Yesterday, I shared a review of Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio and today, I have an interview with the author himself. Gary reached out to share his book with me several months ago and I was immediately curious about the person who would be able to create a book that handles such a dark message in such an inspiring way. It’s always interesting to learn a book’s backstory.
When did you begin writing picture books?
I began writing my first book—what would become JIMI – Sounds Like a Rainbow, on the young Jimi Hendrix—in 2002. My wife, children’s author Susanna Reich, was my inspiration. Even so, she thought I was a little crazy. ; ]
What spurred your interest in jazz?
Jazz is the music of feeling and mind, an older brother of the blues. As a visual artist (landscape painter) for many years, I spent hours and hours listening to jazz station WBGO/Newark in my studio, and it was quite an education. Truth be told, my first “jazz” album was a double-Coltrane vinyl set that I bought when I was 18. John’s music changed my life, and led to my writing Spirit Seeker, about his musical and spiritual journey.
And why share this interest in jazz with young readers?
The stories of jazz are quintessentially American, as jazz is the American art form. I want to inform young readers about the music and the creators because this is their legacy, too, and it speaks to our common humanity.
Your book Strange Fruit really connects Billie Holiday’s life to that song, as if that’s the heartache to which she was saying good morning. What do you want readers to take from this book?
When most people think of Billie, they think of her talents and her troubles. But she was also a very courageous person, and her singing of “Strange Fruit” proves that. She was insulted, assaulted, spat upon and shunned because she championed a song about lynching, and she served the message of that song until the end of her life. The online video of her singing it in London, in 1959 (the last year of her life), is a national treasure. And yes, the power of her rendition derives from her own heartaches.
There is so much in this story from Abel Meeropol to Café Society to Billie Holiday herself. Was it difficult to contain the story?
I originally structured the story this way: The Songwriter (Abel Meeropol), The Clubowner (Barney Josephson), The Singer (Billie Holiday), and The Song. But when I showed it to one of my prior editors, she urged me to rewrite and put Billie at the heart of the tale. She was right—I did just that—and my brilliant editor at Millbrook, Carol Hinz, helped me to create the book we have now. Charlotte Reilly-Webb’s artwork also speaks to the subject and the time.
This is an intense story that captures the racism that Holiday faced and builds on that to validate this strange fruit, these bodies, that hung from trees. How do balance what needs to be with how you say it? How do you still provide hope?
I knew this was a powerful story that could scorch and burn, and the last thing I wanted to do was sensationalize it. So I focused on the Power of Art–of Music–to deliver a message and affect society. The story is about how three people came together to make something greater than themselves, a song that spoke to us then and is just as relevant today. Besides, truth is always under assault, and Billie’s example is hopeful and empowering.
For whom did you write this book?
Well, I always write for myself, since many people think my choice of subjects is a bit far out sometimes. I don’t see it that way, of course—Strange Fruit is a very human story about the power to speak out—and I believe that Billie’s bravery needs to be acknowledged. She was a singular musical artist (producer John Hammond called her a “jazz genius”), but she was also a civil rights pioneer, and that might be a surprise to many.
I’m thankful I was able to connect with Gary and share this story behind the story.
More of Gary’s past and future works:
SMILE – How Young Charlie Chaplin Learned to Make the World Laugh (and Cry) (Candlewick, 2019)
Dark Was the Night – Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars (Penguin Press, 2018)
Carlos Santana – Sound of the Heart, Song of the World (Henry Holt, 2018)
Bird & Diz – Two Friends Create Bebop (Candlewick)
Spirit Seeker – John Coltrane’s Musical Journey (Clarion/HMH)
When Bob Met Woody – The Story of the Young Bob Dylan (Little, Brown)
JIMI: Sounds Like A Rainbow – A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix (Clarion/HMH)