The Harmonica

The Harmonica

  • 795

By:Tony Johnston / Illustrated by: Ron Mazellan

A testament to the human spirit and the transcendent power of music.

When the Nazis invaded Poland, a Jewish family is split apart. The parents are sent to one concentration camp, their son to another. Only his father's gift, a harmonica, keeps the boy's hopes alive and, miraculously, ensures his survival.

Tony Johnston's powerful story, inspired by the life of a Holocaust survivor, is enhanced by Ron Mazellan's luminous artwork.

Look Inside the Book:

Author & Illustrator Bios:

Tony Johnston, author

Tony Johnston is the author of many books for children, including Cat, What is That? (David R. Godine), Bone by Bone (Roaring Brook Press), and The Cat With Seven Names. She lives in San Marino, California.

Read more about Tony Johnston.

Ron Mazellan, illustrator

Ron Mazellan has been a graphic designer and commercial illustrator for more than 20 years. The Harmonica is his first children's book. Ron teaches art at Indiana Wesleyan University and lives in Marion, Indiana with his family.

Read more about Ron.

Awards & Honors:


  • Storytelling World Award Honor Title
  • Notable Children's Book of Jewish Content
  • Association of Jewish Libraries Jewish Stars
  • IRA/CBC Children's Choices
  • AJL Sydney Taylor Notable Books for Older Readers


Editorial Reviews:

Kirkus Reviews

This dark place is based on a Holocaust survivor's experience. A boy lives happily with his parents in Poland, singing and learning to play harmonica; however, the mixed-media illustrations already swirl with anguish and the barbed wire on the cover looms large. Sent to a concentration camp alone, he endures hunger, cold, and forced labor. In a painful twist, an officer discovers his musical gift: "'Play, Jew!' The commandant spat, night after night." Tormented, the boy plays Schubert, wrestling with a the question of how the beautiful music can both invoke his loving parents and also bring rapture to a murderous Nazi officer. One night in the dark barracks, a voice whispers, "Bless you": the Schubert has reached the ears of the prisoners as well. So in his heart, he plays for them - and for his gone-forever parents. Frequent figurative language gives the narrative voice an adult tone. Visually effective and grim.


Based on a true survivor story, this powerful picture book is yet another astonishing Holocaust account for discussion. A Polish Jewish child, blissfully happy with his loving parents, gets a harmonica from his coal-miner father and learns to play Schubert while his parents dance. The realistic mixed-media, double-page illustrations contrast that glowing warmth of home with the darkness that comes when Nazi soldiers break down the door, separate the boy from his family, and send him to the camps. His harmonica becomes his solace. The commandant hears about the child's playing. He orders the boy to play Schubert and throws him bread. In the end, however, the music does nothing to humanize the brutal Nazis. In fact, one unforgettable picture shows the commandant blissfully listening to music, one hand over his heart and the other holding a whip. The home memories are idyllic, but there's absolutely no sentimentality about the child's survival. Johnston gives children and grown-ups lots to talk about here- for example, Can a person be both sensitive and cruel?

Publishers Weekly

Set in WWII Poland and inspired by a true story of a Jewish family, Johnston's (Uncle Rain Cloud) stirring tale opens on a wistful note: "I cannot remember/ my father's face,/ or my mother's,/ but I remember their love,/ warm and enfolding/ as a song." Mazellan's lifelike, earth-toned mixed-media paintings reveal a boy and his parents, first huddled together over a book, then singing together, then listening to the music of Schubert coming from a neighbor's gramophone. When his father returns from his job in a coal mine with a harmonica and gives it to the boy, his son practices on it until he can play Schubert. Meanwhile, "Somewhere outside, a war/ was raging. But it was far away-/ a bad dream- leaving us untouched." But not for long. The tenor of the narrative changes abruptly as Mazellan depicts Nazi soldier banging on the door; the family is separated and the boy is sent to a concentration camp. When the commandant insists the lad play his harmonica for him each night, the boy cannot imagine how someone so cruel could appreciate the beauty of Schubert's music and is disgusted to perform it for him. But he finds solace in the realization that his playing also reaches his fellow prisoners, "who might hear the notes/ and be lifted, like flights/ of birds." The illustrator makes an affecting children's book debut, choosing images that communicate the story's pathos while sparing the audience many of the setting's horrors.

Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter

This is a gem of a Holocaust story! This picture book for older readers does not explain its Holocaust setting, but the point of the story is not history, the point is celebration of love and life and hope. Based on a true story, this is the tale of how music helps a boy survive on many levels. The young narrator's harmonica-playing helps him survive, literally: a Schubert-loving Nazi officer throws him extra bread. It helps him keep alive the memory of his parents who used to dance to his playing. And when he learns that other prisoners need the beauty of his playing, it brings him hope and a reason to go on. Every word is carefully chosen, and the story reads like a prose poem. The illustrations are breathtaking. While the palette is necessarily dark, color is used consciously to cue the mood with warm or cold tones. Faces are individual and expressive, positioning is hyper-realistic, and the implied movements are graceful. While realistic, the illustrations are also symbolic and sometimes slightly surreal: the Nazi's dogs have devilish red eyes, and in one scene a death's-head can be discerned in the shadows behind the commandant. This well-constructed book is an inspiring tale of human resilience, with an appeal that will reach both Jewish and non-Jewish readers. A must for any Holocaust collection.

School Library Journal

Inspired by the story of a Holocaust survivor, this exquisite picture book is poignant and powerful. Simple sentences charged with delicate word choices briefly recount the first-person narration of a poor but happy boy and his parents in Poland who were captured, split up, and taken to concentration camps. The youngster manages to take with him the harmonica his father gave him, on which he plays Schubert. The commandant of the camp learns of his talents and orders him to, "Play, Jew!" The boy complies - and finds out that the whole camp hears him and takes heart from the music. The mixed-media illustrations change from a warm to cold palette to underscore the move from home to camp. While the story is set in World War II, the theme is broader, and makes a case for the power of music/art to support and sustain humanity. There is an appended note about the life of Henryk Rosmaryn.

National Jewish Post & Opinion

The time is World War II Poland, and the narrator, a young boy, remembers the singing and music that was part of his home and a harmonica his father gave to him.

Then the Nazis came.

The book is based on the true story of a man who lived in Poland and played harmonica all his life until he died in the United States in 2001.

Indiana graphic artist Ron Mazellan, illustrating his first children's book, enhances the beautifully written Holocaust story with dark-toned, mixed media illustrations on illustration board.

Geared for older children eight and up, the book is definitely intense and grim, but it avoids scenes which would be disturbing to young readers, instead focusing on the boy and the harmonica.


Download the Cover


ISBN: 978-1-57091-489-8

E-book PDF
ISBN: 978-1-60734-259-5
For information about purchasing E-books, click here.

Ages: 7+
Page count: 32
8 1/2 x 11

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