To pick up a guitar, or to just pick up your chin and sing, is to amplify the voices of millions who pick up protest signs. It’s to speak even for those who don’t dare to open their mouths.
Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich, with illustrations by Adam Gustavson (Bloomsbury, 2017), begins with an infectious rhythm. Pete Seeger plucks and strums a banjo, calling out words for a crowd to sing along with him. To Pete, whose youth was impacted by the crash of ’29, when he was ten, “it didn’t seem fair that some folks were rich and some had nothing.” This is a picture book I’d like to see in every classroom across this nation, the biography of a man who, as Peter Yarrow writes in the foreword, “fully lived the message of his music.” The illustrator’s realistic, earthy palette enriches the story of an enterprising young boy, growing up in a socially conscious, musical family, who lived in the best sense of the word. Through many eras— Depression, World War II, McCarthy Witch Hunts, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the ongoing struggles for peace and to save our planet— Pete never changed his tune to suit those in power, “spreading his folk music seeds song by song and child by child.”
Born just four years before Pete, in 1915, but in drastically different circumstances, Billie Holiday became a jazz legend. Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, illustrated with lush, painterly strokes by Charlotte Riley-Webb (Millbrook Press, 2017), dares to make a song that describes a lynching the subject of a picture book. Billie thought that performing it “might make things better, even though she knew that black people had been killed for less.” The photo that inspired the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Abel Meeropol, to write “Strange Fruit” is not described, but the metaphoric text is included.
By the time we get to that page, we’ve traveled a long way with Billie, starting from the moment when she quit a profitable band gig over the racist policies of performing venues. “Enough,” as she put it, became “more than enough.” Mr. Golio does not gloss over her rape, at age ten, though it’s not explicit (“a terrible thing done to her”). Like Mr. Golio’s award-winning book on Jimi Hendrix, the throbbing heart of this brave book is music.
Some of the questions it will surely spark may be answered, for older readers, in Carole Boston Weatherford’s Becoming Billie Holiday. This book of poems, with stunning art by Floyd Cooper (Wordsong, 2008 ), is daringly told in the first person. Each poem has the title of one of Billie’s songs. They pull no punches, literally. In the poem entitled I’m a Fool to Want You, Billie says, about her romance with famed tenor sax player Ben Webster, given to slugging her when drunk, “Ben was bad news/I was slow to read.”
Copious back matter details the rich, historical underpinnings of these marvelous books. Their characters are fully human. No racial or ethnic groups are glorified or demonized. They remind us that art has a vital role to play in bending societies towards social justice.
Orel’s fourth picture book, Thelonious Mouse (FSG), won a Crystal Kite, 2012, from SCBWI. Her third was a Bank St. Best and the second made the NY Times Ten Best-Illustrated list. A Thousand, Peaks, Poems from China (with Siyu Liu) was selected for the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age list. A Word’s a Bird, her animated, bilingual (English/French) poetry book for iPad, was on SLJ’s list of ten best children’s apps, 2013. Her book for teachers, Metaphors & Similes You Can Eat (Scholastic) has inspired great poems from children in grades 4-8. Orel won the Oberon poetry prize in 2010 and commendation in other reviews and anthologies. She teaches at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, Huntington Station, New York. www.orelprotopopescu.com
Meet the Wednesday Blogateers
First Wednesdays will feature Orel Protopopescu, multi-published award -winning author and poet.
Follow our Blogs!
Join our Tribe
and receive 7 Steps to Creative Happiness, access to free webinars, and lots more!
Your email addresses are always safe and respected with us.