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Symphony for the City of the Dead

Symphony for the City of the Dead, M.T. Anderson
Candlewick Press, September 2015
Reviewed from ARC

One of my favorite books last year was Candace Fleming’s The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial RussiaDespite having a ton of critical praise for its tight, thrilling narrative and thoughtful approach to complex history, it didn’t manage to snag a Printz (although it did win lots of other great awards). Symphony for the City of the Dead is, in many ways, a wonderful sequel to Fleming’s book. M.T. Anderson begins Symphony with Dmitri Shostakovich’s childhood, just before the end of the Romanov reign and the rise of Lenin. For the first half of the book he alternates between chronicles of Shostakovich’s life and the political and social upheaval in Russia beginning with the Bolsheviks and the revolution straight into World War II. The siege of Leningrad and the composition of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 are the main focus of the rest of the book. Anderson—a two-time Printz honoree—does very good work here but a few things in Symphony may keep the author from earning his third Printz.

Anderson knows his way around a sentence. He is particularly good at using rhythm and repetition to build drama or grab the reader. In the chapter that describes The Great Terror, he deliberately repeats sentence structure and words to convey the utter devastation that Stalin wreaked on his own people. The horrifyingly high loss of life is conveyed without unnecessary embellishment making it all the more stark. He also makes liberal use of the single sentence paragraph technique that Sheinkin and other nonfiction authors use to put a button on big moments.* I’m still not convinced that this is the most elegant way to create drama but it’s reliable and effective.

Symphony reads like you’re sitting in an academic seminar with a fascinating and captivating master professor/storyteller. Anderson uses conversational phrases, such as, “We can imagine him there,” to signal to the reader that he is constructing this narrative for us. He questions the veracity of sources and occasionally walks through his thought process in thinking about certain events. He also poses questions to set up his thesis, again, in the style of a “sage on a stage” (and I mean that in the best possible way). This style serves the end of the book well when Anderson makes it clear that he is in awe of Shostakovich and his music.

As Fleming did in The Family Romanov, Anderson explores big ideas and dense themes while acknowledging the difficulties of telling this particular story. He wonders if we can rely on accounts of Shostakovich’s life or statements that composer himself made regarding his work given the fact that a lot of the information we have is from a time when the consequence of saying the wrong thing was death. Anderson does his best to make sense of the various angles to present a cohesive statement about the power of art in times of extreme conflict. However, he struggles to balance the exposition of Shostakovich’s story with the larger context of Leningrad, Russia, and World War II. He never quite manages to pace the narrative so that interest is maintained in both threads. This is really unfortunate since both are intriguing, but Stalin’s rise to power is so sprawling and terrifying it sucks a lot of power and attention from the quieter, smaller focus on a single composer. As I mentioned above, the timeline is similarly lopsided with the first half of the book covering decades, while the second half is devoted to the siege of Leningrad. It’s apparent that the book is deliberately structured; the prologue proves that Anderson was writing with drama in mind. The topic demands to be expanded though and it frequently stretches and dilutes a building tension.

Last week Karyn noted that Symphony made the New York Times Notable Children’s Books list and received a Nonfiction award nod. These accolades plus four stars equal very good chances that this is a book the RealCommittee is looking at with a fine-tooth comb. Will they also have issues with the pacing and balance of the book? Or perhaps they’ll be impressed with his folksy, yet intellectual voice? Impossible for us to say but you should certainly share your thoughts in the comments!

Bonus: listen to the adagio movement in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7. It’s glorious.

*I railed against this style choice in 2013 not once, but twice, in my reviews of Titanic and Bomb—two books that I thought were excellent but sadly marred by these loud flourishes. However, that was two years ago and I’ve either resigned myself to this ubiquitous scourge or—and this is more likely the case—my taste has changed. It’s allowed.

About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.


  1. I found SYMPHONY FOR THE DEAD absolutely fascinating. I can’t decide which book deserves a Printz the most this year (and I go back and forth) but I think it should be between this book, MOST DANGEROUS, or CHALLENGER DEEP. Two nonfiction gems on the list, not bad! I listened to the audio version of SYMPHONY. Anderson read it himself (which is rare) and the production included little tiny snippets of musical clips, depending on which of his works were being discussed at the time. I hope this book will also be considered for the Odyssey Award! I went back and previewed the print edition and didn’t notice the one sentence paragraphs you mentioned. I don’t think teen readers would give that a second thought.

    I prefer this book to The Family Romanov. MT Anderson is a wordsmith, as you pointed out. Symphony also covers an aspect of Russian History few of us know much or anything about, compared to the plethora of information on the Romanovs. I do like your thought about SYMPHONY being a sequel to The Family Romanov, though. As I think about it, that is a compelling thought.

  2. Joy Piedmont says:

    I finally got a look at the final hard cover print of SYMPHONY and I have to say that the design really looks gorgeous. The use of red is very striking and helps distinguish chapters and sections. It also gives the photos a little pop on the page. Although I wish there was more to the back matter (suggested recordings, maps, timelines, research notes) I was impressed with the design overall.

  3. I finally did read this and I’m glad I did. I had held off because I’ve read several adult books on the same/similar subjects and I thought there would be nothing new this book could tell me. That perhaps is true, but it is so well-written…the story moves, and you get just the right amount of information. I love the consideration Anderson gives to whether classical music can have a message. I think this is a perfect book to introduce so many subjects — WWII, Russian History, 20th century classical music. This is really spectacular work and I’m glad Anderson cares enough about the subject to write for YA.

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