Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations, by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Keith Mallett

  Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations, by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Keith Mallett, Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House, 9780525516095, 2019 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5

Format: Hardcover picture book

What did you like about the book?  A touching and proud tribute to the Black National Anthem. The book opens with an illuminated little girl, practicing a song taught to her by her principal, James Weldon Johnson. Together with his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, they wrote the hymn for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900.  As the timeline of the song stretches through the twentieth century, each character in the book takes responsibility for teaching the song to his or her own children. We see Lift being sung on a train heading north during the Great Migration, by soldiers of color returning home after WWII, at Martin Luther King’s funeral, at family reunions and finally at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The digital illustrations are very literal, which will help children grab hold of the history. The look is hand-drawn, almost like pastels on textured paper; each page glows with warm color. The combination of the art and text manages to give a great sense of time and place, without disturbing the lyrical flow of the narrative. The endpapers feature the lyrics to the song. The book closes with a note from the author about her own connection to the song and about important performances over the years.

Anything you didn’t like about it? A timeline showing the actual date of the song’s creation and other points in time along the song’s history would have been helpful.

To whom would you recommend this book? This reminded me of one of my favorite picture books This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration (2017) by Jacqueline Woodson with illustrations by James Ransome. I can see this book being a great activator for music teachers who are planning to use the song in the classroom — I’m passing it on to one of mine!

Who should buy this book? Elementary schools and public libraries

Where would you shelve it? In a school library, I would put it in the nonfiction area, 780s. But it could also happily live in the picture book section.

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: August 13, 2019


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