Tag Archive: Gary Golio


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.

______________________________________________

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

 woodward-vickijeff3249a

 

 

Advertisements

“The high school teachers will never buy into that. Don’t even show them those books—they’ll eat you alive.”

A few weeks ago, a suburban school district administrator said this to me (and it has taken me some time to wrap my head around the words) during the morning break of the trait-focused writing training I was doing. On this day, I was working with middle school teachers, and the following day I would be with a group of high school teachers. The administrator had not observed any of the training and had just popped in to see how things were going. The books I had specifically chosen and brought with me to use during these two trainings were spread out on a table near the front of the room.  The selection ranged from professional topics, novels and non-fiction specific to various content areas, all the way to several picture books—yes, picture books. I’m sure you would be able to imagine my reasoning for intentionally including picture books knowing full well the make up of my audiences. Well, imagine again, my surprise when this administrator, who had only been in the room for a few seconds, took a rather hasty, cursory scan of my book table and announced, “The high school teachers will never buy into that. Don’t even show them those books—they’ll eat you alive.”  As I was thinking about my response—keeping my jaw from hitting the floor and my eyes from rolling out of their sockets—the administrator’s phone rang, ending the awkward moment. I didn’t see this administrator again during my two days of training.

I want you to know that I was not eaten alive by either group of teachers—not even a nibble or a bite. Not surprisingly, both the middle and high school teachers were more than receptive to the books on my table and my suggestions for using them in their own classrooms. They were well beyond “buying in.” The high school teachers even shared a few titles of their own, along with how they had successfully used them with their students, again without anyone being eaten alive.

I wanted to respond to this administrator in the most positive manner I could think of, so I enlisted the help of a few high school teachers I have worked with or met during workshops (including a couple from the workshop I just described). What follows is our “response,” a short list of picture book titles and a brief description (not a lesson plan) of how they were used in real high school classrooms. This list is just a start. Middle and high school teachers have shared with me how they have used picture books to introduce content topics, extend a topic beyond the limits of assigned textbooks, exemplify elements of specific traits—details, leads/conclusions, strong words choices, fluent sentences, correct/creative use of conventions, etc.—model appropriate/creative presentation, and so on. Each of these is a demonstration of how purposefully selected picture books can be used to teach, inspire, and motivate high school writers—all writers.

Note: When using picture books in any classroom, it is important that students be able to see the pictures and text. A document camera is one of the easiest ways to do this, especially because it allows you to zoom in on picture details and individual words/phrases/sentences. Of course, you can do this the old fashioned way by gathering students up close in their desks, chairs, or on the floor. (Once, when I was doing a demonstration lesson in a class of 11th graders, I pulled out the picture book I was going to use and students began pushing chairs and desks out of the way. A student blurted out, “Criss-cross applesauce!” as everyone sat on the floor in front of me. It was a bit crowded, but they were so into the moment, I just ran with it.)

 

 

Unknown1. Once Upon MacDonald’s Farm. 1981/2000. Stephen Gammell. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 32 pages.

Summary: Author and illustrator Stephen Gammell offers a humorous, fresh view of the old song that nearly every kid knows. This Old MacDonald doesn’t even have any animals, and when he decides to get some, his choices show that he really doesn’t know much about farming. Instead of the more common and useful cow, chicken, or horse, MacDonald gets an elephant, baboon, and a lion.

Use/Topic: Literary Devices—Irony, Dramatic Irony

This book plays on something very familiar to students/readers, Old MacDonald and his farm, but events go contrary to what the readers expect, resulting in a humorous outcome. Readers clearly know more than MacDonald about farming and what the outcome of his choices will be. This book is a fun, simple (without being simplistic) introduction to an important literary device. It provides a touchstone example of a difficult concept and a gateway to understanding irony as it may be used in more advanced literary selections.

Other titles to help with Literary Devices: 

Juxtaposition9780761323785_p0_v1_s114x166Unlikely Pairs: Fun with Famous Works of Art. 2006. Bob Raczka. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press

Point of View9780789481917_p0_v1_s114x166Voices in the Park. 1998. Anthony Browne. New York: DK Publishing.

 

9780689820359_p0_v1_s114x1662. If You’re Not From the Prairie. 1995. Story—David Bouchard. Images—Henry Ripplinger. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks.

Summary: Author and illustrator collaborate to create an artistic, poetic tribute to all aspects of life on the prairie—the beauty and climatic extremes. The author tells readers all the things they don’t know and can’t know about the prairie—the sun, wind, sky, flatness, cold and heat—because they’re not from the prairie. In the process, the author is passionately filling readers with all that he knows because he is from the prairie. By the end of the poem, readers have gained an understanding and appreciation for a place and life very different from their own. Readers have been filled with insider knowledge—words and images.

