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How An Author And Illustrator Adapted Nina Simone's Complicated Life Story For Kids

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Next, we're going to tell you the story of a dream almost deferred. It begins with a little girl raised in the segregated South of the '30s and '40s.

TRACI TODD: It was Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She was born in Tryon, N.C., and she really wanted to become a classical musician.

CORNISH: This is 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 composer and singer behind "To Be Young, Gifted And Black," among many other songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")

NINA SIMONE: (Singing) You are young, gifted and Black.

CORNISH: Traci Todd tells the story of Simone's early life in vibrant, emotional hues in a new children's book called "Nina: A Story Of Nina Simone." It's illustrated by the critically acclaimed artist Christian Robinson. So what inspired them to take on a version of Simone's story, a story marked by racism and mental health struggles, and make it into a story for kids?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK")

SIMONE: (Singing) There's a world, little girl, waiting for you.

TODD: The weight of it all did not occur to me when I 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 very much wanted to tell a story that, you know, showed the trajectory of her life, showed how her experiences as a child 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 that you've illustrated, whether it's "The Dead Bird," Margaret Wise Brown, which is, you know, a picture book essentially about death - you've also illustrated a book about Josephine Baker. How did you think about approaching this?

CHRISTIAN ROBINSON: Well, I love the stories that are a little bit more challenging to approach and to present to a child. But I think those are the stories that are most important to tell - the ones that show the difficulties of the world but in a way that is honest and approachable for young people.

CORNISH: Did there come to be a look, though, that you felt like, oh, this is how I can evoke her, meaning her profile or her hair or some posture of hers? Was there something that, like, as you're looking at those album covers, sort of starts to come to you?

ROBINSON: It was - the hair for me, I think, is what I kind of kept thinking would be the thing to graphically, like, capture her - also her profile. Typically when I illustrate, I'm all about simplicity, so I'm always simplifying things. But with Nina, I felt compelled to show her features, make sure that they were prominent because that was a part of what made her so special and important.

CORNISH: Yeah because she cared about being seen as a Black woman, right? That was very much part of her public ethos. She wanted to be seen as a dark-skinned Black woman and for people to find beauty in that.

ROBINSON: Yeah. She was authentic. She came across as just so real, so human. You'll notice the cover of the book is pink.

CORNISH: Not just pink. This is the brightest, pinkest pink possible...

TODD: Yes.

CORNISH: ...That you could find.

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

TODD: I think that a lot of times when we see stories of civil rights leaders, they're very much sort of pushed into a moment. And there's no sense of what came before and how things got that way. And I just wanted to tell Nina's story as an experience of something that built upon the things that came before because that's sort of how I experienced her music. One of my favorite songs is "Turning Point," which is just this little song where Nina is pretending she's a little girl and, I presume, a white girl because she describes this new friend whose skin is like chocolate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURNING POINT")

SIMONE: (Singing) See the little brown girl? She's as old as me.

TODD: And she's telling her mother about it and all the fun that they've had in first grade. And then when she asks her mother if her new friend can come over, the music cuts out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURNING POINT")

SIMONE: Mom, what did you say?

TODD: And Nina says, why not, Mom?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURNING POINT")

SIMONE: Why not? (Singing) Oh.

TODD: And that song is so much about that moment when Nina could not play with young David (ph) any longer, who had been her playmate for so long.

CORNISH: Right. That's a scene in the book where the child of her mother's employer is her playmate until one day...

TODD: Yes.

CORNISH: ...It's decided that he can no longer be that playmate.

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")

SIMONE: (Singing) Hound dogs on my trail, those schoolchildren sitting in jail.

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

SIMONE: I wanted to have the idea of building. So I use the imagery of thunder, and I use the drum, you know, because so much I think of the book is about building to that final moment, building to the creation of "Mississippi Goddam" and of her activism.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISSISSIPPI GODDAM")

SIMONE: (Singing) Everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn.

That's it.

TODD: It was really important to me to call time that imagery but also to use it in various points of her life. So to talk about her mother's preaching, to talk about her own voice - that's really sort of where that came from.

CORNISH: By the end of the book, Nina is sort of drawn to being 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 this, Christian and then Traci?

ROBINSON: When I was making the art for this book, it was the summer of 2020. And oftentimes for me, drawing and making pictures is my escape. But escape wasn't an option because of what was going on and seeing the fight for racial injustice and the pandemic. It was easy for me to see that thread between the struggle that Nina Simone was going through and that we still have today. And for me, this book was a way to process all those things. It was a way to honor the heroes of that moment and hopefully maybe even inspire some new ones of the future.

CORNISH: Traci, for you.

TODD: You know, I was also sort of processing everything that was going on and just feeling such a sense of despair in the adult world, just feeling like the way things are going to get better is with children. And so I rewrote the ending so that it ended with, (reading) and when she sang of Black children, you lovely, precious dreams, her voice sounded like hope.

I wanted to end of the book with hope.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE WATER")

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 so much for speaking with us.

TODD: My pleasure, my great pleasure.

ROBINSON: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO THE WATER")

SIMONE: (Singing) Oh, 'cause it soothes me. It moves me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.