Cover image for Becoming Billie Holiday
Becoming Billie Holiday
1st ed.
Publication Information:
Honesdale, Penn. : Wordsong, c2008.
Physical Description:
117 p. : col. ill. ; 25 cm.
Reading Level:
970 L Lexile
Added Author:
Jazz vocalist Billie Holiday looks back on her early years in this fictional memoir written in verse.


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Before the legend of Billie Holiday, there was a girl named Eleanora. In 1915, Sadie Fagan gave birth to a daughter she named Eleanora. The world, however, would know her as Billie Holiday, possibly the greatest jazz singer of all time. Eleanora's journey into legend took her through pain, poverty, and run-ins with the law. By the time she was fifteen, she knew she possessed something that could possibly change her life--a voice. Eleanora could sing. Her remarkable voice led her to a place in the spotlight with some of the era's hottest big bands. Billie Holiday sang as if she had lived each lyric, and in many ways she had. Through a sequence of raw and poignant poems, award-winning poet Carole Boston Weatherford chronicles Eleanora Fagan's metamorphosis into Billie Holiday. The author examines the singer's young life, her fight for survival, and the dream she pursued with passion in this Coretta Scott King Author Honor winner. With stunning art by Floyd Cooper, this book provides a revealing look at a cultural icon.

Author Notes

Carole Boston Weatherford is an award-winning poet and author of over two dozen books for young readers. She lives in High Point, North Carolina.

Floyd Cooper has illustrated more than sixty books for children and young adults including Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Mises of Color by Elizabeth Alexander and Marilyn Nelson and Tough Boy Sonatas by Curtis L. Crisler. He lives in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In a series of free-verse poems and bluesy lyrics, headed by song titles, Weatherford retraces Holiday's childhood and early career in the renowned jazz singer's own voice. At eleven, I had the body / of a grown woman, / the mouth of a sailor, and a temper / hot enough to fry an egg. Growing up in Baltimore, she moved to Harlem with her sometimes-absent mother after being molested by a neighbor, and quickly fell in love with late-night life. Dubbed Lady Day, she earned money singing in clubs, was discovered by jazz-enthusiast John Hammond, and battled racism on a groundbreaking tour with Artie Shaw's all-white band. Closing with Holiday's spectacular headline gig at the Café Society, where she sang Strange Fruit how could I not claim: / this is my song? Weatherford leaves the 25-year-old at a high spot in her career, before later troubles and drug addiction. After the whole story readers will find a generous assortment of recommended reading and listening at the end of this proud, clear-voiced testimonial.--Peters, John Copyright 2008 Booklist

School Library Journal Review

Gr 8 Up-In this fictionalized memoir, Weatherford has composed nearly 100 first-person narrative poems that detail Holiday's life from birth until age 25, the age at which she debuted her signature song, "Strange Fruit." The poems borrow their titles from Holiday's songs, a brilliant device that provides readers with a haunting built-in sound track. Weatherford's language is straightforward and accessible-almost conversational. She captures the woman's jazzy, candid voice so adroitly that at times the poems seem like they could have been lifted wholesale from Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. Cooper's sepia-toned, nostalgic, mixed-media illustrations provide an emotional counterpoint to the text. Resembling old photographs seen through a lens of aching hindsight, they make explicit the pain that Weatherford studiously avoids giving full voice to in her poems. Although Holiday's early life was one of relentless rejection, discrimination, and poverty, the author stays true to her subject and maintains a resolute and defiant tone, albeit one tinged with regret. Prostitution, rape, jail time, and violence are mentioned, but the book ends on the proverbial high note, before the singer's drug use, alcoholism, and early death. This captivating title places readers solidly into Holiday's world, and is suitable for independent reading as well as a variety of classroom uses.-Paula Willey, Baltimore County Public Library, Towson, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

"I toted my songs / like a satchel and felt most / at home when I sang," says Billie Holiday in this gorgeously produced fictional "life in poems" of the great jazz singer. Weatherford's poetry sings Lady Day's blues, from a troubled childhood in Baltimore to success in Harlem and on the road, though a tough road it was. Holiday never knew her father's love and experienced rape, reform school, jail and vicious racism in a land where "the color line / was as plain as the stripe down a highway." The first-person poems, titled after actual songs, conclude with Holiday at her peak at age 25, singing her signature "Strange Fruit." The poetry is rich and evocative, fully up to celebrating a singer who could "breathe a universe in a single note." Cooper uses his trademark subtractive technique to great effect, providing a beautiful visual complement to the poetry. A remarkable tribute well worthy of its subject. (afterword, bibliography, references, further reading and listening) (Poetry. 14 up) Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.