Illustration of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, backed by a jazz combo.This is one of those books I wish I’d written. It’s the powerful account of a song, “Strange Fruit,” how it came to be written, how it came to be sung, and the power it exerted on its audience.

I first heard “Strange Fruit” when my husband, a law professor, was preparing a lecture on the way popular culture exerts pressure on the rule of law. He included this video of Billie Holiday singing.


And then I found this wonderful book by Gary Golio, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song. In clear, unadorned prose, he tells the story of how Billie Holiday became a singer and how she decided to start singing an anti-lynching song composed by a Jewish poet. I was especially moved by the risks she took in her debut of the song and the description of how audiences received the song.

The art is a powerful part of this book. The acrylic paint and tissue paper collages blur representational images with bold abstraction.

Pretty obviously this is a book for older readers, but it speaks directly and passionately to them. It’s definitely one that will join our family’s library.

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, by Gary Golio, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Millbrook: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

[My publisher is giving away my book, Mountain Chef along with John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall over at Page Through the Parks on Facebook. There will be five winners–so go comment on the giveaway post to enter!]Photo of Martin Luther King at the National Mall in Washington DC I had seen Martin’s Dream Day mentioned on a few lists, so I was happy when my library got it, but I expected it to be illustrated.

So I was surprised to open it and discover page after page of sharp, vivid photographs. All were shot by Stanley Tretick, and most are from the day that King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington DC. Tretick is the photographer who captured John Kennedy Jr. playing under his father’s desk in the oval office. In these photos he has an equally sharp eye for telling details–the women in high heels, the people trying to escape the heat by soaking their feet in the Reflecting Pool. I especially loved the faces of people in his photographs.

Kitty Kelley’s prose is straightforward and does a good job of contextualizing the “I Have a Dream” speech. But the real treasure in this book is the photos. It would be an interesting book to read along with Joel Meyerowitz’s book Seeing Things.  

Martin’s Dream Day is a book to savor.

Martin’s Dream Day by Kitty Kelley, photographs by Stanley Tretick. Atheneum: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

Cover of Freedom in Congo Square, showing a stylized picture of a black man dancing over cobblestones.Freedom in Congo Square uses lyrical, ebullient rhymes to tell the story of how slaves carved out their own culture in the face of oppression in New Orleans. Cleverly adapting the idea of a concept book to her historical story, Weatherford counts down through the days of the week to Sunday when, by law, slaves were given half a day holiday to fill as they chose. We see them trading, making music, and creating a new culture at the central location, Congo Square.

This book does a great job of contextualizing this moment of freedom. Never for a minute would a young reader assume that the joyous music rising up from Congo Square was the whole story:

Mondays, there were hogs to slop,

mules to train, and longs to chop.

Slavery was no ways fair.

Six days more to Congo Square.

Alyson Beecher of KidLitFrenzy has also pointed out that in addition to back matter, this book has an introductory foreword which makes doubly sure that the reader understands the context of the story. I thought the foreword was especially interesting because it doesn’t really have any significantly different information from what is in the back matter. It is, however, written by a local New Orleans historian, reminding the reader that this remarkable artistic and market culture which slaves built continues to flourish.

The art is wonderful and unexpected–vivid colors and primitivist  figures. And it’s a text that makes you want to read it aloud.

Lots of other people have written eloquently about it–Crystal Brunelle, Linda Baie, Alia Jones, and Tasha Saecker.

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Little Bee Books: 2016.

hamerThis book may be shelved with picture books, but it is written to children old enough to grapple with the ugly pain of America’s historic inequities and injustices. The language is rich and nuanced, written in first person, as if Fannie Lou Hamer were telling the story of her life. Quotes (which are very helpfully attributed in the back matter) are seamlessly incorporated into the storytelling (and indicated by italics), and Weatherford has captured the plain-speaking, colloquial tone of her voice in all of the text:

My family–all twenty-two of us–worked in the field.

Wasn’t no other work to do.

They didn’t have no such thing as factories; 

These factories are something new

The story follows Hamer through her difficult childhood as a sharecropper, through her courageous persistence in trying to vote in the deep South, and her subsequent experiences (including a traumatic beating) trying to bring civil rights to all in America. The language is lyrical and beautiful. The story is sobering.

This is Ekua Holmes’ picture book debut as an illustrator. Her drawings are evocative and rich. It’s a beautiful, haunting book.

Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes. Candlewick: 2015.


lillianIt has been 50 years since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. This book looks at the history of US voting rights through the lens of personal and family history. We follow a one-hundred year old woman, Lillian, as she walks up the hill to her polling place and thinks back to how her family was refused access and finally gained access to vote. Each page shows illustrations of both present-day Lillian and of the historical events she’s thinking of. The book doesn’t shy away from horrible moments in US history–there is a page about a cross burning in Lillian’s front yard–but the book is an uplifting celebration of the right to vote. I especially loved the details of what kinds of tests African Americans were required to pass before voting in the 1950s–“How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” and Who are “all sixty-seven judges in the state of Alabama?”

The back matter talks about recent Supreme Court rulings that potentially threaten the right to vote, urging readers to not abandon the cause.

Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane w. Evans. Schwartz & Wade: 2015.

lovingA picture book about a Supreme Court case? Selina Alko does a great job making this 1966 case, which made interracial marriage legal, accessible to young readers.  The book starts with the familiar playground chant, “First comes love, then comes marriage” and then shifts to the viewpoint of the children of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving; they “had two parents who loved them, and who loved each other.”

The book shows how the Loving family was affected, for eight years, by laws that wouldn’t allow them to live as a family in Virginia until they finally took their case to the Supreme Court.

The back matter has a wonderful pair of photos–one of the Lovings together and one of the author/illustrator couple, who are also married to each other, thanks to the law that the Lovings tested so many years ago. Alko wrote a blogpost with great photos of the art-in-process for the book here.

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. Arthur A. Levine: 2015

parksThis book tells the story of the photographer behind the iconic photo American Gothic and how he came to shoot it. It was an image I recognized, but I hadn’t known anything about Gordon Parks before I read this book.

The story is written in present tense and moves briskly and passionately. The story starts with Parks’ remarkable survival at birth, but it moves quickly into the story of how he found his subject and how he set up the shot. The illustrations are lovely.

I also loved the sans serif typeface in the book. Its pared-down, modern look fit both the subject of the book and also the tone of the book. It’s a lovely book to read and to hold and it tells an important story.

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph. Albert Whitman: 2015.







This inspiring book tells the story of how an eighteenth century slave used the legal system to gain freedom for herself and many others. The narrative uses the word “owned” in many different contexts to explore the ideas of freedom and slavery: we read about people owning property, owning slaves, owning a sharp tongue. In the story, Mumbet realizes that she herself owns her thoughts, thoughts that lead her to  a brave act which no one else has yet attempted.  The narrative voice is direct, impassioned, and triumphant–just like the story!

The “Author’s Note” in the back is fascinating to read. It tells where the information the book is based on came from, since Mumbet didn’t leave any writing–couldn’t write! It talks about things we don’t know about Mumbet, about the law that prompted her to act, and about her legacy today.

The paintings illustrating the book are beautiful. A beautiful book to read anytime of year, not just in February!

Mumbet’s Declaration of Indpendence by Gretchen Woelfle, illustrated by Alix Delinois. Carolrhoda: 2014.

friends 2

Who knew that two icons of the fights for civil rights, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, were dear friends? This inspiring book tells the story of how they defied social conventions to become friends, joined forces to fight for what the believed in, and weathered the storms when their opinions differed about the way things should be.

The author includes extensive back matter: an “Author’s Note,” that gives more detail on events mentioned in the book, an “Author’s Research note” that tells about how she got interested in the topic and how she researched it, an “Illustrator’s Note,” “Source Notes” showing not only where all the quotes in the book came from but also all the source of all the other factual statements, a “Selected Bibliography,” and a “Timeline.”

The author acknowledges, “This story is based on true events, but I had to use my imagination to fill in details when no facts could be found. For example, when Susan and her father went to Frederick’s house on Alexander Street, no one knows for sure who drove the buggy.” I especially appreciate the respect that notes like these show for the reader. They draw clear lines between what was invented and what comes from historical documents.

It’s an inspiring book to pick up today, when we’re remembering the man who had a dream that “one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”

Friends for Freedom: The Story of Susan B. Anthony & Frederick Douglass, by Suzanne Slade, illustrated by Nicole Tadgell. Charlesbridge: 2014.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s distinctive artwork illustrates this story of a family that brought a lawsuit to desegregate schools. The story is long–2321 words!–but Tonatiuh makes sure everything is told from young Sylvia’s point of view.

The dialogue in the book keeps things lively, and I was delighted that the author included a note about that dialogue in the back matter, He writes:

The dialogue in the trial scene comes directly from court transcripts. i shortened and edited it for clarity and pacing. The dialogue in the rest of the book is inspired by conversations i had with Sylvia Mendez in October 2012 and April 2013.

The narrative voice shifts between Spanish and English. It’s clear and plain-spoken, with few poetic devices, as if the right outcome of this case is so obvious that it doesn’t need rhetorical flourishes.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh. Abrams: 2014.