The Composition by Antonio Skármeta

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Skármeta, Antonio.  Illustrated by Alfonso Ruano.  Translated by Elisa Amado.  1998.  THE COMPOSITION.   Buffalo:  Groundwood Books.  ISBN: 0-88899-390-0.

Antonio Skármeta’s The Composition is the story of Pedro, a typical third grade boy, who lives in a Latin American country.  He loves soccer, but he is a little disappointed that his soccer ball is a plastic one with blue spots instead of a white leather one with black patches like the professional players use.  One afternoon while Pedro and the other neighborhood children are playing soccer, soldiers come and take away their friend Daniel’s father, who runs a neighborhood store.  Pedro’s father explained that Daniel’s father was taken because he is against the military dictatorship, as Pedro’s father is.  One day Captain Romo comes to Pedro’s class on behalf of the military dictator, General Perdomo, and tells the children there is a contest, they are to write an essay entitled “What My Family Does at Night.”  When he tells his parents about the essay, they are afraid, because they spend the evening listening to anti-dictatorship broadcasts on the radio.  When Pedro reads the essay to them, they discover he says they play chess every evening after dinner until he goes to bed.  Pedro’s father is relieved, although this means that now they must get a chess set.


This is a strong book, which addresses the ways living in a dictatorship can affect children as well as adults.  The children worry that their own fathers will be taken away, as Daniel’s is and, because of events like the essay contest, they must be ever vigilant that they do not give any information that will put their family in danger to the wrong person.  During the Nazi regime, German children were encouraged to spy on their parents and report any unpatriotic activities, but this dictator’s method of tricking the children into informing on their parents is even more insidious.  Luckily, Pedro is clever enough to avoid reporting his own parents.  Pedro’s parents do not even realize the pressure the political climate is putting on their son.  When Pedro asks his father if he, Pedro, is against the dictatorship, his mother responds, “‘I can’t say.’  ‘Children aren’t against anything,’ she said.  ‘Children are just children.  They have to go to school, study hard, play and be good to their parents.’”  The end note explaining dictatorship is a good simple explanation to help children understand what a dictatorship is and let them know that stories like Daniel’s and Pedro’s take place everyday, but that there are still people who try to fight for freedom.  By contrasting the everyday activities of the children with the military presence, Skármeta manages to give the book an underlying air of anxiety and nervousness that gives the reader a small idea of what life in a dictatorship, living with fear that you or someone you care about will be arrested or killed for some perceived infraction


The Composition is set in an unnamed Latin American country, but there are many things in the book that are evocative of Latin America, if not a specific country.  Pedro, like many other boys in his part of the world, is obsessed with soccer and dreams of being a great player like Pele.  Pedro’s parents listen to radio transmissions from faraway in the hills, traditionally the hiding place of rebel forces.  The description of Daniel’s father being dragged off by soldiers in front of his own child and the entire neighborhood is, unfortunately, too real in some countries.  Then, there is the matter of Captain Romero visiting the school to announce the contest to trick children into informing on their own parents and the consolation prize that Pedro’s class receives is a calendar with a picture of the General for their classroom.  Skármeta was a political prisoner in Chile and some reviewers have suggested that this is the setting for The Composition, but wisely Skármeta has not tied his story to a particular country or era, so that the lessons can be applied to any country in any time which is under a military dictatorship.   


The Composition is the winner of both the Americas Award for Children's Literature and the Jane Addams Children's Book Award.


Works cited: Website.  Accessed March 4, 2006.


Forbes Book Club Website. Accessed March 4, 2006.


by Monica Wood