Ms. Hopkinson claims her story is fiction, though she explains in "A Note About the Story" at the end of the text that it is based on the life of Ella Shephard Moore. A Band of Angels is a strong story of determination, survival, the rewards of hard work and dedication. Hopkinson tells us that though none of the original Jubilee Singers graduated from college, their years of singing and traveling made that success possible for thousands that followed them at Fisk.
Aunt Beth is based on Fisk Special Collections librarian Beth Howse, who is a pianist, the great-granddaughter of Ella Shephard, and Jubilee Singer herself. Mrs. Howse praises Hopkinson's portrayal of Ella Shephard's story and is proud that the story of her great-grandmother now belongs to a very special body of children's literature that brings history alive for young children.
Illustrator Raul Colon supports the text with warm, glowing, textured paintings. The full-page illustrations are beautiful, reminiscent of old, sepia-toned photographs. Portraits and short biographical sketches of each of the original Jubilee singers are included. Also included is a list of the old Jubilee songs, including "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" from which the book's title is taken. Aunt Beth reminds her niece, and the reader, that "they called them spirituals, or jubilee songs, because the word jubilee means a time of hope and freedom."
Although February is Black History Month, the theme of A Band of Angels is important all year long. It is a refreshing story that eloquently illustrates the power of dreams, hard work, determination, and hope.
Copyright 1999 BookPage Reviews
Horn Book Magazine Reviews 1999 #2
Founded for former slaves in 1866, Fisk School (now Fisk University) had a struggle to survive its early years. To raise money, music teacher George White took his group, the Jubilee Singers, on tour. At first, the popular music they sang failed to attract an audience; but when they offered the hitherto unfamiliar music of their own heritage, they not only became famous but were also instrumental in introducing spirituals to the world. With the help of Fisk librarian Beth Howse (great-granddaughter of Ella Sheppard, the singers' pianist), Hopkinson tells Ella's fictionalized story as it's related by "Aunt Beth" to a niece who treasures this significant family history and imagines what it was like to be part of the historic group. Beginning with Ella's struggle to earn tuition for a longed-for education and the determination of all the students to keep their school alive, Hopkinson credits Ella herself with the dramatic turnaround when a bored audience was finally captivated. On the spur of the moment, Ella played and sang "Many Thousand Gone"; the others joined in, to ringing applause. Ironically, the tour became such a success that they never returned to Fisk to graduate; they did, however, save their school. Col n's handsome illustrations-monumental figures in richly textured brown, blue, and rust suffused with the golden tones of old photos-capture the dignity of the singers and the eloquence of their performance. A note on the history of the Jubilee Singers, who still perform, closes the book; endpapers feature portraits of nine of the singers. j.r.l. Copyright 1999 Horn Book Magazine Reviews
Library Talk Reviews 1999 September
Aunt Beth, the keeper of the Moore genealogy, tells the story of Ella Sheppard Moore and a group of singers from the Fisk School who came to be known as the Jubilee Singers. A freed slave at the age of 14, Ella saved money to attend Fisk School in Nashville, Tennessee. While touring to raise the money needed to keep the school open, the Jubilee Singers encountered discrimination, and their efforts seemed doomed. One night Ella began their last concert with one of the old slave songs--a song not usually sung in front of white people. This song and the concert was such a hit that Ella and the chores continued their tour singing in the United States and in Europe. The singers were invited to sing for President Grant and European dignitaries. Colon's watercolor and colored pencil illustrations, with their earth tones, round out the narrative story conveying the character's feelings. An author's note and information on the end papers give more factual information about Moore and Fisk University. A welcome addition to any primary or intermediate school looking to expand the range of historical fiction for younger students and another excellent offering from this author. Highly Recommended. Doris Smith, Library Media Specialist, Bedford (Massachusetts) Public Schools © 1999 Linworth Publishing, Inc.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2001 December #3
In a starred review of this story inspired by a groundbreaking African-American chorus founded in 1871, PW wrote, "Scenes of the chorus lost in song voices raised, eyes closed reveal the courage and heart of these trailblazing singers." Ages 5-9. (Jan.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 1999 January #1
A groundbreaking African-American chorus founded in 1871 inspires this warm and moving picture book. "Grandma Ella was born into slavery... but no one could chain her voice," begins Aunt Beth in response to the girl narrator's request for her favorite story. After the Civil War, Ella becomes one of the first students to attend the Fisk School, a newly formed institution for freed slaves in Nashville. She has been at her studies only a short time when the school's run-down buildings and dire financial situation puts Fisk on the verge of closing. But Professor White, who teaches music, recruits Ella and fellow members of the school chorus to tour the northern states and raise money for Fisk. In the North, the singing group meets with harsh discrimination that moves them to perform not the slotted popular tunes of the day but the "powerful songs of courage" known as spirituals a program change that earns them both money and accolades. Hopkinson's (Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt) lilting text interweaves subtle details about racial tensions after the Civil War while emphasizing the importance of education and of being true to oneself. Colón's (My Mama Had a Dancing Heart) watercolor and colored-pencil compositions are awash in soft, golden light. His characteristic cross-hatching technique adds texture and depth to each painting, and scenes of the chorus lost in song voices raised, eyes closed reveal the courage and heart of these trailblazing singers. Ages 5-8. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Publishers Weekly Reviews
School Library Journal Reviews 1999 February
Gr 1-5 This picture book is both touching and inspirational. The narrative is written from the point of view of the great-great-granddaughter of Ella Sheppard, one of the original Jubilee Singers from the Fisk School in Nashville, TN, the first school for freed slaves. As Aunt Beth tells about the struggles of Ella and the rest of the chorus to raise money to save their school, the girl imagines what her great-great-grandmother might have thought or felt. The singers traveled throughout the North after the Civil War performing popular music. However, it was only when they began to perform the "jubilee" or spiritual songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" that they gained popularity. Later, they sang for Queen Victoria and President Grant and the funds they raised helped to build Jubilee Hall and establish Fisk University. Hopkinson's poignant prose sets the tone for this glimpse into a little-known bit of black history. Using the device of a family storyteller and a child narrator brings immediacy to the tale and a personal connection to the events. Colón's soft watercolor and colored-pencil illustrations are full of gentle greens and browns. The sepia tones add an antique look to the book. This heartwarming presentation is not a historical account, but rather a human look at recorded facts. A fine read-aloud with a good story, uplifting pictures, and fascinating information. Beth Tegart, Oneida City Schools, NY Copyright 1999 School Library Journal Reviews