Who ever thought Billie Holiday’s song about lynching, “Strange Fruit” would ever become an illustrated children’s book? The song, originally recorded in 1938, is now one of the world’s most stunningly melancholic and political songs (and Time called it one of the 100 greatest popular songs).
The secret Jewish history behind the song is becoming more well-known: It was written by a Jewish writer and Bronx teacher named Abel Meeropol (who also adopted and raised the Rosenberg children after their parents’ execution) in 1937, as Tablet pointed out.
I’ve long loved the song since I discovered it as a teen ruffling through my dad’s record collection–and then listening to whatever I could while using the family’s desktop computer during my “allocated time.” I love Billie Holiday so much, I’ve written several poems about her in general–so you know, that admiration goes deep.
The harrowing song, which is about race, is a surprising choice for a children’s book, but also a necessary one. The book, “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song,” was written by Gary Golio, and illustrated by Georgia-based painter Charlotte Riley-Webb. Considering the story deals with Billie Holiday’s own tumultuous life as a singer and as a child (and especially struggling with racism), it’s a book for older kids, ages 8 and up.
The book starts with Holiday performing in New York City in 1938–Golio wanted to focus on the fact that Holiday’s success didn’t mean she didn’t deal with racism:
“First, the staff told her not to talk with the customers. Then they said she couldn’t walk around by herself because someone might think that black people were staying at the hotel, so she wouldn’t cause any trouble.”
As Tablet explained, the book does a fair job of talking about rape without being overtly explicit, as it mentions Holiday’s sexual assault in a subtle way–a way geared towards children: “At 10, she ended up in a reform school for colored girls, all because of a terrible thing done to her.” The fact that it’s a subtle reference allows parents to bring up assault if they want, and if their child is older–or talk about consent in a way that is age-appropriate.
The song’s lyrics are the last part of the book–which are always good to remember:
“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop”