Book report: Becoming Billie Holiday

Becoming Billie Holiday
By Carole Boston Weatherford
Art by Floyd Cooper
Published by Wordsong Poetry, (An imprint of Boyd Mills Press)

From the jacketflap: “In Philadelphia, on April 7, 1915, Sadie Fagan gave birth to a daughter. She named her Eleanora. The world, however, would know her as Billie Holiday, possibly the greatest jazz singer of all time.”

This book — or rather, should I say, Floyd Cooper’s art work — caught my eye this past spring while I walked the floor at TLA. I’m a huge fan of both Carole and Floyd’s work, so I practically begged Boyd Mills Press for their only copy. Instead, they took my name and recently sent me a review copy. I’ve never been so thrilled to open a package. And I read the book in practically one sitting (on a plane from Austin to Vegas).

Becoming Billie Holiday is a coming of age, fictionalized memoir told in verse. Combining oral histories from the singer’s contemporaries with Holiday’s sensationalized autobiography, Weatherford imagines Holiday’s legendary life from birth to young adulthood.

This story is real. Holiday’s life was rough around the edges, and the story doesn’t dance around those issues. Holiday was born to Sadie Fagan, a teenage, single mother, “‘Cause Clarence whispered in Sadie’s ear, sweet-talked his way right up her skirt.”

Born in Philadelphia, Holiday was sent to live with relatives in Baltimore when she was just a baby. Bumped around between extended family and her mother, she practically raised herself. She suffered a rape in which she had to serve time in reform school. She drank bootleg liquor, smoked marijuana (then legal), went to jail, and yet performed on stage (the first African-American woman to perform with an all white band) and appeared in films with Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson. This book will give readers a look into the life of Billie Holiday as a young person, before heroine and fast-living stole her life.

Words and art expertly combine to tell a compelling story of triumph (sink or swim, maybe) in the face of adversity.

Carole Boston Weatherford is the award-winning poet and author of over two dozen books for young readers. Floyd Cooper has illustrated over sixty books for children, and is the recipient of three Coretta Scott Kinng Honors.

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4 thoughts on “Book report: Becoming Billie Holiday

  1. Every fan–even Barack Obama–has a Billie Holiday story (Billie opens and closes chapter 5 of Obama’s memoir “Dreams from My Father.”) Thanks to my father’s vinyl collection, I heard “Lady in Satin,” her last album, as a child. When I was a teen, my father and I saw the film “Lady Sings the Blues.” Afterwards, I became a Holiday devotee. Somewhere along the way, she became my muse.
    I’d love to hear others’ Billie stories. Share yours at

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