NINA: A STORY OF NINA SIMONE – An Interview with Author Traci N. Todd
There are moments when you see the cover of a book and your jaw just drops. Just falls right off, hits the floor, and rolls under the credenza.
I’ll hand you an example:
There you go. Now fetch your jaw and wipe off those dust bunnies before you go reattaching it.
NINA, which releases on September 28th, is not the first picture book biography of Nina Simone out there. It will not be the last picture book biography of Nina Simone ever written. But what it does it does exceedingly well. Essentially, the book highlights a slice of Nina Simone’s life, hammers home the greater implications of her existence, and sets her world and times in context. In other words, it does what it set out to do. And I, for my part, set out to discover how author Traci N. Todd was able to write this book as well as she did.
Betsy Bird: Traci, thank you so much for joining me today. It seems ridiculous to say that Nina Simone is having a moment right now, since it seems that there was never a time when Nina Simone wasn’t having a moment. But this past summer we saw her presence in the documentary SUMMER OF SOUL and the lost footage of her is just stunning to behold after all these years. What, for you, was the impetus to tell her story in a picture book biography format now?
Traci N. Todd: I actually started writing this book about 12 years ago. I grew up listening to Nina Simone, and as a young adult, I became curious about her life. So I read her autobiography and just knew there was a children’s book in there. I wrote a draft that just centered on the moment when Nina (then Eunice) is giving the recital and her parents are asked to give up their seats for a white couple. That’s really where the story started for me. I wasn’t bold enough to do anything with that first (terrible!) draft, but I kept picking at it over the years, and finally, about five years ago I was brave enough to share the latest draft with my friends Stacey Barney–who was at Putnam at the time–and Steve Malk, who became my agent. When Christian Robinson signed on to illustrate, I was over the moon! But we had to wait for him to become available. And here we are!
BB: Worth it, I’d say. So I’m curious about your methodology. A human life comes to us in bits and pieces. The biographer’s job is to find the story to that life. That story, however, could be interpreted any number of ways by any number of biographers. Were there any sources in particular that you turned to that helped you tell the tale of Nina’s life best?
TNT: Nina’s autobiography I Put A Spell on You was key. If there were facts that could be verified, I looked for other sources, but I took her recollections of personal moments and how she felt in them at face value. I’m so grateful that she spent so much time describing her childhood in that book. That allowed me to present her as a more rounded human being and to make connections between her childhood and who she became as an adult.
I always knew I wasn’t going to tell the full story of Nina’s life, and when I decided to focus on her activism, everything else sort of fell into place.
BB: Well, I love how you tell this story. And I love the lines like, “politeness had gotten her people nothing.” The last word in the text of her story is the word “hope”. Was that an intentional move on your part? Did you have any difficulty figuring out where to end her story?
TNT: Thank you! I loved writing those lines. They’re where I tried to channel Nina’s Nina-ness. I think sometimes we’re afraid of anger, especially in children. And the “angry Black woman” trope still stings. But human beings get angry, and anger can be powerful. Of course Nina was mad–she had every right to be! And she demanded respect–you did not want to cross her! Lines like the one you mention allowed me to tap into all of that.
Ending the book was hard. At one point the ending was lyrics from “Young, Gifted, and Black, but that wasn’t working. I started reading commentary from educators and other picture book writers about how to talk to young children about hard truths. The running theme seemed to be to move through them with children and look toward the future. I was also revising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and that seemingly endless cadence. In that moment, I was done with grownups. I wanted to focus my energy on empowering children to do better than we have done. And that’s why I ended the book with hope.
BB: Your text was paired with Christian Robinson, an artist that can do moral complexity on the page but also has a child-friendliness that brings his subjects to life. And, come to think of it, the first book I ever saw him do was the picture book biography HARLEM’S LITTLE BLACKBIRD: THE STORY OF FLORENCE MILLS. With his specific style of illustration, was his the type of art you envisioned for the book? How do you think it came out in the end?
TNT: I think Christian’s work is the perfect pairing. My writing style is… maybe a little more mature than what you might typically see in a picture book. And my style, plus Nina’s story is not a warm-and-fuzzy mix! But Christian’s art softens everything in the most wonderful way. And he’s just brilliant. That spread with the girls who were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing takes my breath away. And the cover!! Christian has his own strong connection to Nina, and it’s very clear in the art for this book. It has been a great honor to work with him.
BB: I’m sure that there was plenty that you couldn’t include in this book. Was there anything you particularly wanted to mention but that ended up on the cutting room floor in the end?
TNT: You know, I wonder if I showed enough of Nina’s joy. I cut the story off before the Harlem Cultural Festival and various other performances where she was in her full light and basking in all that love. The portrait I’ve presented is specific, and I wonder if I might have broadened it out just a bit.
BB: Finally, what are you working on next?
TNT: I’ve been busy in the last five-or-so years! Next fall I have Stacey Abrams and the Fight to Vote coming from Harper. In 2023 I have Make A Pretty Sound: The Story of Ella Jenkins coming from Chronicle, Holding Her Own: The Extraordinary Life of Cartoonist Jackie Ormes coming from Scholastic, and Hello, Beautiful–my first picture book that’s not a biography–coming from Viking. And I’ve just sent a bunch of new manuscripts to Steve, so… more to come!
BB: AH! These all sound fantastic! I think I speak for everyone when I say I cannot wait.
Big thanks to Traci for answering all my questions and to Kaitlin Kneafsey and the folks at Penguin Young Readers for connecting us. NINA: A Story of Nina Simone is on bookstore and library shelves everywhere September 28th.
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