Strange Fruit and Children’s Books

By David Michael Newstead.

Gary Golio is the author of a new children’s book called Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song. In it, he combines storytelling and social justice with Charlotte Riley-Webb’s impressive artwork to create this important lesson about confronting racism in America. Our conversation is below.

David Newstead: What inspired you to tell this story?

Gary Golio: I’d long wanted to write about Billie Holiday, but hadn’t found a story – a way into her life and work – that made sense for kids. And then, in the fall of 2012, with plenty of time on my hands after losing my job as a therapist with teens-on-probation (the eventual fallout of the 2008 Recession in my county), I heard an NPR story about Abel Meeropol, the man who wrote Strange Fruit. What fascinated me was that Abel – a schoolteacher in the Bronx and a Jew – wrote the song in response to a horrific photograph he had seen of a lynching. He was haunted by the image, by the ugliness and horror of what he saw, yet the song was beautiful, and haunting in its own way, unlike anything Abel ever wrote afterward.

And when I read about the path the song took to reach its audience, it became clear that this was a tale of courage. As I heard about the deaths of more young black men and women in 2013, deaths much akin to lynchings, I felt strongly that what I had in mind was a potent and timely story for kids. It would be about the power of art, about collaboration, and would highlight the strength of an individual – Billie Holiday – as an example of what one person can do in the face of racism and injustice. She put her life on the line by singing that song, and she did it with full knowledge of what might happen to her as a result.

David Newstead: That can be difficult subject matter for children. Did you get any push back from publishers?

Gary Golio: My first children’s book was about Jimi Hendrix’ childhood in Seattle – beset by all sorts of troubles like poverty, familial alcoholism, domestic violence – and THAT got a lot of pushback. One editor even told my agent that “This isn’t right, to do a book for kids on Jimi Hendrix!” For Strange Fruit, my agent shopped the manuscript around and received great comments. Not surprisingly, some editors (honestly) admitted that they couldn’t sell the project to their submissions committee, so my agent found me a bold soul, and a bold publisher, at Lerner/Millbrook Press. They understood my desire not to exploit the material in any way, with illustrations depicting the horror of what led Abel to write his song. They also agreed that the story was about the power of art, the importance of collaboration (songwriter, club owner, singer), and the courage of Billie Holiday. And then they found us a black female illustrator, Charlotte Riley-Webb, who had already done a series of works about Billie. I believe Lady Day would approve!

David Newstead: How have readers been reacting to the book so far?

Gary Golio: The many teachers, librarians, and reviewers I’ve spoken to and heard from have been very positive about the impact and importance of the book. From what I understand, they all see it as a valuable resource–particularly at this time in our national history–and want to share it with their students. There are also many people who love Billie and her work, who tell me that they were unfamiliar with the story of the song, and especially with Billie’s willingness to put herself and her career on the line by singing Strange Fruit. Several radio hosts and jazz DJ’s spent considerable time in on-air interviews, and their passion for the book and the subject said a lot to me about the power of Billie’s example as a social activist.

David Newstead: What’s your next big project going to be?

Gary Golio: Well, I’ve got three books in the pipeline. The first, coming out next year and illustrated by the great Rudy Gutierrez, is about the young Carlos Santana in Mexico, and the collision between him and his Mariachi-violinist father, who had no love for electric blues guitar (Carlos’ early passion). The second is about Charlie Chaplin, and the real-life roots of the Tramp character in his London boyhood, illustrated by my friend and Caldecott-winner Ed Young. The third is about the inspirational journey of Blind Willie Johnson, the revered slide blues guitarist whose haunting Dark Was the Night ended up on Voyager I’s Golden Record now traveling outside of our solar system and into the heavens, to be illustrated by the masterful E.B. Lewis. I’m also, right now, hawking my story about Jane Elliott, the teacher who, the day after Martin Luther King’s death, created the in-class Blue Eyes – Brown Eyes exercise for teaching children (and later, adults) about the nature and effects of racism and prejudice. Powerful stuff!

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

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Strange Fruit and Social Justice

By David Michael Newstead.

Patricia Smith wins the first Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award on Nov. 12, 2017. Opening remarks from Ellen Meeropol and Robert Meeropol with musical performances by Pamela Means. The Abel Meeropol Social Justice Writing Award is named for the songwriter behind the anti-lynching classic Strange Fruit.

Return to the Salvador Dimension

By David Michael Newstead.

A short story based on paintings by Salvador Dali. Read Part One.

Sometimes in my dreams, I still saw that strange place. But all that was left were the fragments of a memory, dark and ghoulish, of a world that was not this one. In quick succession, those pictures flashed through the corridors of my mind as absurd as they were horrifying. Then in a panic, I woke up and I breathed heavy, having had the same nightmare again.

Years had passed and my time in that other dimension seemed so distant to me. Had I imagined it all, I often wondered. Had I hallucinated the whole thing and that old fool who took me there?

No! No, I told myself again and again. That place was real. I knew it had happened, because my mind would never, could never concoct the things I saw there. My fear then wasn’t for my own sanity. Even now, sitting up in bed, I was lucid and aware. Instead, I was afraid just how far this went – how deeply these abnormal truths burrowed into every corner of reality and if the monsters I found in that place would ever pull me back again.

