Monday, August 24, 2020

Dark Was The Night: Blind Willie Johnson's Journey to the Stars by Gary Golio, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson's Journey to the Stars 
by Gary Golio,
illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020, 32 pages

One of the things I love most about being a reviewer is that I get to read all kinds of picture books and share them with my young readers. And one of my favorite picture book genres is biography. I have been introduced to so many people I  probably never would have known about otherwise thanks to picture book biographies.  

Take for example this new biography about Willie Johnson, an African American musician. Willie was born in 1897 in a small Texas town. As a young boy, he lost his mother and at age seven, he lost his sight. 

Despite being blind, Willie made music - at first, with a cigar box guitar his father made for him, then in church and later busking on the streets, traveling about Texas with a guitar and a tin cup, hoping for enough money to buy food and get a rented room.

And Willie knew how to sing the blues, sliding his pocket knife up and down the steel strings of his guitar, and giving it a voice of its own.

Discovered on the street by a man from a record company, Willie was given a chance to make a record his music and went on to enjoy a music career. But the one recording that Willie became best known for was a heartbreaking yet hopeful emotional gospel blues song called "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground." 

Small wonder that in 1977, when NASA was choosing what to include on the Golden Record they were sending into space that reflected the diversity of who we are as a people on Earth, a recording of Willie Johnson performing "Dark Was the Night" was chosen with its simple message of hope and a reminder that we are not alone.

Dark Was the Night is not exactly a picture book biography filled with facts, dates and places, and yet, after I finished it, I felt like I knew the real Willie Johnson, the persistent musician who could use music as if it were his own voice to express himself and his truth. And one of the ways the author did this was by contrasting the sources of lightness and darkness that impacted Willie throughout his life. 

And Golio's writing is a perfect compliment to his subject- full of emotion and musicality. He begins Willie's story in deep, dark space and brings it full circle, where his music "shined a light in the darkness and finally touched the stars." 

Adding to Golio's lyrical text are E.B. Lewis's subtle watercolor illustrations done in a palette of predominately dark blues and bright yellows. This is one of my favorite illustrations because I feel it really captures the sense of light and darkness that was so much a part of Willie's life, but not allowing either one to dominate it.

Be sure to read the back matter to learn more about Willie Johnson and the Golden Record that carried his beautiful music into the far reaches of the Universe.

And if you would like to hear Willie playing "Dark Was the Night,", you can find it on YouTube HERE. I have been listening to it repeatedly and I guarantee it is well worth your time.

This book is recommended for readers age 6+
This book was gratefully received from the author, Gary Golio

1 comment:

  1. E. B. Lewis has been accused of sexual misconduct:


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