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Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century by Carole Boston Weatherford

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

Leontyne-Price-cvr.jpgI 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

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Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes by Juan Felipe Herrera

Celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month With This Book!

Portraits of Hispanic American HeroesPortraits-Hispanic-American-Heroes-cvr.jpg by Juan Felipe Herrera with paintings by Raúl Colón (Dial Books for Young Readers 2014, $19.99, Ages 8-12) is reviewed today by Dornel Cerro.

“Although there have been incredible contributions by Hispanic Americans since the beginnings of this nation, their pioneering roles often have been overshadowed and their identities besmirched by terms such as ‘alien’ and ‘illegal.” (p. 7).

Many people have heard about the achievements of famous Hispanic Americans such as Roberto Clemente, Sonia Sotomayor, and César Chavez. However, how many people know …

1. which Hispanic American won a Nobel Prize in Physics?

2. who defeated the British at the Siege of Pensacola (Florida) in 1781?

3. who was the first Latina astronaut?

Don’t know? Find out by reading and relishing this book! Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes is an eye-opening and inspirational celebration of people whose achievements and accomplishments are just begging to be shared with children.

California poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera reveals the voices of those heroes and heroines – some whose contributions are unacknowledged or have been forgotten in this collection of 19 biographical sketches of Hispanic Americans plus Hero Street USA. The breadth and scope of the people represented here is extraordinary: migrant workers, military officers, teachers, scientists, activists, musicians, and more. Each is placed in the context of his or her times and Herrera demonstrates how all refused to let inequities and other challenges prevent them from realizing their dreams.

Herrera’s engaging narrative weaves unfamiliar terms and Spanish words into the text, making it more authentic and accessible for children:

“The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) … a powerful organization to help migrant workers make a better life for themselves in the United States (César Chavez, p. 42).”

“…I gnacio E. Lozano escaped from Mexico with his family to El Norte, the United States (p. 21).”

Controversial details are touched upon in a straightforward, non-judgmental way, and, if needed, explained in the context of the time:

“But people got wind that Adelina had been divorced from a military officer … During these times, women were looked down upon for not staying married. Her opponents used this against her and she lost the election (Adelina Otero-Warren, p. 19).”

The collection concludes with two compelling accounts. The first is about Hero Street in Silvis, Illinois, where eight fallen heroes, Mexican American soldiers killed in WWII battles, once lived. The final entry is a complex sestina for Victoria Leigh Soto, the teacher who died protecting her students during the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre on Dec 14, 2012

Artist Raúl Colón’s “portraits,” made up of watercolor washes, etchings, and litho pencils, seem to catch the inner nobility of each person, perfectly complementing the narrative.

Use this with students as an inspirational introduction to biography or a nonfiction read aloud. Give this to children who are looking for real superheroes. Hopefully it will encourage all children to: “See further and dream larger.” Judith F. Baca, UCLA professor and artist (p. 75).

For those of you who made to this point, here’s the answers to the above questions:

1. Luis Alvarez
2. Bernardo de Galvez
3. Ellen Ochoa

Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes features stunning portraits and biographies of the following: Adelina Otero-Warren, Bernardo de Galvez, César Chavez, David Farragut, Dennis Chavez, Desi Arnaz, Dolores Huerta, Ellen Ochoa, Helen Rodríguez Trías, Hero Street USA, Ignacio Lozano, Jaime Escalante, Joan Baez, Judy Baca, Julia de Burgos, Luis Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Roberte Clemente, Sonia Sotomayor, and Tomas Rivera.

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