Tag Archive: biographies


Stand Up and Sing! Pete Seeger, Folk Music, and the Path to Justice by Susanna Reich. 2017. Illustrated by Adam Gustavson. New York: Bloomsbury.

Genre: Biographical picture book

Levels: Grades 4 and up, including adults (must reading for fans of Pete Seeger and folk music)

Features: Striking illustrations, Foreword by the one and only Peter Yarrow, moving Author’s Note on how this book came to be, outstanding and diverse source list that will encourage students to expand their own research beyond books 

 

Overview

Pete Seeger. His very name sends chills down the spine of anyone who was alive and singing in the 1960s. Especially someone who has memorized recordings by those Pete inspired—singers like Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio, and the Smothers Brothers, to name just a handful. Lyrics to songs like “If I Had a Hammer” or “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” are so deeply engraved in our consciousness it’s as if we were born knowing them. Even contemporary musicians owe a debt to this song writer and spokesperson for social justice. How do we thank someone like Pete Seeger, who so selflessly opened his heart to the world? With a book, of course.

Lucky for us, we don’t have to write it ourselves. Author Susanna Reich has done that for us, creating a beautiful, brilliant bio Pete himself would surely have loved. Reich’s rhythmic language brings Pete to life in a way that makes us feel we’re still part of his audience, clapping, stamping our feet, singing our hearts out. Reich tells Pete’s story from his days as a dancing, drumming toddler in the early 1920s right through to his unforgettable performance of “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 2009. Throughout, we see how this legendary musician’s beliefs and dreams were shaped by the events he witnessed—and oh, how much he saw to change.

Pete Seeger’s life of 94 years spanned several wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement and changes in voting laws, and growing awareness of the threat pollution poses to the earth’s very existence. Almost miraculously, no matter the cause, no matter the location, there was Pete, right on the front lines, using his voice to generate passion and hope. Though he is often associated with the Vietnam protests of the 1960s (probably because singers of the time adapted and sang so much of his music), Pete’s legacy reaches back to far earlier days, and continues through the present. He began protesting for workers’ rights the first time he witnessed Depression era bread lines—and his boat, the Clearwater, sails the Hudson River even now, reminding us to keep our precious water clean.

As Reich shows us in her timely book, Seeger’s protests had a singularity about them. Though outraged by unfairness, Seeger was never violent. Instead, he emerges in this thoughtfully crafted bio as someone profoundly capable of optimism even in the face of humanity’s darkest moments. He was a leader of infinite charisma, gentle and peace loving, yet incredibly strong in his convictions. Seeger insisted on performing with African American friends despite prevalent racist views of the time, refused to betray other performers to the House Un-American Activities Committee, and stood fast when network television executives objected to his daring song lyrics criticizing then-President Lyndon Johnson. Always focused on the other guy, Pete gave little thought to his own welfare or safety. His gratification lay in following the path he’d determined was right. Though he lived much of his life in the most modest circumstances—sometimes unable to afford heat for his home—he wasn’t one to fuss about comforts. As Reich tells us, “Pete didn’t mind the cold. It felt good to be making a difference in the world.”

Adam Gustavson’s soft pastel illustrations harmonize beautifully with this portrait of a kind, selfless person, always ready with a smile, and nearly always singing or playing an instrument of one sort or another. In one of the book’s most memorable lines, a family friend is quoted as saying, “He played all night, and played all day, and after a while, you wanted to ship him off somewhere.” We can’t help laughing affectionately at this image of a man making his family crazy with nonstop singing. Now, in his silent wake, we find ourselves wishing him back.

Make no mistake. Not everyone loved Pete Seeger’s music. It wasn’t the continuous strumming of the banjo they minded; it was the lyrics. They were honest—and blunt. Champions of the status quo felt threatened—as Pete hoped they would—yet they were helpless to stop the tide. As Reich’s book shows so clearly, music has power to inspire and unify. People who heard Pete’s voice felt his unmistakable message to their very core. His songs became part of them, and part of America’s landscape and culture. Before long, followers were singing those songs in marches, at meetings, around campfires, and in their homes. One voice became the voice of millions. Even today, someone, somewhere, is almost surely singing one of Pete’s songs. As Peter Yarrow so perfectly expresses it in the Foreword, Pete’s “spirit travels beyond his time on earth.”

The title Stand Up and Sing! is more than a gentle reminder. It’s the author’s challenge to us all, especially in a time of discord, division, and unrest. Will we, like Pete Seeger, have the insight to recognize injustice when it’s right before our eyes—and the courage to make our voices heard? If so, then perhaps we shall, indeed, overcome.

