Books

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten’ by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Faxzlalizadeh

c.2018, Chronicle Books
$17.99 ($24.99 Canada)
48 pages

Oopsy-daisy.

That’s what Grandma might say when you’re tumbling around and your head holds your feet up. The world sure looks different when your toes are on top and you’re looking at things from upside down, and in the new book “Libba” by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, that’s not the only thing that’s all out of order.

Music was everywhere, for Libba Cotten.

When she fetched water for her mother and brother, she heard river music. The axe she used to chop wood sang to her. There was a clickety-clack of music in the trains as they sped by on two tracks.

Libba “heard music everywhere” and she longed to make it herself but her brother didn’t like anyone touching his guitar. Even so, whenever he wasn’t home, Libba went to his room, took up the instrument, and played — even though she was left-handed, and had to do it upside down and backwards. To anybody else, that would have been weird but to Libba, “it was the way that felt right…”

Her brother, Claude, hated that Libba borrowed his guitar but “DANG!” she was good. She could play well, and she even wrote songs. That’s how it was, until Claude moved away and took his guitar with him. Libba did chores and saved money until she was able to have a guitar of her own.

And she played. Upside down and backward, until time passed and she stopped.

Years later, when Libba was much older, she met a woman from a “musical family” who hired her to work as a housekeeper at a home that was filled with music! There were “banjos in the bedrooms, pianos in the parlor, and bass drums in the basement.” All day and all night, musicians drifted in and out, men with names like Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie, and Libba started hearing music again.

Then one day, when nobody was paying any attention and nobody would care about how she strummed, Libba borrowed a guitar. And she played music.

Upside down. And backwards.

Before you snuggle up with your child for an inaugural round of “Libba,” take a few minutes to read the book yourself, so you’re fully prepared for what you’ll see.

Oh, that artwork! Through Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s charcoal drawings, musician Elizabeth Cotten’s story is told so exquisitely that it may render you almost speechless. Chances are, your child might not notice but you will. Be prepared.

What your child will find here is a story of keeping a dream alive, even when it’s been shelved for a long time. In telling this tale, Laura Veirs’s words dance like fingers on frets as she lends lightness to the story, despite its Depression-era theme. Be sure to read her Author’s Note, which explains much more about Cotten and her work.

If yours is a musical family or if your child does things a little different, then this is a story you’ll want to read again and again. For you, for sure, “Libba” is a book that holds up.

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