Roses at her feet and tears in her eyes, Leontyne bowed. She glimpsed the spotlight casting a shadow. She knew that shadow was not just hers, but her parents’, teachers’, and Marian’s. Back in Laurel, Mississippi, songs of pride filled many a heart. The folks there were bowing, too.
That’s an excerpt from the nonfiction picture book, “Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century” by Carole Boston Weatherford, published last month by Alfred A. Knopf.
Born in 1927, Leontyne Price was a pioneering black opera singer. But she wasn’t the first, nor were her achievements reached without support along the way. This story makes that clear, through passages like the one above and repeated references to standing on Marian Anderson’s shoulders.
Those acknowledgements don’t distract from the book’s overall focus on Price’s talent, though, and I appreciate the balance.
I often read/hear in advice for writing children’s books that stories need to be laser-focused on the main character and how he/she overcomes the problem in the story. I agree that simplicity can be key in reaching younger audiences, but I also know that most successful people will be the first to tell you they couldn’t have done it on their own. (Think of all those “thank you” speeches the stars gave at last night’s Oscars!)
If we only create stories for children that show people succeeding absent from the help of others, we perpetuate the American myth of rugged individualism — that everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, if only they have the willpower and moral fortitude to do so. We also miss the chance to engage young people in learning and thinking about the interconnectedness of individuals, and the collective strength it takes to make change.
Bravo to Carole Boston Weatherford for weaving this tale of individual greatness on the warp of community and history.
Also not to be overlooked in this book: Raul Colón’s swirling color palette lifts up the illustrations as Leontyne lifts her voice.