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. The book is compact enough to share aloud in one or two readings. Use a document projector so students can linger over the telling illustrations. It’s also a terrific small-group choice for students interested in music (particularly folk music, guitar, or banjo) or in social justice and its history. In addition, the combined conciseness and completeness of the book make it an outstanding model for teaching students to write a good biography.

Background. Any discussion of Pete Seeger must begin with his music. If you’re lucky enough to have recordings available, play them. In addition, search for online video clips of Seeger singing to and with his audiences. Share some from recent times, and others from Pete’s early days to help students appreciate how long Pete kept the music going! Be sure to notice and discuss Seeger’s signature interaction with his audience, how he not only invites them to sing along, but coaxes them into doing it. Gradually, even the shyest, most reluctant singers in the crowd begin mouthing lyrics and clapping hands, swept up in the irresistible joy of the moment.

Foreword—and beyond. Students who have studied music in some capacity have likely heard of Pete Seeger. His death was very recent (January 27, 2014), and he performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. In addition, his songs, both those he wrote and others he popularized, have been recorded by numerous artists, many of whom—like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Bruce Springstein—are extremely well known in their own right. Few students, however, are likely to know many details of Pete’s life beyond his singing and songwriting prowess.

Start by sharing the book’s engaging Foreword, written by Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary). It’s a heartfelt tribute, coming from someone who not only appreciates the book’s message, but who knew Pete Seeger personally and has sung his music for years. Yarrow touches on highlights of Pete Seeger’s history, but . . .

. . . if you wish your students to have a broader, richer context for appreciating the book, here are some relevant topics they might research—perhaps in small teams of two or three—then  share with the class:

  • The labor movement (1940s and 1950s)
  • Civil Rights Movement (1950s and 1960s)
  • Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations (1960s)
  • Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger: the mentor and the legend
  • Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger: the electric guitar controversy
  • House Un-American Activities Committee
  • Blacklisting and the Hollywood 10
  • Charles Seeger, musicologist (Pete’s father)
  • Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, concert violinist (Pete’s mother)
  • The Newport Folk Festival
  • “We Shall Overcome,” gospel turned folk and protest song
  • Awards received by Pete Seeger, including Induction into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Kennedy Center Honor, National Medal of Arts, Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album of 2008, George Peabody Medal, Woodie Guthrie Prize, and many, many more.

“Everybody, sing it!” How does one begin a book about a legend? With a list of awards and accomplishments? His date of birth? Most memorable achievement?

Or perhaps—as Susanna Reich does here—with a scene that depicts the quintessential Pete Seeger. There he is, smiling, hands up, banjo at the ready, engaging the crowd. Asking them to sing along. Don’t know the words? Sorry, but at a Pete Seeger concert that’s no excuse. As I noted earlier, if you look up videos online, you will see Pete eagerly feeding words to the audience time and again. “This isn’t just my song,” he seems to be saying. “These are your lyrics—meant to be sung in your voice.”

What makes this image of Pete such a great lead for this particular book? Discuss this with students.

Are your writers working on a biographical piece currently? If so, have them consider a similar approach to writing a lead of their own. This calls for carefully, thoughtfully choosing a defining moment or activity that encapsulates a person’s identity and character. For Pete, becoming one with his audience is that moment.

 

Argument. Does music today have the same political clout that it had, say, during the anti-war marches of the 1960s? Can your students name any current songs they would label as “protest songs”? Or if not, can they name songs that inspire social justice or compel us to do what is right? Note: This can be a hard thing to come up with off the top of your head, so give students a day to investigate song titles and lyrics before delving too deeply into this discussion. Also, in case not all students have discovered this, it’s easy to look up song lyrics online. Just type in “lyrics to Little Boxes,” or whatever. (The results can surprise you. As I learned when I looked up “Rocket Man,” we don’t always “hear” what the composer wrote!)

Following your discussion, have students craft an argument supporting (or denying) the idea that music is a vital form of protest in today’s world. Advocates of social protest through music should be able to cite specific songs or quote lyrics that exemplify such protest.

 Organizational strategy: Letting go of trivia. In her Author’s Note, Susanna Reich admits, “In compressing Pete’s story into a picture book, there was much I had to leave out.” This revelation marks the perfect place to kick off instruction in organization.

Students often think the biggest challenge in writing nonfiction lies in coming up with enough to say. In truth, good research typically yields volumes of information. The real problem lies in deciding what to omit. Leaving some things on the cutting room floor makes it infinitely easier to organize what’s left.

Reich does a masterful job of choosing salient moments that reveal just who Pete Seeger is. After reading the entire book, go through a short segment, perhaps four to six pages, this time noting which stand-out moments from Seeger’s life made the cut.

