Behind Every Great Woman

mister and lady day_hresMister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her
By Amy Novesky
Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 2013, Boston, $16.99)

We remember Billie Holiday, nicknamed Lady Day, for the gardenias in her hair, her battles with drug addiction, and the fragile beauty of her voice. But behind the stage presence and the scandal lurked a woman who loved soft ears, sad brown eyes, and wet noses. Holiday had many canine companions, but one was especially close to her heart: a loyal Boxer named Mister.

In Mister and Lady Day, Amy Novesky and illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton tell the moving story of the bond between the songstress and her favorite dog. Novesky’s spare, elegant prose occasionally reads like verse, as though Holiday herself were singing the text:

“While Lady was gone, she wrote letters

and knit sweaters. But she did not sing.

singing was about feeling, and she didn’t feel a thing.”

Newton’s illustrations capture both Holiday’s wistful glamour and the warmth between her and Mister. Both adorable and poignant, the pictures have the multilayered quality of a jazz standard. Lyrics from some of Holiday’s songs flit over some spreads, and bits of musical scores, letters, and various documents appear as wallpaper, on buildings, and on a gramophone. In one captivating spread, Mister and his mistress take a midnight walk in the city. They stroll over piano keys instead of pavement, suggesting the ever presence of music in Holiday’s life or, perhaps, that the love between Lady Day and her dog was worthy of a song of its own.

Mister and Lady Day is a love story, a celebration of the relationship between Holiday and Mister and the human-canine bond in general. It is also a gorgeous introduction to a gifted artist and a reminder that behind stars’ personae and tabloid snapshots are people who want to love and be loved.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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