Thursday, March 26, 2009

Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford - review

Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford

‘Becoming Billie Holiday’ begins with a quote by Tony Bennett: “When you listen to her, it’s almost like an audio tape of her biography.”

This book could be that biography. Nearly one hundred first-person narrative poems detail Holiday’s life from birth until age 25, the age at which she debuted her signature song “Strange Fruit.” The poems borrow their titles from Holiday’s songs, a brilliant device that provides the reader with a haunting built-in soundtrack.

As in her previous book, ‘Birmingham, 1963,’ Weatherford’s language is straightforward and accessible – almost conversational. She captures Holiday’s jazzy, candid voice so adroitly that at times the poems seem like they could have been lifted wholesale from Holiday’s autobiography, ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’

Floyd Cooper’s sepia-toned, nostalgic mixed-media illustrations provide an emotional counterpoint to the text. Resembling old photographs seen through a lens of aching hindsight, they make explicit the pain that Weatherford studiously avoids giving full voice to in her poems. For, although Holiday’s early life was one of relentless rejection, discrimination, and poverty, the author stays true to her subject, and maintains a resolute and defiant tone, albeit one tinged with regret.

Prostitution, rape, jail time, violence, and minor drug use are described in the book, but it ends on the proverbial high note, before the singer’s drug use, alcoholism, and early death. This captivating book places the reader solidly into Holiday’s world, and is suitable for independent reading as well as a variety of classroom uses.

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