This is a biography of the legendary Nina Simone in picturebook form. Young readers will find out about Nina’s early experiences, her development as a performer and the social and historical context of her life. She was born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina into a musical household. Her mother sang in church and her father played the piano – Eunice was inspired by his love of jazz. Music was all around her, but Eunice had innate ability too, ‘She sang before she could talk and found rhythm before she could walk.’
We read about the music lessons and opportunities offered to her at an early age but also how, despite her talents, racism and prejudice had an impact on her progress as a musician. One notable event was rejection by the prestigious Curtis institute, who despite a flawless audition, turned her away because of the colour of her skin. We hear how Eunice (now calling herself Nina) gradually found a route to fame and success via the bars of New York, playing the prestigious Carnegie Hall and making increasingly popular records.
The book sets Nina’s story against the backdrop of the racism in mid twentieth century USA and we learn how she became involved in the Civil Rights Movement though her music. She felt pressure to add her voice to the growing unrest but received death threats when she did respond through her music. Her bravery is clear, undeterred by threats she continued to sing songs of Black America and offer hope for the black children of the future.
Nina’s story is fascinating, and the author’s lively conversational style and choice of detail brings it vividly to life. For example, when describing young Eunice switching from playing ‘good time jazz’ to church music when mama comes home or describing the lemon drops and sunlight in the ceiling at her piano teacher’s house. The collaged textured Illustrations are bold and attractive adding additional detail to the storytelling, the ‘Whites Only’ posters on the wall are particularly powerful.
This is a well written and strikingly illustrated book about a fascinating, talented and significant individual. It provides insight into the Civil Rights Movement. It may encourage young readers to find out more about the historical and social context and to seek out Nina Simone’s music. A songlist would have been a wonderful addition.