What Charlie Heard


The extraordinary story of the composer Charles Ives.

"Sometimes little Charlie lay in his crib just listening. He heard

his mother’s long dress as she moved around his room. He heard big clocks and little clocks. He heard wagons and horse hooves. He heard dogs and crickets and the church bell next door."

Charlie listened all through his boyhood, and as he grew into a man, he found he wanted to re-create in ...

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The extraordinary story of the composer Charles Ives.

"Sometimes little Charlie lay in his crib just listening. He heard

his mother’s long dress as she moved around his room. He heard big clocks and little clocks. He heard wagons and horse hooves. He heard dogs and crickets and the church bell next door."

Charlie listened all through his boyhood, and as he grew into a man, he found he wanted to re-create in music the sounds that he heard every day. But others couldn’t hear what Charlie heard. They didn’t hear it as music – only as noise. In this daring and original book, Mordicai Gerstein graphically translates the audible into the visible – filling his pictures with noise – to tell the story of Charles Ives (1874–1954), a great musical innovator who let neither criticism nor public scorn keep him from composing music that expressed all that he heard in the world. He was finally recognized with a Pulitzer Prize in 1947.


What Charlie Heard is a 2003 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Describes the life of American composer Charles Ives, who wrote music which expressed all the sounds he heard in the world, but which was not well received during his lifetime.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Gerstein creates a rousing visual cacophony that echos Ives's compositions in this inspired picture-book biography." —Starred, Publishers Weekly
Publishers Weekly
HProfiling American composer Charles Ives, Gerstein (The Wild Boy) plies an artistic style as densely and consciously layered as one of Ives's compositions. The illustrations provide an instant visual connection to the music, which attempts to encompass the sounds of everyday life: Gerstein overlays his spry pen-and-wash artwork with multiple clusters of sound-effect words (e.g., a series of tweety tweets surrounds a caged bird, big red clangs surround toddler Charlie as he bangs on a metal pan). "Charles Ives was born with his ears wide open," Gerstein begins, detailing the kinds of sounds "Charlie" might have heard as a child: included are Charlie's music teacher father's trumpet, the swish of his mother's long dress and "dogs and crickets and the church bells next door," sounds that would later be woven into Ives's music. He tells of Charlie's high school efforts as a composer and how, later, Charlie composed music on the train as he commuted to his insurance job. Gerstein also describes the music's chilly reception: "Most people didn't know how to listen to it. Some thought it was a joke. Others just heard noise and got angry." The book concludes on a triumphant note: not only does Ives finally win acclaim, but he plans to write a Universe Symphony: "Wouldn't that be a glorious noise!" Gerstein creates a rousing visual cacophony that echoes Ives's compositions in this inspired picture-book biography. Ages 4-8. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
The music of American composer Charles Ives is not easy to listen to or understand. In simple language, Gerstein helps make clear the many sources from which Ives drew inspiration, from the instruments played by his music teacher father to the sounds of everyday life in the country, such as birds, church bells, choirs, and marching bands. Ives grew up playing the piano and organ, listening to both popular and classical music. He went to college, married, worked for an insurance company, grew older, became ill. All this time he kept writing music, but was never able to have any performed. Eventually he gained some recognition, but as Gerstein notes, we must open our ears "to hear the...amazing music he heard." Gerstein takes on the challenge of visualizing sounds by flooding every page with the "bong" of bells, the "crack pow" of thunder, the "doodee deedee" of a marching band, and so forth. His scratchy-line colored drawings create characters and events, but it's the multi-hued, variously-sized and shaped letters that join in singing, playing, and blasting out sounds that tell the real story, helping us understand these compositions that are distinctly Ives but also express the American spirit. Notes add additional information. 2002, Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus and Giroux, $17.00. Ages 4 to 9. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
Gr 2-6-Mordecai Gerstein's marvelous biography of the 20th century American composer, Charles Ives, is brought to life with the addition of the audio soundtrack which adds another level of understanding to his genius through examples of all the sounds that are explained in the book (Farrar/Frances Foster Bks., 2002). Charles Ives' early life was filled with his father's music; the household sounds around him, such as clocks and the rustling of clothes; and the sounds of nature. It was these sounds that Ives tried to recreate in his compositions, though his work wasn't appreciated until the last decade of his life. The story is more about Ives' work than his life, although it becomes clear that his musical compositions were motivated by his life. Gerstein narrates in a gentle tone, as though describing a dear friend, focusing on the sounds that filled his world and inspired him. The music and noises are blended softly into the background so that they don't detract from the narration and also create a mystical tone. Gerstein has married together the perfect blend of clever illustrations, words, and audio in an educational and entertaining musical biography.-Cynthia Grabke, Thayer Public Library, Braintree, MA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A 20th-century composer whose music was so revolutionary that his contemporaries largely ignored him may seem an unlikely subject for a picture-book biography for children, but here Gerstein (I Am Arachne, 2001, etc.) manages to pull it off beautifully. Charles Ives, born in 1874 in Danbury, Connecticut, grows up hearing and learning to love noises of all sorts, from the music of his bandleader father to the ordinary sounds of the world around him: "Sometimes little Charlie lay in his crib just listening. He heard his mother's long dress as she moved around his room. He heard big clocks and little clocks. He heard wagons and horse hooves. He heard dogs and crickets and the church bell next door." As Charlie grows and begins writing music, the simple, direct text describes how he incorporates the sounds he hears into his music, slowly finding an audience in his old age. Delicate ink lines bristle with barely contained energy, while brilliant separations suffuse Charlie's world with color. But what makes this really work are the onomatopoetic renderings of what Charlie hears that fill virtually every page. Hand-lettered "bong, bong, bongs" vie for space with "clangs," "tweedles," and "kapows," all superimposed in color over the pictures to fill the reader's eyes with sound, just as Ives's compositions fill the ears with initially dissonant but ultimately exhilarating music. This vigorous and loving treatment begs to be read to musical accompaniment, and a brief biographical note at the end suggests some selections inspired by sounds depicted in the text. An unusual and joyful treatment of an unusual and joyful subject. (Picture book/biography. 4-8)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374382926
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 3/18/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 40
  • Age range: 4 - 8 Years
  • Lexile: 330L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.78 (w) x 10.86 (h) x 0.36 (d)

