Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Singing From Her Heart

Before we could afford a television set the place of prominence in our living room was filled by our radio and record player combination furniture.  By today's standards it was huge; a large unit with the record player sliding out like a file cabinet drawer in the front.  It played 78RPM records and 45RPM with an adapter.  My parents loved listening to their favorite music when they were not working.  One of my dad's favorite singers was Lena Horne.  If I close my eyes I can travel back in time, listening to Stormy Weather with my dad.

More than ever I wish I could talk to him, asking him if he knew as much about her life as I now do after reading this most recent picture book biography about her life.                        The Legendary Miss Lena Horne (Atheneum Books For Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division, January 24, 2017) written by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Elizabeth Zunon is stunning.  Readers will be captivated as soon as they read her introductory quotation before the narrative begins.

You have to be taught to be second class; you're not born that way.
           ---Lena Horne

The Horne family tree was laden with achievers: teachers, activists, a Harlem Renaissance poet, the dean of a black college, and Lena's grandmother Cora Calhoun Horne, a college graduate.  

Lena's parents, Teddy and Edna, lead interesting lives.  Her father never passed up a chance to make money; betting on a card game to pay the bill for her hospital stay on the day she was born.  Her mother was an actress who traveled from city to city and state to state.  Even at the age of two the way was clear for Lena.  She was prominently featured as a member of the NAACP and pictured on one of their bulletins.

Soon thereafter her parents left her in the care of her grandmother Cora in Brooklyn.  Her grandmother expected the best of her grandchild encouraging her in her education and outside interests.  Lena found solace in books and reading.  For a bit of time she was taken from her grandmother's home by her mother to travel with the group but this child longed to return home to Brooklyn.  When with her grandmother Lena had the finest opportunities.

Back with her mother and stepfather during the Great Depression Lena was placed onstage to perform for money.  Working at the Cotton Club she was noticed moving from a chorus line to Broadway to working with the Noble Sissle Society Orchestra.  At eighteen Lena made her first record.

Headlining with an all-white big band did not spare this young woman from ill treatment due to her race.  She did continue to attract attention for her talent, starring in films and being offered the first studio contract for an African American actress.  The NAACP supported and urged her to take roles other than those of maids or mammies.  It was a hard battle to wage.

During World War II she supported the troops eventually paying her own way due to continued discrimination.  After the war during the McCarthy era Lena Horne was blacklisted.  So she and her new husband Lennie Hayton worked to make her a nightclub star.  She was that and more.  She was a champion during the Civil Rights movement.  When life gave Lena sadness, Lena gave life her song and self.

When I read this book written by Carole Boston Weatherford for the first time, I stood at the kitchen counter not moving from beginning to the end but gasping from time to time.  The second time I read it was exactly the same. The presentation of this remarkable woman's life as written by Weatherford takes your breath away.

Well-researched and based upon a true personal connection to this musical wonder and civil rights activist, readers are immediately connected to the whole person of Lena Horne.  We follow her childhood from stability in Brooklyn to on the road with her mother.  We feel every sting of discrimination but see this woman rise up again and again.  Every place she went, everything she did shed a light of beauty on those around her.  Her strength and commitment spark a flame of inspiration through her story told by Weatherford.  Here are two more sample passages.

Respectable roles, though, were few for black actresses.
So Lena was cast, instead, in singing numbers that could be easily snipped from films when shown in the South so as not to defy racist views.

Lena dubbed herself "a butterfly pinned to a column."  She did get to fly in black films like Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, whose title song become her anthem.  Even in black-and-white movies, this butterfly dazzled.

When you open the matching dust jacket and book case you are immediately struck by the inner and outer beauty of Lena Horne.  Illustrator Elizabeth Zunon chooses to feature her on the front in the dress she wore in Stormy Weather.  To the left, on the back, we see Lena as a little girl, surrounded by books.  She learned to read before she was in kindergarten.  The title text is raised.

The rich red rose color from the front of the jacket and case covers the opening and closing endpapers.  On the end flaps a portion of a record provides the background for the text. A similar record is shown in greater detail on the title page at the top; supplying a canvas for the word Legendary.  Opposite the verso two stars feature the dedications.  On golden yellow like a stage Lena's quote appears on the right of a two-page picture.  A pale green stage curtain is drawn back to reveal it.

Rendered in oil paint and cut paper collage the images fashioned by Elizabeth Zunon are unique and lovely with every page turn.  Her mixture of textures is amazing.  A family tree has portraits hanging from it like leaves.  Loving parents smile with affection at baby Lena but we are aware of their talents.  Family photographs are nearly photographic.  The detail work in these illustrations is marvelous.  On some of the visuals Zunon has placed quotations in small asides as if stitched in place on fabric.

Perspective changes to reflect the narrative but also the emotion in a particular portion.  When Lena leaves Brooklyn to travel with her mother, all we see is the lower half of her body.  She is wearing a plaid dress.  Her hands are in front clasping a suitcase, feet in white ankle socks and black Baby Jane shoes, one toe pointing inward.  Zunon also alters her picture sizes, single pages, double page spreads and smaller pictures on one page.  

One of my favorite of many illustrations is on a single page.  Lena is seated in an aircraft during World War II.  She is surrounded by Tuskegee Airmen at their base in Alabama.  The pale golden color behind Lena and the pilots highlights their faces.  It's important the aircraft is shown in less detail drawing our attention to the people first.  This is based upon an actual photograph taken in 1945.

Whenever I can and as often as I can I will be talking about The Legendary Miss Lena Horne written by Carole Boston Weatherford with art by Elizabeth Zunon.  All readers will be lifted by this woman's courage and dedication.  Her talents and the changes she wrought for the good of many will never be forgotten.  I highly recommend this title for your professional and personal bookshelves.  There is a two page author's note and extensive bibliography at the end of the book.

To learn more about both Carole Boston Weatherford and Elizabeth Zunon and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  At the publisher's website you can view several of the interior images mentioned in this post.  Elizabeth Zunon is interviewed at All Over Albany and Book Q & A with Deborah Kalb.  There is a collection of video interviews of Carole Boston Weatherford at Reading Rockets.

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected this week by those participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. I'm debating whether to read this one. I do remember watching some clips of her seeing some songs on Sesame Street.

    1. I hope you decided to read it. I don't believe you were or would be disappointed.