Monday, April 18, 2016

Odetta, The Queen of Folk by Samantha Thornhill (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter O)

Odetta, The Queen of Folk
by Samantha Thornhill,
illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
2010. Scholastic Press.


Odetta (1930-2008) was an American civil rights activist and musician.


Written in verse, this book uses two main metaphors to explain the contribution of Odetta to the world of folk music. One is the symbol of a birdcage, used to convey experiences of being held back and set free, and the other is the black and white keys of the piano, which are used to represent the joyful and sorrowful moments of her life. The narrative begins with Odetta's birth, and describes a childhood during which she was prevented from making music. Then it explores her teen years, when her family was finally able to afford music lessons, and shows how these lessons led to her success as the "queen of folk." Her life story is set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, providing context about the Jim Crow laws, and the experiences of black people which inspired Odetta's songwriting.

About the Illustrations

The pictures have a dreamlike quality which matches the text, but they are hard to decode, especially for kids.

Author's Note

The author's note, "Ode to Odetta," provides straightforward information about Odetta's life, accompanied by a photograph of her with the illustrator, Stephen Alcorn. Also included is a list of Odetta's albums.

Additional Comments

This is an interesting book, but it's not very accessible to young readers. At times, it tries too hard to speak in a child's voice, using phrases like "Burning Ham" instead of Birmingham and "Lost Angeles" instead of Los Angeles, and at other times, the language is too complex and off-putting. I also find it strange - and annoying - that the author of the poem which serves as the book's text is not given any credit on the front cover.

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