Book review: Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, by Gary Golio, illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb

Golio, Gary. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song. Illus. by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Millbrook, 2017. $19.99. unp. ISBN 978-1-4677-5123-0. Ages 8-12. P7Q8

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black body swing in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” These opening lines of the poem “Strange Fruit” alluding to the common practice of lynching in the South was written by activist Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol and then sung by black jazz singer Billie Holiday throughout the 1930s. Holiday had stopped working with an all-white band because she was told not to talk to customers, to use service elevators, and to stay away from the performance venue until she was supposed to sing. Despite harassment, she insisted on singing “Strange Fruit” in her shows, and Time declared it “Best Song of the Century” in 1999. Closing pages include the song’s lyrics, in-depth details about Holiday, and the background of the song including the history of lynching in the United States.

Verdict: The married author and illustrator are an example of how arts can make social change, and the information in the back honestly addresses Holiday’s problems with drugs. The illustrations, acrylics with tissue collages on canvas paper, may result in as much discomfort as the book’s subject matter, an important issue that should be discussed with children. [Note: Little is written about Meeropol in the book, including his harassment from government officials because of the song and the fact that he adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were the “first husband and wife to die in the electric chair” in 1953 after their sentencing for conspiring to give atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.]

April 2017 review by Nel Ward.

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