For example, immediately following the opening page (which shows Seeger leading an audience in song), we learn how he loved music as a child and admired the “share everything” philosophy of Native American tribes. On the following page, we learned that Pete started his own newspaper, and cared more about a new banjo than sweaters and underwear. Talk with students about what these and similar details reveal about Pete as a person. Then have students imagine some of the details Reich might have left out. For example, she doesn’t tell us what Pete’s favorite food was, if he ever had a pet, or how well he did on spelling quizzes. Why? Because she had to make choices—and some details were more important than others.

As students write their own bio pieces (or any nonfiction, for that matter), encourage them to set priorities, ranking details from their research into three categories: (1) what’s critical, (2) what’s less essential but still fascinating enough to include if space permits, and finally, (3) what can go. Now they’re ready to put things in order!

Expanding research. Take a minute to share the list of “Selected Sources” at the back of the book. It shows that Susanna Reich investigated a wide range of sources in preparing to write Stand Up and Sing! Not just books, but films, taped interviews, and recordings. What sources do your students rely upon most when writing informational or other nonfiction pieces? Discuss possibilities and make a list that goes beyond the world of print, encouraging students to expand their fields of research.

Illustrations and voice. Seldom have I seen a book where illustrations so beautifully complemented the subject. Do your students agree? What is the overall tone of Adam Gustavson’s  illustrations? In other words, how do they make us feel, and what contributes to those feelings? Imagine this book with photographs rather than paintings of Pete Seeger. Would the book seem very different even if the text were unchanged? What makes these soft-hued illustrations such a good choice?

What words would your students use to describe the tone or voice of the text? Is it authoritative? Reverent? Joyful? Peaceful? Playful? Honest? Serious? Comical? Or something else?

Noticing the little things. Adam Gustavson’s illustrations are simple yet deceptively detailed. With each depiction of Pete Seeger, it’s almost as if we can get inside his thinking. We can sense when he’s troubled, and when he’s at peace. And if we take time to study his surroundings, they show us even more. Here’s one example . . .

Consider the illustration showing Pete Seeger shaving. Using a document projector, have students examine and respond to this picture. What do these visual details reveal about Pete’s life at this moment? As students continue looking, read the accompanying text aloud. Does it reinforce what you see in the image? What do the words tell us that we cannot get from the illustration—and vice versa?

What’s the big idea? The purpose of any biography, of course, is to share important elements of a person’s life. But why this person, and why now? Is Stand Up and Sing! of particular significance at this time when protests regarding so many issues are common throughout the world? What message or messages is the author hoping we take away from our reading of Pete Seeger’s biography? Have students write about this briefly, then meet in small groups to share and discuss their ideas. Once they’ve had a chance to share ideas in small groups, discuss the core messages of the book as a class.

Folk songs. Some people see Pete Seeger as a singer foremost, others as an activist who packaged his message in song. Either way, Pete is widely regarded as the king of folk music. But what exactly is folk music? Where does this term come from?

Discussion. Is the genre of folk music still alive today? What does it sound like? Ask students to search out some recordings of contemporary folk music and play them for the class. As part of their research, they are likely to discover that folk music has evolved into a wide range of sub-genres, including Celtic, neofolk, rogue folk, Americana, and many others. And of course it’s worth noting that many songs from the 1960s and even earlier are still being recorded in updated versions today.

Argument: The right choice? At one point in the narrative, Reich shares a critical moment in Pete’s life:

At college Pete couldn’t stop talking about workers’ strikes and unions, the civil war in Spain, and the Nazis in Germany. He talked so much that he didn’t do his homework. He lost his scholarship and had to drop out of school.

Losing a scholarship to Harvard is no small thing. Pete might have gone on to become a successful journalist—and what a different bio Reich would have had to write then!

On the other hand, when he left Harvard, Pete went to New York, where eventually he met blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly—and later Arlo Guthrie, with whom he would travel and perform across the U.S. Both had enormous influence on Seeger’s singing career. So the question is, Did Pete make the right choice? Is it the choice your students would make?

Discuss this, and have students craft an argument supporting or opposing Pete’s life changing decision to devote his time to music and social causes. Consider the ramifications of his traveling down one road versus the other.

Sentences that sing. The voice in any piece of writing is highly dependent upon sentence fluency. We don’t always think of this when reading for information, but author Susanna Reich is a master at crafting sentences. To better appreciate her skill and talent, slow down, read one or two pages aloud while showing them on a document projector, and ask students to notice some particulars that contribute to sentence fluency. They may mention highly varied sentence beginnings, variations in length, and a delightful mix of sentence styles—declarative sentences, exclamations, questions, effective fragments, and quotations.

