Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song

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Product Details

Millbrook Press (Tm)
Publish Date
9.56 X 11.25 X 0.31 inches | 1.01 pounds

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About the Author

Gary Golio is the New York Times bestselling author of Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow, A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix. He has also counseled children and teens in the area of addiction. Gary lives with his wife, the author Susanna Reich, in Ossining, New York. To learn more, please visit
Charlotte Riley-Webb is a fine artist whose paintings have appeared in more than 25 major exhibitions worldwide. Much of her work focuses on visually documenting her African American heritage, and the significance of music to that heritage can be seen in the rhythm, movement, and colors of her paintings. Rent Party Jazz, a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, was praised for its lively, colorful, and flowing style by School Library Journal. Riley-Webb and her husband live in Locust Grove, Georgia. To find out more about Charlotte Riley-Webb, visit her Web site:


"Singer Billie Holiday had a knack for jazz improvisation and dramatic performance, but she emerged from a difficult childhood into a world that didn't support black success. In 1938, she found a singing home in an integrated Greenwich Village club called Café Society. When its owner asked Holiday to sing Abel Meeropol's haunting song 'Strange Fruit, ' she made it her own, eventually performing it throughout the country. While a song about lynching may seem a challenging choice for a picture book subject, the combination of words and images here is strikingly effective. Riley-Webb's emotionally expressive illustrations are as forceful as the topic. Done with acrylic paint and tissue collage, they are full of rough textures, curved lines, and grasping hands. In a smoothly written text, with important ideas emphasized in a larger font, Golio briefly summarizes Holiday's early life and career. He leaves out most of the seamier details and concludes his narrative with accounts of two early performances of this haunting song, the first in a private apartment in Harlem and the second in the club. Back matter includes the lyrics and two pages of exposition that define lynching and describe the subsequent history of the song and the singer. VERDICT: This is not an easy book, but it is powerful--just like its theme. Consider for guided in-depth discussions on Billie Holiday and U.S. history."--School Library Journal


"Lynching: a strange and difficult but important topic for a song--and for this picture book. Golio crafts an honest biography of African-American jazz singer Billie Holiday, whose light skin, penchant for improvisation, and commitment to social justice often made her the center of heated controversy. As Holiday once said: 'Somebody once said we never know what is enough until we know what's more than enough.' As 'one of the first black singers to work in an all-white band, ' Billie excelled until her handlers asked her never to talk with customers or walk alone, to use service elevators, and to stay upstairs until performance time--all to convince white patrons that the venues where she sang remained racially segregated. When Jewish songwriter Abel Meeropol wrote 'Strange Fruit, ' about the lynching of blacks, for Billie to perform, Meeropol's rendition of it failed to move her. Once she made it her own, however, she stunned audiences with her performance. This picture book emphasizes that the arts not only entertain, but can also be powerful change agents. Riley-Webb's moving, richly textured illustrations, rendered in acrylics with tissue collages on canvas paper, reflect the constant motion of jazz and the striking excitement of improvisation. The informative backmatter expands upon Holiday's biographical details and offers narrative explanations of source quotes. A must-read, must-discuss that will speak to children and linger with adults."--starred, Kirkus Reviews


"At first glance, picture-book format seems an odd choice for this minibiography, directed at middle-schoolers of jazz legend Holiday and her signature song about the horrors of lynching. The vivid imagery of the lyrics and the reality underlying them are strong stuff for young sensibilities. The lengthy, text-heavy narrative follows the challenges Billie Holiday faced as a light-skinned black musician (she was often hidden from white patrons but was 'too white for an all-black band') before segueing into her first introduction to Abel Meeropol's 'Strange Fruit' and the effects the song had on audiences. Riley-Webb's full-bleed acrylic illustrations are remarkably effective. Often abstract, they portray the jazz world and racial tensions of the era just before the civil rights movement. Adults will immediately catch many of the oblique references, though uninformed middle-graders will remain clueless, as perhaps they should. The format and back matter make this most useful in a classroom setting, but it will be effective in prompting a discussion about one of the darkest times in U.S. history."--Booklist


"Time magazine proclaimed 'Strange Fruit' the song of the twentieth century. With poignant text and striking art, Golio and Riley-Webb put the anti-lynching hymn and racial hatred in historic context for young readers of the twenty-first century. Provocative yet age appropriate, this book is not only a window to past violence but a mirror for horrors unfolding today."--Carole Boston Weatherford, author of Becoming Billie Holiday

--Other Print

"Golio's powerful narrative turns on two moments plucked from Billie Holiday's career. The first: quitting Artie Shaw's band after enduring the latest in a long line of discriminatory incidents. The second key moment is Holiday's first performance of 'Strange Fruit, ' which initially elicits discomfort from the audience ('A few people nearly got up from their seats and left'), followed by thunderous applause. Riley-Webb (Seed Magic) uses sweeping, flame-like brushes of color to heighten the story's emotional intensity; the lyrics of the song appear in the closing pages, along with in-depth details about Holiday's career and the cultural context of 'Strange Fruit, ' including the history of lynching in the United States. It's a potent reminder of the power of art to combat intolerance and hate."--starred, Publishers Weekly