Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherford
with illustrations by Raul Colón
(Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, $17.99, Ages 5-9)
★ Starred Reviews – Publishers Weekly, Booklist & School Library Journal
I chose to read and review author Carole Boston Weatherford’s nonfiction picture book biography, Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century, not only because I’m a HUGE Porgy and Bess fan, but also to honor a powerhouse performer during Black History Month.
Other African-American kids might not have persevered in light of the pervasive prejudice that existed when Leontyne Price was growing up in the deep south, but thankfully she did. Price was born in 1927, just one year after Melba Doretta Liston, another musical talent. She grew up in Laurel, Mississippi to a hard-working, supportive, and music-loving mother and father. At a young age Leontyne found herself moved by the music she heard: “Singing along to her daddy James’s records and listening to the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts.” Her parents even sold their phonograph so their daughter could get a piano along with lessons.
Like the opera singer Marian Anderson before her, Leontyne felt the music stir within her as she sang in the church choir. Soon she was heading off to college to pursue a teaching career since, in that era, the chances of becoming a successful black singer seemed out of reach. Surely her talent played a part in that educational opportunity as I read online that she received a scholarship to attend university in Ohio. Everything changed however, when her singing talents were heard by the college president who “convinced her to study voice instead.”
It didn’t take long for Leontyne’s star to begin rising when she attended Julliard and began earning acclaim for her singing. Her first break came when she appeared on Broadway in Porgy and Bess. She was also the “the first black singer to star at La Scala, Italy’s famed opera palace.” What I would have given to be in the audience at that performance! Eventually she landed a lead role at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, breaking new ground for generations of African-American performers to come.
Weatherford points out in her Author’s Note that while Leontyne may have achieved great fame, she “still encountered racism in the United States. To her credit, her wondrous voice overcame the obstacles.” This wonderful biography chronicles the life of an iconic 20th century opera singer who followed her dream and ultimately fulfilled it. As an adult, I can recall watching Price on Ed Sullivan but having no idea of what her challenges would have been to gain recognition and be on TV. In fact, Weatherford says, “Price was the first black opera singer to perform on television in the United States.” What a great story for kids to read who may take for granted the struggles African-Americans like Price faced in the past. Nowadays it may just take a click of a cell phone to get a video made and uploaded onto YouTube for anyone to see, when in the previous century it may have taken an entire lifetime. I like that young readers can use this book as a jumping off point for reading more about influential African-Americans mentioned such as Jessye Norman, Grace Bumbry, Kathleen Battle, and Denyce Graves.
Raul Colón’s illustrations bring the same joy to this picture book that Price’s voice brought to anyone who heard it. From the opening spread, what looks like a rainbow of musical notes, takes on the form of a wave and flows through the book on pages when Leontyne sings. I also like the slight fuzziness of the artwork, as if we’re watching Price’s life unfold as seen on the early days of television broadcasting.
Before reading Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century I had no idea all the firsts this amazing woman achieved and I hope her accomplishments will inspire our 21st century children to keep reaching for the stars.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel