Nina: A Story of Nina Simone by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021. 9781524737283
Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5
Format: Hardcover picture book
What did you like about the book? Todd has undertaken a significant challenge in creating a biography of the iconic Nina Simone; it’s always difficult to capture sound in a picture book, but this portrayal will certainly tempt young readers to seek out her music. By focusing on Simone’s formative experiences (her early music exposure to both the sacred and the profane, her wounding experiences with segregation, her disappointment at rejection from the Curtis Institute), Todd not only allows us to examine the roots of Simone’s genius but the origins of her anger. At 56 pages and with generously oversized pages, this book feels important and substantial. There’s a lot to unpack in Simone’s life and Todd does a good job of explaining complex ideas within the confines of the narrative. Jim Crow? A few sentences about that. Working in a bar in Atlantic City? No glamour there. The roaring anger of Black Americans during the civil rights era? Todd lays that out using stripped down language young readers will understand.
Robinson’s acrylic paint and collage illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to Todd’s text. With their angular figures, heavy brush strokes, and deceptively simple shapes, they recall paintings from Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series. Unlike Lawrence’s concrete representations though, Robinson is more likely to veer into the metaphoric: as Simone sleeps on her piano bench, the inside of her baby grand comes alive with an uprising, complete with fire hoses and German shepherds. As she sings the famous (and here unnamed) “Mississippi Goddam”, we see her band surrounded by flames and smoke, constructed from torn pages of lyrics. The color pink is also used symbolically; the book’s blindingly pink cover is the key to finding Nina throughout the biography, from her pink baby blanket, to the dress she wears to audition for Curtis, to the stylish jumpsuit she wears to a rally.
Anything you didn’t like about it? I was a bit disappointed in the “About Nina Simone” essay, which provides very little beyond what we’ve already learned from the book. For example, Todd further explains the back story of why Eunice Kathleen Waymon swapped her name for Nina Simone (to keep her smoky jazz music and singing hidden from her preacher mom), but that’s already been more than adequately explained in the text. I also thought the lyrics to “Young, Gifted, and Black” could have been included somewhere in the book; they are so iconic and would have reinforced the themes of Simone’s story.
To whom would you recommend this book? Young readers grades 3-8 interested in civil rights leaders, musicians, composers, and fashion icons: Simone was all of these. In addition, the gorgeous illustrations will pull in their own fan club.
Who should buy this book? Elementary and middle school libraries, public libraries,
Where would you shelve it? Biography
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: January 9, 2022