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God Bless the Child

God Bless the Child

by Billie Holiday, Jerry Pinkney (Illustrator), Jr., Arthu Herzog Arthur, Jr. Herzog, Arthur Herzog

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"Mama may have,
Papa may have,
But God bless the child
That's got his own!
That's got his own."

The song "God Bless the Child" was first performed by legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday in 1939 and remains one of her enduring masterpieces. In this picture book interpretation, renowned illustrator Jerry Pinkney has


"Mama may have,
Papa may have,
But God bless the child
That's got his own!
That's got his own."

The song "God Bless the Child" was first performed by legendary jazz vocalist Billie Holiday in 1939 and remains one of her enduring masterpieces. In this picture book interpretation, renowned illustrator Jerry Pinkney has created images of a family moving from the rural South to the urban North during the Great Migration that reached its peak in the 1930s. The song's message of self-reliance still speaks to us today but resonates even stronger in its historical context. This extraordinary book stands as a tribute to all those who dared so much to get their own.

Editorial Reviews

ALA Booklist (starred review)
“. …brilliantly conceived.”
ALA Booklist
". …brilliantly conceived."
Publishers Weekly
Diverse selections of poetry celebrate culture and history. In the latest addition to a series of books based on song lyrics, God Bless the Child, the words of the song co-written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr. and made famous by Lady Day give rise to breathtaking watercolor scenes, many of them wordless spreads, by Jerry Pinkney. In a dedication he credits Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series as his inspiration for a visual narrative about a family's move North in the 1930s; Pinkney begins with a family gathered around the Bible at a time when education for African-Americans was not encouraged ("Them that's got shall get,/ Them that's not shall lose,/ So the Bible said,/ And it still is news"). The children find joy in a dousing at the water pump or chasing a butterfly ("God bless the child/ That's got his own"). Poignant consecutive wordless spreads show the home the family has left behind, then Chicago's elevated train stretching to the horizon; here "Mama may have,/ Papa may have" takes on another dimension, as the parents work in factories with a promise of hope. A final image shows their son at school-a dream fulfilled. Repeated viewings reveal an extraordinary level of detail and a visual and narrative movement that echoes the family's journey. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Using the few words of the Billie Holiday song as his text, Pinkney has drawn on its message that God blesses the child "that's got his own" for his recreation of African American life in the 1930's. Beginning on the farm, he depicts the hard life and poor living conditions of the share-croppers along with some of the family fun and togetherness. Then as part of the Great Migration north, we follow the family to the city where both their work and their living conditions change, but where they stay together. The migration is symbolized on the end-papers: the front pages depict the rough wood planks of a share-cropper's cabin while the back pages display the floral wallpaper likely to be found in a city apartment. Pinkney's drawings, tinted with transparent watercolors, are remarkable in their ability to evoke a time and a place and the genuine human beings who live and work there. All the details of local neighborhoods are there, but the paintings are sensitive to story-telling, highlighting those aspects most significant for the narrative. The pictures parallel the lines of the song, but illustrate in a spiritual sense, with many double pages telling the story with no text at all. A lengthy note by the artist not only adds information about the Great Migration, but describes his personal involvement in collecting the information and relevant visuals. He notes that his final illustration, of a child in a classroom, emphasizes the importance of free public education as the great equalizer. A bonus is the inclusion of a CD of the rich voice of Billie Holiday herself singing the title song with jazz accompaniment. 2004 (orig. 1941), Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, Ages 6 up.
—KenMarantz and Sylvia Marantz
Library Journal
K-Gr 5-A moving visual interpretation of Holiday and Herzog's swing spiritual based on the proverb, "God blessed the child that's got his own." The song serves as the inspiration for Pinkney's depiction of the Great Migration of the 1930s. Through evocative images, the artist tells the story of one family's move north. The warm and sweeping illustrations are masterful, completely filling each spread. Although the pages are rich in detail, the well-composed paintings never seem cluttered or overwhelming. There is something new to attract readers, even after several readings. The sense of the family members as a unit, as well as their emotions of hope, anxiety, and relief, are all beautifully conveyed. A CD of Holiday performing the song is included, and while the book can be enjoyed without it, listening to the nostalgic and somewhat bittersweet music does elicit an emotional response. While a fine choice for independent reading, this title is particularly poignant when shared with a group, turning the pages in conjunction with the CD. An author's note provides background about Pinkney's inspirations and research. This offering makes an excellent tie-in to units on African-American history.-Mary N. Oluonye, Shaker Heights Public Library, OH Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
With Holiday's music and Pinkney's art, this package sets expectations high-and doesn't disappoint. The simple words are mournful, yet matter-of-fact; the refrain "But God bless the child / That's got his own!" keeps the focus on the young audience. Pinkney's inspired decision to illustrate this hymn-like lament with images of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the Deep South to the industrial north truly brings the words to life. He signifies the historical setting first in the endpapers: those at the beginning show a pattern of wood boards evocative of the walls of a sharecropper's cabin; and those at the end show what looks like flowered wallpaper. Images of dignified figures first picking cotton, then packing the car, then sewing in a factory, eventually buying ice cream from a truck, and, finally, gathered around a piano and making music together, alternate with landscape scenes of a field of workers, an abandoned cabin, and the elevated train tracks in Chicago. The evocative recording on the CD ends too quickly; there is much to pore over and discuss here, and this remarkable work is worth picking up (and listening to) more than once. (Picture book. 4-8)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Book and CD
Product dimensions:
8.75(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.25(d)
Age Range:
4 - 8 Years

