Strange Fruit: Billie Holliday and the Power of a Protest Song, by Gary Golio (2017)

Strange Fruit: Billie Holliday and the Power of a Protest Song, by Gary GolioMy undergraduate degree is in history. That’s big, so my focus was on the modernist “movement” which swept across Europe and then North America, roughly 1880-1939, impacting everything from politics to literature and art. Protest songs were key to our studies of American civil rights history, of course, and one of the pieces of music we used was Strange Fruit, recorded by the incredible jazz singer Billie Holliday. I didn’t know the song, and so it was a shock to me to learn that the strange “fruit” are in fact the dead bodies of lynching victims. It is a powerful song, a lament and a call to action in its time. It became known as Billie’s signature song, and this picture book for older children introduces readers to the song and its origins, in a way that is age appropriate. The 40-page book is lavishly illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, using acrylic paint and tissue collage on canvas. The result is a wild wash of vibrant colour and movement, just as we would imagine jazz would “look”! (It makes me want to don a yellow dress and go dancing!) But of course, the story is one of racism and a demand for change. Billie’s short and troubled life is described in brief detail, and we are also introduced to Abel Meeropol, who wrote the song under the pen name Lewis Allan. We learn a bit about life as a black singer in 1930s New York, when even a star as celebrated as Ms. Holliday experienced the indignities of segregation and racism. Even the mere singing of this song put her at risk. Once she made the song her own, she sang it to close every performance, giving further strength to an already powerful song. With a couple of pages of informative endmatter extending the information on both the song and the singer, children learn that about a troubling time in American history, and that a song can entertain and perhaps even change the world. My thanks to publisher Millbrook Press for the advance reading copy, in full and glorious color, provided in exchange for my honest review.
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About Michelle Mallette
I'm just trying to keep track of the books I've read - what I liked and what isn't worth re-reading. My work as a librarian has included youth services so you'll find a wide range of interests from picture books and teen dystopia to adult sci-fi, road trip novels, and nonfiction. Comments and communication is always welcome.

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