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Books We Love: Audie Cornish recommends 'Nina' by Traci Todd and Christian Robinson

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

One of the best books I read this year was "Nina: A Story Of Nina Simone." It's one of the hundreds of books featured on NPR's curated list from the year books we love. Now, it tells the story of the singer's childhood. Nina Simone's father, who taught her jazz, would whistle warnings to switch her piano playing to hymns when her mother was nearing home. It's also a gorgeous picture book for kids. When I spoke to the book's creators, I asked writer Traci Todd what inspired her to turn Simone's story, one that is marked by racism and mental health struggles, into a book for children.

TRACI TODD: I think that a lot of times when we see stories of civil rights leaders, they're very much sort of pushed into a moment. And there's no sense of what came before and how things got that way. And I just wanted to tell Nina's story as an experience of something that built upon the things that came before, because that's sort of how I experienced her music.

CORNISH: Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator Christian Robinson had previously worked on a book about singer Josephine Baker. I asked him how we approached bringing Nina Simone to life in his work.

CHRISTIAN ROBINSON: I love the stories that are a little bit more challenging to approach and to present to a child. But I think those are the stories that are most important to tell, the ones that show the difficulties of the world, but in a way that is honest and approachable for young people.

CORNISH: Did there come to be a look, though, that you felt like, oh, this is how I can evoke her, meaning her profile or her hair or some posture of hers? Was there something that, like, as you're looking at those album covers, sort of starts to come to you?

ROBINSON: It was the hair for me, I think, is what I kind of kept thinking would be the thing to graphically, like, capture her. Also, her profile. Typically when I illustrate, I'm all about simplicity, so I'm always simplifying things. But with Nina, I felt compelled to show her features, make sure that they're prominent, because that was a part of what made her so special and important.

CORNISH: Illustrator Christian Robinson and writer Traci Todd reflecting on their book "Nina: A Story Of Nina Simone." To curate the books for kids and adults and yourself, head over to npr.org/bookswelove, where you can sort by categories like kids' books for music lovers and ladies first. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.