On the half-title page, we are treated to a quote from Nina Simone: “When I die…I’m gonnna know that I left something for [my people] to build on. That is my reward.”
This biography elegantly shows the progression of a woman bent on making a living through her music, to a woman bent on fighting for social justice for her people through her music.
Text ©Traci N. Todd Illustration ©Christian Robinson
We are introduced to Nina (originally named Eunice Kathleen Waymon) as a baby. This spread makes me smile with Eunice’s little arms reaching out of her basket, seeking what? To be held? to reach for the laundry? or for the sky? I’m thinking she was born reaching for the sky.
She “sang before she could talk and found rhythm before she could walk.” As a toddler, she plinked the keys on her father’s piano. Christian Robinson’s illustration of the toddler reaching up to play the piano, is sooo sweet! An image that kids will identify with.
And the next spread shows us how her father encouraged her to play his “good-time jazz” until Mama (a preacher, and a big influence on her early career) came home. He would quick have her switch to a hymn, something Mama would approve of. Another example that will make kids smile with recognition, as a parent and child team up to sneak something by the other parent.
In addition to being a preacher, Eunice’s mother also cleans a white lady’s house, and it’s there that Nina puts her skills at the piano on display, impressing the white lady enough for her to take Nina to a piano teacher, Miss Mazzy. But in the familiar cognitive dissonance I often feel when racial prejudice is involved, the white lady doesn’t want Nina to play with her son. Here Eunice feels the first wound of prejudice.
As Eunice gets older, she is labeled “Miss Mazzy’s colored girl” instead receiving her due as a musical prodigy. Another, larger wound.
When Miss Mazzy holds a concert at the local library, Eunice’s parents sit proudly in the front row….until angry white patrons insist they move to the back. But Eunice waits and waits and waits, until a white couple stand and give their seats back to her parents. This time, her parents bowed heads ignite a flame of anger in Eunice that flickers steadily, but her career is still her focus.
After graduating from Juilliard, Eunice is denied acceptance to the famed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (possibly because she was Black). But she doesn’t let this stop her. She finds work playing music in sketchy bars in Atlantic City. To keep her mother from finding out, she changes her name to Nina Simone, and gradually works her way to Carnegie Hall and exhaustion. It’s a hard won but hollow victory.
Civil rights unrest, the anguish of her people, finally reaches her when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is jailed in Alabama, Medgar Evers is killed in Jackson, Mississippi, and a Black church is bombed in Birmingham, killing four young girls and injuring others. Nina’s own daughter had just turned one. Her flame of anger turns into a bonfire.
The next spread is stunning. It shows Nina playing the piano, surrounded by children. The piano is on fire. Robinson creates an amazing image that stays in my mind, a fire engine as the sheet music holder, and the interior of the grand piano resembles burning buildings. The flames continue on the next spread as a backdrop of her singing protest music with a band. “Nina was done being polite. As far as she could tell, politeness had gotten her people nothing.”
She decides that she’s had enough of building a career that ignores the violence and discrimination faced by Black people. Her music reflects that change, speaking directly to current events and calling out Alabama and Mississippi by name. From then on, Nina’s songs become a strong voice of protest.
This powerful and moving biography is a must read. And Christian Robinson’s illustrations, created with acrylics, collage, and digital techniques, are expressive and vibrant. A perfect match for Nina’s music.
BONUS: the book has a beautiful UNDIE!
A note about craft: The author and illustrator do a brilliant job of referring to or showing the growing civil rights unrest in parallel with the rise of Nina’s career—the author through the use of metaphor and incident and the illustrator by showing demonstrations, fire, or people in jails along the edges of the scenes or within Nina’s piano.
Make a collage of pianos, some cut from magazines, others drawn or painted, and others made of cut out shapes or printed from fun images you find on the internet. Use the variety of pianos shown in the book for inspiration.
Watch the official YouTube video of Nina SImone’s Feelin’ Good.
Pair this book with picture books about the Civil Rights Movement, including Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles, The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, Freedom on the Menu by Carole Boston Weatherford, and Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson.
Title: Nina: A Story of Nina Simone
Illustrator: Christian Robinson
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021
Ages: Elementary school
Themes: music, civil rights, prejudice
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.