Summerstock theater, blockbuster movies, dance camp, the circus. Summertime is the perfect time to perform in or watch a show. I’ve rounded up here some fascinating Cybils titles about great women performers who broke barriers and overcame obstacles for their moment in the spotlight. Pick one up to share with your kids before your next show.
Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sarah Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca. 2010 Cybils nominee.
This book explores the inevitable artistic obstacles that come with collaboration. We see Martha Graham, Aaron Copland, and Isamu Noguchi working together to create the dance, music, and set for the first performance of Appalachian Spring.
Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills by Renée Watson, illustrated by Christian Robinson. 2013 Cybils nominee.
Florence Mills sang out as a child and wondered about her voice, “What else can it do?” She found out. She overcame poverty and racial prejudice to become a Broadway star during the Harlem Renaissance. She used her fame to shine the spotlight on other black performers.
Oprah: The Little Speaker by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by London Ladd. 2010 Cybils nominee.
This book tells the story of Oprah Winfrey’s hard-scrabble, lonely childhood. We see her learning, dreaming, and trusting God.
Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Woo, illustrated by Lin Wang. 2009 Cybils nominee.
Anna May Wong was a famous Hollywood star in the 1930s. This book tells the story of how she fulfilled her childhood dream to act, only to realize that she was being shunted into roles that were negative, stereotypical depictions of Asians. She made tough decisions about how she would respond to such discrimination. This book has beautiful paintings, worthy of a 1930s Hollywood poster.
Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Sean Qualls. 2010 Cybils finalist.
Ella Fitzgerald did not look like a singing star. She was dirty, ragged, and homeless. Her voice cracked the first time she sang into a microphone. This story, with its marvelous acrylic and pencil collages by Sean Qualls, lyrically tells the story of Fitzgerald’s rise to stardom.
Stand Straight, Ella Kate by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise. 2010 Cybils nominee.
Ella Kate Ewing, who was born in 1872, did not grow up with a passion for the stage. But when she never stopped growing and ended up eight feet tall, working onstage in a sideshow was the only way she could make a living. She embraced her role onstage with quiet dignity and self-assurance and ended up making a fortune.
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad. 2015 Cybils nominee.
This lyrical picture book tells the haunting story of Anna Pavlova’s drive to dance ballet, despite her family’s poverty, despite her own physical problems. After she becomes a successful ballerina, we see her devote her life to bringing ballet to unlikely venues all over the world. The illustrations, in ink, gouache, graphite, pencil, and crayon, dance with the words on the page.
Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm by Karen Deans, illustrated by Joe Cepeda. 2015 Cybils nominee.
Orphaned African American girls from Louisiana formed a band in 1939. They played jazz, swing, and big band music with a female conductor and all female musicians. Over time, a few white girls joined the band, too. The band encountered both sexism and racism but kept making their music.