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

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!

Posted : Oct 05, 2018 07:58

Joe Prince

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.

Posted : Sep 24, 2018 01:58

Dean Schneider

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.

Posted : Sep 21, 2018 03:53

Joe Prince

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!!

Posted : Sep 19, 2018 02:17


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.

Posted : Sep 18, 2018 10:58

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