February 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

A Trio of Trailblazing Performers

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Introducing three African American women born in the early 20th century, these noteworthy picture book biographies resound with compelling storytelling, expressive artwork, and a sonorous message about overcoming obstacles and following one’s dreams.

Melba Doretta Liston (1926-1999)

littlemelbaLittle Melba and Her Big Trombone (Lee & Low, 2014; Gr 2-5) shines the spotlight on a jazz virtuoso known for her incredible talent as world-class musician, composer, and arranger. The book begins with Liston’s birth in Kansas City, a place so imbued with jazz that “you could reach out and feel the music.” Kathryn Russell-Brown’s melodious narrative pulsates with onamonapia as the smiling girl listens to the sounds in her head—“the plink of a guitar, the hummm of a base…the ping-pang of a piano.”

At age seven, Melba picked out a “long, funny-looking horn” and taught herself to play. A move to California meant high school and a star spot in Alma Hightower’s famous music club, and when jealous boys bad-mouthed her, she used her horn “to turn…those hurt feeling into soulful music.” At 17, she began to tour the country, spellbinding audiences with her “bold notes and one-of-a-kind sound.” When the discrimination she experienced in the segregated South almost caused her to quit, she persevered—performing, composing, teaching, and living a glorious life of music.

Frank Morrison’s vibrant oil paintings gleam with deep jewel tones, bold lines, and kinetic motion. Gracefully elongated figures provide a fine counterpoint to this performer and her often stretched-to-the-max slide, and a kaleidoscope of shifting perspectives keep Melba—and her music—center stage. Share this book along with Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald’s The Little Piano Girl: The Story of Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Legend (HMH, 2010), illustrated with folk-art paintings by Giselle Potter, to introduce another ground-breaking instrumental genius.

Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972)

mahaliaj“People might say little Mahalia Jackson was born with nothing, but she had something all right. A voice that was bigger than she was.” Nina Nolan’s narrative provides an accessible account of both hardships and high notes in the life of the Queen of Gospel. Things were tough during her childhood in New Orleans—her mother died and she was forced to leave school in fourth grade to look after her baby cousins—but young Mahalia Jackson (HarperCollins/Amistad, Jan. 2015; Gr 1-4) found comfort in music. Singing in church lifted her spirits and made her feel “like a peacock with her feathers all spread out.” Determined to share her gift, she forged her own path, working as a maid to support herself, traveling to congregations throughout the South to “holler” for the Lord, and finally lifting others with her soul-stirring voice through records and public appearances, including a performance at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

John Holyfield’s acrylic paintings show a figure touched with both grace and radiant faith, whether Mahalia is singing to comfort the cousins perched in her lap, adorned in flowing choir robes and swaying arms outstretched, or performing at Carnegie Hall. Pair this title with Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney’s Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song (Little, Brown, 2013), a luminous book that parallels the lives and hope-inspiring efforts of these two committed civil rights advocates and dramatically culminates in Washington, DC, in August of 1963.

Leontyne Price (1927- )

leontynepriceCarole Boston Weatherford and Raul Colón offer an introduction to Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century (Knopf, Dec. 2014; Gr 2-5) as heart-lifting as one of the renowned soprano’s operatic arias. The lyrical text sets the scene in Leontyne’s small Mississippi birthplace, a time when the only thing “…a black girl from the Cotton Belt could expect was a heap of hard work—as a maid, mill worker, or sharecropper. Her song, most surely the blues.” However, buoyed up by the loving encouragement of her hymn-singing mama and tuba-playing daddy, inspired by music heard in church and on the radio, and stirred by watching opera-singer Marian Anderson perform, little Leontyne began to find her voice. And though racism and segregation seemed to place “the concert stage out of reach for a black singer,” she persevered, her golden voice rising “to the rafters” and her song “as regal as it was rich and rare.”

Shattering the door first cracked open by Anderson, Price went on to become a world-famous opera star, well-known for her majestic portrayal of the Ethiopian princess Aida, “the part she was born to sing.” Filled with delicate crosshatched textures and sun-warmed earth tones, Colón’s realistic paintings shimmer with wonder. Music is depicted in a flowing swirl of color and motion—dancing toward a young Leontyne’s ear to shape “a brown girl’s dreams” or soaring forth from her lips to transform the world—expressing both its power and emotional poignancy. Share Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selnick’s outstanding picture book biography of Anderson, When Marion Sang (Scholastic, 2002), to provide context and inspire further studies.

Readings of all the titles featured here can be expanded upon and enhanced by playing audio recordings or viewing YouTube clips of these brilliant and barrier-breaking artists in action. These books make a solid launch point for wide-ranging explorations of topics including musical styles and genres, American history, the civil rights movement, the African American experience, and biography as a literary genre. Choose two or three books and have students compare and contrast the lives, experiences, and careers of these 20th-century contemporaries. What challenges did these women face and how did they deal with obstacles? Students can compare each author and illustrator’s approach to conveying information. How do the writing styles vary? How do the illustrations add detail and tone? All of these musicians were both inspired and driven by their particular talent, offering impetus for kids to discuss and/or write about their favorite artists in any realm (music, visual arts, stage, film, etc.), and contemplate the creative spirit and what makes an individual outstanding and unique.

Taken individually or grouped together, these titles can be used to incorporate numerous Common Core Standards, including the following: compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic (RI. 2.9); use information gained from illustrations…and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (RI. 3.7); compare and contrast the overall structure…of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts (RI 5.5).

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.

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