Gary Golio’s newest picture book is, in many ways, the biography of a song. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, tells the story of how Holiday and Abel Meeropol—the son of Jewish immigrants, who was himself outraged by discrimination against African Americans in the 1930s—joined forces to create one of the civil rights movement’s most powerful songs. It’s a striking story, including the moment Billie first sang the song at a party in Harlem – only to be met with stunned silence.
Charlotte’s paintings for Golio’s text are jazz on canvas, all movement and color and energy. I talked to her via email about working on this project.
How did you initially respond to Golio's manuscript? Did you know right away you wanted to illustrate this?
As a painter by profession—and understanding the commitment of time, having previously illustrated six children's books—I had initially declined this opportunity but reluctantly agreed to read the manuscript. My focus immediately shifted. I went from feeling reluctant to challenged, and then on to privileged and ended up at obligated.
I think the hardest challenge for me was to take the horrific history of lynching in this country, as well as Billie’s emotional turmoil and discriminatory struggles throughout the story, and portray them in a way children could understand. This was an important, yet rarely discussed, dark part of our history that most people would rather forget and shield from their children. Gary's masterful job in telling Ms. Holiday's story left me with the obligation of punctuating it well. Even though most of the figures in the book were adults, I approached the illustrations with my signature rhythmic style and a kind of whimsical feel, which gave the characters a youthful appearance, in order to appeal to this audience.
Was it at all daunting to take on this project and paint such an iconic figure in American music?
I was actually quite comfortable working with the magnitude of Billie Holiday and the significance of her contribution, because much of my work throughout my art career has been influenced by outstanding works of notable African American poets, singers, and writers. There were a few pages, however, that I found particularly challenging – for instance, not wanting to illustrate an actual lynching when it was mentioned in the story but wanting youngsters to understand the gravity of the act and how best to illustrate the line “because of a terrible thing done to her.”
I see at your site that you had a 2014 project with "Strange Fruit" in the title? Had you already done a series about this?
A few years ago, I created and toured an exhibition of 24 paintings, entitled Blood Rhythms, Strange Fruit. It was designed to visually document African American history, as well as define an understanding of contemporary outcomes – a Sankofa mentality, if you will. And, yes, it began with lynching and slavery and chronicled history as seen through the eyes of three amazing women in the arts – creative geniuses, who had greatly influenced my personal artistic journey.
This is your first biography, as well as your first nonfiction picture book. What was your research like?
Yes, the other books that I have illustrated were not biographical per se, but a couple of their story lines were basically historically accurate. For instance, in Rent Party Jazz, which took place in the ‘60s in New Orleans, entertainers did hold rent parties to raise money to meet the needs of members in the community when needed. And in Sweet Potato Pie, families have had to be creative with what they had—in this case, sweet potatoes—in order to provide sustenance for the family. I saw this so often in my own family. In my young eyes, we were not lacking, and I did not know that we were poor.
My research for this project had begun many years ago. This was not just Billie Holiday's story, but the story of so many African American artists – how they took their craft and turned it into a cause. I've used the messages from these stories countless times as subjects for my paintings, so it was rather easy for me to relate to her.
What does Billie's story and the story of this song mean to you? And what do you hope child readers take away from this true story?
Like a lot of today's children, I was shielded by my parents from a lot of discriminatory acts. Billie's story, in part, was many of our mother's story. As the only college educated person in her family, my mother experienced a great deal of personal discrimination and was relegated to working as a domestic, because her degree was not valued. Years ago, I wrote a poem about her titled “Peacock Lady.” I watched for years how she held her head high and took the bus to scrub floors with pride – but showered her two daughters with idioms and parables such as, “God bless the child who has his own,” which happens to be a Billie Holiday song, and “everything worth having is worth working for.” Understanding the plight of women like these gave me the tools I needed to deal with my own personal challenges in an all-white college environment.
I hope that by reading this book children see that they have the ability to affect change in the areas that they are passionate about as they travel through life. I hope that their curiosity to know more will lead them to read other books of this nature, initiate conversations with their families and learn to appreciate the struggles and sacrifices of their ancestors, and ultimately commit themselves to doing good in the world.
You are a woman of pretty much all the arts (drama, writing, art, music). What do you love about illustrating books for children?
Yes, I have experienced many different artistic genres during my lifetime and have attempted to personally partake in as many as time would allow. While building my art career, I have enjoyed photography; written poems and short stories, which no one has seen; initiated my so-called “acting career”; written a stage play; and just recently learned to play guitar. I am also looking forward to taking a creative cooking class in Paris this summer. The arts, I feel, can help mold lives and create well-rounded individuals.
I feel that all children deserve the opportunity to experience them. These books aid in stirring their imagination, often move them in directions they are not physically able to go to, help them acquire knowledge they might not otherwise get, and create life experiences beyond their own. This is a powerful thing. To be a part of this process is a privilege.
What’s next for you?
I continue to paint. I am currently working on a series, titled Unsung, about not-so famous heroes and heroines who, nevertheless, left a footprint and made significant contributions to the lives of others. Also, I think I have one more children's book in me – about someone who was very special in my life.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
STRANGE FRUIT: BILLIE HOLIDAY AND THE POWER OF A PROTEST SONG. Text copyright © 2017 by Gary Golio. Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Millbrook Press, Minneapolis.