Read-around: Learning to listen for fluency. Here’s something to try with small groups of three or four students each. Ask each group to select one short passage from the book; the amount of text on any given page is perfect. Ask them to read the passage aloud, round robin fashion, taking turns. Each reader can start and stop at any point—after one sentence, two, a whole paragraph, or whatever. But here’s the trick: Groups must continue reading for seven or eight minutes, long enough to go through the whole passage two or three times, perhaps reading a different section of text each time. Why? Because with each reading, fluency and inflection increase. Readers begin to really notice sentence beginnings, punctuation, word order and other factors that create drama. They become more adept at putting emphasis on the right words, using fluency to bring out meaning and voice. Like performers in a play, they uncover the power within the words they are uttering instead of mechanically reciting them. This is oral reading as it’s meant to be.

When groups finish rehearsing their passages, ask one or two to perform their selection for the class. Don’t be surprised if you have multiple volunteers! After listening, talk about the difference thoughtful oral reading makes. Is fluency especially important for this book? Why?

Research: Blacklisting. One powerful illustration in the book shows Pete sitting somewhere in a bus or train station, head resting on his hand, musical instruments unopened by his feet. If he appears forlorn, he has reason. His singing group, the Weavers, has just been blacklisted. Do your students know this term—blacklist? Have them do enough research to learn how the term originated and how common it was during the 1930s and 1940s.

The irony of it all.  Talk about why the Weavers—and others—were blacklisted. Their behaviors were considered unpatriotic or un-American. Do your students find this ironic? In other words, is the practice of blacklisting itself un-American? Why?

More questions for discussion. Is blacklisting still legal? And is it practiced in the U.S.? Have students write a personal response about how they view this practice. Note that when brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Pete Seeger refused to provide any information that would incriminate his friends. For this, he faced blacklisting himself, as well as potential jail time. How brave was this act of defiance? Would your students be this courageous in a similar situation? The answer makes a good topic for personal writing journals.

Freedom then—versus freedom now. One of Gustavson’s illustrations shows Pete Seeger singing in front of a television camera. In the text opposite, we learn that Seeger was invited to appear on television in 1967, for the first time in seventeen years. He sang “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” a song about a captain leading soldiers across a treacherous river, and eventually drowning. The song was believed to be a protest of Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Vietnam War, and it was cut from the show before it aired.

Crafting an argument. Compare this situation to the political and social climate in America today. Would that song likely be cut if performed now? How common is it to see or hear people criticize political figures, including a sitting president? Can such criticism ever go too far—or does this in fact make for a healthier social environment? Have students write an argument defending or opposing the kind of political free speech symbolized by protest songs like “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”

 

A “link in the chain.” In her Author’s Note at the end of the book, Susanna Reich says, “As I researched this book, I came to understand why Pete saw himself as a link in a chain.” After sharing both the book and the Author’s Note with students, ask them to comment on the significance of this remark. What did Seeger probably mean by this? Clearly the chain is a metaphor—but what does it represent?

Reich goes on to say, “This book is meant to be a link in that chain.” How can a book serve as a “link” in the kind of chain Seeger was talking about? Do we, as readers, play a role in making this happen?

What can we do? Pete Seeger was part of a legacy of peaceful protest often represented by people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Like Pete Seeger, Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi both believed there were ways to get their message of equality and justice across without resorting to violence. Have students write a short response piece suggesting specific peaceful ways we can keep the “chain” going in our everyday lives. Pete Seeger wrote and sang songs. Susanna Reich wrote a book. What more can we do?

About the Author . . .

Susanna Reich’s resume reads like a best-selling adventure story. She is an accomplished professional dancer, who has done graduate work in the ancient Hawaiian hula, and written about dance extensively, both for professional journals and in her 2005 book José! Born to Dance. She’s also been a professional flower arranger, designing flowers for Julia Child’s eightieth birthday and many other events of note. She’s even driven big trucks, something not many writers can brag about. But none of these accomplishments, she professes, has been as much fun as writing children’s books, something Susanna began doing in 1994. Awards and honors have rained upon her ever since.

Susanna’s first book, Clara Schumann, Piano Virtuoso, won an Orbis Pictus Honor from the National Council of Teachers of English, and was also an ALA Notable and Best Book for Young Adults, as well as a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year.

Recent books include Minette’s Feast: A Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat (Abrams, 2012), about the bestselling chef’s first cat, a Parisian who lapped up Child’s leftovers but preferred mice. The book received starred reviews in School Library Journal, Kirkus, Booklist, and Shelf Awareness and was on the best-books-of-the-year list, CCBC Choices.

In 2015 Susanna published another picture book bio, Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles (Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt), which recounts the early years of the bestselling band in history.

