Covers speak a lot about what might be in a book. I looked at the cover of The Bravest Man in the World by Patricia Polacco and thought, “I wonder if this is about a Jewish man in a concentration camp?” For some reason it had that feeling of how music can keep you free during great turmoil. But then saw the ship behind him, “Aaaah. A book about the Titanic.” (I still think a story of the Titanic fits that theme.)
This book has many reasons to have a rating of five. The main one being you just do not hear about stories like this one. We know the Titanic; the Molly Brown types; even the fictitious “Rose and Jack” stories, but do we really know the real “little people” who sailed on the Titanic? Such as the men who played as the Titanic sank?
This is a story inspired by Wallace Hartley, a musician on the Titanic. And due to his being a man, he was not allowed space in a lifeboat. Knowing his fate (the band knowing their fate) he felt it was his duty (they felt it was their duty) to try and help calm the passengers during this.
This story focuses on a young stowaway from Ireland, how music can be an amazing tool and what it means to be brave and, in the end, this is about family. Polacco’s narrator tells the story of the Titanic from a different point of view. The narrator (the stowaway) is telling the story to his grandson in the 1980s; before the Titanic had been found. The grandfather is telling his grandson that learning music is not “sissy” and how music can not only be beautiful and fun but have great significance. He also speaks how Hartley was the bravest man he ever knew.
The afterwards gives more information about Hartley (it comes as no surprise he did not survive, but the how he was found is oddly interesting (for a lack of a better word) as is the history of his beloved violin). It also covers some of the unearthing of the Titanic.
This long picture book is worthy of every second of reading. It is not a happy book. It does have some amazingly beautiful moments, but it also has a somber tone (after all, we know the fate these characters will face). Polacco’s illustrations are classically her.