NONFICTION

Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars

Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Bks. Aug. 2020. 32p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781524738884.
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Gr 2-5–In 1977, Voyager 1 launched into space bearing a Golden Record of images, sounds, and music—a message from Earth to the unknown. One of the chosen songs shares the title of this picture book biography of singer Willie Johnson. Johnson, a blind Black man, was born in Texas in 1897 and loved to sing and play the cigar-box guitar his father had made for him. By the age of eight, he had lost both his mother and his eyesight. As a young man, Johnson took his guitar on the road, traveling from town to town by train, busking to make a living. He often sang the blues, using his pocket knife on steel guitar strings to play “slide.” A music executive heard Johnson sing and decided to sign him. Johnson’s first record sold thousands. He died in 1945, but his music lived on, now immortalized somewhere in the universe, though easily accessible through YouTube. Lewis’s expressive watercolors depict the subject’s humble country beginnings as well as the joy he felt when he sang and played. The book’s recurrent theme of light is captured in the bright yellow wash throughout. The story of Johnson’s life is framed with vivid spreads of a night sky illuminated by stars, referencing both the Voyager’s mission and the song title.
VERDICT A beautiful, timely tribute to a little-known musician and space venture.

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