Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song

illus. by Charlotte Riley-Webb. 40p. bibliog. notes. photos. Millbrook. Jan. 2017. lib. ed. $19.99. ISBN 9781467751230.
Gr 3–6—Singer Billie Holiday had a knack for jazz improvisation and dramatic performance, but she emerged from a difficult childhood into a world that didn't support black success. In 1938, she found a singing home in an integrated Greenwich Village club called Cafe Society. When its owner asked Holiday to sing Abel Meeropol's haunting song "Strange Fruit," she made it her own, eventually performing it throughout the country. While a song about lynching may seem a challenging choice for a picture book subject, the combination of words and images here is strikingly effective. Riley-Webb's emotionally expressive illustrations are as forceful as the topic. Done with acrylic paint and tissue collage, they are full of rough textures, curved lines, and grasping hands. In a smoothly written text, with important ideas emphasized in a larger font, Golio briefly summarizes Holiday's early life and career. He leaves out most of the seamier details and concludes his narrative with accounts of two early performances of this haunting song, the first in a private apartment in Harlem and the second in the club. Back matter includes the lyrics and two pages of exposition that define lynching and describe the subsequent history of the song and the singer.
VERDICT This is not an easy book, but it is powerful—just like its theme. Consider for guided in-depth discussions on Billie Holiday and U.S. history.

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