Behind the Scenes: “A Perfect Symphony, Mining for Gold in The Greatest Song of All” by Megan Hoyt

I can totally identify with the problem of finding so much goodness in a story that it becomes overwhelming! Megan Hoyt shares how she pulled multiple threads into one in THE GREATEST SONG OF ALL: HOW ISAAC STERN UNITED THE WORLD TO SAVE CARNEGIE HALL (releases 7/5/22).

Megan is offering a GIVEAWAY of a picture book critique to one lucky winner from those who leave a comment below. cover

A Perfect Symphony
Mining for Gold in The Greatest Song of All

by Megan Hoyt

Illustrated by Katie Hickey

There is a vein of shimmering gold hidden deep within each narrative non-fiction story I write, and I know it’s my job to mine it. Sometimes this is fairly easy because the story is so compelling that it almost writes itself. But most of the time, I spend weeks researching a topic and sit with it for months, turning it over and over in my mind until I figure out the best way to display its glimmering glory for young readers!

The process begins, for me, with a tiny zing in my soul. A topic grabs me and tugs at my heart. I want to know more. I HAVE to unearth the deeper story. In the case of my latest book, The Greatest Song of All, I found myself traveling back in time to the stories my parents told of their early years together in New York City playing violin and viola in the pit orchestra at Radio City Music Hall. I remembered my mother telling me about their first date at Carnegie Deli, where they shared a slice of cheesecake, about their love for Carnegie Hall. I found out recently that my father even lived in an apartment above the Hall for a short time.

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This made the story personal for me. I cared about it. I treated it gently, turning over phrases in my mind until just the right ones poured onto the page. I took all these swirling ideas and sat with them for a bit. The struggle to save Carnegie Hall seemed to line up with the struggle of Isaac Stern’s family to escape a life of uncertainty and anti-semitism in Ukraine. I mined a deeper vein and found another theme to wind through the story—racism has no power once the music begins! I researched who performed at Carnegie Hall and discovered that this beautiful building also housed meetings of the NAACP, synagogues, churches from Catholic to Presbyterian, and musicians of all skin tones. I added another layer, the beauty of diversity. This idea that a community can come together for a common cause gave me another vein to mine—unity! And another—activism!

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About this time, I got overwhelmed. There were almost TOO many underlying themes that fit the narrative! I was finding it hard to figure out how to weave so many threads together. Plus, how would I ever bring these big ideas to the page when the plot itself had so many twists and turns? There were many details to the agreements they forged to save Carnegie Hall. It took a lot of time and maneuvering, a lot of erasing, deleting, and grinding of teeth to explain this winding story! But I finally figured it out, with the help of my marvelous editor, Karen Chaplin, at HarperCollins’ Quill Tree Books.

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Once I decided what themes I wanted to include, I used lyricism and imagery to convey certain moods, beginning with opening night. I wanted the reader to get that sense of awe you feel as the crowd hushes and the orchestra goes silent, just before a performance begins:

“… a hush fell over the audience as Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the famous Russian composer, stepped onstage and sliced the air with his conductor’s baton. In an instant, beautiful lilting music drifted across five levels of cherry-colored seats. Like sugar plum fairies dancing on a breeze. Like shimmering swans gliding over a quiet lake.”

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I also had to make sure the reader felt Isaac Stern’s agony and concern alongside him, as he worried his beloved concert hall might soon be demolished:

“…every time he walked into the Hall, his love for the magnificent building grew. He could hear history whisper through its hallways—the hum of Ukrainian folk songs from his childhood mixed with the overtures of famous conductors.”

“Isaac stared at the large white X marks on every window of the hall. He stepped inside and walked up and down the stage, gazing out at the beautiful ruby-colored seats where audiences once swayed to his music. His heart was breaking. After all his hard work—after every violin lesson his parents scrimped and saved to give him so he might one day perform at Carnegie Hall—he could not let this beautiful building be destroyed!”

I used immediacy and urgency to increase the tension within the narrative, to keep the reader on the edge of his seat. There was time pressure—the building had a demolition date set—so the reader feels that sting of worry as the modern world tried to silence the echoing chambers of this marvelous, acoustically perfect concert hall. These tools helped me make the story richer and more satisfying and I hope children will be inspired by the activism of Isaac Stern and his amazing accomplishment, saving Carnegie Hall.

Let us know in a comment below if you’d like to win a picture book critique from Megan Hoyt. (Winner announced June 24, 2022)

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Megan Hoyt first fell in love with reading on a cozy branch of the crabapple tree outside her Dallas, Texas, home. She devoured Beverly Cleary’s books there, and Marguerite Henry’s “horsey books” still remind her of the loud Texas cicadas at dusk. Megan has more non-fiction picture books forthcoming, A Grand Idea: William J. Wilgus and His Grand Central Terminal, and Kati’s Tiny Messengers: Dr. Kati Kariko and the Race to Develop the Coronavirus Vaccine. 

12 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “A Perfect Symphony, Mining for Gold in The Greatest Song of All” by Megan Hoyt

  1. Megan, thanks for sharing about your book The Greatest Song of All. I love your personal connection to the story. I’d love to enter to win a critique from you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A beautiful book, Megan! Congrats! I remember Isaac Stern coming for a book reading/signing in 2000 (for his book MY FIRST 79 YEARS) at the bookstore I worked at while I was getting my MFA. The store was packed with hundreds of people who waited for him to appear. He moved slowly, and arrived about 45 minutes late. When he walked in the door, everyone who’d been sitting in chairs joined all of the people standing to give him a long ovation. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of a performance hall. It moved everyone to tears. Kudos to you for writing this beautiful book about him!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And yes, I forgot to say that I completely agree that it can sometimes be tough to decide on the best angle because there are so many good choices. You’ve really got to go with the one that speaks to you most. And if that one doesn’t sell, maybe one of the others will speak to you—and that version will sell.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing your writing process with us for this exciting book. I enjoyed reading about how you found depth for your story as well as the urgency to save the Hall from destruction. I would love to win a critique to improve my writing skills.

    Liked by 1 person

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