Susanna’s newest release, Stand Up and Sing!, makes us eager to know what’s next on her list. To learn more about Susanna, watch a video of her discussing Minette’s Feast, or schedule a classroom visit, please visit her website: www.susannareich.com

 Coming Up on Gurus . . .

Gurus is taking a hiatus for Spring Break. Please watch for our return in May. Meanwhile, have a look at my current . . .

 Book Recommendation for Adult Readers

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. 2015. New York: HarperCollins.

Author Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Department of History, University of Jerusalem, holds a PhD in history from the University of Oxford, and specializes in world history. His 2015 book Sapiens is both fascinating and controversial.

Sapiens is described by numerous reviewers as “sweeping” in scope—a hilarious understatement. It spans more than thirteen billion years of history, from the Big Bang onward. Best of all, Harari will have you turning pages with a style that’s delightfully conversational and sometimes comic. I couldn’t put it down. Does it have voice? And how. The language is vivid and precise, the pace as fast as a roller coaster ride. I read numerous passages twice just for fun.

I particularly appreciated the small details inherent in many discussions—like this one on how we became a “race of cooks.” As you might expect, we owe much to fire:

The advent of cooking enabled humans to eat more kinds of food, to devote less time to eating, and to make do with smaller teeth and shorter intestines. Some scholars believe there is a direct link between the advent of cooking, the shortening of the intestinal track, and the growth of the human brain. Since long intestines and large brains are both massive energy consumers, it’s hard to have both.

So—big brains are connected to short intestines. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. I didn’t.

Overall, Sapiens is intended to show why our species, Homo sapiens, emerged as dominant. It covers the consequences of three decisive turning points in human history, the Cognitive, Agricultural, and Scientific Revolutions, posing provocative questions like these: Did these revolutions advance our quality of life—or create problems with which we still struggle? Are we happier than our ancestors, and what creates happiness anyway? Do we have a bright future—or any future, for that matter? Will artificial intelligence take over the world, leaving unemployed humans too much time to get into even more trouble? Are we getting smarter? And what makes us believe in the value of money, the rule of law, or the existence of nations?

Many passages ask readers to question fundamental beliefs about humanity, laws, rights, or religious faith. Some readers find this uncomfortable. I think that’s unfortunate. The book asks us to think—it doesn’t compel us to agree. When is the last time you agreed with everything in any nonfiction book? My recommendation is to get a copy for yourself and make up your own mind. Agree or not, you’ll definitely be entertained.

A sidebar: Get the hardcover version. It’s filled with color photos you won’t want to miss. Be warned, though: It is startlingly heavy, printed on gorgeous thick paper meant to last through multiple readings. Find a comfy chair. Don’t read this book in bed. I very much doubt anyone would fall asleep reading Sapiens, but if you did drop it on your head . . .

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Thank you for stopping by. Our goal is to feature writers who deserve recognition, so please tell friends about our posts—and peruse Gurus for past reviews you may have missed. Authors, if you’d like someone to review your book who will actually read it and spend time with it, please send a copy to me in care of Six Trait Gurus, POB 8000 PMB 8284, Sisters OR 97759. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Woodward.

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strange-fruit-by-gary-golioStrange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio. 2017. Illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press.

Genre: Biographic picture book, social commentary, history

Levels: Grade 8 and up

Features: Passionate artwork that beautifully complements the subject; helpful background information on the Café Society, the origin of “Strange Fruit,” and the brutal practice of lynching; fascinating short bio of jazz icon Billie Holiday; excellent source list.

 

Overview

A song about lynching? The very concept is nearly as shocking today, even in our violence-inured society, as it must have been when Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The story of how that performance came about makes for a bold, brave book that handles a difficult subject with extraordinary grace, neither flinching nor dramatizing, but simply allowing history to speak for itself. And oh my, does it ever.

Throughout the book, author Gary Golio maintains a strong, direct voice that propels us through the text. He lets us know, on every page, that Billie Holiday was no ordinary woman. Without doubt, she was a singer of rare talent, but that was only the beginning. A fire burned in Billie, making her a force for justice: “Billie wasn’t going to scrub floors like her mother. She had a plan to be somebody.”

As her story reveals, Billie’s life was a gauntlet of misfortunes and challenges. She faced desertion by her father, a traumatic assault, even time spent in jail at the impossibly young age of 14. Perhaps life’s experiences helped her gain the courage and grit needed to succeed in an entertainment world still dominated by white performers. Gifted and determined, Billie grew to be one of the greatest singers of all time, revered by musicians of every background. And she retains that status today.

