By Elizabeth Wroten
Chapter Book Review: Billie’s Blues by Zetta Elliott
On 14, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Billie’s best friend thinks their neighbor, Ms. Marble, is crazy. Supposedly Ms. Marble has a hundred cats in her apartment and sings to them all day long. But when Billie spends an afternoon with her elderly neighbor, she discovers that Ms. Marble is actually a lot of fun! Ms. Marble introduces Billie to Lady Day, Ma Rainey, and other great blues singers. Together they dress up in antique clothes, and sing and dance to the blues. Then Ms. Marble shares an old secret she has been keeping in her heart. Billie learns that “some hurts stay inside you a mighty long time,” but the optimism of the blues triumphs in the end; Ms. Marble assures her young friend that “the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.”
Another excellent title from Zetta Elliott. Billie has the blues. It’s raining, her best friend is sick, her babysitter is running late and now she has to go with her mom to the community college for a few hours. Just as the elevator arrives on their floor, Ms. Marble, their elderly neighbor, pokes her head out to say hello. Billie grabs the opportunity and invites herself over to Ms. Marble’s apartment for the afternoon. Ms. Marble is delighted and the two spend an amazing afternoon listening to jazz, dressing up, and eating cookies.
The story was actually really cozy, despite the secret Ms. Marble shares (more on that in a minute). I think the story is a wonderful celebration of a cross-generational friendship developing. And I think readers will be able to discover all the great music and singers that Billie is introduced to that afternoon. I found Billie to be funny. She narrates inside her head and admits the times she is doing things her mother will find rude, like asking too many questions, using “ain’t”, and inviting herself over. But she also rather impishly says her mom isn’t there so she doesn’t care. That seemed like such a kid thing to do and made me chuckle. I think it also makes her really relatable to kids. They’ll have the same questions Billie does and be relieved she just up and asks.
I’m going to spoil the secret that Ms. Marble shares with Billie: her sweetheart was lynched in the South. The text does not specifically mention lynching, just that he was “taken”, but the illustration on the page shows a young Ms. Marble crying with a noose and gallows off in the distance. It’s certainly subtle and for some kids it won’t really register. Others may know exactly what happened. I suppose people’s tolerance for lynching in a book aimed at third through fifth graders will vary. Professionally, I don’t see any reason not to have the book on your shelf where families, children and teachers can make those decisions for themselves. Personally, I think children are very good at grasping difficult history, feeling compassion and tapping into their strong sense of social justice. (For those of you who think children don’t have a sense of social justice, go out to a playground at recess and pay attention.) Parents, teachers and librarians may need to be ready to answer questions that arise, but to me that’s the most important aspect of books like these. It opens up hard conversations, teaches history that isn’t usually discussed and validates children’s ability to really see the world as it is. There is a little bit of age appropriate information included in the back. It might seem radical to some conservative library populations (even my school would have parents that would object), but I guarantee you children will be able to handle it (yes, I’ve talked about this and worse with my five year old).
The book ends on a happy note and a hint at Billie and Ms. Marble’s friendship continuing. If you don’t have Elliott’s books on your shelves yet, what are you waiting for? They are exactly the kind of stuff we need to give to our kids. Run, don’t walk, to her website and/or Amazon and buy all of them now!