Gary Golio has visited dulemba.com before, and I absolutely flipped over his latest book, Strange Fruit. Happily, we both thought it would be most interesting to you if he and the illustrator, Charlotte Riley-Webb interviewed each other about it. So, with admiration, I will hand over my blog to them today to talk about this amazing book...
Gary, I've noticed in this and other books that you have written you seem to have a sensitivity to the plight of minority races. Where does this come from?
Charlotte, I'm so glad that someone finally asked me this question after so many years (and books)! In short, I grew up with my grandmother, an immigrant from Italy (at age 8) who believed strongly in both education and the arts. She was a devoted reader, and personally knew many popular singers of the time. Most importantly, she had great respect for people regardless of their race or religion, and communicated to me a powerful sense of justice.
As an only child, I was inward and drawn to the arts, identifying as an outsider from an early age. Watching people like Louis Armstrong and Pearl Bailey on TV with my grandmother, I not only took in the music, but the genuineness and depth of feeling that I saw. Growing up, I felt a kinship with black music and stories (James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, jazz, R'n'B), which eventually led to a passion for the blues (on electric guitar) and the work of Jimi Hendrix. After becoming a psychotherapist, my sensitivity to injustice and love of music led directly to writing about these subjects for children. So it's come full-circle for me, as a child once-enthralled by black performers, now writing more deeply about their struggles and successes for a new generation.
During the time I was working on this book I was bothered by the fact that in referring to the people in the book, as Black, the b was written in lower case. (I found myself debating this point with the publishers to no avail.) Throughout history, we have been labeled many things and when we were referred to as Black to define the race, I've always felt as a matter of respect it should be capitalized. Your thoughts?
I believe in what you're saying, and have had this same discussion with some of my editors. The problem is: if we were to capitalize Black, we would have to capitalize White, and that is
unacceptable for so many reasons. In truth, the whole concept of identifying people and characters (in stories) by their color is ridiculous, but human history is defined by its absurdity. Still, we humans feel a need to identify ourselves and others as groups, and it's hard to get away from that. For my own part, I try to move beyond all the foolishness by writing stories about people whose ancestors came from Africa with great respect and enthusiasm. Like Strange Fruit, these books are meant to convey a message of solidarity and hope, to show the value of art and culture, and to bring injustice (and our shared humanity) to light. For now, it's the best I can do.
I know your connection to Billie existed long before you signed on to illustrate Strange Fruit. As an artist and woman, what drew you to her life and story, and what does she represent to you? Do you think she'd be gratified to know that a woman had illustrated our book?
I am a painter by profession and prior to reading the manuscript, I had initially declined the opportunity to illustrate this book, only because of the time investment it would take to do it. Gary, your masterful approach to this very difficult story drew me in. I went from feeling reluctant to privileged, then to obligated. I saw it as my job to do it.
I had been very familiar with Billie Holiday's story because I grew up listening to old jazz, blues and gospel singers. The message in their music was about me and my life, my mom and her life, and the lives of countless other African Americans who had to find solace and compromise in order to survive very difficult times in history.
Of the six other books I have illustrated, this was my first true biography. I think you have to go to the heart of the subject to effectively illustrate their emotions. Feel what they felt. This is made easier if you have either walked in their shoes or been close to someone who has.
In my case, I have done both.
Billy's life represented how a single individual has the ability to take their craft and turn it into a cause; to use not only for their benefit, but to seek goals beyond themselves for the good of others.
This I feel, is a valuable lesson for today's youth. The message that they can affect change for the causes that they are passionate about. Women in the arts tended to cross genre and form a sisterhood to expound on crucial messages.
Greatly affective during the 70's, poet and playwright for instance, Ntozake Shange whose work focused on the Black aesthetic, wrote her own version of “Strange Fruit” titled, “Blood Rhythms”, which was the subject of one of my painting series.
I think Billie would be pleased with me as an African American female, who could personally relate to her plight, illustrating her story.
Gary, I feel that your youthful experiences with your grandmother aligned with your humble temperament and gave you the tools you needed to bring an appreciation and sensitivity to Billie Holiday's story. Collectively, I feel that this is a strong collaboration that I am proud to be a part of.
Is there a person whose story you would also like to tell with your artwork?
I think I have one more book in me. My mom's story. Not many people would recognize the name Ruby Louise Riley or be personally interested in her story. But looking at her life, she was truly an amazing woman. Born in 1911, into a poor family with three siblings, yet a 1935 Spelman College graduate relegated to being a domestic worker because her degree was not valued. She was nevertheless forward thinking and masterfully creative. Opera, blues and gospel filled our home, and our outings consisted mostly of trips to the library. She instilled her sense of pride, independence and appreciation for the arts and humanity in her two daughters. Yes, I will probably paint her story, even if there will only be one copy.
e: Thank you both for this in-depth interview, and especially for this powerful book. I think the world needed it. Readers, please seek out this book to learn more about Strange Fruit. I'll close with an actual photo of Billy Holiday.
"... a potent reminder of the power of art to combat intolerance and hate."
Publisher's Weekly, starred review
Gary Golio is the author of the New York Times bestseller JIMI: Sounds Like a Rainbow – A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award; Bird & Diz, a 2016 ALA Notable; and other books about legendary artists. A writer, musician, and psychotherapist specializing in addiction, Golio has been featured on NPR’s "Weekend Edition" and “The Michael Eric Dyson Show,” CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning News,” and on radio and in newspapers nationwide. He lives in Ossining, New York, with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich.
Charlotte Riley-Webb, a professional visual artist with a career that spans forty-plus years, resides in the Atlanta area. Within the last ten years, her artistic genre has morphed from representation into abstraction while maintaining her signature rhythmic style and bright colorful palette. Among her many accomplishments are the illustrations for seven children’s books.
Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, Written by Gary Golio, Illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb, Published by Millbrook Press