Use/Topic: Inspire Immitation—Poetry from Personal Knowledge/Experience

This book provides an excellent platform for imitation by student writers. Students can choose to focus on placeIf you’re not from Seattle…, If you’ve never been to Lake Chelan…, or personal experienceIf you’re not an only child…, If you’re not a hockey player…, If you don’t love to cook…, or use it to demonstrate content knowledgeIf you don’t know Atticus Finch…, If you’re not an igneous rock…, If you’re not an amphibian…, and so on. The poetry they create could rhyme, as it does in the book, or not. Their poety could imitate the author’s repeated phrasing, or not. The focus is on filling readers up with insider knowledge, details, and feelings.

 

Excerpts of Student Poetry Inspired by If You’re Not From the Prairie:

If You’re Not from the Coast of Peru…

By A. D.

If you’re not from the Coast of Peru, you don’t know

The taste of fresh seafood just pulled from the water.

You can’t know the taste. You’ve never tasted fresh shrimp cooked

With lime, garlic, nuts, salt, and pepper that make you drool like a baby.

If you’re not from the Coast, you’ve never tasted the ocean…

 

If You’re Not a Book Lover…

By H. J.

If you’re not a book lover,

You don’t know about books—boxes of books,

Double stacked shelves of books,

Books piled on the stairs, by the couch,

Teetering on the bedside table.

If you’re not a book lover,

You don’t know that intoxicating smell of a new book,

About pushing your nose right up and into the binding,

Careful not to push too hard…

 

If You’re Not from the Mantle…

By S. B.

If you’re not from the mantle, you don’t know convection,

You can’t know my magma.

You’ll never feel the searing heat or gases hiss

Or watch the layers fold and break about your head.

 

If you’re not from the mantle,

You’ll never see the plates slide

Or collide

Or get fried

Or watch a small part of you escape

Knowing you have shaped the world…

 

9780439895293_p0_v1_s114x1663. The Arrival. 2006. Shaun Tan. Melbourne: Arthur A. Levine Books.

Summary: This wordless picture book is both a compelling page-turner and an amazing work of art, worthy of a slow, lingering “read.” The author/illustrator’s sepia illustrations detail the journey of a man immigrating to a new and strange land. The earthy tones of each image are at times warm and peaceful then suddenly cold and menacing mirroring the successes and struggles of the man as he attempts to build a new life. There is no story told in text, and any language included in the illustrations uses an invented system of letters/symbols, immersing readers in the language/cultural barriers facing new immigrants.

Use/Topic: Immigration

This book was used to help students personalize the topic of immigration and launch a discussion about the total experience of immigrants in a US history class. The book’s images encouraged students to talk about the personal and political reasons behind the decision to leave one’s home country—governmental oppression, religious oppression, seeking personal freedom, education, employment, etc. The Arrival was not used in place of the students’ history texts but to help provide a lead-in and context for the fact/figure/information heavy content students would face in their assigned texts.

9781580138826_p0_v1_s114x1664. The Vermeer Interviews: Conversations with Seven Works of Art. 2009. Bob Raczka. Minneapolis: Millbrook Press.

Summary: Author Bob Raczka turns “interviewer” to give readers an inside look at Jan Vermeer’s art, personal/professional life, and the times in which he lived. Rather than “interview” the mysterious Mr. Vermeer, the author sits down with seven of the artist’s amazing paintings, imagining tell-all conversations with their long silent subjects. Bob’s questions get the painting’s subjects talking about the artist’s techniques, historical and cultural details, and about Vermeer the man, encouraging them to dish on their creator. Though the conversations are “imagined” by the author, the information behind them is authoritative and well researched. In the end, readers are treated to a detailed look at seven beautiful works of art and a greater understanding of Vermeer the man and artist.

Use/Topic: Creative Biographies/Primary Source Writing

English Class–Sharing this book led to students doing “imagined” interviews with characters from novels/literature studied in class—e.g. Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, and The River Why.

History—This book was used as a model for writing creative biographies of historical figures being studied, helping students move away from “encyclopedic, book reporty” products. Students were guided through comprehensive research of their chosen subject, helping them become expert enough to “imagine” informative, interesting interviews. It was also used as a motivating model with a family history project, where students were asked to interview elder family members to turn into first person histories, written in the voice of the interviewee.

Other titles to help with creative biographies/primary source writing:

imgres-1Paths to Peace: People Who Changed the World. 2006.  Jane Breskin Zalben. New York: Dutton Children’s Books.

