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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Monsieur Marceau, written by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Gerard Dubois. A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, Macmillan. Raincoast Books, 2012. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"Look at this man.
He climbs imaginary stairs.
He bows to an invisible person.
He tames a lion no one can see.
He plays a violin that isn't there.

He does not speak.
His name is Marcel Marceau,
and he is a mime."

Mimes cause discomfort for some of my favorite people. They are irreverent about the talent that these artists exhibit. Marcel Marceau is the only mime that I can name, and Leda Schubert shows nothing but reverence for his incredible talent. In her opening pages, she says:

"He is the superstar of silence,
the maestro of mime -
acting without words.
He uses his whole body onstage:"

I knew nothing about him, except the performances I had seen on television (and that seems a long time ago now), until I read Gloria Spielman's Marcel Marceau in the spring. I was surprised at what I learned then, and am impressed to learn more in this book.

Leda Schubert chooses her words carefully to help us come to know a remarkable and admirable man. He was so much more than his performances. She makes it clear through poetic, explicit text that his life changed dramatically with the atrocities of WWII. He worked tirelessly during the war years to help where he could, and ensure the safey of many Jewish children whose lives were threatened by the Nazi regime.

It did not scuttle his dream of entertaining, and being the best performer he could possibly be. She mentions in her afterword that he gave more than 15,000 performances, sometimes as often as 300 in a year, and travelled the world. His audiences were appreciative, and often mesmerized by his ability to 'act without words'.

He changed his last name to hide being identified as Jewish, and mourned his father's death in a concentration camp, saying later:

"The people who came back from the camps were never able to talk about it...
My name is Mangel. I am Jewish. Perhaps that, unconsciously, contributed towards my choice of silence."

Much of the text concerns his acting, and his reputation as the most famous mime of all time. She lets us see his personality, both on and off stage, through her powerful words. She ends the book with a very informative Afterword, source notes, further reading and some advice about the art of mime from Rob Mermin, founding director of Circus Smirkus and a student of Monsieur Marceau.

The spare text is dramatic and in harmony with the artist himself, while the art captures his vivacity and skill in outstanding oils. I went back again and again to wonder at Gerard Dubois' paintings, noting how the colors chosen changed my mood, and at the expressive renderings of  Marceau in action. An image of Marcel aping the motion picture work of his idol Charlie Chaplin in order to make his young friends laugh is very special, as is the drama of a double page spread filled with many of his signature pantomimes.

Is there a better way for our children to learn about such worthy members of the human race than through a quite remarkable picture book biography?

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