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Next, we’ll tell you the story of an almost deferred dream. It starts with a little girl raised in the isolated south of the 1930s and 1940s.

TRACI TODD: It was Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She was born in Tryon, North Carolina, and she really wanted to be a classical musician.

CORNISH: That’s author Traci Todd, and the way she tells it …

TODD: That dream didn’t come true, but Nina found a way. Nina found a way.

CORNISH: Eunice became Nina Simone, the prolific songwriter and singer behind “To Be Young, Gifted And Black”, among many other songs.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) You’re young, talented, and black.

CORNISH: Traci Todd tells the story of Simone’s youth in vibrant and emotional hues in a new children’s book called “Nina: A Story Of Nina Simone”. It is illustrated by critically acclaimed artist Christian Robinson. So what prompted them to take a version of Simone’s story, one marked by racism and mental health issues, and turn it into a story for children?


SIMONE: (singing) There’s a world, little girl, waiting for you.

TODD: The weight of all of this didn’t occur to me when I first started writing. I recognized that there was a difficult story to tell here. But eventually I got to the point where I felt like I had a story that made sense and that honored Nina Simone. I really wanted to tell a story that, you know, showed the trajectory of her life, showed how her experiences as a child had impacted who she was as an adult.

CORNISH: Christian Robinson, for you, I think, you know, when I look at some of the other work you’ve illustrated, whether it’s “The Dead Bird”, Margaret Wise Brown, which is, you know, a picture book mainly on death – you also illustrated a book on Josephine Baker. How did you think about approaching this?

CHRISTIAN ROBINSON: Well, I like stories that are a little more difficult to approach and present to a child. But I think these are the most important stories to tell – the ones that show the hardships of the world but in a way that is honest and accessible to young people.

CORNISH: Was there a look, though, that looked like, oh, that’s how I can conjure it up, which is her profile or her hair or one of his postures? Is there something that, like, when you look at these album covers, kind of starts coming to you?

ROBINSON: It was – the hair for me, I think, that’s what I kind of thought it would be the thing to capture her graphically – also her profile. Usually, when I illustrate, I favor simplicity, so I always simplify things. But with Nina, I felt compelled to show her features, to make sure they were clearly visible because that was part of what made her so special and important.

CORNISH: Yeah because she cared about being seen as a black woman, right? It was really part of his public philosophy. She wanted to be seen as a dark-skinned black woman and for people to find beauty in her.

ROBINSON: Yeah. She was genuine. She came across as so real, so human. You will notice that the cover of the book is pink.

CORNISH: Not just pink. This is the brightest and most rosy pink possible …

TODD: Yes.

CORNISH: … That you could find.

ROBINSON: Well, yeah. Pink is a gorgeous color. It’s a bold color, but it’s also a soft color. And I think it was important for me, when I was telling her story visually, not only to show her strength, but also her vulnerability. You know, often a character like Nina is seen as that pillar of strength that has overcome so much. But, you know, all of these things and experiences that she went through affected her deeply. And it was important for me to visually show this vulnerability, this gentleness.

TODD: I think a lot of times when we see stories of civil rights leaders, they’re kind of pushed into a moment. And there is no idea what happened before and how it turned out. And I just wanted to tell Nina’s story as an experience of something that builds on the things that came before because that’s kind of how I experienced her music. One of my favorite songs is “Turning Point” which is just that little song where Nina pretends to be a little girl and, I guess, a white girl because she describes this new friend whose skin is like chocolate. .


SIMONE: (singing) See the little brunette? She’s as old as me.

TODD: And she talks to her mom about it and all the fun they had in first year. And then when she asks her mother if her new friend can come, the music stops.


SIMONE: Mom, what did you say?

TODD: And Nina says, why not, mom?


SIMONE: Why not? (Vocals) Ah.

TODD: And this song is so about that moment when Nina couldn’t play with young David (ph) anymore, who had been her playmate for so long.

CORNISH: Right. It’s a scene from the book where the child of his mother’s employer is his playmate until one day …

TODD: Yes.

CORNISH: … It’s decided that he can’t be that playmate anymore.

TODD: Yes. I think it’s important for children to see how these people we revere and hold in such high regard were as children and how that impacted who they became as children. adults.

CORNISH: You know, one of the things about Nina Simone is that her voice had a lot of texture. And I think in this story, Traci, you describe times like a low growl of anger and fear, her voice being like thunder.


SIMONE: (Singing) Hounds on my trail, those school kids sitting in jail.

CORNISH: Can you talk about your writing style, how you developed it?

SIMONE: I wanted to get the idea to build. So I use the thunder imagery, and I use the drum, you know, because I think about the book so much that it’s about building until that final moment, building until the creation of “Mississippi Goddam” and its activism.


SIMONE: (singing) Everyone fucking knows Mississippi.

That’s it.

TODD: It was really important for me to call time this imagery, but also to use it at various points in his life. So to talk about her mother’s preaching, to talk in her own voice – that’s really where it comes from.

CORNISH: At the end of the book, Nina is sort of drawn to becoming a more public part of the black civil rights movement in part because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. What do you want people to take away from that, Christian and then Traci?

ROBINSON: When I was doing the art for this book, it was summer 2020. And often for me, drawing and making pictures is my escape. But escape was not an option because of what was going on and the struggle for racial injustice and the pandemic. It was easy for me to see this common thread between the struggle that Nina Simone was going through and the one we still have today. And for me, this book was a way to deal with all of these things. It was a way to honor the heroes of this moment and hopefully even inspire new ones in the future.

CORNISH: Traci, for you.

TODD: You know, I also kind of dealt with everything that was going on and I felt such a sense of hopelessness in the adult world, I just felt like things were going to get better with the kids. And so I rewrote the ending to end with, (reading) and when she sang about black children, you beautiful and precious dreams, her voice sounded like hope.

I wanted to end the book with hope.


SIMONE: (singing) And I don’t mind if it’s green. I don’t mind if it’s blue.

CORNISH: Well, Traci Todd and Christian Robinson, thank you very much for speaking with us.

TODD: My pleasure, my great pleasure.

ROBINSON: Thanks for having us.


SIMONE: (singing) Oh, because it calms me down. It moves me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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