Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten

In a collaborative picture book debut with illustrator Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, folk singer-songwriter Laura Veirs--known best by families for her 2011 children's album Tumble Bee--gives young readers a loving portrait of the life of African American outsider musician Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten.

The narrative opens on Libba as a girl, smiling in shut-eyed bliss as she hears music in the rhythms of her daily life in early 20th-century North Carolina. Left-handed Libba, her face rapt in concentration, practices with brother's guitar, playing it "upside-down and backwards," and "before you could say 'DANG,' " she's "written her first song." Not "even thirteen yet" and Libba had written "Freight Train." Then, scenes of Libba's next 40 years of life speed past, painted on freight train cars across a single spread. Now a grandmother, Libba finds work as a housekeeper in Ruth Crawford Seeger's household, where we again see her luminous listening smile and the Seegers hear her music like "a gentle spring rain," a prelude to her belated stardom. 

Veir's reverence for her subject shines, her text studded with curving passages from Cotten's songs, and an extensive author's note fills in the finer details gleaned from research and interviews. Fazlalizadeh's drawings strike a perfect balance of sooty graphite shading and soft colors, the contrast making guitars and faces look smooth enough to touch. Parents and teachers should cue up "Freight Train" ahead of time as children will beg to hear Cotten's recordings after reading this inspiring love song to an American talent who always kept rolling. --Jaclyn Fulwood, youth services manager, Main Branch, Dayton Metro Library

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