While much has been written for adults about the remarkable jazz singer Billie Holiday and her tragic life, telling her story to children is a bit trickier. With a childhood scarred by neglect and violence, and later a career marked by drug abuse and prison time, the singing legend's life is not easily boiled down into a simple storyline. But author Amy Novesky has found a way in.
Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013), vividly illustrated in mixed media by Vanessa Brantley Newton, tells the story of Billie Holiday's love of dogs, especially her loyal hound Mister, a boxer. Opening with images of a white poodle in her coat pocket and bottle-fed Chihuahuas, this story is sure to connect and appeal to young children. And as with Amy's other biographical picture books – about photographer Imogen Cunningham with Imogen: The Mother of Modernism and Three Boys (Cameron + Company, 2012),
artist Frida Kahlo with Me, Frida (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010), and Georgia O’Keeffe with Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O'Keeffe Painted What She Pleased (Harcourt Children's Books, 2012) – it's clear this author has a gift for telling the story of talented 20th century women.
Question: Billie Holiday is legendary and her music speaks to many generations. What made you want to write about "Lady Day"?
Amy Novesky: I've always loved Billie Holiday, and I couldn't believe that there weren't any picture books about her. Like Frida, Georgia, and Imogen, subjects of my other picture books, I'm inspired not just by Billie as an artist, but as a person. When I think of Billie Holiday, I think of her elegance, her signature gardenia flowers framing her lovely face, the unforgettable tone of her voice. She was an extraordinary person, in addition to being an extraordinary singer.
Q: Writing biographies for children is challenging, especially when the material about the subject's childhood is slim. But by framing your story around Billie's love of dogs, you've created an engaging tale that connects immediately with young readers. How did you land on this as your story? Can you talk about your creative process?
AN: When I set out to write a picture book about Billie, I quickly realized why there were no picture books about her: she had a tough life. A father who abandoned her, a mother in survival mode, prostitution, drug addiction and conviction, early death. Tough themes for a kid's book. But I like a good challenge. Just because she had a tough life, doesn't mean kids shouldn't know about her. Her challenges make her human, and that's something everyone can relate to. And she had this incredible gift! That said, I wanted to find an accessible way into her story. While I was researching Billie's life, I learned that she loved dogs and that she had several in her life, including a beloved boxer named Mister. That's when I knew I had a story (and the title for a book). Billie's dogs were my way into her story.
Some of my other stories have not been as immediately clear. I begin with an idea for a story and then I research. I learn everything I can about the subject, seek out primary sources when I can. I usually don't know what story I will tell, but when I do, I focus in. The challenge with the lesser known stories is that there is less known, less documented, less written. That was certainly the case with my book about Frida Kahlo. I chose to tell the story of her first trip to San Francisco, a footnote in her biography. It took some time for this story to become a story, many drafts and directions (factual and fictional; I invented an earthquake), a handful of rejections from publishers, even a few years in a desk drawer, until I happened upon the one detail (an art show, perhaps her first) that shifted this story from static to dynamic, and the story was acquired, and two years later, became a book. A few of my "too-slight" stories are still in the proverbial desk drawer to emerge, if ever, on their own time.
Q: While Billie Holiday's life is fascinating, some of her experiences are hard to explain for a young audience. But you handled her arrest and drug conviction deftly. How challenging was that to navigate?
AN: Very. I'm the mother of an eight year old boy. I certainly don't want to expose him, or any young reader, to anything that he is not ready for. And so, me and my editor, Samantha McFerrin, gave a lot of thought to just how much to say about Billie's drug conviction and prison term, the reason for her having to leave Mister behind for a year and a day. What we decided to focus on was this idea of Billie getting into trouble, something young readers can relate to. What that trouble was doesn't really matter. That said, because kids want to know the truth, the author's note explains why Billie got into trouble and where she went. (Author's notes are a great place to put everything that doesn't quite fit into the narrative.) I'm not sure if this works, but it's what we chose to do.
Q: You're the author of a variety of titles for young readers, including many that spotlight remarkable women. How do you decide on your subjects? And what do you want to accomplish with your writing?
AN: I write about what inspires me – people (Ganesh, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe, Imogen Cunningham, Billie Holiday) and places (India, San Francisco, Hawaii). I'm always looking for stories. When I come upon an idea, I spend time researching it, and if I find the thread of a story, if I feel like I want to spend several years of my life with it and believe in it as a book, if I can envision promoting it, then I will start writing. Every story has a life of its own. My new picture book biography manuscript was inspired nearly eight years ago by a New York Times article. But when I started researching this particular artist, I did not connect with her life and her work, and so I put the idea aside, until a year and a half ago when I happened upon a new monograph of the artist's late work, which I very much connected with, and I immediately found the thread, an entire tapestry, of the story and wrote it in a week. It flowed.
I love writing picture book biographies, and as long as I am inspired, I will write them. That said, the more I write them, the more humbled I am by the responsibility of writing about a real person, of getting it right. I'm humbled by the responsibility of making a book public and promoting it. This is leading me to only write what I feel passionate about, what I believe in wholeheartedly. And so, I'm at a crossroads with my writing and my identity as a writer.
Q: What else will we see from you? What's next?
AN: What will I write next? I'm not sure. I have a handful of manuscripts out with editors right now, including the picture book biography mentioned above, and a baseball book, inspired by a story my son wrote. (His stories are much better than mine). Beyond that, something wonderful and true, I hope.