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Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten

Our first book post this Calling Caldecott season is Libba, a picture-book biography of African American folk musician Elizabeth Cotten, written by Laura Veirs and illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. The flap copy refers to the book’s artist as a “debut illustrator.” Technically, that’s true—this is Fazlalizadeh’s first picture book—but of course she is also an internationally known artist, acclaimed for such street art projects and installations as Not Going Anywhere and Stop Telling Women to Smile. And so, there won’t be too much of the “gosh, her art is so accomplished for a newcomer” in this post.

The subject of this picture book, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, was a self-taught guitarist and the songwriter of the folk classic “Freight Train”; she grew up poor and black in the Jim Crow South and spent many years in obscurity before gaining recognition late in adulthood. Fazlalizadeh is a natural portraitist, and she brings those skills to her portrayal of “Libba,” imbuing her with a thoughtful intensity. Libba is often shown absorbed in her guitar playing or listening intently, and Fazlalizadeh telegraphs that absorption through body language and facial expression. You can almost hear Libba listening.

And look at these textures. Fazlalizadeh uses the for-her-familiar medium of graphite to give her drawings enormous depth. The graphite drawings are at some points overlaid with digital color, used here sparely, especially and most effectively to draw our eyes to Libba’s guitar and to the smooth brown glow of Libba’s face. Her skin is not the exact color of the guitar, but they are similar. Through color and texture, Fazlalizadeh shows that Libba and her guitar belong together.

Now to the tricky part of the book. For the most part Fazlalizadeh sticks to straightforward realism: we see Libba sneaking into her brother’s room to borrow his guitar; or playing it sitting on the front steps of her family’s small rural North Carolina house. But the story of Libba’s life is essentially divided into two parts: her musical-prodigy childhood and her much-later rediscovery. In between, “Time swept Libba up, and she stopped playing guitar.” How to bridge the gap? Piggybacking on the text (“Even trains get derailed”), Fazlalizadeh shows a young Libba playing guitar atop a freight train, train tracks stretching out behind her; a page-turn leads to a double-page spread that shows the interior of three freight cars, each depicting a different moment of Libba’s young adulthood. Each one takes her further into her life as a parent and wage-earner and further away from her music. The next page-turn then takes us forward some thirty years, into the second part of the book, with Libba now a grandmother and about to find work in the musical Seeger family’s household and to rediscover her talent and her voice.

There’s more recognition in the pictures of the, essentially, two halves of Libba’s life. Two illustrations in the book echo each other. The first is the one mentioned above, with the young Libba sitting atop the moving freight train. The final illustration of the book shows the same scene, but with Libba as an older woman (the text reads, “She kept rolling”). Nice symmetry; and, again, nice awareness that the two halves of the book need connecting.

A few last points. Remarkably, since Libba was left-handed, when she taught herself to play her brother’s guitar as a child, it was “upside down and backward.” The book jacket and both sets of endpapers show this, with the endpapers homing in on Libba’s strong, brown right hand on the guitar’s neck, which is facing left. And check under the paper jacket to see the embossed cover. On the front, the soundhole of a guitar covered by six strings; on the back, just the six strings, heading away from the soundhole to the left. Brilliant!

This isn’t a splashy book; far from it. There’s not much external action; there are a lot of closeups of Libba’s face or scenes of her sitting and playing the guitar. But it’s a powerful book nonetheless. The story of Cotten’s life and the artistic interpretation of that life make it so. (From the author’s note: “Opportunities in the early 1900s were limited for African Americans in the segregated South, especially for those like Libba who were poor and female. Libba had to work as a maid from a young age…Libba married when she was only a teenager and had a baby at sixteen….Pressures of work and raising her daughter prevented her from playing. As a result it was more than forty years before she next played a guitar.”) There’s struggle and injustice here, but also strength and an indomitable spirit.

So. Libba was published back in January; I hope many of you have seen it by now. Thank you for listening, and please share your thoughts and observations in the comments.

[And—the Horn Book Magazine review of Libba is here.]



Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. I showed a musician friend this book way back in January when it came out, and he pointed out to me that the train tracks on the cover look like guitar frets. (For the life of me, I couldn’t remember till now who had told me this — thank goodness for Twitter records: I love that.

