Biography: Mahalia A Life In Gospel Music

210GV1V3G6L._AC_US160_.jpgtitle: Mahalia A Life in Gospel Music
author: Roxane Orgill
date: Candlewick, 2002

Roxane Orgill began her writing career as a music critic and she eventually transformed to an author of children’s and young adult biographies, often of those of African American musicians. Her knowledge of music history is definitely present in Mahalia A Life In Gospel Music.

Mahalia Jackson was a gospel singer who was born into one of the last generations of African Americans missing papers to document the year of their birth. Orgill presents this fact, as well as the optional nature of education to Halie’s family simply as the way things were. The author uses comfortably structured sentences and phrases to tell Halie’s story while guiding us into her world. This world, this narrative structure maintains a flow and polish that must in someway reflect Halie’s life. This is a book for young readers, a book meant to teach and motivate, but one does leave the book wondering exactly what kind of person was Halie? Her deep faith is evidenced throughout the book, but what struggles did she face along the way? She was steadfast in her conviction to only sing gospel music, yet she was put out of her aunt’s home in New Orleans after a late night party. I think there’s room for more of Halie’s humanness in the story.

Black and white photos are well placed in the book, with images from the time period used when there were none from Halie’s collection. Supporting characters, relatives and ex-husbands are developed clearly enough to be memorable, making for a good story. I particularly liked having the author’s note upfront, setting the stage for the evidence of the life that is about to be presented.

Ogrill focuses more on Halie’s talent, a voice so rich and blessed that her singing was viewed as preaching. Orgill contextualizes Halie’s emotion filled voice in the history of religious music in America and the contributions that Halie made to the development of gospel music. Is it not difficult to image a time when gospel music was played on the radio along side popular music? Halie sold millions of records through radio airtime in the early 1960s, a time when successful African Americans could not divorce themselves from the tempestuous political climate. Halie, who grew up in the South and knew the limits of living in a segregated society and could not turn her back when she was called to sing when Dr. King preached.

Halie’s biography provides young readers the opportunity to read the life of a woman who was truly a revolutionary; one who had the conviction to work to change music and to change America. #ShePersisted, this woman with a fourth grade education.

book review: My Name is Henry Bibb

FC9781553378136title: My Name is Henry Bibb: A story of slavery and freedom
by: Afua Cooper
date: Kids Can Press, 2009
main character: Henry Bibb
middle grade biography



The light hurt my eyes so I kept them closed. I was drowsy, lulled by my mother’s cooing and the warmth of her body. Then I heard her say, “Listen, little one I have a story to tell you.” I suddenly grew alert. “You are as beautiful as the sun.” Then she began, in a sad but sweet voice.”

My Name is Henry Bibb is a biography of Henry Bibb, a black man who escaped slavery in Kentucky and found freedom in Canada. By devoting his live to the freedom of others, he has a become a significant figure in Afro Canadian history. Bibb authored his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave in 1849.

Afua Cooper’s biography begins with Bibb’s birth and takes us up to his escape to Canada. Her epilogue describes Bibb’s later years but nowhere does she cite her sources. Bibbs was the subject of her dissertation. Cooper is recognized for her poetry and her skill to say more with fewer words is made evident in this book.

Cooper never relates that Bibb is the son of Kentucky state senator James Bibb, she lets this be Henry’s story. His mother planted the seed of freedom early when she spoke of Africans walking on water, telling Henry that so much more was within him. Through the character Shadrach, readers find that escape can be mental or physical. Henry performed many acts of resistance but he could not continue to survive under the conditions imposed upon him.

By not straying from the daily beatings and struggles  that Henry faced, Cooper leads the reader to understand that running away from his enslavement was the only option for him. Only freedom will bring him the peace he needs.

Cooper’s writing allows readers to begin to understand the complexities of enslavement and how black men and women, particularly Henry Bibb, fought against it.

review: Percy Lavon Julian Pioneering Chemist

title: Percy Lavon Julian: Pioneering Chemist Signature Lives Series

author: Darlene R. Stille

date: Compass Point Books; 2009


reading level: 7.0

preview the book

There is a very limited range of biographies of people of color that are available for middle and high school readers, so I was glad to find Percy Lavon: Pioneering Chemist for my school media center.

I think in reviewing and booktalking non-fiction books to students, we have to begin to teach them to look at these books in ways they don’t typically treat fiction. Most important, they have to learn to look at the credibility of these books more so that the size of the volume or its overall attractiveness. Looking in the back of this book, I found a ‘selected bibliography’ that only listed secondary and tertiary sources. Yes, even Julian’s quotes in this book are lifted from non-primary sources.

Julian was born in Alabama in 1899 and in explaining his life, it is no doubt important to explain the conditions that Blacks faced in this region at that time. In this book, the description of this era is highlighted with a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. from the 1960s. Images of individuals are often separated from the textual context by several pages. While there are several images of Julian throughout the book, none show him actually engaged in work. As I’ve learned from reading Marc Aronson’s blog, we have to learn to read the images as well. This separation distracts from the importance of the individuals being discussed.

There’s a thin line between great and bad non-fiction as both leave you wanting to know more. The really good stuff engages readers in a way that leads them to wonder while the poorly written stuff leaves one to question events and details.

There was much to learn about Percy Lavon Julian and his numerous contributions to science. For example, through his work with soybeans, Julian was the first to synthesize steroids. But, I never got to know about his temperament, why he was accepted to DePauw or what his friendship with Joseph Pikl was like. While the discrimination of the times was presented, it was never made personal. Consequently, it was difficult to know what life really was like for Julian.

While this book stands as rare print documentation of someone who made significant contributions to history, it leaves out important elements that would help to make Julian less of a caricature and more human. I am glad that my students have at least this much information about Dr. Julian, but in learning how to effectively analyze these types of books, perhaps they’ll become motivated to add to the body of literature about people of color.