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A Band of Angels: A Story Inspired by the Jubilee Singers (with audio recording)

A Band of Angels: A Story Inspired by the Jubilee Singers (with audio recording)

by Deborah Hopkinson, Raul Colon

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A Band of Angels is fiction, but it is based on real events and people. The character of Ella was inspired by Ella Sheppard Moore, who was born February 4, 1851, in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father was able to free himself and young Ella from slavery, but before he could buy freedom for Ella’s mother she was sold away. Ella was raised in Cincinnati, where


A Band of Angels is fiction, but it is based on real events and people. The character of Ella was inspired by Ella Sheppard Moore, who was born February 4, 1851, in Nashville, Tennessee. Her father was able to free himself and young Ella from slavery, but before he could buy freedom for Ella’s mother she was sold away. Ella was raised in Cincinnati, where she took music lessons. At fifteen, she was left penniless when her father died. She arrived at Fisk School in 1868 with only six dollars.

Fisk was opened in 1866 as a school for former slaves and began offering college classes in 1871. That year, in a desperate attempt to save Fisk from closing, a music teacher named George White set out with a group of students on a singing tour to raise money. Although at first they only sang popular music of the day, they soon became famous for introducing spirituals to the world.

Ella Sheppard was the pianist for the Jubilee Singers on their historic concert tours, which raised enough money to save the school and build Jubilee Hall, the first permanent structure in the South for the education of black students. Ella later married George Moore, had three children, and located her mother and a sister. She died in 1914. Today her great-granddaughter is a librarian at Fisk University who shares the history of the Jubilee Singers with visitors.

Although none graduated from Fisk, the original Jubilee Singers were recognized with honorary degrees in 1978. Today, Jubilee Singers at Fisk University continue to keep alive a rich musical tradition that includes such songs as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Many Thousand Gone,” and “Go Down, Moses.”

