New YA Non-Fiction: Symphony for the City of the Dead

When I think back on the reading I was required to do in high school, it's mostly fiction that comes to mind. The non-fiction texts I read back then were pretty much exclusively textbooks (though I did read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in 9th grade). Was the market devoid of YA non-fiction? It's possible. I mean, what's the difference between non-fiction for adults and non-fiction for "young" adults a.k.a. teens?

I don't know if I can fully answer those questions, but I have read a non-fiction book for teens I want to talk about.

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad
by M. T. Anderson to be released 9/22/2015
I received an uncorrected proof from the publisher, with the understanding that I would review it.

There are three main reasons I wanted to read this book, when the pitch for it came up in my inbox:

1. M.T. Anderson - The man won the National Book Award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party (historical fiction) and I tried to read that book but I gave up on it. I also tried to read by him, Feed by him, but put it down early. (That one is YA sci-fi.) Anyway, lots of authors I like (including John Green and Shannon Hale) like M.T. Anderson's books and promote them, so I've been looking for one that works for me.

2. Shostakovich - I am not the Stewart family expert on composers. That would be my husband, Jacob. So when I read "Shostakovich" it rang a bell but I couldn't pull up any particular music in my head. And I wanted to fix that.

3. Cover Art - It has a really nice cover. I liked it even better, the further I got in the book.

So. Did Symphony for the City of the Dead work for me? Was it the M.T. Anderson book I could finish? Yes! A few chapters in I told Jacob, "reading this book is like listening to NPR." And by that I meant that 1. it was enjoyable 2. it made me consider political stuff and musical stuff from a new perspective 3. the human element was big, and 4. I felt smarter after doing it.

Anderson includes quotes, cites sources, adds maps and images, but successfully makes the book a flowing narrative. Admittedly, I couldn't see the maps. I got a galley, so I just got a grey rectangle with the words "Map to come" in it. But it was always placed right around when I was thinking, "you know, I could really use a map..." I'm confident that the finished book will have excellent visuals.

I appreciated that Anderson discussed the sources he was drawing from. In particular, he talked about a biography of Shostakovich that was once thought to be an autobiography, but has since been discredited a bit. "Take this with a grain of salt," is his basic message, but he goes into all the details. If the book were written with an adult audience in mind, would that be glossed over? I hope not. Would a discussion of the validity of the source throw off the pacing of the book? I've seen it happen. Anderson does a good job of hitting all the targets and still keeping things moving.

I was glad Symphony for the City of the Dead was written for a teen audience, because I think that kept it from being too gory. I super appreciated that. I'm the sort of person who avoids horror movies at all costs, and only watches war movies that are rated OK for 13-year-olds. Sometimes when you're reading a book that quotes from first-hand accounts of war, you get a detailed account of violence that becomes seared in your brain and haunts you. After reading this book I did not have nightmares. I did want to fill my basement with a year's supply of non-perishables, because Anderson did a great job of portraying the horrors of war and Hitler's siege of Leningrad (the longest siege on record). There was one passage that I skipped, I confess, which talked about the torture of one of Shostakovich's friends. But other than that, I didn't feel compelled to skip any of the book, despite all the sufferings described.

Do I now have a piece of music to associate with Shostakovich? Yes, I do. The book talks about several of Shostakovich's symphonies and other pieces in detail, and of course hinges around Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, which is the Leningrad Symphony. But it's actually a different piece of music I hear when I think of him. The day after I finished the book, I happened to watch Fantasia 2000 with my daughter, and when Bette Midler announced that the music for The Steadfast Tin Soldier animation was Shostakovich I cheered. I love that one! And holy moly I like it even more now that I know more about the man who wrote it.

For your listening pleasure, here's a video of two guys playing it (one is playing the orchestral reduction).

Besides gaining familiarity with Shostakovich, I learned irreversibly the difference between Lenin and Stalin (which I think someone had explained to me before, but the details had become muddy in my mind). I got that now. I know who Lenin is. I know who Stalin is, I know who Shostakovich is, and I already knew who Hitler was, too, but I learned more about him also. Speaking of which, Symphony for the City of the Dead gave me a whole new perspective on WWII since I've never read anything from the USSR at the time. They call it The Great Patriotic War, by the way, not WWII.

I highly recommend Symphony for the City of the Dead, if it sounds interesting to you. Here is a summary of each part of the book:

Part One deals with the situation in Russia/USSR before WWII and the early life of Shostakovich.
Part Two deals with the German invasion and the siege, and makes up most of the book. It discusses the later works of Shostakovich, his family life and his politics during the war. 
Part Three deals with Cold War and post-war stuff, and perceptions of Shostakovich after that. 

I wonder if the Fred Astaire movie I loved, Silk Stockings, was inspired by Shostakovich at all. If so, it's in very poor taste. Ha! It definitely features a composer with nervous mannerisms and wears glasses. It definitely simplifies the politics of the time, and insults the Communist Party. A product of it's time (1957), I'm sure. Still, I loved that movie as a child. Great dance moves.

Anyway, if you'd like to shop for Symphony of the City of the Dead, here is an affiliate link where you can do that. When you make purchases after clicking on my affiliate links, I get a small commission. Should I go back and link the other books I've mentioned? I'll go back and do that, too.

And, if you're looking for more YA non-fiction, I can recommend The Year We Disappeared. I mention it on my list of Books for a 14-year-old Boy.

Have you read any YA Non-fiction? Tell me about it. 
Share me your recommendations. 


  1. 1. Researching Silk Stockings recently, I have come to the conclusion that it is probably totally in poor taste.

    2. I was just remembering how I enjoyed Isaac Asimov's "Brief History of Chemistry".

    1. 1. Yep, definitely yes. So many stereotypes. Looks like the movie lost money overall.

      2. Thanks for the recommendation!


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