Two new nonfiction picture books attest to the power of music to change our lives and act as ambassadors for social justice and tolerance. Both books should be welcomed with open arms by teachers, librarians, parents and, most importantly, young readers.
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, written by Gary Golio and illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb (Millbrook Press), and Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice, written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Adam Gustavson (Bloomsbury Children’s Books).
In Stand Up and Sing, author Susanna Reich takes us back to Pete Seeger’s youth when he reads about Native Americans and tribes where everything was shared. She quotes: “I decided that was the way to live: no rich, no poor. If there was food, everyone ate; if there was no food, everyone went hungry.” And so, the reader is introduced to Pete Seeger’s mission right at the beginning of the story. As we read further, Pete’s commitment to equality and social justice grows when he goes with his father to a poor neighborhood and sees the suffering caused by the Depression. With powerful illustrations by Adam Gustavson that reminded me a bit of Edward Hopper, we follow Pete to college where he “Couldn’t stop talking about worker’s strikes and unions…”
Throughout the book, Reich skillfully layers information about Pete’s music, songs and concerts with his commitment to “stand up for his belief…” even when being threatened by angry mobs, being blacklisted, and suffering financial hardship. Because, as Reich quotes at the end of her story, “When …a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”
In Strange Fruit, author Gary Golio reveals the life and career of Billie Holiday in a daring biography which includes Billie’s courageous decision to sing the controversial song, Strange Fruit – a song about lynching. By all means, this is a tough subject to introduce to young readers. But Golio’s mastery as a storyteller makes this possible. He demonstrates tremendous respect for his readers, and trusts their ability to understand and handle this painful topic. And thus, the reader benefits by perceiving a part of American history which witnessed a lot of change.
The expressive, colorful illustrations by Charlotte Riley-Webb explode into an abstract tapestry of colors at emotional points in the story. We then follow Billie from the time that she is just 23 years old, “Grateful for her incredible singing voice…” to her continuous struggles as a black singer who had to “use the service elevator so guests wouldn’t see her, and walk through the kitchen to get to the stage.” She was even “kept upstairs in a small room before showtime…”
I was especially moved by the ending when, after singing Strange Fruit, Billie knows she may be cursed, threatened, and assaulted, but is hopeful that this song “might make things better.” Her worried mother says, “But you’ll be dead.” And Billie replies, “Yeah, but I’ll feel it. I’ll know it in my grave.