9780375868443_p0_v1_s114x166You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!. 2013. Jonah Winter & Terry Widener. New York: Schwarz & Wade Books.

9780763635831_p0_v1_s114x166The Secret World of Walter Anderson. 2009. Hester Bass. Illustrations by E.B. Lewis. Somerville: Candlewick Press.

imgres-3Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey. 2009. Gary Golio. Paintings by Rudy Gutierrez. Boston: Clarion Books.

Final Note

At its heart, this post is not solely about one administrator’s misguided statement about using picture books in secondary classrooms. It’s about the importance of professional judgment, best practices, purposeful planning, the craft of teaching, and developing relationships with students. If only I’d had the time to say all this before the phone rang, ending the possibility of a real conversation.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Vicki will review an anthology of essays called Machine Scoring of Student Essays: Truth and Consequences. Here’s a tantalizing tidbit from one essay, Why Less is Not More: What We Lose By Letting A Computer Score Writing Samples, written by William Condon—“… At the very moment when performance assessments are helping promote consistency in writing instruction across classrooms, machine scoring takes us back to a form of assessment that simples does not reach into the classroom.” Shout it from the rooftops!

Remember, if you’re considering professional development in writing during the current school year, we’d love to design a seminar or series of classroom demo’s to meet your needs at the classroom, building, or district level. We can incorporate any combination of the following: Common Core Standards for writing, the 6 traits, effective approaches to dealing with genre, and the best in literature for young people (including emphasis on reading to write). Please contact us for details or with questions at any time: 503-579-3034. Thanks for stopping by. Come back—and bring friends. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.

 

Image

Jimi: Sounds Like A Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe

2010. New York, NY: Clarion Books, 32 pages

Genre: Informational picture book

Ages: Upper Elementary through high school

Features: Distinctive art, ”More” About Jimi Hendrix, Author’s and illustrator’s note, Sources and resources.

Summary

In 1969, for my thirteenth birthday, I received four of the coolest record albums ever. I could tell how cool they were (and how cool they made me) because my mother didn’t approve of any of them. These albums by Steppenwolf (Steppenwolf), The Beatles (Magical Mystery Tour), Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida), and Jimi Hendrix (Are You Experienced?) were my big step over the line of Top 40 AM radio and the music of my parents. These albums really began my record collection and shaped my interest in music. Years later (I’m feeling so old right now), when my son was maybe ten, he wanted to hear some of my “old” music. He had a classic rock compilation CD with one Jimi Hendrix tune, and he wanted to hear more. It was really just an introduction to the music of Jimi Hendrix, but we played some songs off a couple records, and I felt cool again, passing the torch of coolness to my son (who would think it very un-cool to use the phrase “torch of coolness”). There’s a quote from Jimi included near the end of Gary Golio’s Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, “When I die, just keep playing the records.” I realized it wasn’t coolness I was passing on to my son but the creative energy of an amazing musician. And that, I believe is the aim of this beautiful book.

Gary Golio’s book is not a straightforward birth to death biography, and it is not aimed solely at a teenage audience, those of an age most likely to “discover” Jimi Hendrix’s music. The author focuses on Jimi’s early life to acquaint younger readers with both the musician and the source of his musical and creative vision. (The details of Jimi’s substance abuse and early death are not ignored but offered to readers in an author’s note and suggestions—websites, books, etc.—for further reading and exploration.) Since there is not a CD accompanying the book, you might wonder how readers will get a sense of the sound and music that Jimi Hendrix is famous for. This is accomplished through the marriage of lyrical text, art, and page design. Text—in traditional straight line sentences, formal paragraphs, and lines that curve and flow like musical notes—overlays the amazing full-page art of illustrator Javaka Steptoe. The harmony of words and illustrations “sing” the story of Jimi Hendrix to life, page after page.

Here are some ideas to help you put this book to work for you and your students in your writing classroom.

In the Classroom

1. Background. Clearly, the purpose of a biography is to teach readers about the life of its subject, but it’s still important to check with students for any prior knowledge. Has anyone heard of Jimi Hendrix? Who has heard his music? Who plays a musical instrument? How did they learn? Who are some of their favorite musicians—not just singers? Who listens to music at home? in the car? with their parents? (Who has a dad as cool as me?)

2. Reading. As always, read the book prior to sharing it with students so there won’t be any surprises and to familiarize yourself with all the book has to offer. Pay close attention to all the sensory details and figurative language used by the author, and their connections to the art and layout of each page. I suggest using sentence strips or chart paper to copy one or two of your favorite details or similes as models for students to help them find other examples. Be ready to ask students what they notice about the art and the layout of each page. (If you are using the Write Trait Classroom Kits© Grades 1-8, your students will be familiar with this kind of conversation—they might even initiate it—from their efforts in Conventions & Presentation lessons.) Don’t miss the opportunity to share the art on each page—a document camera is a great tool for this, as is simply holding the book up for your students (“I can’t see!”). If you are fortunate enough to have a music and/or art teacher in your school, this would be a great book to share with those teachers, as well. Some of the instructional opportunities that follow would fit easily in one of those classrooms or as part of your efforts to team up and “write across the curriculum.”

