Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Review: The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven

(Unavoidable spoilers in review)

The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven is one clever picture book. Jonah Winter structures the story in such a way that you only get the joke at the end. Barry Blitt's illustrations are drop-dead funny, with a cranky Beethoven juxtaposed with beautiful Viennese cityscapes on each page. (As you can tell from the cover illustration, Blitt's Beethoven looks just like the ubiquitous statuette of the great composer that glared down at you during weekly piano lessons.)

The 39 Apartments of Ludwig von Beethoven begins with three facts. The first of these is:

"FACT: Ludwig van Beethoven was born in the town of Bonn in the country of Germany in the year 1770."

We then learn that Beethoven composed on five legless pianos and "FACT: Ludwig van Beethoven lived in 39 different apartments--which is of course the subject of our story. (See book title.)"

Then the story begins. Beethoven's move from apartment to apartment is "documented" with complaints from neighbors, what he composed where, and details on how movers transported the five legless pianos. Here's a mover's lament:
  • "In the diary of one Anselm Schwartz, we find the following translated here into modern English: 'After this move, I'm out of here. That dude is WHACKED in the head! Yow...My back is, like, REALLY messed up!'"

After the first three FACTS of the book, there are only three to follow--two in the story of the moves: "FACT: It is very difficult to move a piano. FACT: It is even more difficult to move five pianos." These two FACTS are self-evident and are easily overlooked amongst the evidence of cotton balls with earwax found in neighbors' apartments. It's only when you read the last FACT on the final page that you get the joke: "FACT: That's all we know of the 39 apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven." In other words, absolutely nothing--but a good story results nonetheless.

The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven is a stunner of a picture book and definitely makes my 2006 favorites list. Read it aloud to a group just for the experience of watching kids get the joke. The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven is highly recommended for children ages 5-10.