Nina: A Story of Nina Simone

Image of Nina: A Story of Nina Simone
Release Date: 
September 28, 2021
G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by: 

“a gorgeous book, richly illustrated with powerful words, evoking the music of the talented Nina Simone.”

Nina is a gorgeous book, richly illustrated with a powerful words, evoking the music of the talented Nina Simone. Traci Todd uses just the right words, few, but effective, to show readers the discrimination young Eunice Waymon faced, both as a child and a young woman. The point isn’t hammered home but delivered with light effectiveness. Christian Robinson (Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor winner) offers art that is similarly forceful without being scary or overbearing. Ugly truths are told but in a way that a picture book audience can understand them.

More than a story of social justice, this is a story of an immense talent that wouldn’t be kept down.    Eunice, playing piano and singing in bars, changes her name to Nina Simone so as not to hurt her mother, a preacher who didn’t approve of jazz. As Nina, she could sing, play, even record music. The text itself is melodic: “She sang in a voice that was rich, sweet, and like thunder.” The art Robinson paints for that page has the syncopated rhythm of yellow lines on the floor, picked up by the bright yellow umbrella on Nina’s piano, about as good a way as it gets to illustrate musical cadence.

The journey from singer to social activist is told with the same care as the early childhood pages: “Nina heard it. Underneath the applause and the growing praise. Nina heard the steady roar of unrest. Her friends—great writers and thinkers—wanted her to add her voice. She was famous now, and people would listen!”

It takes a series of ugly events, but Nina finds a way to use both her long-buried pain and her powerful voice: “Nina pushed all of it into a raging storm of song. She called out Alabama and Mississippi by name. Her lyrics were so fed up and true, they couldn’t be spoken in polite company.”

For this page, Robinson has painted Nina at the piano with musicians around her, and emanating from them all are flames of fury, outrage, and courage, covered with the literal words of Nina’s song. It’s a brilliant evocation of pulsing music, reaching deep inside the listener.

The book ends on a hopeful note, one that brings in a new generation that needs to lift its voice. A thoroughly researched author’s note expands on the history behind the story. This is a book to be savored over and over again, a read-aloud that delivers its own song in this fitting tribute to a musical icon.