Billie Holiday’s soulful voice and interpretive genius made her the perfect choice to perform “Strange Fruit.” And Golio makes it clear that Billie was singled out for this role. The song was written by a Jewish high school teacher and song writer, Abel Meeropol, who personally performed it for Holiday. While the song may have been a gift to Billie, it was a gift that came with strings. She sang it for audiences who understandably cringed at its unapologetic lyrics. Most fell silent. Some walked out. That first performance took a raw courage few singers could have summoned. Yet through sheer will and talent, Billie drove this unlikely song to fame. It was a triumph for her, and for the black community.

Golio’s book is tight and concise—like a spring-loaded poem. Every word carries weight. I read it several times (It’s not the kind of book you can read once), and each time the emotional impact was profound. The events triggering the writing of this song are stark, provocative, and immeasurably sad. But the book’s overall message is one of inspiration. Who would think one song, or one singer, could make such a difference in the American landscape? Yet the reverberations are felt to this day.

In the end, Strange Fruit is not only a rich biographical slice of Billie Holiday’s life, but also an homage to courage. The courage of entrepreneur Barney Josephson, who created a space for black entertainers to perform—and people of all ethnicities to hear them. The courage of Abel Meeropol who wrote a song to wake complacent Americans up. And above all, the courage of a legendary singer who risked everything—her career, her freedom, her very life—to make people face the truth. Golio’s beautiful and haunting book, like the song it’s named for, is a bravura performance.

 

In the Classroom

Sharing the book. Strange Fruit is a daring  book on a controversial topic. Listeners and readers must be prepared to discuss highly sensitive topics with empathy and openness. With that in mind, read the book on your own first, more than once. Then decide if you feel it is most appropriate for a small-group discussion or for sharing with the whole class. Clearly, this is a book that cries out for discussion and response. Encourage students to write and talk about the important and timely issues the book raises, making sure to give them the background needed to do so with understanding and perspective.

Background. In two parts . . .

Part 1: Billie Holiday . . . Just who was Billie Holiday? The bio at the end of the book, accented by a striking photo of “Lady Day” wearing her signature gardenias, is a good place to begin. Before sharing it, though, ask how many of your students have heard of Billie Holiday or heard her sing? Her fan base is so expansive even now that many parents or grandparents may have recordings they would be willing to share with your class. You can also find numerous online recordings of Billie’s most popular songs, including “It Had to Be You,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “God Bless the Child,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Porgy,” “Body and Soul,” and dozens more. Listen to a few selections together, and ask students what words they would use to describe Holiday’s voice and style. Even the most successful musicians, including people like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, and Ella Fitzgerald, viewed Billie Holiday as unique in her talent. Why do your students think that might be?

Part 2: Civil rights . . . The story of “Strange Fruit” will take on new meaning for students acquainted with black history, the origins of jazz, and race relations during Billie Holiday’s lifetime. To set the stage (and prior to sharing the book), you might ask individual students, or teams of two, to do some preliminary research on any one of the following topics (or others you consider significant), and to share their findings with the class:

  • Race relations in America during the 1920s and 1930s
  • Protest songs in American history
  • Jim Crow laws and their impact on black Americans
  • The Great Migration
  • The Ku Klux Klan
  • The Harlem Renaissance
  • The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s
  • The origin of Black History Month
  • The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture American jazz
  • Abel Meeropol
  • Lynching*

*The practice of lynching has been outlawed in the U.S., but as author Gary Golio notes in “What Happened Next,” it took an unbelievable amount of time for this to happen—until 2005.

The online history of lynching is both horrifying and graphic, so you must decide how deeply you want to engage students in this topic. Author Gary Golio’s short epilogue, “What Happened Next” (in the book’s back matter) provides an excellent and concise summary of lynching’s dark history and the impact of “Strange Fruit” on the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. For many classrooms, this summary will be sufficient. For mature readers who wish to go further, it may be enlightening to look up the image that inspired “Strange Fruit.” It’s a photograph of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, taken by Lawrence Beitler in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930, immediately following their violent execution. It was this photo that purportedly pushed writer/teacher Abel Meeropol to take such a strong and public stand against the inhumane practice of lynching.

The poetry behind the song. “Strange Fruit” was originally written as a poem, and before listening to Holiday sing it (and this is a must), it can be helpful to discuss it as poetry. As you’ll see, the lyrics are printed in a large font toward the end of the book. Read it aloud while showing it on a document projector, and then give students a chance to discuss it with partners or in small groups before opening a general discussion. Here are a few questions for them to think about—and please add your own to this list:

  • What is your initial response to these lyrics?
  • What is the overall mood of this poem?
  • What does the word “pastoral” mean?
  • Why does the writer use the word “gallant” in the expression “gallant South”?
  • How does the writer want us to feel?
  • What is the significance of the word “fruit” in this context?

