If you consider yourself any kind of music fan, then you undoubtedly love Billie Holiday. There’s really no way around it. She had such a beautiful, sweet, vulnerable voice. Plenty has been written about her, with the focus often (and understandably) being her career and her drug addiction. However, a new book about this incredible singer, Mister And Lady Day: Billie Holiday And The Dog Who Loved Her, shows a different side of her, focusing on one rather unusual aspect of her life. This children’s book, written by Amy Novesky and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton, focuses on her love of dogs, and one dog in particular – a boxer named Mister.
This is the story of a friendship, always a good theme for a children’s book (I think my niece and nephew would love this book). One of the friends just happens to be one of the most famous and beloved jazz singers of all time, and the other happens to be a dog. But this story celebrates friendship and loyalty and love.
Mister is treated by others as the close friend of a star: “Porters brought him plates of thick steak.” And of course he acted as Billie's close friend. Novesky writes, “Mister would lead a nervous Lady to the stage and wait for her in the wings.” And the illustration shows him lovingly waiting for her just off stage. One of my favorite illustrations is Billie and Mister out for a walk, both decked out in furs. Yes, she had a mink coat for her dog.
One thing I love about the illustrations is their use of written materials – such as sheet music and train tickets – which are worked into the drawings in interesting ways. There is something a bit playful about them, particularly the one that shows a bit of sheet music in a circle, like a ball that she has seemingly just kicked with her bare foot.
The book does touch on a more serious aspect of her life: “Then, just when her career was at the top, Lady got into trouble. She had to leave home for a year and a day. And Mister couldn’t come.” The story itself doesn’t explain this sudden departure, focusing instead on how her absence affects their friendship. But at the end of the book, there is a one-page biography which mentions her year in prison. (By the way, that page also includes a photograph of Billie Holiday and Mister.)
Amy Novesky is also the author of Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe Painted What She Pleased. Vanessa Brantley Newton wrote and illustrated Let Freedom Sing (a book about the civil rights movement), and illustrated One Love.
Mister And Lady Day: Billie Holiday And The Dog Who Loved Her is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and will be available on June 18, 2013.