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This is an excellent resource for music and art teachers as well as for social studies and U.S. history lessons.
— School Library Journal, starred review
Please tell us about your book.
LIKE A BIRD: THE ART OF THE AMERICAN SLAVE SONG grew out of my first book with Michele Wood — I LAY MY STITCHES DOWN: POEMS OF AMERICAN SLAVERY. That book, STITCHES, has a brief narrative description below each poem, giving the poem some literary, historical, or musical context – each poem has a line from or a reference to– an African American spiritual within it.
So, a year after STITCHES came out, Michele asked if I’d be interested in writing the text for a series of illustrations she wanted to do – illustrations of spirituals. After some back and forth, we agreed on what would work for both of us, so I spent about 2 years researching the songs and writing up a book proposal.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I began with the middle school music teachers I knew where I was the librarian, which led me to music historians and the music collections at several libraries including the University of Maryland and University of North Carolina. UNC has a digital collection called Documenting the South. Within that collection are lots of primary sources and digitized books on so many aspects of southern history – I was able to download and read the first Harriet Tubman biography ever written– in 1886 by Sarah H. Bradford– called Harriet: The Moses of Her People. Our title, LIKE A BIRD, comes from a line in that biography.
As a former librarian, I love to do research, but the research for this book was much more complicated than it was for STITCHES. I have never studied music formally, so I had a lot to learn along the way – about music in general and then slave music. And I also needed to research copyright law and how it works with notated music in the public domain.
What were some special challenges associated with writing a book that was generated by the illustrator, and doing the writing after the illustrations were complete?
Because I did not generate the idea for this book, it felt a little like a homework assignment at first, rather than a creative endeavor. As we went along, the main idea changed, from writing about the meanings of the slave songs, to focusing on the illustrations, and Michele Wood’s interpretations of the songs. Once that happened, and we began working with the folks at Lerner, it all became a very enjoyable, collaborative experience.
In some cases, I did write about the spirituals themselves rather than the paintings, and the biggest challenge there was how to handle the different points of view and beliefs held about each of the songs. The were created and sung long before anybody had written about them, so the evidence as to their meanings, their dates of creation, and who was responsible for composing them varies wildly! And these opinions come from reliable, authoritative sources. Through this experience, I’ve developed enormous admiration and respect for our nonfiction writers.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Both of my books touch on the history of American slavery, and LIKE A BIRD: THE ART OF THE AMERICAN SLAVE SONG also touches on Harriet Tubman, music and music history, and the visual arts.