After discussing the lyrics, listen to Billie Holiday’s rendition. Author Gary Golio talks about Billie’s “expressive” face when she sang this song for the first time. He says she looked “tortured” and her voice sounded like “a cry of pain.” Though we cannot, unfortunately, witness that initial performance, do you and your students hear and see some of this stress in the online version? After listening to her performance, Share Abel Meeropol’s quotation about Billie Holiday that appears with her photo at the end of the book. Did he choose the right singer to share his message? Why?

Illustrations that speak to us. Strange Fruit is brilliantly illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, who uses sweeping strokes, erratic lines, and blended colors to capture the flavor of jazz itself. Notice her attention to facial expressions. Even when other details are lost in the stir of color, we can almost read the minds of the characters on these pages. Notice too how the colors change—from bright and splashy in some scenes to dark and somber in others. How does this shift enhance the message?

The painting of Billie in a yellow dress at the opening of the book shows her virtually blending into the scene, becoming one with the music. What is the artist’s intent here—and how does it fit with the theme of the book?

Mixed responses to “Strange Fruit.” Singer Tony Bennett called the song “magnificent” (David Margolick, nytimes.com, Running Press). The New York Times dubbed it the “song of the century,” and the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry. Other artists have recorded it—including Nina Simone and Annie Lennox. It has inspired novels and films, and is still widely used in college and public school classrooms.

Yet, response to the song has not been universally positive. Look carefully at the faces in the illustration of Holiday’s first tentative performance at a Harlem gathering. What moods or emotional responses does artist Charlotte Riley-Webb capture here?

“Strange Fruit” reached 16th place on the music charts following its release in 1939, yet many radio stations refused to play it. Why do you think this was—and what message did their refusal send? Discuss this with your students.

What’s the book’s core message? Obviously, Billie Holiday shared a song that set America on edge. In recounting that story, how is author Gary Golio hoping we’ll respond as readers? Ask your students if they can sum up the message of the book in a single line. Record their responses and discuss them. Though their responses may vary, together they will create a larger truth.

Organization: Beginning right smack in the middle. Bio pieces typically open with the subject’s date and place of birth—but that cliché simply wouldn’t do for this book. Instead, Golio previews his lead with a quotation from Holiday herself: “Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what’s more than enough.” These words set the stage for the actual opening line: “This time, Billie’d had enough.” And bang: We find ourselves in the midst of a volatile argument. What’s the argument about? Who’s going to win? Questions like these keep readers reading. Opening in the middle of things is a good strategy to share with students. Why? Because the most important part of any story rarely begins with a hero’s birth. Openings need to give readers something exciting to chew on. Background almost never does that. Action and controversy nearly always do.

Voice Collage. For years, this has been one of my favorite activities for teaching the concept of voice. It’s simple in concept, but the results are remarkable, and students of all ages are surprised by the drama it generates. Strange Fruit, with its vibrant characters, is a perfect book to initiate this exercise.

After reading Strange Fruit, invite students individually to choose a role they would like to assume for a short piece of original writing. Be sure every key role you identify is assumed by at least one student. Possibilities for this book might include—

  • Billie Holiday
  • Abel Meeropol
  • Billie’s mother
  • Barney Josephson
  • Any player in the band
  • Any member of the audience
  • Any other role you feel is significant: _________________

Have students/writers focus on one moment from the book. I might choose Billie’s first performance of “Strange Fruit” at Café Society. Ask students to write about this moment as if they were reflecting on it at the end of the day, and recording their heartfelt thoughts and feelings in a personal journal. They should write in an open, honest style—but in the voice of the role they have chosen. Each writer must imagine him- or herself as that person. Allow about ten minutes for this writing. (Students typically ask for more time, but you don’t want the pieces to grow too long.)

When they finish, have them divide their writing into two parts—at whatever point feels right. There is no “correct” way to do this. The purpose is simply to create two parts that will be read separately—and they do not need to be identical in length. Have writers indicate the division with a slash mark: /

Then ask volunteers, one person for each role, to perform their pieces aloud, read-around style: all the Part 1’s first, then (without pause) all the Part 2’s. Readers should NOT announce which role they are portraying. That should be obvious from the writing itself, and it dampens the theatrical effect if people make announcements. Imagine an actor turning to the audience and saying, “I’m Macbeth, by the way.”

Prepare to hear some very strong voice in the writing, and talk about that. You’ll notice another benefit, too. Voice collage takes writers to a deeper understanding of the characters involved in this or any book—their motives, reactions, joys and fears. Role playing through writing is a powerful way of interpreting text from multiple perspectives.

