun, informative and engaging to read.  The Rising Star of Rusty Nail is all of those things intertwined seamlessly into a great story.

Rusty Nail is a small town in Minnesota–another surprising detail and draw for me since that is where I live.  It is the 1950’s, the era of Communist Russia, nuclear bomb drills in the schools and the McCarthy hearings.  10-year-old Franny Hansen lives with her parents and two older brothers.  She and her best friend Sandy are known as the biggest troublemakers in town.  In fact, the story begins with the two of them getting into trouble over a water balloon throwing incident surrounding Franny’s arch-enemy, fellow 10-year-old Nancy Orilee.

Franny plays the piano, loves it and believes she has talent.  She takes lessons from an older lady in town who does not particularly challenge her abilities.  The reader does not need to possess a technical knowledge of music in order to understand the way Franny feels about her music because she describes it in the way each of us feels about the things about which we are most passionate–to the point, sometimes, of not being able to put it into words.  If a reader does have technical or specific knowledge of music–piano in particular– that simply layers another level into the story, making it that much more compelling.  Any technical music details are included in short, workable paragraphs for the non-music reader that do not detract in any way from the narrative and offer the opportunity to learn about some specifics behind music theory and performance.

Charlie Koenig, a respected member of the town suddenly brings home a Russian woman as his new wife.  The small town is abuzz with rumors of a “Commie” in their midst, spying on them in their very homes.  Franny is originally caught up in the excitement of such a rumor, but watches both her parents quietly caution against such judgment.

When Franny discovers that not only is this Russian woman a pianist, but a famous one to boot, she is determined to convince the woman to take her on as a piano student, regardless of the opinions of the townspeople.  Madame Malenkov proves to be a difficult, seemingly cold individual.  She does, however, eventually agree to teach Franny, although she remains secretive and somewhat mysterious.

Franny struggles with the attitude and general meanness of opinion regarding Olga in town.  She battles her enemy Nancy Orilee in and out of school.  She weathers Sandy’s disapproval of her desire to play the piano and succeed on a level bigger than the town of Rusty Nail.  And she learns about compassion, empathy and following your dreams.

Franny is a character with whom it is easy for the reader to both identify and like.  Her humiliations, frustrations, joys and imaginings easily become those of the reader.

This is a book I hope to use as a read-aloud selection with my 3rd and 4th grade classes in the coming school year.  For my students the fact that the action takes place in small town Minnesota and Minneapolis will be an especially exciting aspect.  It is also an excellent independent read selection with a strong female protagonist for 3rd grade through middle school.

I am always thrilled when I find a brilliant story like this by accident and I encourage others to embrace the opportunity of discovery in this book!


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