Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten Book Poster Image
Charming, artful bio celebrates singer, music, kindness.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Introduces kids to the noted 20th-century African American singer-songwriter whose songs were covered by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Joan Baez, among others, and the classic folk song "Freight Train," which she wrote as a little girl. Libba is, first and foremost, a story about music and its life-changing relationship with the title character, rather than the historical times she lived in. But the author's afterword tells Elizabeth Cotten's life story in more detail and offers plentiful references to performance videos, interviews, articles, and more.

Positive Messages

Music can change your life. The connection between music, musician, and listener can have positive ripple effects. Acts of kindness can bring kindred spirits together. Hard work can help you get a guitar (or other things you really want).

Positive Role Models & Representations

So drawn to music that she sneaks into her brother's room and teaches herself to play his guitar "upside-down and backwards" because she's left-handed, young Elizabeth has plenty of determination, a strong work ethic, and early songwriting talent. People exclaim "DANG!" when they hear young Elizabeth play and realize she's really good. As an adult, she's warm, kindhearted, holds her own in a house full of eccentric musical geniuses, and bakes legendary cakes. Other characters also shine, especially Elizabeth's long-suffering older brother, Claude, whose guitar strings she keeps breaking, and Ruth Seeger (stepmother of Pete Seeger), who becomes Elizabeth's employer and friend. 

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten is an engaging introduction to the African American singer-songwriter who wrote the classic folk song "Freight Train" at age 11. Decades of her life between childhood and middle age -- an era that included segregation, the civil rights movement, and other historic developments -- are quickly addressed in a few frames en route to the real story, which is all about music. This may not be surprising, since author Laura Veirs is a noted singer-songwriter herself. Soft, appealing illustrations by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh carry the story along and make the whole book gorgeous.

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What's the story?

Growing up in rural North Carolina, young Elizabeth ("LIBBA") Cotten hears music everywhere and just has to play it -- even when that means sneaking into the bedroom of her older, right-handed brother, Claude, and teaching her left-handed self to play his guitar "upside-down and backwards" -- a style she'd keep her whole life. She writes the folk song "Freight Train" at age 11 and leaves music behind for adult responsibilities -- until a kind act reconnects her and her songs with the world.

Is it any good?

Laura Veirs spins a tale of music, determination, and kindness in language simple enough for early readers and lively enough to make it a good choice for reading aloud -- and maybe a singalong or two. Serenely appealing illustrations by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh help tell the story as Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten introduces kids to a noted 20th-century African American singer-songwriter (her songs were covered by Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Joan Baez, among others) and to the classic song she wrote as a little girl.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about songwriting as shown in Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten. Where do songs come from? Do you think you'd like to write songs? Where would you start?

  • Have you and your mom or dad ever gotten separated in a big crowd or in a strange place? How did you find each other and get back together? Did a kind soul help, the way Elizabeth Cotten does in this story?

  • Do you like the song "Freight Train"? Do you feel like you know more about it when you know about the person who wrote it?

Book details

Themes & Topics

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For kids who love picture books and black history

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