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