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Music for Alice: a book in the key of life

Music for AliceSince I teach ESL to adults, I have to consider how I can convey some empathy for what my students have experienced, while also risking that some of the material I present may overwhelm them. Since I can never completely know all my students have been through — once a student burst into tears in the middle of class because it was her son’s birthday and he was still in her native country — I sometimes take the risk of encouraging them to try to discuss the immigrant experience in English because it gets them talking.

Allen Say has produced a body of work that speaks to the immigrant experience in America. Most of his books have beautiful, life-like illustrations and can be appreciated by readers of all ages.

One of these books is Music for Alice. Alice, however, is not an immigrant but the descendant of immigrants. As Japanese Americans, she and her husband were forced to leave their home after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Though they can’t believe they are being treated that way by their own government, Alice and her husband take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way in order to rebuild their lives. With much hard work, they build a successful farm. As a child Alice loved dancing, but living through war and life on the farm left her little time for dancing. However, as an older woman, happy memories reignite her passion for dancing.

I’ve used this book with smaller, lower-level adult ESL classes. Students do not understand every word of the text when it is read aloud but they follow the story through the illustrations. And while Alice and Mark are not immigrants, this story of being uprooted and trying to rebuild one’s life resonates with adult ESL students. I imagine the higher-level students would have more questions about the internment camps, so a teacher would need to be prepared to discuss that. When I’ve read this book to lower level classes, I’ve seen a few students get teary-eyed because although they don’t understand each word, they recognize the trials and triumph of the human experience.

Jada Bradley About Jada Bradley

Jada Bradley applies her book publishing background to her work as a freelance writer/ editor and ELL teacher in the Washington, D.C. area.



  1. “Allen Say has produced a body of work that speaks to the immigrant experience in America. Most of his books have beautiful, life-like illustrations and can be appreciated by readers of all ages.”

    Oh I am in complete agreement with you here Jada, and want to thank you for such a magnificent review of Mr. Say’s new work. GRANDFATHER’S JOURNEY (like Sarah and David Small’s THE GARDENER) always manages to have you tear up at the end. Who can forget one of the first Caldecott winners, Robert Lawson’s THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD? Say followed up on that tradition with his exquisite Caldecott Medal winner, and from what you say the young ones will be emotionally moved by the illustrations alone. I love this kind of book, and can point to works like PEPPE THE LAMP LIGHTER and THE MATCHBOX DIARY for books of emotional heft and exquisite artistry. Can’t wait to see this one!! 🙂

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