Meet the Author

Mordicai Gerstein

Mordicai Gerstein is the author and illustrator of The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, winner of the Caldecott Medal, and has had four books named New York Times Best Illustrated Books of the Year. Gerstein was born in Los Angeles in 1935. He remembers being inspired as a child by images of fine art, which his mother cut out of Life magazine, and by children’s books from the library: “I looked at Rembrandt and Superman, Matisse and Bugs Bunny, and began to make my own pictures.”


He attended Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, and then got a job in an animated cartoon studio that sent him to New York, where he designed characters and thought up ideas for TV commercials. When a writer named Elizabeth Levy asked him to illustrate a humorous mystery story about two girls and a dog, his book career began, and soon he moved on to writing as well as illustrating. “I’m still surprised to be an author,” he says. “I wonder what I’ll write next?” Gerstein lives in Westhampton, Massachusetts.


Mordicai Gerstein has always been an artist. As a child, he enjoyed painting and eventually graduated from art school in Los Angeles. He continued painting in New York City and supported himself and his family for 25 years by designing and directing animated television commercials. He says, "I had always loved cartoons, especially Bugs Bunny, and I found I enjoyed making animated films. Even a 30-second commercial involved drawing and painting, storytelling, not to mention actors, music, and sound effects."

During the 1960s, Gerstein made several films that received critical acclaim. In 1966, The Room won the Award of the Film Clubs of France at the International Festival for Experimental Film, and in 1968, The Magic Ring won a CINE Golden Eagle.

His career took a dramatic turn when he met children's author Elizabeth Levy in 1970. He has illustrated her Something Queer Is Going On chapter books ever since, and it was Levy and her editor who encouraged Gerstein to write a book on his own. His debut came in 1983 with Arnold of the Ducks, the story of a young boy who gets lost in the wild and is raised by ducks. The New York Times hailed Gerstein's freshman effort as one of the year's best children's books, and he went on to write two more volumes exploring the theme of feral childhood. In 1998 he released The Wild Boy, a picture book based on the true story of a young 18th-century French boy who was found living in the woods and was put on display as an oddity, only to escape and be captured again years later. That same year, Gerstein released Victor, a young adult novel about the same boy.

Gerstein tells the story is of a Tibetan woodcutter who is given a choice between reincarnation or heaven in The Mountains of Tibet, which received the distinction of being one of 1987's ten best illustrated books of the year, according to The New York Times. Although the book is written for kids around age seven, Gerstein approaches the subject of death with a bold, sensitive plot and elegant illustrations. Spirituality is a major theme in many of Gerstein's books. He has interpreted tales from the Bible in Jonah and the Two Great Fish (1997), Noah and the Great Flood (1999), and Queen Esther the Morning Star (2001). Other titles such as The Seal Mother (1986), The Story of May (1993), and The Shadow of a Flying Bird (1994) also express Gerstein's reverential awe for the world.

Young readers can also stretch their imaginations with Gerstein's more playful books. Vocabulary is fun in The Absolutely Awful Alphabet (1999), where the letter P is actually a particularly putrid predator! Bedtime Everybody! (1996) has a young girl's stuffed animals planning a bedtime picnic. Behind the Couch (1996) takes readers on an exciting caper into an unknown world of grazing dust balls, Lost Coin Hill and the Valley of the Stuffed Animals. In Stop Those Pants (1998), a boy is forced to play hide-and-seek with his clothes as he gets ready for the day. Gerstein pays tribute to American composer Charles Ives in What Charlie Heard (2002), the story of a boy's unique talent for interpreting all the sounds of daily life.

Another biographical picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2003) tells the story of Philippe Petit, the daredevil who walked across a tightrope suspended between New York City's World Trade Center towers in 1974. The book won the Caldecott Medal in 2004, and parents have praised the book as an invaluable tool for talking to their children about the events of 9/11.

Many of Gerstein's children's books are destined to be classics. His style of writing and illustration brings each of his stories to life, shows a passion for adventure, and relishes the joy that comes from understanding the mysteries of the world.

Good To Know

Despite a successful career illustrating children's books, the first book Gerstein wrote, Arnold of the Ducks, was turned down by seven publishers. Eventually, The New York Times called it one of the best children's books of the year.

Gerstein was inspired to write The Mountains of Tibet after reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

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    1. Hometown:
      Northhampton, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 25, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Los Angeles, California
    1. Education:
      Chouinard Institute of Art
    2. Website:

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