Voice of a Century

Thanks to the latest picture book by acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, you can bring in the sublime opera singer Leontyne Price to celebrate Black History Month. With poetic prose and vibrant illustrations, Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century delivers a lyrical, uplifting story Leontyne Price Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherfordchildren should hear, whatever the time of year.

With elegantly crafted poetic prose, Weatherford places the singer’s story in the context of the oppressive world in which she was born, in 1927. “All a black girl from the Cotton Belt could expect was a heap of hard work–as a maid, mill worker, or sharecropper. Her song, most surely the blues.”

Despite the miseries of rural Mississippi, Leontyne thrived, growing up with a loving family that encouraged her interest in music. One of the highlights of Raul Colon’s illustrations for me is the full-page portrait done in Prismacolor pencils of a dreamy young Leontyne, eyes closed as she revels in the Saturday-afternoon radio broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. Leontyne’s parents sold their treasured phonograph to pay for a piano and lessons for their daughter.

The girl’s world expanded even more when, as a church choir member, she got to see the famous Marian Anderson sing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Soon, Leontyne was off, too, heading for college in Ohio, where she could become qualified to teach music, “the concert stage out of reach for a black singer then.”

Here, another of my favorite illustrations shows Leontyne with her white gloves and her be-ribboned hat, waiting to catch the bus to take her far from home. The double-spread, done in Colon’s characteristic swirls, evokes the energy and hope it must have taken to propel Leontyne toward a richer life.

Then Leontyne learned she, too, could hope to sing on stage; the college president heard her sing a solo and convinced her to focus on developing her voice. And so she made her way to Juilliard and found her true calling.

This daughter of a sawmill worker and a midwife became the first black opera singer to garner leading roles at the Met and at Italy’s famous opera house La Scala. She was the first black opera singer to perform on television in the U.S., as Weatherford relates in her concluding author’s note. Can you imagine how inspiring it must have been for so many to sit in their living rooms and watch the regal singer perform?

Pair this engaging story with one of Price’s recordings — or, better yet, use a YouTube video showing her astounding 1963 televised performance of “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida. Then teach children this simple Italian word: Bravissima!

See also …

my previous post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu.

Birmingham, 1963

Fifty years ago today, four girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertsonwere killed when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Looking back at that tragedy, you can’t help but note the irony that this terrorist act led to results that were the opposite of what the killers had intended. Instead of obliterating the movement, it ignited it and led to the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. Birmingham 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford

What a tight-wire challenge such a topic must be for a children’s book writer. Acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, with characteristic sensitivity and awareness of her audience, has written of that tragedy in her beautiful and moving collection Birmingham, 1963Her free verse features the perspective of a fictional 10-year-old girl, who, along with her family, participated in the Civil Rights movement. The girl shares her observations of Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington, her protests at whites-only lunch counters, and her arrest, along with hundreds of other young ones, in the courageous Children’s Crusade.

There are moments of simple joy, as when she’s allowed to drink coffee and when she puts on her shiny new “cha-cha” shoes. But on Sunday morning the church was blown to bits, except for a stained-glass window depicting Christ, his face obliterated. Four children murdered, nearly two dozen injured, a nation outraged at last.

“The day I turned ten
Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite
Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.”

10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained-glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.”

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwis...

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This powerful book is enhanced by its simple design, small size, and its numerous, well-chosen black-and-white photographs. If you are looking for singular poetry for upper-elementary or middle-school students in hopes of initiating discussions of this tragedy or of the Civil Rights movement, you will find it here in abundance.

I’m excited to share the news that Carole has graciously offered to do 50 free Skype visits with K-12 classes or with college education classes. I can tell you from firsthand experience that Carole Boston Weatherford is a fantastic author, teacher, and presenter. When she visited my school library six years ago, she was vibrant, superbly prepared, and absolutely engaging with each of her three young audiences. Take her up on her offer while you can!

