Like in any good piece of music, where rhythm and sound and sentiment come together to convey mood and meaning, so, too, do multiple elements blend in "When Marian Sang" to evoke the complex melody of the life of Marian Anderson.
Born in Philadelphia around the turn of the century, Marian had clear vocal talents at an early age. "Sometimes Marian and her little sisters, Ethel May and Alyse, sang songs all afternoon," writes Pam Ryan. "However, her voice was distinct - strong and velvety and able to climb more than 24 notes." But while climbing three octaves was an effortless endeavor for this gifted singer, her ascent to the top of the music world proved much more difficult. This solemn but hopeful story traces Marian's journey from the Union Baptist Church choir in South Philadelphia to the stage of New York City's Metropolitan Opera.
Words, music, and artwork harmonize beautifully in this sepia-toned book. While each aspect has a story of its own to tell, together they create a rich portrait of a woman whose music stirred hearts - and controversy. While Ryan's narrative matter-of-factly relates the discrimination Marian faced, excerpts from African-American spirituals convey the sorrow that undoubtedly filled Marian's heart as she struggled to make a place for herself in a generally unfriendly white world.
Brian Selznick's colored pencil illustrations add depth by capturing Marian's range of moods, from her soulful moments of song to her sadness at the racial prejudice she was forced to endure.
Although an afterword to the story calls Marian "an uncomfortable activist," much about this book indicates that perhaps "unwitting" is more to the point. In a wordless, two-page spread depicting the 75,000 member audience at Marian's 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert, a mixed-race crowd stands in hushed awe as she sings. It's a holy moment, and the expressions on people's faces range from spellbound to radiant to reverent.
Though there would be much struggle ahead to make desegregation a permanent reality, "When Marian Sang" hints at a wonderful fact: The "voice of a century" had the capacity to harmonize more than just music notes.
• Jenny Sawyer is an editor with the Christian Science Sentinel magazine.