Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song

Cynthia Grady (Author) Michele Wood (Illustrator)

Product Details

Millbrook Press (Tm)
Publish Date
September 01, 2016
10.7 X 8.3 X 0.3 inches | 0.85 pounds
Library Binding

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About the Author

Cynthia Grady is an author as well as a former middle school librarian and teacher. She lives in New Mexico where she plays music for her two rabbits, Finoa and Banjo. Visit her at
Michele Wood is an illustrator, painter, aspiring filmmaker, colorist, clothing and jewelry designer, living in Atlanta, Georgia. She accomplished her Master in Divinity at Christian Theological Seminary, where she was the Artist in Residence 2015-2018. She was awarded the Young Church Women United Award 2016. Her first book, Going Back Home, was honored with an American Book Award Before Columbus Foundation. Wood's second book, i see the rhythm received the Coretta Scott King Award in 1999 for Illustration.


"'Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart.' These words by Frederick Douglass are offered in an endnote to provide context for the 13 spirituals included in this volume. Readers will learn how the book began, with Wood's acrylic paintings inspired by the songs; the author then studied the paintings and researched the songs before writing the text. Each spread features a painting on the recto and one or two paragraphs of text along with the music and verses on the verso. There is also a full-spread painting of a group of slaves riding a metaphorical railroad conducted by Harriet Tubman preceding the spread for the song 'Get on Board--the Gospel Train, ' which also includes an archival photo of Tubman. Some of the songs will be familiar, such as 'Michael, Row the Boat Ashore' and 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ' while others, like 'Ain't Gonna Study War No More, ' 'Go Down, Moses, ' and 'Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, ' will resonate with older readers. The vibrant paintings often incorporate quilting motifs and historical events. Original lyrics are featured in the back matter. An archival photo of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, TN, who popularized the spiritual as a musical form in the 1870s, appears in the introduction. VERDICT: This is an excellent resource for music and art teachers as well as for social studies and U.S. history lessons."--starred, School Library Journal


"When children see Harriet Tubman on the new U.S. postage stamp, they can learn of her legacy from this literary homage to 'the Moses of her people.' A compilation of 13 Negro spirituals that originated in American slavery, this volume offers sheet music for each song alongside a brief commentary about its biblical and/or historical origins. Wood accompanies each song with colorful images that echo the slave past and both identify some of the hardships faced and also point to rays of hope that existed for them. In several of these commentaries, Grady asks readers questions to encourage them to explore the images more closely or to think more deeply about what it might have meant to be enslaved. On nearly every page appears a white dove, which echoes Harriet Tubman's dreams of flying 'over the landscape 'like a bird' ' to freedom. Unlike the portrayal of slaves in a few recent controversial picture books, the slaves depicted here rarely smile and often look distraught and somber--except on the page accompanying the final freedom song. In addition to learning about Tubman, readers will glean important historical tidbits about others such as Nat Turner, James Lafayette, abolitionist John Rankin, and Abraham Lincoln. Backmatter offers further reading suggestions, a glossary of relevant terms, and websites. An important work that gives new life to old and important songs."--Kirkus Reviews


"Beautiful illustrations and short, informative paragraphs come together to tell the history of songs that became American slave songs. The book opens by introducing readers to slave songs and describing how they transformed into spirituals. Thirteen spirituals are featured here, and the descriptions, which include historical, biographical, and biblical context, are all accompanied by evocative paintings. Each paragraph invites readers to notice themes in the paintings that are repeated in the lyrics and raises questions to encourage critical engagement with the text. Wood's gorgeous paintings are full of saturated colors and evocative imagery--such as luminous blue water resembling stained glass--that tie together the concepts at hand. Sheet music and lyrics are included for each tune, and the back matter contains more lyrics, a comprehensive glossary, and lots of suggestions for further reading. A brief note explains that although slaves sang these songs, that does not mean that they felt happy. While excellent for music classes, the wealth of historical context makes this a good pick for lessons on the history of U.S. slavery as well."--Booklist