Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, January 22, 2020


Music permeates every aspect of our lives.  Daily there is a cadence and chorus of sounds.  The hum of a furnace, air conditioner, a clothes or hair dryer, or a refrigerator inside our homes blend with the whistle of wind, birdsong, the howl of coyotes or the ringing of wind chimes.  Reading or hearing a single word can add an entirely new series of notes to this familiar symphony.

Anyone who grows up near the Motor City and spends their life in Michigan has sung and danced to the music made by the Queen of Soul.  All you have to do is hear her name and the sound of her voice singing the words of one of her songs will play in your mind all day long.  A Voice Named Aretha (Bloomsbury Children's Books, January 7, 2020) written by Katheryn Russell-Brown with illustrations by Laura Freeman pays tribute to this extraordinary musician's life in memorable words and images.

Folks came from miles around to hear Reverend C. L. Franklin preach at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, Michigan.  The famous preacher gave soul-stirring sermons that could make you shout, moan, or nod and whisper "Amen."

As some of the most famous names associated with African American arts and civil rights visited the Franklin home in Detroit, Michigan, quiet Aretha watched and listened.  Aretha and her siblings all sang gospel music in their father's church, but little Aretha had a voice that was pure magic.  Twice deep sadness entered the child's life before she was ten; first for the end of her parent's marriage and then the death of her mother.  Aretha sang through her sorrow with her first solo.

More than a thousand people heard Aretha sing that beautiful uplifting song.

At twelve she traveled with her father.  He preached and she sang.  Both sent out a riveting message to those gathered to listen.  At eighteen she moved to New York City and signed with a record company.  In keeping with what she had been taught, Aretha never performed unless everyone was allowed to attend.

Before too long Aretha realized she needed to switch record companies.  She did this and got a new band.  Her song "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love you)" rose to the top of the charts selling one million copies.

Aretha Franklin became the first woman to enter the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  The year was 1987.  Do you know why Aretha Franklin's signature style of wearing a fur coat on stage began?  (Readers of this title will learn.)  To everyone who heard her perform in person or listened to her music on their radios or stereos or today, through their devices, she lifted (and still lifts) them up.  Everywhere Aretha Franklin went, the world was enriched for her having been there.

Meticulous research and an abiding respect for Aretha Franklin inspired and directed the writing of Katheryn Russell-Brown.  This is evident in every word we read.  As we move from passage to passage through Aretha Franklin's life, it's as if there is a soulful beat similar to her music captured and presented on the pages.  Here are two separate passages.

Before she went on tour with her band, Aretha was warned that club owners sometimes tricked singers out of their money.  No way was she going to let that happen!  She demanded payment in cash, before the show.  And when she went on stage, she always put her handbag where she could see it.  Aretha could put on a show and take care of business.

Each one of her songs is like a sermon, with a story and a lesson, seasoned with life wisdom, hard work, and always, lots of soul.  They remind us of the greatest joy or the deepest pain.

The warmth of the colors, the vibrant reds, purples and golden yellows, shown on the open and matching dust jacket and book case, convey the essence of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, and her music.  The portrait of her singing as a little girl and as an adult with the album between them symbolizes the length and breadth of her talent.  Both facial expressions depict a revelation and release of her gift into the world.

The curtain on the front continues over the spine to create another stage with these words between the two curtains.

Aretha's songs inspire
us to think, love, and
respect ourselves
and one another. 

On a regal purple a collection of 45 records of Aretha Franklin's songs are displayed on the opening and closing endpapers.  Aretha Franklin stands clothed in a yellow gown, singing with a microphone in her hand on the title page against a canvas of white.

The illustrations, rendered digitally with Photoshop, by Laura Freeman are presented on single pages and as double-page pictures.  Laura Freeman places the elements in her images close to us or farther away to fashion an emotional moment.  When young Aretha learns of her mother's passing, she is shown smaller, standing in front of a dresser with the gift from her mother of a nurse's kit on top.  She is hugging a picture of her mother.  There is an abundance of white space around her.  When she is recording one of her first songs, she is shown larger than life before a hanging microphone in the studio.  Her face and upper body fill the page as she stands, eyes closed.  To her right two other accompanying singers are shown in shades of gray.  Readers will note the attention to detail as to historical correctness in architecture, clothing, automobiles and hair styles in the illustrations.

One of my many, many favorite pictures is a double-page picture.  For the background a "sea" of seated people is spread in faded colors.  From right to left is a stage, widening a bit on the left.  On the left side is a piano in blue.  Behind a red podium is ten-year-old Aretha Franklin.  Dressed in yellow, hair in two braids and standing on a chair to be seen with her arms outstretched, she is singing her first solo.  Her back is to us.

This book, an acclamation to the life work of the Queen of Soul, A Voice Named Aretha written by Katheryn Russell-Brown with illustrations by Laura Freeman, is one to have on the shelves of your professional and personal collections.  At the close of the book are two pages titled More About The Queen Of Soul.  This is followed by A Note From The Author, A Note From The Illustrator, Songs By Aretha Franklin, Notes For "More About The Queen Of Soul" and Sources.  Once you've read this individually or to a group, be prepared to be singing and dancing to her songs for days.

To learn more about Katheryn Russell-Brown and Laura Freeman and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their respective websites. Katheryn Russell-Brown has an account on Twitter.  Laura Freeman has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  Katheryn Russell-Brown wrote a post at the Nerdy Book Club and was interviewed at Book Q&As With Deborah KalbPlease enjoy these two musical videos.  I've been singing them in my mind for several days.

Take a few moments to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected this week by participants in the 2020 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.


  1. Oh, she was so wonderful to hear, and it's amazing that she sang and was loved at such a young age, too. This is a book I'm sure I'll love, and now need to learn about that fur coat, too! Thanks, Margie!

    1. Oh, I loved to hear her sing, Linda. And I cried when she sang at the Kennedy Center Honors. You're welcome, Linda.

  2. I love your description of how the color palette contributes to the overall feel of the book. Such a thoughtful analysis!

    1. Thank you Annette. To me the colors represent the fullness of her life and the richness of her voice. I am thinking about this book as a Mock Caldecott.

  3. I've had this book on my radar for awhile but it's still not at my library... may need to go in and request it. Sounds like it's a great one to have!

    1. I hope you've been able to get a copy Michele. It is a great one to have.