The Legendary Miss Lena Horne

Book review by
Kyle Jackson, Common Sense Media
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Solid intro to singer, movie star, civil rights activist.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

While some of the specific history discussed in the book might go over the head of younger readers, it could lead to discussing or looking up important cultural and political moments, including the murder of Medgar Evars, the Communist witch hunt undertaken by the federal government in the 1950s and '60s, and the March on Washington. Back matter includes a bibliography and suggestions for further listening to Horne's recordings and viewing of her films. 

Positive Messages

"Because Lena refused to darken rear doors, black stars now gleam on red carpets and reap box-office gold."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lena Horne's social consciousness, her willingness to sacrifice for her beliefs, and her determination to play unique and empowered characters, as opposed to the servile roles typically reserved for black actors at the time, made her an inspirational figure to women and girls everywhere. 

Violence & Scariness
Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Legendary Miss Lena Horne is by award-winning author Carole Boston Weatherford, who has also profiled civil rights heroes Harriet Tubman, Gordon Parks, and Fannie Lou Hamer. It tells the life story of one of the underappreciated stars of stage and screen, singer and actress Lena Horne, who overcame political and racial persecution to become an enduring American icon. Her career eventually took a back seat to her participation in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including an appearance at the famous March on Washington, though she continued to record, perform, and rack up accolades. 

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What's the story?

THE LEGENDARY MISS LENA HORNE traces Horne's fascinating life and career, which began on the road with her mother, an aspiring performer herself. Beginning with a job as a dancer at Harlem's famous Cotton Club, the fair-skinned and beautiful Horne was plucked off the chorus line and quickly became a Broadway sensation, a hit singer, and a bona fide movie star, earning the first studio contract offer from a film studio for a black actress. She refused to take the stereotypical and demeaning roles of "maids and mammies" typically reserved for women of color at the time. "They didn't make me into a maid, but they didn't make me into anything else either," Horne said. Being light-skinned caused her problems, too: "Lest Lena be mistaken on screen for white, Max Factor created makeup just to darken her skin. Then she lost roles to white actresses who wore her makeup to play light-skinned black women." Though racism and the fears of moviegoers in the South made it difficult to reach the career heights of her white peers, she built a solid body of work and appeared in such classic black films as Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. She was blacklisted during the Cold War, faced a backlash for her ethnic ambiguity, experienced the harsh realities of Jim Crow laws and persistent violence against people of color, and eventually became an active member of the civil rights movement. "In this battle, Lena was not just a pretty face," Weatherford writes, "But a foot soldier." 

Is it any good?

This picture book bio is a solid introduction to an important pioneer of black American culture who has long been overlooked in the pantheon of Hollywood's brightest stars. However, it's a bit flat and flavorless. Elizabeth Zunon's stylized, understated oil paint and cut-paper–collage illustrations only occasionally reflect Horne's true radiance, and cramming so many major events and concepts into a picture book ultimately diminishes the narrative, though that may not bother young kids.

Lena Horne is certainly an admirable and inspiring figure for children. The Legendary Miss Lena Horne may be most useful as a way to expose kids to some of Horne's wonderful recordings and onscreen performances. Back matter includes a bibliography and suggestions for further listening to Horne's recordings and viewing of her films. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the great star's resistance described in The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. What do you think of Horn's decision to not accept roles as either a white woman or a black servant? Why was it important that she insisted on better representation of African-American characters? 

  • Why did Lena Horne choose to devote herself to the civil rights movement rather than focus on her successful career? 

  • Who are some stars that you admire for their work outside of show business?

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For kids who love trailblazing superstars of color

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