[Nonfiction Wednesday] Multicultural Picturebook Biographies about Female Voices that Moved the World

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Myra here.

We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge 2015 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year, as well as reading challenges that we have pledged to join this year.

We have just launched our new reading theme for July – August: Diversified – Rainbow Colours of Literature.

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Last week, I shared two multicultural picturebook biographies on beautiful dancers Misty Copeland and Janet Collins. This week, I am happy to feature The Queen of Salsa, A Singing Red Bird, and Marian who Sang in Eight Languages.

IMG_2496Celia Cruz, Queen of Salsa

Written by: Veronica Chambers Illustrated by: Julie Maren
Published by: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2005
Borrowed through inter-library loan. Book photos taken by me.

I did not know about this Cuban-African-American singer who was born “in the fabled land of Havana” until I found this picturebook biography of Veronica Chambers. Her voice is so legendary that when she sang:

Her father heard thunder.

Her cousins heard the call of the sea.

Her neighbors heard a hummingbird.

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Celia Cruz did not grow up in a privileged background – it was her singing that made life just a little more bearable and magical with the lullabies she sang to put her younger siblings to sleep. The entire neighborhood would listen in rapt attention, enchanted by Celia’s voice.

While her father encouraged Celia’s  “sweet like azucar” musical talent, he also adviced her to keep on studying and to pursue being a schoolteacher to make her family proud. It was Celia’s teachers who prompted her to take a chance with her singing:

But it is not easy to take a dream planted in your heart and make it grow in the world. Celia was unknown and did not have the kind of connections that easily opened doors.

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As an academic who studies talent development and giftedness, I am aware how sheer talent is never sufficient to make one achieve eminence and become internationally-recognized; one also needs to be at the right place at the right time for “the stars to align.” Celia was determined for this to happen and so “she jumped at every opportunity: talent contests at the national theater and amateur nights on the radio.” It was auditioning as the new lead singer of the La Sonora Matancera, the most popular band back in the 1950s, which changed the course of Celia Cruz’s life.

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For you to get a feel of Celia Cruz’s music “that sizzled from the joy of being alive” here is a youtube clip of her singing live. What a gift to be able to know this profoundly talented musician through this book.

IMG_2610Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist

Adapted by: Gina Capaldi & Q. L. Pearce Illustrated by: Gina Capaldi
Published byCarolrhoda Books, 2011
Bought own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

This picturebook biography of Zitkala-Sa or Gertrude Simmons Bonnin is an adaptation of her own semiautobiographical writings published in Atlantic Monthly in the early 1900s. In the Author’s Note found at the beginning of the book, the three main essay sources were identified as: Impressions of an Indian Childhood, The School Days of an Indian Girl, and An Indian Teacher Among Indians.

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The story is told in Red Bird’s voice: her initial struggles as she was taken from her home to the Land of Red Apples to be re-educated by The Anglos, and how books and music eventually saved her lost spirit.

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The book tells of the humiliation she had to endure in the beginning, how her eyes were opened to various possibilities for the future, and how she felt that she was in-between worlds each time she visits home after years of White schooling on being ‘civilized:’

… I seemed to hang in the heart of chaos because I was caught between two worlds. Even nature seemed to have no place for me. I was neither a small girl nor a tall one, neither a wild Indian nor a tame one. Everything had changed.

After she completed and excelled in her education, she had the choice later on of going back home to become a housekeeper, or to pursue higher learning. Her gifts in oratorical speaking, her talent in music, and her singing voice prompted her to continue her education.

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What moved me deeply was how her own successes brought her farther away from her roots, which she continued to embrace and fight for. Yet when she came back home, she witnessed the realities staring back at her in the face, alongside the broken promises made to her people. It was her untamed spirit of activism and her beautiful voice that spoke out in music, poetry, and stories that placed her in a key pivotal position in Washington DC where she found space to speak for the rights of the American Indian.

