Known as the Queen of Gospel, Malhalia Jackson brought majesty and deep joy to the religious music she performed. But her road to renown was as arduous and her hard-won triumph as moving as her voice.
In Mahalia Jackson, Nina Nolan and illustrator John Holyfield tell the artist’s story. Although Nolan acknowledges the hardships Jackson faced – poverty, her mother’s early death, a truncated education – the picture-book biography emphasizes the joy young Mahalia found in singing. Nolan’s narrative manages to be as conversational and lyrical, understated and warm as Jackson herself: “But singing in church raised her spirits. She felt like a peacock with her feathers all spread out.” John Holyfield’s paintings convey the transcendence Jackson – and her listeners – found in her singing. One striking spread shows several members of a church experiencing Jackson’s voice. Eyes closed, the congregants clap their hands, clasp their hands, laugh, and sway as the music transports them. Shadows of other jubilant congregants dot the purple backdrop. For a few minutes, they can escape their sorrows.
Mahalia Jackson is a stirring tribute to the Queen of Gospel. Like many children’s biographies, it is a story of persistence in the face of adversity; it is also a paean to music’s ability to transform lives.
-Dorothy A. Dahm