3. Detail/Word Choice—Poetry. This book is about a musician, so sound details and descriptions abound. On page 7, the author writes, “The sounds of life were calling out.” Go through the book a second time to help students find examples of the  “sounds of life” that were part of Jimi’s life. Make a list of these sounds. Refer students to the chart/sentence strips you created earlier.  Look for examples that use a simile to clarify the reference for readers. Chart these separately and discuss why the author chose to use figurative language to extend the details.  This would be a great time to ask students about the sounds of their lives, at home and at school. Sounds are great memory triggers—what sounds make them happy? feel hungry? feel safe? (I had a student write a poem about sounds—how sounds from the kitchen or of her dad brushing his teeth made her feel safe and secure.) On page 13, the author wonders, “Could someone paint pictures with sound?” Students could turn this around to try to use words to paint a sound picture or choose colors, like Jimi, to describe/identify a sound (pages 10-11). You and your students could even take a sound “field trip” by walking around your school—inside and out—with paper and pencil to record thoughts/feelings/descriptions of what they hear. Poetry would be a great outlet for their thinking—the sounds of the playground, the cafeteria, the office, kindergarten, etc. Jimi grew up in Seattle, Washington, in an urban setting. Student from a more suburban or rural community could contrast their “sounds” with those from Jimi’s city and neighborhood.

4. Word Choice/Voice. The author uses such active verbs, it would be a shame not to shine the spotlight on them and even play around with some to help students strengthen their understanding of the connection between word choice and voice. Here are a few of the verbs from the very first page—ripped, rocked, jumped, tumbling, plinking, rippled, etc. Students might have fun substituting these with less descriptive, more repetitive, watered down replacements—went, moved, falling, etc. Students can discuss/reflect on what happens to the voice of the writer and the reader’s involvement in the story, when verbs, in particular, aren’t as strong as they need to be.

5. Organization. Take time to discuss the organization of Golio’s book. How does the writer begin? How does he end? Notice the extra sections following the story of Jimi Hendrix’s early life—More About Jimi Hendrix page 28, Author’s Note on page 30, Illustrator’s Note on page 31, and Sources and Resources on the final page, which includes references to websites, books, and a selected discography of CDs, videos, and DVDs. (Some of these references will be more appropriate for older students.)

6. Writing/Further Research–Biography. Invite students to research and write an introductory biography of  one of the other musicians mentioned in the book—B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Howlin’ Wolf. Like this book, students could focus on their musician’s early life or just the key events that shaped the music that made them famous. Part of their research would involve listening, which might require some help from you, their music teacher, and school or local library.

7. Art Connection/Further Research. As was suggested above, be sure to read the Illustrator’s Note on page 31. Not only does Javaka Steptoe discuss the process of creating the art for this book, he also offers excellent advice to both artists and writers about “researching” your subject. As we always emphasize in workshops, readers will know—it’s part of what helps to create voice—when writers are “experts” on their topics. Steptoe tells readers that “…you can’t just pick up a book…” and expect to know everything about your topic. Writers and artists have to dig deeper. On another note, as I read the book, I couldn’t help being reminded of the illustrations of Ezra Jack Keats, the award winning author/illustrator of such classics as The Snowy Day, Pet Show, and Whistle for Willie, to name only a few. I’m sure your school or local library has some of Mr. Keats’ books, and your students might be interested in discussing what they notice about the two artists. For more about Javaka Steptoe, visit www.javaka.com.

Musical Note…

In case you thought I wasn’t going to mention it, listening to some Jimi Hendrix music is, of course, a great idea but only if you are comfortable with it. Even if you are not a fan, hearing Jimi play the guitar would complete the picture for your students, and I guarantee it would get them talking, and hopefully, writing.

Note . . .

Gary Golio, has also written a book about Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and coming in the fall of 2012, a biography of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Visit him at www.garygolio.com.

Coming up on Gurus . . .

Yes, Down the Rabbit Hole Part II is coming (once I climb back out). As always, we’ll help you make connections to narrative, poetry, and informational writing and argument, via the Common Core StandardsThank you for visiting. Come often–and bring friends. And please remember, for the BEST professional development related to six-trait writing, process, and writing workshop, contact us at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.