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!