See also …   

 my prior post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu

 

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Freedom on the Menu

Carole Boston Weatherford is the vibrant author of some of the best children’s books  exploring African-American history.  I met Carole a year ago after she flew up from North Carolina to come visit our school library. As a snowstorm barreled in that day, we felt forced to change our schedule. Carole mastered the situation with grace and verve, adjusting each of her three sessions to relate perfectly to the age group. She recited poems to the youngest; she had children participating by chanting, jingling bells and tapping a triangle. They left the library joyous and inspired!

A section of lunch counter from the Greensboro...

Image via Wikipedia

With the fourth and fifth-graders, she discussed Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins and presented a sensitive and nuanced look at Jim Crow as it still existed when she was a child in Baltimore. She showed a photograph of the park where she and her family were not allowed to go. The students were solemn and spellbound. Carole Boston Weatherford knows how to make history real to children.

Freedom on the Menu (Dial, 2004), is one my favorite read-alouds for Black History Month. Told from the point of view of eight-year-old Connie, the story takes readers to the Woolsworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Connie and her mother often stop there for a soda after shopping downtown. Connie would like to sit down and have a banana split instead, but can’t; only whites may sit at the counter.  “All over town signs told Mama and me where we could and couldn’t go,” Connie lamented. Lagarrigue’s somber, impressionistic paintings show the hateful Jim Crow signs that warp the community. Changes are in the air, though, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to town. Connie sees her older siblings become politically involved and join in the lunch counter sit-ins. As the protests spread through the South, laws change. Six months later, Connie gets to savor her banana split at the counter, and it tastes like so sweet — like freedom. The author’s note about the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins provides additional information that will help young people understand the Civil Rights movement. See Weatherford’s web site for lesson plans inspired by this exemplary picture book, which works well with ages 6-10.

And don’t miss these treasures …

For older children:

The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights. illus. by Tim Ladwig. Eerdmans, 2009. Ages 7-12. Anyone looking for a picture book to illustrate the role of religion in helping people survive and eventually overcome tragedy should take a look at this beautiful book. Weatherford illuminates the path from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to African-Americans’ long struggle for freedom and equality. From the dark Middle Passage in the bowels of slave ships to the inauguration of Pres. Barack Obama, people have found hope, strength, and inspiration in their religious faith. Concise biographical profiles of famous African-Americans are included.

Birmingham, 1963. Wordsong, 2007. Ages 10+ This stunning little masterpiece pairs actual black-and-white photographs with Weatherford’s poems to describe the ruthless bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls, an event that became a turning point in the struggle for equality. Told from the perspective on an unnamed fictional girl, we hear how

The day I turned ten
Our church was quiet. No meetings, no marches.
Mama left me in Sunday school
With a soft kiss and coins for the offering plate.

In addition to her moving poems, Weatherford provides a section that profiles the four young girls who died in the bombing. Additional historical background and photo citations are included, as well.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. illus. by Kadir Nelson. Jump at the Sun, 2006. Ages 7-12. This fictionalized story of Harriet Tubman focuses on the spiritual journey of the woman who risked her life time after time to help others escape from slavery, as she had done. In spare, poetic text, we hear how she flees Maryland, in hopes of reaching Pennsylvania. “A boatman rows her upriver. Back on shore, hounds snarl, sniff for Harriet’s trail. She races as fast as she can. Lord, I can’t outrun them. God speaks through a babbling brook: SHED YOUR SHOES, WADE IN THE WATER TO TRICK THE DOGS.” As Tubman encounters a series of dangers along the way, she calls upon God for help each time. When she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania, she finds her journey has just begun. Now it is time to help others. Nelson’s grand, atmospheric oil and watercolor paintings won a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award. Weatherford provides an accessible foreword on the institution of slavery, as well as an author’s note with a brief biography.

For younger children …

Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane. illus. by Sean Qualls. Holt, 2008. Ages 5-7. Read it and then put on some Coltrane and dance!

First Pooch: Malia and Sasha Pick a Pet. illus. by Amy Bates. Marshall Cavendish, 2009. Ages 5-8. Light-hearted story of the First Family choosing their first dog.

Jazz Baby. illus. by Laura Freeman. Lee & Low, 2002. Ages 4-7. Rollicking, rhyming fun for little ones


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