Nina: A Story of Nina Simone

h1 September 28th, 2021 by jules


Want to see a few spreads from Traci N. Todd’s brand-new picture book, Nina: A Story of Nina Simone (Putnam, September 2021)? Why, yes. Yes, you do. Illustrated by Christian Robinson, this book is an exquisite merging of words and illustrations.

Todd captures Simone’s life from birth to her rise to fame. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina, she sang before she could talk and “found rhythm before she could walk.” She often sat with her father at the piano, playing forbidden jazz tunes: That is, her mother, a minister, would not have approved. In her mother’s presence, Eunice played hymns. Remarkably, she played them at age three (!) as her mother preached:

As Mama’s power grew, Eunice matched her rhythm, rolling, rolling, until at last the congregation was on its feet, overcome by the message and the music.

Todd connects these moments — the hymns and Mama’s powerful, rhythmic preaching — to moments later in the book when we see Nina play for crowds at the top of her fame.

We read about the discrimination Eunice and her family faced, Todd emphasizing this “hurt [that Eunice] pushed down deep.” When she is rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music, her dream school, she “wondered whether being Black meant an end to all of her dreams.”

Eunice (now Nina so that her mama won’t find her out) heads to New Jersey and plays in bars there. Be sure to take in the below spread in which Todd includes mention of one of Eunice’s delightfully peculiar habits (stopping to drink milk if people were talking too loudly while she played), because it’s these little touches that make this story sing. Nina sings “dark and deep … and people loved it!”

The following spreads are devoted to Nina’s determination to sing about the civil rights movement (“Nina was done being polite”), Robinson working into the illustrations (pay attention to Nina’s piano strings) images of men turning their hoses on civil rights protesters; Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham jail; people protesting for equal rights; the March on Washington; and — in a terrifically moving spread — the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Here, Robinson depicts four Black girls standing around Nina as she plays. Smoke billows from the piano as near its strings we see the church burn.

Todd spins her phrases with reverence, style, and rhythm: “And then she sang. In a voice that was rich, sweet, and like soft thunder.” In the book’s final spread, she speaks directly to Black children in a lilting yet fierce voice: “you lovely, precious dreams.”

I think Robinson was born to paint / collage Nina. I can’t get over the book’s spectacular cover — this palette! — but be sure to take off the dustjacket too. There’s another striking painting.

Let’s let the art do the talking.

Don’t miss this one.


“A wave of anger rolled toward her, but she hardly felt it. …”
(Click spread to enlarge and read text in its entirety)


“If the crowd was too loud, Eunice stopped playing,
sipped her milk, and waited for quiet. …”

(Click spread to enlarge and read text in its entirety)


“Nina’s voice broke with the weight of this new music.
It was harder now, rough, defiant. …”

(Click spread to enlarge and read text in its entirety)


(Click cover to enlarge)


* * * * * * *

NINA: A STORY OF NINA SIMONE. © 2021 by Traci N. Todd. Illustrations © 2021 by Christian Robinson and reproduced by permission of the publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York.

One comment to “Nina: A Story of Nina Simone

  1. I just LOVE Christian Robinson’s art here. The cover is my FAVORITE, and I love the way you can still see his brushstrokes – giving this portrait movement and texture. And that pink! And those circles – sequin-y and also round and rolling beads – all the art I’ve seen is really something special.

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