BOOK: Pictorial bio tells story of famous singer descended from slaves“Harlem’s Little Blackbird,” by Renee Watson, is a picture book biography of African-American singer and dancer, Florence Mills.
By: Jean Patrick, Republic Book Columnist
When Florence Mills was a little girl, she’d sing through thunderstorms until the rain stopped. She thought, “If my voice is powerful enough to stop the rain, what else can it do?”
“Harlem’s Little Blackbird,” by Renee Watson, is a picture book biography of African-American singer and dancer, Florence Mills. Born to former slaves in 1896, she grew up in a tiny house in Washington, D.C.
Even so, she never hesitated to use her voice to stand up for what was right. When she was asked to sing at a fancy theater, she agreed — until she found out that her friends weren’t allowed because of their race.
Florence said to the manager, “If they can’t go in there, I’m staying out here!”
As a young woman, Florence performed from coast to coast, singing and dancing, nearly flying like a bird, introducing jazz to white audiences in the 1920s. Later she became a star in London.
Again, she thought, “If my voice can take me around the world, what else can it do?”
When she returned to New York City, she turned down an invitation to perform with the Ziegfeld Follies so she could join a show that gave unknown black singers and actors a chance to perform on stage.
Her generosity didn’t stop at race. Often, she disguised herself to give money to beggars and care for others.
“Harlem’s Little Blackbird” stands out from other picture book biographies. Author Renee Watson’s voice is as lyrical as a storyteller’s, subtly including alliteration and rhythm.
Christian Robinson’s cut-paper illustrations provide the ideal complement. Florence’s expressions and physical actions (much more apparent than on the book cover) make the subject matter readily accessible for kids.
Above all, the last sentence of the book is memorable. Speaking not just to dancers or singers, Watson writes that Florence “lives on in the heart of every boy and girl … who dreams of doing great big, gigantic, enormous things.”
“Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills.” Words by Renee Watson. Pictures by Christian Robinson. Random House, 2013. 40 pp.