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Strange Fruit for Young Readers

Being a son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg presented challenges when I became a parent. My wife Elli and I decided not to hide my parents’ story from our children. When our daughters were young, we were in the midst of what we called “the reopening effort,” so my parents’ case was in the news. We didn’t sit our kids down to discuss it formally; we talked about what was going on over dinner, just as we commented on other news. It worked out. My kids say they can no more remember when they learned about their grandparents than they can tell you when they first knew their own names. It was who they were, rather than a deep, dark secret.

Our daughter Rachel acted similarly with her children. In response to a question from our granddaughter when she was five, Elli wrote a picture book for Josie titled A Girl Named Ethel. An age-appropriate book about her great-grandmother seemed a good way to provide information. Now that Josie’s younger brother Abel is four, I hope he’ll be interested as well.

But we had another family challenge of a somewhat similar nature. My adoptive father, Abel Meeropol, wrote the words and music to what became Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit. When I was growing up, Abel and I never talked about the powerfully evocative words and haunting music of his anti-lynching anthem. I didn’t fully understand the song’s meaning until I was a young adult. Abel died 30 years ago, and I still regret not talking more with him about this.

Today, Strange Fruit is everywhere. It is intimately connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, covered by dozens of singers, performed live in theater productions nationally, and played on television and in movies. There are dances, exhibits and books based upon it. How do you explain the brutal meaning and power of this song to children?

Gary Golio’s new book, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, takes this challenge on and nails it. Gary is a noted children’s book author. He has a Masters Degree in Social Work and has worked as a child therapist. I had the opportunity to talk with the author as he was writing the book and am pleased with his accomplishment.

The book is written for 8 to 12-year-olds, and is gorgeously illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. It confronts segregation, racism, censorship, lynching and resistance in a sensitive manner that most “tweens” can digest. Publishers Weekly and Kirkus gave it “starred” reviews. The Kirkus review concludes: “A must-read, must-discuss that will speak to children and linger with adults.” With racism running rampant, this book will make a valuable addition to any child’s library.

Gary told me, before the book came out, that he thought it would not be too intense for my granddaughter. Josie doesn’t have a copy yet because I’m planning to make it a birthday present when she turns nine at the end of the month. I may have to wait a couple of years to read it to Abel, but I’m already looking forward to sharing his great-grandfather’s work with his namesake.
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