I couldn’t sleep. In the day-to-day world, I felt numb and out of touch. Increasingly detached, I walked around like an automaton, not a person. I felt as if my life was slipping away according to the tyranny of some mundane clock. Or perhaps part of me realized I was always destined to return to that dimension I had left so long ago.

Time passed. Then one day, it happened. I was standing on a train platform checking my watch when suddenly it began to melt from my wrist. In an instant, stainless steel seemed to turn into liquid mercury that rolled off my skin like drops of rain. When I looked up, the rest of the world was falling away too, dissolving right in front of me. Then, something else came into view.

I stumbled forward at first. It was difficult to see, but once I could I wished I was blind to the horror. My eyes watered as smoke filled my nostrils. Then, I heard shots ring out in every direction. Just ahead, there were lines of riflemen and nameless legions, stretching into the distance leveling chaotic volleys of gunfire at each other. Dying men whaled in agony and I tried to run back, but our normal world had disappeared behind me. In its place, soldiers’ bodies littered the ground. Overhead, something shrieked and flew by me. Then, an explosion followed and knocked me down face first. Deafening and bright, flames erupted over the battlefield and, in shock, I covered my ears.

When I raised my head again, creatures not-quite-human were wandering by, wounded and disoriented from the blast. They made noises I can’t begin to describe. Then, the earth underneath my feet started to rumble with the sound of approaching cavalry. The victors had arrived it seemed, already finishing off the last of their opponents in a war without rhyme or reason. On my left flank, the first wave of them descended onto anything in their path, while another group encircled the few of us who survived. Desperate to escape the slaughter, I ran and crawled across the ground looking for cover, but there was nothing. Nothing, but pathetic twigs and pebbles that jutted out from the dirt and wouldn’t protect a man from so much as a sunburn. And when that galloping monstrosity appeared in front of me, I cringed and thought this must be the end!

A moment passed without death and I looked up, awestruck. After all, if the old man hadn’t intervened when he did I surely would have been trampled into oblivion. I was cowering in the middle of a field, dusty and helpless, when he strode out to protect me. Confident and possibly insane, he was disheveled and nude, driven mad by this dimension of oddities. The only thing more crazed and unruly than his eyes, I thought, was his facial hair. But it didn’t seem to matter. He projected all the authority of a thousand generals, screaming at the top of his lungs.

“Stay back!” The old man yelled to the horses and pack animals. “Back I say!”

And for reasons I won’t ever understand, they listened to him, rearing up with fright only inches away from crushing the both of us. Around me, the orgy of violence was fast subsiding. And this crazy old fool had stalled them for just long enough.

I was still trembling on the ground when the real world started to come back into view. While those beasts hesitated to charge forward, their dimension had gradually dissipated into a fog and then the fantasy as I laid there on that same train platform like a lunatic.

“No… No.” I muttered, now waving my hands at nothing. Back in our own dimension, other commuters ignored me the way you disregard anyone talking to themselves on public transit. But if they could only see! Stretched out there on the concrete, I watched the last shadows of that other place recede away forever, stranding me here and leaving that old man where he rightfully belonged.

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Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944)

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The Face of War (1950)

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Girl at the Window (1925)

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Melting Watch (1954)

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Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid (1963)

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The Burning Giraffe (1937)

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The Invention of the Monsters (1937)

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The Temptation of St. Anthony (1946)

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The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936)

Rereading 1984

By David Michael Newstead.

Last summer, I unexpectedly found a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 in a used bookstore in Washington D.C. The novel had been buried in a pile of miscellaneous paperbacks, hiding in plain sight. For how long? I’m not sure. So when I realized what it was, I immediately grabbed it and headed to the register. I guess I was surprised to even see something that rare. Then again, finding the book in 2016 might have been an omen of things to come. Eagerly, I bought it and re-read it. The story, of course, was the same: Big Brother, the Thought Police, and the rest. The difference was that the world around me had changed since the last time I’d read it. It’s a book that only becomes more relevant with each passing day. And in some countries, it isn’t far from reality as it is.

Besides the narrative though, the paperback itself started to intrigue me: the look, the feel, how the pages smell, how it fits in my hands, the original cover art, and the signs of wear and tear from over the years. This particular copy was slightly beat up, but still in good condition for something printed in the late 1940s. And that’s when I thought about it more. Here’s an object – almost 70 years old now – that’s an analog relic in an increasingly digital world. It is a lingering connection to and a warning from the distant past. When it was first printed, World War Two had just finished and the Cold War was in its earliest stages.

Plenty has happened since then and who knows where this book was for all those years before I got it. Regardless, today some Orwellian themes are just a description of disturbing norms across the planet: widespread government surveillance, propaganda, and political doublespeak. Maybe the methods have been updated overtime, but there’s a reason 1984 and other dystopian novels have had skyrocketing sales lately. George Orwell, for his part, fought against fascism and oppression and passionately believed in objective truth. Safe to say, that battle continues.

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