book Review: Strange Fruit: Billy Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song

title: Strange Fruit: Billy Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song
author: Gary Golio
illustrator: Charlotte Riley-Webb
Publisher: Millbrook Press, 2017

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Strange Fruit Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio and Charlotte Riley-Webb is a story of how singer Billie Holiday used this song to defy oppression. Golio expresses the dehumanization of racism to the reader by describing the singer’s personal encounters with it and the moves on to how she find actions couched in her oIMG_4233wn peculiar privilege to resist. The Billy Holiday he describes didn’t have an easy life, but she was able to dig deep into her limited sense of privilege and create ways to preserve
her identity. In this way, Holiday’s life becomes a role model for young readers who also have seen and felt things that they’re still too young to know how to overcome; they’re provided hope. Golio writes just enough of the darkness in Holiday’s life to contextualize why she would agree to sing a protest song and why she would insist on singing it despite the negative reaction to it.

“At just 15, Billie was hired at a popular Harlem Music club. Moving from table to table, she began singing each song differently every time. Listening to the trumpet and saxophone, she started improvising – using her voice to play with the melody and lyrics. She was going beyond words and like the other musicians, her singing had more to say than just notes on the page.”

Riley-Webb’s artwork brings jazzy syncopation to the page. Not only do the contours of the swirls in her art suggest movement but, the textures in her strokes add dimension that implies the times were not always easy. Her jewel toned color palette that fill the IMG_4234pages bring the sense of melancholy to the book.

While Strange Fruit is meant to convey the meaning and power of the protest song, it does more than that by depicting Holiday as a self-empowered African American woman who was able to use her talent to express open defiance to the society in which she lived. This is an important book that portrays ways we can make a difference.



Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Gary Golio has written children’s biographies of great musicians including John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Bob Dylan. He believes in letting young people know how the arts can enrich their life.

Tomorrow I’ll have an interview with Gary.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh