Zora and Langston. Billie and Bessie. Eubie and Duke. If the Harlem Renaissance had a court, they were its kings and queens. But there were other, lesser known individuals whose contributions were just as impactful, such as Florence Mills. Born to parents who were former-slaves Florence knew early on that she loved to sing. And that people really responded to her sweet, bird-like voice. Her dancing and singing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired songs and even entire ...
Zora and Langston. Billie and Bessie. Eubie and Duke. If the Harlem Renaissance had a court, they were its kings and queens. But there were other, lesser known individuals whose contributions were just as impactful, such as Florence Mills. Born to parents who were former-slaves Florence knew early on that she loved to sing. And that people really responded to her sweet, bird-like voice. Her dancing and singing catapulted her all the way to the stages of 1920s Broadway where she inspired songs and even entire plays! Yet with all this success, she knew firsthand how bigotry shaped her world. And when she was offered the role of a lifetime from Ziegfeld himself, she chose to support all-black musicals instead.
Fans of When Marian Sang and Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa will jump at the chance to discover another talented performer whose voice transcended and transformed the circumstances society placed on her.
…[a] charming and evocative biography, carefully pitched to younger readers…[with] energetic, appealing illustrations…
Watson (A Place Where Hurricanes Happen) pairs with first-time illustrator Robinson for a subdued but striking telling of the life of Florence Mills, following her journey from "the daughter of former slaves, living in a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy house" to international stardom as a singer and performer. Robinson's chunky mixed-media collages have a vibrant palette and angularity that nods to Harlem Renaissance artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, while removing some of the sting from the discrimination Mills was exposed to, even as a child. In a memorable early scene, a young Mills refuses to perform at a whites-only club until her black friends can be snuck in to watch: "If they can't go in there, I'm staying out here!" she insists. Although Watson makes Mills's musical talents clear (an author's note reveals that her "voice was never recorded, and no films of her performances exist"), weight is also given to her generosity, even at the height of her stardom, cementing the idea that the potential for greatness lies within everyone. Ages 3–8. Illustrator's agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Booklist, June 2012: “With a text that stylistically sings yet is packed with information, the book introduces a woman who, though part of the Harlem Renaissance, is not well remembered by history.”
- Sarah Maury Swan
From the time she was a wee babe, Florence learned to sing. First she sang to make thunderstorms disappear and then to entertain her friends at school. But when word got out around Washington, DC of what a wonderful voice the young Ms. Mills had, she was invited to sing and dance at a famous theater. She and her family arrived for the show only to have the stage manager bar her family from going in. "Whites only" was the decree. Florence stood up to the man. She wouldn't sing if her family couldn't also come in. She turned to walk away, but the stage manager relented and snuck the family in. Florence gave her best performance ever. Soon the family moved to New York where Florence and her two sisters sang as The Mills Sisters at Harlem's Lincoln Theatre. But Florence was everybody's favorite. She played in musicals and was part of the Harlem Renaissance, rubbing shoulders with Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes among others. The first time she sang in London in From Dover Street to Dixie and even on the voyage over, Florence experienced more prejudice. When she returned to Harlem, she turned down an offer to sing in Ziegfield's company. Instead she used her voice and her influence to promote unknown black singers. She is known for her voice, but just as much for her cry for equal rights. This nicely written story will be a good addition to any family or school library and the illustrations capture the tone of the book. Reviewer: Sarah Maury Swan
School Library Journal
K-Gr 3—While there are no cordings of her voice, singer Mills left a lasting mark in other ways-most notably with her efforts to bring attention to rising black performers and her compassion for the sick and poor. Born in 1896, she became known for her lovely voice and energetic stage presence as a child. Yet even with the rave reviews she received, she endured painful acts of prejudice. Her friends were refused entry to a theater in Washington, DC, to watch young Mills sing and dance, and later, when she was invited to perform in London, white passengers on the ship refused to share the dining room with her and her entourage. Mills was feisty, refusing to perform unless her guests could watch the show, and she turned down the chance to be the first black woman to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies in favor of joining shows that gave young black performers their chance to shine on stage. There's a cheerful, singsong quality to Watson's writing, but it doesn't diminish the impact of racism in Mills's life. Robinson utilizes cut paper and ink in rich earth tones to create a folk-art style that's audacious and warm, much like the performer herself. This is a wonderful book for introducing a trailblazer in entertainment and equality.—Alyson Low, Fayetteville Public Library, AR
Watson's biographical distillation of the life of jazz singer and dancer Florence Mills is endearing and affectionate, at just the right level for very young readers. The child who "lived in a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy house" won singing and cakewalking contests all over Washington, D.C., and became famous dancing with her sisters. When Florence was a young teen, the girls performed in Harlem's Lincoln Theatre in New York, and from there, Florence landed roles in Shuffle Along and From Dover Street to Dixie, introducing jazz to white audiences and mesmerizing crowds. Robinson's big-eyed portrayal of Florence and her work is terrific: jazzy, geometric and lively. The city scenes, stage moments and glimpses of Florence on- and offstage are sweetly retro; 20 blackbirds on stylized, blooming branches on both front and back endpapers add charm to the work overall. Mills' generous personality comes through clearly, and Watson aptly uses lyrics from Mills' songs to help emphasize the story. Watson describes Florence's decision to turn down a part in the Ziegfield Follies for chances to perform with other black actors and singers and to continue to "use her voice for more than entertainment"--to sing for equal rights. Young readers and listeners will feel the thrill of her success here and in London and the sadness of Florence's death at age 31. Her brief life is well worth celebrating, and here it is done well. (Picture book/biography. 3-8)
RENÉE WATSON has worked as a teaching-artist for more than 10 years, teaching creative writing and theater to elementary, middle, and high school students. She also uses writing and drama therapy to work with youth and adults. Renée lives in New York, NY.