    That short Twitter thread also reminds me of the book’s beautiful surprise cover underneath the dustjacket.

  2. Sam Juliano says:

    Though you note LIBBA was published way back in January, I did not see the book until today, obtaining a copy at a local library in order to engage a bit on this thread. It is a quietly powerful, earthy and soulful work that frankly blew me away as it has so many others. Similarly I have not seen Fazlalizadeh’s which is gut-punch sublime. You rightly suggest you can hear her playing while gazing at the graphite and digital color illustrations which bring a time and place to Veirs’s moving prose. The book’s jacket and inside cover does into make excellent use of the matter of “right and left handed” in referencing the disparity between Libba’s brother and her own orientation. And yes, not at all splashy, this is a subdued and suggestive book that leaves you stirred to your core. A most worthy choice to launch the 2018 CC series and a fantastic qualification review in negotiating it.

  3. This is one of the titles we’re discussing today at my university’s Mock Caldecott.

    My first read-through of Libba, unfortunately, was not particularly satisfying because I was so distracted by the text. I very much dislike Veirs’ prose – it felt both simplistic and cloying, and the authorial choice to fictionalize parts of Cotten’s life was beyond head-scratching.

    Mercifully, text isn’t under much scrutiny with the Caldecott, and my second read was far more satisfying because I allowed Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s art to sink into my soul. Her expressive graphite is warm and inviting, and, in many images, captured Cotten’s spiri. The use of line is particularly strong, drawing the eye to sharp focal points, and telling a far better story than the text does. I’ve never much been a fan of digital coloring – it feels flat and fake to me – but Fazlalizadeh’s limited color palette imbues the book with a powerful radiance. She’s a striking talent, to be sure. In fact, I was reminded a bit of how I felt when I read Voice of Freedom, when I thought, “Holy cow, Ekua Holmes is a singular talent – I can’t wait to see what she does next!” To me, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is a shoo-in for the Steptoe Award, like Holmes was. And I can’t wait to see what she does next.

    Caldecott? I don’t know. Like the last few years, there are some tall, tall, tall trees. This one doesn’t quite rise to the top for me.

  4. Joe, so glad this book is part of your Mock Caldecott discussion! And yes, I imagine the CSK jury will be aware of “Libba” 🙂 It’s a welcome trend that so many fine artists are getting into the children’s book field. Ekua Holmes and Charly Palmer, too — he won the Steptoe Award for illustration last year for “Mama Africa!”

  5. We remember her today in the term “cotton picking” for a style of playing that derives from her use of her brother’s guitar strung for a right handed person and fingering with her dominant left hand.

  6. Martha, you’ll be pleased to know I wasn’t alone yesterday. Our committee of twelve was uniformly blown away by Libba, though we talked at great length about the image that accompanies the fictionalized text. Compared to all the artwork in the book, the scene of Cotten playing in the theatre felt flat and generic to us – and we wondered if it was an intentional move on Fazlalizadeh’s part in order to compensate for the misleading text.
    Of the five titles we discussed yesterday, this one rose to the top. I have a feeling we’ll be balloting it in January.
    PS: Yes! Mama Africa was lovely!!

  7. Dean Schneider says:

    Quick response: Joe said that text is not under much scrutiny by the Caldecott committee, but it is, really, and it’s important for us to be aware of this as we discuss all of these books. The Caldecott Award is primarily for illustration, but when the text “makes the book less effective as a picture book” it is a part of the discussion, and this is the case fairly often. In a picture book, where the interplay of illustration and text is essential to the success of the book, a weak text makes that interplay less effective.

  8. Thank you for that clarification, Dean. I was always under the impression that text was only ancillary. I appreciate the correction; it helps me reframe my thinking entirely. I fear the text sinks this one significantly for me. Very much a shame.

  9. Susan Dailey says:

    I just saw this book today and was really impressed by the art-especially the double-spread that shows Libba listening. Wow, what a powerful image! Great use of white space. I appreciated that background details were sketchy, which kept the focus strongly on Libba and what was important in the illustrations. Thanks for the review and a very good start for 2018 titles. Excited for what’s to come!

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