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.

Haunting.

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.

This book, about a landmark moment in jazz history, is written with a jazz-inspired narrative voice, playing with literary convention–there’s no end punctuation in the entire book–and dabbling with different poetic devices, like rhyme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, without ever committing to one. The story’s told with staccato phrases in shotgun bursts. Ransome uses rich and vivid words. She describes sound “rippling and rumbling” and describes the experience of watching a performance:

Fast fingering

Drums thumping

Trumpets trumping

The back matter is longer than the text itself, which I always love when a book has intrigued me like this one did. I’m anxious to get more of the story and can usually find it in the back matter. Here, Ransome tells us “More about Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson,” provides a time line, and gives a “Who’s Who in Jazz.”

Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black and White Jazz Band in History, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome. Holiday House: 2014.

“There was a time when jolly old England was not so jolly. Children worked in factories. Queen Victoria frowned. Everything was grim. Everything was dark—except…in the make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom.”

Gilbert and Sullivan’s hilarious operas can just seem strange if you don’t understand the class-bound, rule-conscious Victorian world they came from. In The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan, Jonah Winter depicts that Victorian world and celebrates the unabashed silliness of Gilbert & Sullivan while telling the story of how The Mikado came to be written. Although the focus is on The Mikado, this book is a great introduction to any Gilbert & Sullivan show–our kids loved reading it before we saw HMS Pinafore..

Reading about Gilbert and Sullivan’s fight also might prompt discussion about friendship and the hard feelings that can come between friends.

I miss some of the research features that are becoming more common in non-fiction picture books. The dialogue in the book is apparently invented, but there is no acknowledgment or discussion of that craft choice. I also wished there had been a bibliography so I could see where Winter found the story.

Richard Egielski’s pictures are the perfect accompaniment to Winter’s rollicking text.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Richard Egielski. Arthur A. Levine: 2009.

9780805082265

I don’t think I’ve sung a picture book since Iza Trapani’s Itsy Bitsy Spider, but I found myself singing page after page of this wonderful picture book. Murphy traces America’s civil rights debates since colonial times by showing how the lyrics to “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” have been changed over and over to address new challenges to equality and justice.

This book is a great example of a thesis-driven argument. It’s great analytical writing, and it’s a wonderful, engaging, inspiring story. Plus you can sing your way through the book!

Murphy’s back matter is excellent. In her source notes she writes a paragraph about each spread in the book, giving her sources and interesting tidbits that didn’t make their way into the main text of the book.

My Country, ‘Tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolf Murphy, illustrations by Bryan Collier. Holt: 2014.