Saturday, May 15, 2010

Becoming Billie Holiday

Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford, Art by Floyd Cooper

Rating: 5/5

IQ "If he ["two-bit critic"] dares, he'll get a mouthful, hear just how I got to Harlem and became Lady Day. Oh, the tales I'll tell." pg. 11 Intro: What Shall I Say?

I was delighted to read this book. It's a YA poetry book with illustrations about the life of Billie Holiday in her heyday as told by Billie. It starts with her birth, but ends in her twenties, before her tragic fall. There are about 98 poems, 95 of those poems have the names of songs sung by Billie Holiday, the other three tie into the poem's content.

I knew very little about Billie Holiday. I once recorded Lady Sings the Blues (the movie about Billie Holiday starring Diana Ross), but it ended up getting deleted before I could watch it. Therefore this was my first time reading about Billie Holiday. After I finished this book I did some more research on Billie Holiday and I also began listening to her music. I was only familiar with two of her songs: Gloomy Sunday (the amazing Dia Reeves introduced me to that one because she considers it a theme song for Bleeding Violet) and Strange Fruit (which I just realized was the former name of Dia's WiP. Crazy coincidence!). Anyway, the point is, I learned so much about Billie Holiday and she is so talented. Her story leaps off the pages through the exquisite illustrations and the wonderful poems. I'm amazed at the author's ability to connect her poems about Billie Holiday with song titles, she brought her to life and she presented her thoughts in an authentic manner.

Eleanora Fagan (Billie's real name) had a hard life, she was born to her thirteen (!) year old mother and spent her early years with various relatives. She was raped, ditched school, ended up in a reform school of sorts, worked in a brothel and eventually became the jazz/blues star. I never knew that Billie suffered because of her weight, but she never let it get her down. She was proud of her body and shot right back at critics. Her emotional, deep and low voice more than made up for her "roly-poly" body and she's a great role model to girls in that you shouldn't listen to the critics and to love yourself (not that she always did that) because you are more than outside appearances. I'm not sure if the whole book is true but I loved reading about the reason behind the flower Billie always wore in her hair and why she changed her name (Billie for her favorite movie star, Holiday because it was sort-of like her absentee father's name of Halliday). The story ends with Coda: Strange Fruit, which was one of the highlights of Billie's career. I never knew the meaning behind Strange Fruit or how it came about so reading the poem about it was an eye-opener. I then listened (REALLY) listened to the song again. One of my favorite poems, "With Thee I Swing" is about Billie being tired of all the racism she faces traveling with an all-white band (she was the first African American woman to do so)

Racism ripped America at the seams,
and jazz stitched the nation together
one song at a time. But music
alone couldn't mend the tear.
The needle pricked my fingers
till my soul was sore, and I longed to hop a train for home." (pg. 103)

Becoming Billie Holiday is a great book to introduce teenagers to Billie Holiday and re-introduce her to her fans. It presents a fresh (and more positive) perspective on her life, it trumpets her achievements, but it does not shy away from the hardships she dealt with. The poems and illustrations are vivid and fitting for such a dynamic lady. I highly recommend that you listen to a Billie Holiday CD or playlist while you read this book :) The book includes an afterword, a list of references for further reading/listening and brief biographies of key people in Billie's life and during her time.

Disclosure: Received from the author. Thank you so much Carole!

Listen to an interview with the author, Carole Boston Weatherford where she talks about the book, Lady Day and some Billie Holiday songs are played (she also reads from the book and she does a lovely job reading it!) Everyone should also listen to Billie Holiday's fantastic song, Strange Fruit. My new favorite song by her is Getting Some Fun Out of Life (after all, isn't that what we all need sometimes?)


  1. What a great review! This is going on my TBR list!

  2. This sounds great. Billie Holiday's music is occasionally on my iPod. Although, I actually prefer Ella Fitzgerald's voice more. As usually, you write about books I hadn't heard of and now make me want them, badly.

  3. I read Lady Sings the Blues when I was 14 or 15. Some things went over my head but I was so into the book and subsequently the movie, I was hesitant when I saw this title. Will look for it now.


  4. @Vasilly-Good to hear. Have some music ready too :)

    @April-The only song I know by Ella Fitzgerald is called Swing or something like that. I should listen to her music too and I also want to try some Nina Simone. Thank you, that's one of the highest compliments you can give me :D

    @susan-I didn't know it was a book. I do want to watch the movie. Thanks for linking to it at CO =)

  5. I love Gloomy Sunday! Bjork did a cool cover, though nothing beats the original <3 Billie had the sexiest voice.

  6. It is a great book and CBW is so nice. I just had lunch with her on Sat.Make sure you check out The Beatitudes. She is just magic.

  7. Thanks for the review. Readers who like jazz, poetry and urban fiction will get into Becoming Billie Holiday. Even though the book is poetry, it's as gritty as any street lit you will find.


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