Lynching: a strange and difficult but important topic for a song—and for this picture book.
Golio crafts an honest biography of African-American jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose light skin, penchant for improvisation, and commitment to social justice often made her the center of heated controversy. As Holiday once said: “Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.” As “one of the first black singers to work in an all-white band,” Billie excelled until her handlers asked her never to talk with customers or walk alone, to use service elevators, and to stay upstairs until performance time—all to convince white patrons that the venues where she sang remained racially segregated. When Jewish songwriter Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of blacks, for Billie to perform, Meeropol’s rendition of it failed to move her. Once she made it her own, however, she stunned audiences with her performance. This picture book emphasizes that the arts not only entertain, but can also be powerful change agents. Riley-Webb’s moving, richly textured illustrations, rendered in acrylics with tissue collages on canvas paper, reflect the constant motion of jazz and the striking excitement of improvisation. The informative backmatter expands upon Holiday’s biographical details and offers narrative explanations of source quotes.
A must-read, must-discuss that will speak to children and linger with adults. (Picture book/biography. 8-12)