Editorial Reviews

Joanna Rudge Long
Founded for former slaves in 1866, Fisk School (now Fisk University) had to struggle to survive its early years. Hopkinson tells the fictionalized story of Ella Sheppard, pianist for the Jubilee Singers, who went on tour to raise money for their school and were instrumental introducing spirituals to the world. Colon's illustrations capture the dignity of the Singers and the eloquence of their performance.
The Horn Book Guide
Horn Book Magazine
Founded for former slaves in 1866, Fisk School (now Fisk University) had a struggle to survive its early years. To raise money, music teacher George White took his group, the Jubilee Singers, on tour. At first, the popular music they sang failed to attract an audience; but when they offered the hitherto unfamiliar music of their own heritage, they not only became famous but were also instrumental in introducing spirituals to the world. With the help of Fisk librarian Beth Howse (great-granddaughter of Ella Sheppard, the singers' pianist), Hopkinson tells Ella's fictionalized story as it's related by "Aunt Beth" to a niece who treasures this significant family history and imagines what it was like to be part of the historic group. Beginning with Ella's struggle to earn tuition for a longed-for education and the determination of all the students to keep their school alive, Hopkinson credits Ella herself with the dramatic turnaround when a bored audience was finally captivated. On the spur of the moment, Ella played and sang "Many Thousand Gone"; the others joined in, to ringing applause. Ironically, the tour became such a success that they never returned to Fisk to graduate; they did, however, save their school. Col¢n's handsome illustrations-monumental figures in richly textured brown, blue, and rust suffused with the golden tones of old photos-capture the dignity of the singers and the eloquence of their performance. A note on the history of the Jubilee Singers, who still perform, closes the book; endpapers feature portraits of nine of the singers.
Publishers Weekly
In a starred review of this story inspired by a groundbreaking African-American chorus founded in 1871, PW wrote, "Scenes of the chorus lost in song voices raised, eyes closed reveal the courage and heart of these trailblazing singers." Ages 5-9. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A groundbreaking African-American chorus founded in 1871 inspires this warm and moving picture book. "Grandma Ella was born into slavery... but no one could chain her voice," begins Aunt Beth in response to the girl narrator's request for her favorite story. After the Civil War, Ella becomes one of the first students to attend the Fisk School, a newly formed institution for freed slaves in Nashville. She has been at her studies only a short time when the school's run-down buildings and dire financial situation puts Fisk on the verge of closing. But Professor White, who teaches music, recruits Ella and fellow members of the school chorus to tour the northern states and raise money for Fisk. In the North, the singing group meets with harsh discrimination that moves them to perform not the slotted popular tunes of the day but the "powerful songs of courage" known as spirituals--a program change that earns them both money and accolades. Hopkinson's (Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt) lilting text interweaves subtle details about racial tensions after the Civil War while emphasizing the importance of education and of being true to oneself. Colon's (My Mama Had a Dancing Heart) watercolor and colored-pencil compositions are awash in soft, golden light. His characteristic cross-hatching technique adds texture and depth to each painting, and scenes of the chorus lost in song--voices raised, eyes closed--reveal the courage and heart of these trailblazing singers. Ages 5-8. (Jan.)
Children's Literature - Susie Wilde
Ella was born into slavery but "no one could chain her voice." Freed in adolescence, Ella longs for an education, and does all she can to earn money to attend the newly founded Fisk School in Nashville. When the school flounders, Ella and others in the chorus take to the road to sing their way to supporting Fisk. Travel is miserable, lodgings and restaurants refuse them and their renditions of popular songs fail to appeal to audiences. Saddened, Ella leads the others in singing hopeful spirituals, and their success leads the singers to tour the world and set a tradition of those who "keep the old songs alive." Ella Sheppard is the focus character in this story inspired by the Jubilee Singers. The effect of the singers on musical history is important, but so are the themes of education and how hard one woman works to attain it.
Children's Literature - Marilyn Courtot
Ella Sheppard was born into slavery, but when she reached fourteen, slaves were set free. She gathered what little money she had and headed off to Fisk School, a new school for freed slaves. Times were very hard, and the school was about to close for lack of funds. Ella had a magnificent voice and also could play the piano. Professor White, the music teacher, thought of a way to help. He would take his chorus, with Ella, on tour. However, it seemed that people didn't want to hear popular white songs from a black chorus. In despair one night, Ella began to play and sing one of the slave songs. The audience was mesmerized. From that night on, they sang spirituals, or jubilee songs-songs of hope and freedom. They became successful, traveled the world, and saved the school. While the tale is fiction, it is based on real events and would make a wonderful read-aloud in individual or group settings. Raúl Colón's recognizable watercolor and pencil art in warm browns and golds suits the period and mood of the story.
School Library Journal
Gr 1-5--This picture book is both touching and inspirational. The narrative is written from the point of view of the great-great-granddaughter of Ella Sheppard, one of the original Jubilee Singers from the Fisk School in Nashville, TN, the first school for freed slaves. As Aunt Beth tells about the struggles of Ella and the rest of the chorus to raise money to save their school, the girl imagines what her great-great-grandmother might have thought or felt. The singers traveled throughout the North after the Civil War performing popular music. However, it was only when they began to perform the "jubilee" or spiritual songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that they gained popularity. Later, they sang for Queen Victoria and President Grant and the funds they raised helped to build Jubilee Hall and establish Fisk University. Hopkinson's poignant prose sets the tone for this glimpse into a little-known bit of black history. Using the device of a family storyteller and a child narrator brings immediacy to the tale and a personal connection to the events. Colon's soft watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations are full of gentle greens and browns. The sepia tones add an antique look to the book. This heartwarming presentation is not a historical account, but rather a human look at recorded facts. A fine read-aloud with a good story, uplifting pictures, and fascinating information.--Beth Tegart, Oneida City Schools, NY
Mary Moore Easter
The warm, colored-pencil drawings by Raul Colon beautifully convey the book's story within a story...Deborah Hopkinson previously took on the task of fashioning events in black history for the understanding and reading pleasure of children in Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt. A Band of Angels is an excellent addition to her list of credits.
Riverbank Review

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Atheneum Books for Young Readers
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Age Range:
6 - 9 Years

Meet the Author

Deborah Hopkinson is the author of numerous award-winning children's books, including Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, winner of the International Reading Association Award, Girl Wonder, winner of the Great Lakes Book Award, and Apples to Oregon, a Junior Library Guild Selection. She received the 2003 Washington State Book Award for Under the Quilt for the Night. She lives in Oregon. Visit her on the Web at www.deborahhopkinson.com.
Raúl Colón has illustrated several highly acclaimed picture books, including Draw!; the New York Times bestselling Angela and the Baby Jesus by Frank McCourt; Susanna Reich’s José! Born to Dance; and Jill Biden’s Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops. Mr. Colón lived in Puerto Rico as a young boy and now resides in New City, New York, with his family.

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