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Unlike other picturebook biographies, this one is heavily-laden with text and filled with historical information. But it was a riveting read, as the author and illustrator attempted to give voice to this amazing woman who went beyond herself, transcended her initial life circumstances, to be the champion of her people. There is also an extensive backmatter that provides details on how the authors adapted the primary sources and integrated it with a variety of secondary sources. There is also an extensive list of references that educators and students could refer to for further reading.

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I wasn’t able to find any video clip of Zitkala Sa performing but I found a short youtube clip that features a number of Zitakala-Sa’s hauntingly beautiful portraits set to “Invoking Hawk’s Spirit” by the Native Flute Ensemble.

IMG_2603When Marian Sang

Written byPam Muñoz Ryan Illustrated by: Brian Selznick
Published by: Scholastic Press, 2002
Bought own copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

There is something about the way that Pam Muñoz Ryan weaves words that simply holds me in thrall. Combine this with Brian Selznick’s soulful art and you get an instant classic. I am glad to have found another one of their picturebook collaboration after Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride which they published in 1999.

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I knew about Marian Anderson. This story, however, brought to life how an entire village has come together in recognizing a young girl’s talents, and eventually helped her to get the formal music education that she prayed for “with the fierce yet famous Giuseppe Boghetti” which was instrumental in shaping her destiny.

It was her range of notes 

that caused all the commotion.

With one breath she sounded like rain,

sprinkling high notes in the morning sun.

And with the next she was thunder,

resounding deep in a dark sky.

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Marian encountered prejudice and discimination from people who refused her admission to music school, or from hotels that turned away colored people even as she performed in concerts arranged by the town – the double standard that was perceived to be acceptable and justified at the time still turns my stomach even as I read it:

No matter what humiliations she endured, Marian sang her heart with dignity. Her voice left audiences weeping or in hushed awe as they strained to hold on to the memory of every opulent note.

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Marian eventually received training in Europe where her talents became even more recognized and celebrated as she performed “in concert halls in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.” However, when she returned to the United States of America, the Constitution Hall refused to have her perform on stage “because of their white performers only policy.” It was on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday with a crowd of 75,000 people that Marian Sang, her voice carrying out over hatred, the soul in her music transcending ignorance and people’s small-mindedness, as she sang with all that is true and deep within her.

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Teachers would be happy to note that there is an extensive backmatter that provides even more background information including a timeline of significant events in Marian’s life and selected discography that readers can check out. It comes with a separate Author’s Note and Illustrator’s Note detailing the amount of research both Ryan and Selznick have done to make this come about. These two picturebook makers create magic.

I was able to find a youtube clip of Marian’s performance on Youtube. Enjoy!

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When Marian Sang: Robert Sibert Honor Book

Red Bird Sings: Gold Medal- Carter G. Woodson Award, National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS); Gold Medal, Moon Beam Award-Independent Publisher; Eureka! Honor Book, California Reading Association (CRA); Amelia Bloomer Book List-American Library Association (ALA); California Reading Association Booklist (CRA); SCBWI 2011 RAM Grant; California Readers 2013 California Collections: Elementary and Middle Grade lists.

#AWBRead2015 Update: 71-72 (35)

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#nfpb2015 Challenge Update: 46-48 (25)

  1. Thanks so much for spotlighting these books — haven’t seen any of them yet. Enjoyed the videos too. 🙂

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  2. Oh, WOW! I love music books. Thank you for featuring these. I know Red Bird Sings, but the other two look equally wonderful.

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  3. All beautiful and poignant stories, Myra. I’ve read When Marian Sings, but not the other two. Thanks for the videos too.

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  4. Great list. Thanks for linking videos. I just read When Marian Sang a week or so ago.

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  5. Oh what stunning books. I haven’t read any of these but would now like to read all of them!

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  6. I’ve spotlighted a few women’s pb biography but have not read any of these! Will add them to the growing list!

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