“The power of a protest song.” The subtitle of this book is significant. After all, “Strange Fruit” was originally a poem. Then Abel Meeropol set it to music. How do your students see the impact of this transformation? In other words, could a poem be just as powerful as a song? Or do songs have a power all their own?

Have any of your students ever sung a protest song? What is a protest song anyway? Look up “protest songs” online to assemble a list. Some titles may be songs your students would not even have recognized as “protest” songs. Choose one to perform as a class, and talk about how the very act of singing makes us feel. Why does music have such a strong influence on us?

Do you have musicians or poets in your class? If any of your students have written protest songs or poems, this would be a good time to perform them!

Speaking through the arts. Art is a compelling vehicle for nonviolent protest. Singer Billie Holiday—along with Abel Meeropol—used music to take a strong and important stand, and generations later, Billie’s voice still speaks to us. In what other ways can artists speak out against prejudice of any kind? Take time to research this with your students, seeing how many songs, paintings, sculptures, plays, films, speeches, or other forms of protest you can uncover. Make a list, book, or display of the results.

Some of us are singers, too. Or artists, dancers, actors, writers, or poets. Create a class collection of poems, essays, paintings, picture books, videos, podcasts, skits, or recordings that speak out against prejudice. That collection celebrates your students’ own courage and creativity.

 

About the Author . . .gary-golio

Gary Golio is the author of four nonfiction books about American musical legends, among them Bird and Diz an ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow (reviewed here on Gurus), which was a New York Times bestseller and won the Coretta Scott King Honor for illustrator Javaka Steptoe. Gary also wrote Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey, a Kirkus Reviews Best Children’s Book of the Year in four categories, and When Bob Met Woody: The Story of the Young Bob Dylan—also a multi-award winner.

Currently, Gary lives in the Hudson Valley, with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich. When he’s not writing or painting, Gary visits schools and is happy to share not only thoughts on art and writing—but music too! He plays guitar, both electric and acoustic. “I’m a pretty good musician and an engaging speaker,” he says. “I loved to make kids laugh, and use humor to teach and entertain.” To arrange a school visit with Gary, or gather more information about his books, please contact him at www.garygolio.com

Coming Up on Gurus . . . insects

A big thank you to all the writers who have sent (or will be sending) books to review here on Gurus. I appreciate the trust you have placed in me, as well as the opportunity to take a deeper look at your extraordinary work—and share it with our teacher audience. Please keep those books coming! And please invite friends to visit Gurus also—where shortly I’ll be reviewing Insects: The Most Fun Bug Book Ever (and it truly is) by celebrated nonfiction writer Sneed B. Collard. In the meantime . . .

 

A Book Recommendation for Your Classroom

One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes. 2017. Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

This space is normally reserved for books I recommend to adult readers, but this time I had to makeone-last-word2 space for an exceptional new release. As a long-time fan of Nikki Grimes, I was delighted to discover her brilliant new book One Last Word, a compilation of poems from Harlem Renaissance poets—who were at their peak just when singer Billie Holiday was reaching hers. This gorgeous and thought provoking book is an ideal complement to Strange Fruit.

Grimes’ collection showcases the work of Jean Toomer, Clara Ann Thompson, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Langston Hughes, and others. Poems like “Calling Dreams,” “We Wear the Mask” and “Mother to Son” speak of the strength and determination through which black Americans have overcome the most extreme hardships. The poems would be inspirational enough in their own right—but it gets better. This stirring anthology is enhanced by the illustrations of such artists as Frank Morrison, Brian Pinkney, Javaka Steptoe, Ebony Glenn, and Nikki Grimes herself.

What makes One Last Word such a masterpiece, though, is Grimes’ inclusion of something called Golden Shovel poetry. In her introductory “Poetry Form,” Grimes explains this approach in her own words: “The idea of a Golden Shovel poem is to take a short poem in its entirety, or a line from that poem (called a striking line), and create a new poem, using the words from the original.” Grimes uses the following illustration to show how to place the chosen words

in

the

right

margin

Then, the challenge is to write a new poem, each line of which ends with one of the identified  words. Sound easy enough, right? It’s not! I urge you to try it—and of course, have your students try it, too. That way, you’ll be even more appreciative of Nikki Grimes’ genius. She creates a Golden Shovel poem for every Renaissance poem in this book. What’s more, her poems expand the themes of the originals. Now that’s a feat—from someone who is a poet at heart. Combine this book with Golio’s Strange Fruit for an incredible unit on black history and civil rights.

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Thank you for stopping by. Come often, and tell friends about our posts. Until next time, please remember . . . Give every child a voice.

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