As we are about to end our bimonthly theme on Girl Power and Women’s Wiles, we thought that it would be fitting to feature one of our all-time favorite singers, Billie Holiday, through her story written in verse by Carole Boston Weatherford and artwork by Floyd Cooper. Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by The Swimmer Writer.
Multi-layered narratives in Poetry and Music. One of the greatest things that worked for me in this book is the artful way in which Weatherford was able to make use of Billie Holiday’s song titles and interweave it with the poetry that is Eleanora Fagan’s (Billie’s birth name) difficult and bittersweet life. Weatherford explained her creative process in the Afterword found at the end of the book:
Were it not for music, the girl who grew up Eleanora Fagan certainly would not have become Billie Holiday. With a limited vocal range but vast emotive capability, her voice is a marvel. For weeks before I wrote a single poem, I listened to Billie’s early recordings and let them speak to me. In those songs, I found a young songbird, bubbling with joy over jazz she clearly dug. I realized then that Lady was not singing the blues; she was singing her life. Thus, I decided that this fictional verse memoir would unfold through first-person poems titled after her songs. And I chose to end on a high note as twenty-five-year-old Lady Day, in full bloom with gardenias in her hair, sings “Strange Fruit,” the song that became her signature. (p. 113)
As with all life story narratives, this novel-in-verse only captures a portion of Lady Day’s life. The poetry touches on her life until she was twenty-five -years-old “with gardenias in her hair.” It does not include her years of decline when she became hooked on heroin and suffered from legal troubles and life took on a rollercoaster ride to self-destruction.
Would you wish to become Billie Holiday? As I was reading through this powerful and intense novel in verse (which I
finished in two days’ time), this question kept playing in my head. As I am quite familiar with academic literature on creative people and artists and pathways to talent and eminence (among my current research projects), I am able to see a few elements from Billie’s life that confirm what most experts have studied extensively over the years. Abandoned as a child, passed around from one unwilling/uncaring household to the next – it was one trauma after another. A helpful caveat, though: these unfortunate episodes early on in one’s life are not considered to be the sine qua non for creativity or artistry. It is true though that most creative people have suffered a great loss or endured something life-changing that unhinged their views on life, love, and humanity in general. With this book, it would be good to mention that the voice through which Lady Day’s sordid stories were told (from suffering a rape before her teenage years, to serving time in reform school and jail, and turning tricks by age 13) remained bold, firm, and full-bodied in its matter-of-factness and tough-old-soul-quality.
Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do
At eleven, I had the body
of a grown woman,
the mouth of a sailor, and a temper
hot enough to fry an egg.
What I didn’t have
was anyone to hug me,
to tuck me in at night,
or kiss me hello and good-bye.
So I got noticed the only way
I knew – cursing and screaming
in the streets, picking fights
with anyone half as mad as me.
For me, the back
of a hand was better
than the back of a head,
better than being ignored. (p. 45)
This book is not what you would call an easy read. There are moments when you just have to stop a short while and feel Lady Day’s pain and anguish and cheer her on as she picks herself up yet again. The transformation from Eleanora Fagan to Billie Halliday then finally to Billie Holiday – is something that could be a great topic for discussion in class. The illustrations and the glossy pages of the book also add a different texture/dimension to the story. I was also particularly struck by this poem as Billie starts realizing her talent and owning her music:
This Is Heaven to Me
Harlem sizzled after dark:
crowded theaters, jumping
dance halls, classy supper clubs,
hole-in-the-wall cafés and taverns,
musty cellars and lounges,
and a rib joint or bar and grill
on every bustling blick.
I played more rundown joints
than I can recall; gigs, a blur
of smoke clouds, spotlights,
and struggling musicians like me
with barely a pot to pee in
or a window to throw it out of;
no fame or money yet;
just the thrill of fronting a band
and triggering applause.
That was enough
to put me on cloud nine. (p. 66)
Teacher Resources and Links. TeachingBooks.net has collected a series of downloadable pdf links that most teachers can explore if they wish to use this novel in the classroom: this downloadable pdf link is not just a valuable resource for Becoming Billie Holiday but also includes other Coretta Scott King Award-winning Books. You may also click here to be taken to a highly comprehensive and insightful author interview conducted by the fabulous Cynthia Leitich Smith. The website Eureka! Agora also has a list of free downloadable pdf resources that look into possible book conversations and instruction strategies for teachers.
To end this feature, let me share with you one of Billie Holiday’s most famous songs: Strange Fruit
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
About the Author and Illustrator (taken from the jacketflap of the book).
Carole Boston Weatherford is an award-winning poet and author of over two dozen books for young readers, including Birmingham, 1963; Sidewalk Chalk: Poems of The City; A Negro League Scrapbook; Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom; and Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-ins. She has won an NAACP Image Award, the Carter G. Woodson Award from the National Council for the Social Studies, the Ragan-Rubin Award from the North Carolina English Teachers Association, and the Juvenile Literature Award from the American Association of University Women-North Carolina. A member of Delta Sigma Sorority, she teaches at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.
Floyd Cooper has illustrated over sixty books for children, including Grandpa’s Faceby
Eloise Greenfield, Meet Danitra Brown by Nikki Grimes, I have Heard of a Land by Joyce Carol Thomas, Tough Boy Sonatas by Crutis L. Crisler, Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson, and Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes, which he wrote. He is the recipient of three Coretta Scott King Honors, ten ALA Notables, and an NAACP Image Award, among other honors. He lives in Pennsylvania.
Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford and Art by Floyd Cooper. Wordsong an Imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc., Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 2008. Book borrowed from the community library.
2008 SLJ Extra Helping Hot Pick —School Library Journal, 2008 SLJ Best Books, 2008 Best Young-Adult Books 2008 —Kirkus Reviews, 2008 Best Books —Christian Science Monitor, A Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, Best Books for Young Adults YALSA/ALA, Capitol Choices Award
AWB Reading Challenge Update: 47 (35)
Novels in Verse Reading Challenge Update: 5 of 10
PoC Reading Challenge Update: 15 of 25