When Marian Sang
by Pam Munoz Ryan; ill. by Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press, 2002
I’m not sure when I first heard of Marian Anderson, the legendary black American contralto–probably in high school, when my younger sister started studying opera.
But I remember being instantly fascinated by this photo of her performance at the Lincoln Memorial, where she sang in 1939 after the DAR refused to host a black performer at Constitution Hall.
She stood so straight and proud, so full of passion for and confidence in her art. In my mind, I could hear her rich voice floating out over the crowd, the notes thinned perhaps by the wind but still powerful.
I couldn’t fathom why anyone would deny themselves or anyone else the opportunity to hear her sing.
When Marian Sang does an excellent job of fleshing out that picture for children, beginning with Anderson’s early days in her church choir in Philadelphia. Ryan’s lengthy but easy-to-understand text does more than catalog the events of Anderson’s life. It explores her deep passion for music, the dedication of her family and community, and the ways segregation hampered and altered the course of her career.
Adding depth and poetry to the text, lyrics from Anderson’s beloved spirituals mark significant milestones in her life: her father’s untimely death, her audition for famed vocal coach Giuseppe Boghetti, her lonely voyage to Europe. Selznick’s sepia-toned illustrations glow with an inner light and create the same deep, moody atmosphere as the singer’s voice.
When I first offered to read this book to my 5-year-old daughter, she looked dubious. In her Pucci-oriented world, a sepia-toned cover does not a good book make. But she lives and breathes music, so I quickly said, “It’s about a famous singer who had a beautiful voice.”
“Did she sing even when she was a little girl?” my daughter asked.
“Yes, and she was amazing even then,” I said.
“Then let’s read it!!” my daughter said, as though I had been the one suggesting we put it back on the shelf.
So we read the book, and she sat mesmerized through every closely written page. She tried to sing the spirituals with me. She asked questions about opera and Jim Crow. When it was over, she asked to read it again. And again. And again.
Then she said, “Can we hear Marian Anderson sing?”
We spent the next 45 minutes trolling YouTube for old Marian Anderson recordings. We listened to “Ave Maria,” part of the Lincoln Memorial concert, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” By the time each song ended, my daughter had another one picked out. She went to sleep that night humming spirituals.
Marian Anderson’s story had captivated her, educated her. Inspired her.
*”Genius, like Justice, is blind. For Genius has touched with the tip of her wing this woman. . . . Genius draws no color line. She has endowed Marian Anderson with such a voice as lifts an individual above his fellows, as is a matter of exultant pride to any race.” –Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, introducing Anderson at the 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert
How does Marian Anderson’s story inspire you or the girls in your life?