Part of the appeal of this biographical picture book lies in the juxtaposition of two figures not usually seen together in books for children. Mostwill have heard of scientist Albert Einstein. Sadly, not as many may be familiar with the artistry or courage of African-American opera singer Marian Anderson. The Singer and the Scientist traces the mutual respect and friendship of these two individuals, each a leader in his or her own field. The Jewish refugee from Nazi-controlled Europe was drawn to Anderson’s incredible musical gifts and was horrified by the blatant racism that compromised her career and threatened her dignity. Anderson, a self-assured performer, but still a vulnerable human being, relates to Einstein’s own experience as a victim of hatred and welcomes his empathy. Lisa Rose’s simple narrative pairs with Isabel Muñoz’s colorful pictures to present the moving story of a historic friendship.
The book begins with what should be a triumphant performance for Anderson at Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre in 1937. At the conclusion of the concert, Rose records the singer’s “exhaustion,” and Muñoz depicts the very human scene of the energetic singer sitting on a trunk in the wings and rubbing her sore feet. While a white singer could look forward to a rest in a conveniently located hotel room, Anderson learns from the arrogant theater owner that the nearby Nassau Inn is a “whites-only hotel.” The recent applause by her audience has frozen into silence, proving the hollowness of their acclaim. When Albert Einstein, “the man with the wild white hair from the front row,” approaches Anderson to offer his hospitality, the friendship between singer and scientist begins.
To advance the picture of their relationship beyond this one incident, Rose depicts Einstein as a member of the community, socializing with his African-American neighbors. He has more than one reason for his admiration for Anderson: his own love of music as well as a past of persecution. Rose mentions Einstein’s famous theory of relativity and its violent rejection by the Nazis as a form of corrupt “Jewish science.” The tragedy of Anderson’s empathy is also implicit: “She understood what it meant to be treated as an outsider in one’s own country.” Since Einstein fled a dictatorship but Anderson was a citizen of the democratic United States, the comparison between her marginalized status and her friend’s reveals a sad truth.
Muñoz’s pictures are beautiful, capturing both the distant glamor and the terrible inequality of the era. Einstein has his familiar big, white hair but Muñoz portrays Anderson with nuance and perceptiveness. She is delicately slender, with an expressive face that shows a range of emotions from complete absorption in her singing to frustration at racist mistreatment. Enjoying an evening with Einstein at this home, Anderson is relaxed and engaged. Deep,jewel-toned colors reappear in different elements. Anderson’s dress and Einstein’s cardigan are the same shade of yellow squash; the singer’s teal gown matches the throw tossed over Einstein’s sofa. There are points of connection, as well as obvious differences, between the distinguished physicist and the brilliant contralto, but their warm friendship is a constant in this accessible story.
This highly recommended story includes an informative author’s note about the social activism of the book’s subjects.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.