Meet the Author

Billie Holiday is one of the most famous jazz singers of all time. She was born Eleanora Fagan Gough in 1915 in Baltimore, Maryland, but changed her name to Billie after her favorite film star, Billie Dove, and Holiday, which was her father's last name. As a child and in the beginning stages of her career, she endured many hardships but made her first recording in 1933 at the age of eighteen. She quickly rose to stardom, and six years later she introduced the world to two of her best-known songs: "Strange Fruit" and "God Bless the Child." Billie Holiday's star burned brightly, but too briefly. She died in New York City at the age of forty-four.

Jerry Pinkney is the illustrator of more than a hundred books for children. A five-time winner of both the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award, he has been recognized with numerous other honors, taught illustration and conducted workshops at universities across the country, and created art for the United States Postal Service's Black Heritage stamps. Books Mr. Pinkney has illustrated include The Ugly Duckling, John Henry, The Nightingale, and Noah's Ark. The father of four grown children, he lives and works in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, in a nineteenth-century carriage house with his wife, author Gloria Jean.

In His Own Words...

"I grew up in a small house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was a middle child of six. I started drawing as far back as I can remember, at the age of four or five. My brothers drew, and I guess in a way I was mimicking them. I found I enjoyed the act of putting marks on paper. It gave me a way of creating my own space and quiet time, as well as a way of expressing myself. You can imagine six children competing for attention and to be heard. I would sit, watching and drawing.

"In first grade I had the opportunity to draw a large picture of a fire engine on the blackboard. I was complimented and encouraged to draw more. The attention felt good, and I wanted more. I was not a terrific reader or adept speller in my growing-up years, and I felt insecure in those areas. Drawing helped me build my self-esteem and feel good about myself, and, with hard work, I graduated from elementary school with honors.

"I attended an all-black elementary school, and I gained a strong sense of self and an appreciation of my own culture there. But Roosevelt Junior High was integrated. There I had many friends, both white and black, at a time when there was little mixing socially in school. There the spark for my curiosity about people was lit. You can see this interest and fascination with people of different cultures throughout my work.

"My formal art training started at Dobbins Vocational High School, and upon graduation I received a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. My major was advertising and design. The most exciting classes for me were drawing, painting, and printmaking. It is no wonder I turned to illustrating and designing books. For me the book represents the ultimate in graphics: first, as a designer, considering space, page size, number of pages, and type size; then, as an illustrator, dealing with the aesthetics of line, color, and form.

"There were three books that somehow magically came into my possession in the early sixties: The Wind in the Wows, illustrated by Arthur Rackham; The Wonder Clock, illustrated by Howard Pyle; and Rain Makes Applesauce, illustrated by Marvin Bileck. You can see those influences in my art today. Later, my work was greatly influenced by such African American artists as Charles White, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence.

"From the very beginning of my career in illustrating books, research has been important. I do as much as possible on a given subject, so that I live the experience and have a vision of the people and places. To capture a sense of realism for characters in my work, I use models that resemble the people I want to portray. My wife, Gloria Jean (also an author), and I keep a closetful of old clothes to dress up the models, and I have the models act out the story. Photos are taken to aid me in better understanding body language and facial expressions. Once I have that photo in front of me I have freedom, because the more you know, the more you can be inventive.

"For illustrating stories about animals, I keep a large reference file of over a hundred books on nature and animals. The first step in envisioning a creature is for me to pretend to be that particular animal. I think about its size and the sounds it makes, how it moves (slowly or quickly), and where it lives. I try to capture the feeling of the creature, as well as its true-to-life characteristics. There are times when the stories call for the animals to be anthropomorphic, and I've used photographs of myself posing as the animal characters.

"It still amazes me how much the projects I have illustrated have given back to me in terms of personal and artistic satisfaction. They have given me the opportunity to use my imagination, to draw, to paint, to travel through the voices of the characters in the stories, and, above all else, to touch children."

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