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Book Review: When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Illustrations by Brian Selznick

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When Marian Sang is a story for children four to eight about the great African-American contralto, Marian Anderson. Told simply and illustrated with somber magnificence, the book brings to life the dreams and struggles of a woman whose legacy was as rich as her voice.

Anderson was born in 1897 in South Philadelphia to a humble but devout family. Her talent was recognized, and “The Baby Contralto” sang in local, then citywide choirs.

Troubles also came early. When she was twelve her father died, and she was turned away by the Philadelphia Music Academy. Anderson’s mother urged her to persevere, and when she saw a Metropolitan Opera performance of Madame Butterfly, a dream began. But it seemed “the sun and the moon…too far away to reach.”

Anderson toured America, then Europe where opportunities were greater. When the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) barred her from Constitution Hall in 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt intervened and a concert was arranged at the Lincoln Memorial. 75,000 people of all races attended, and millions more listened over the radio.

In 1955, Marian Anderson achieved her dream and sang with the Metropolitan Opera.

This magical story is told with a simplicity that belies its emotional depth.  Extensive details of Anderson’s life are included at the end, with commentary by the writer and illustrator. When Marian Sang offers points for learning and discussion, but at heart is the inspiring story of a girl with talent, to be enjoyed by the entire family. Destined to become a classic.

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