Tuesday, January 20, 2015

2015 Contenders: Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century, by Carole Boston Weatherford

Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century is a spare, poetic biography of the woman who would eventually become (according to a BBC Music critic's poll) the greatest American soprano ever to record. As remarkable a feat as that is in and of itself, the fact that Leontyne Price was a black woman from Mississippi, born in 1927, raised the degree of difficulty exponentially. This book carefully emphasizes the magnitude of Price's achievements and her indomitably sunny spirit, while also mentioning the many people who aided her along her way.

Voice of a Century is the kind of biography that only provides a brief overview of its subject's career. Indeed, it essentially ends with Price's spectacular star turn in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Il Trovatore in 1961, when almost a quarter-century of her operatic career was still in front of her. This means that most of her Grammy Awards, her Emmy Award, her Presidential Medal of Freedom, her Kennedy Center Honors, and her National Medal of Arts all fall outside of the book's time frame. In its structure, if not particularly in its content, it reminded me of last year's You Never Heard of Willie Mays?!

Nonetheless, Voice of a Century does an excellent job of chronicling Price's rise to prominence. Carole Boston Weatherford's prose is conversational without being talky, and indeed, reads in places very much like a prose poem. Readers who enjoyed Pam Muñoz Ryan and Brian Selznick's Sibert Honor book When Marian Sang might well enjoy Voice of a Century, especially since Weatherford repeatedly makes clear how much of a debt Price owed to Marian Anderson.

Raul Colón's lovely illustrations add a great deal to the book, though the Newbery committee won't be able to consider them. In honesty, I'm not sure that much Newbery love is going to come for Voice of a Century -- as we've discussed before in this space, short, heavily-illustrated biographical nonfiction tends not to show up in the Newbery rolls, regardless of how well-written it may be. 

The Sibert, however, has been much more open to these kinds of books (see: Balloons over Broadway, A Splash of Red, Ballet for Martha, and of course, When Marian Sang), and if Voice of a Century is to be recognized, that's probably the most likely place. I hope it wins something -- it's an excellent book, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Published in December by Alfred A. Knopf / Random House

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