History Book Review: When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Instead of trying to tell the main character’s whole life story, this engaging picture book focuses on Marian Anderson’s singing. Readers follow Marian’s development from a young girl singing in her church to a professional performer. Elements of Marian’s personal life are only included if they influenced her singing. For example, we learn that Marian’s father died in an accident because his passing filled Marian’s voice with sadness.

From the illustrations the reader knows that Marian is African American, but she isn’t discriminated against until she tries to apply to a music school. While waiting in line, she hears the person behind the counter blurt out “We don’t take colored!” Despite this setback, Marian took private music lessons. She became a popular performer throughout the U.S. Still, she still had to travel in railroad cars that were separate and dirtier than the ones reserved for white people.

The most obvious example of discrimination came in 1939 when Marian attempted to perform at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. The manager refused and said only whites could perform there. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard about this, she publicly resigned from the organization that sponsored the hall. With the permission of President Franklin Roosevelt, Marian got to sing at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. Her encore performance of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” silenced the crowd of 75,000 people.


Painting of Marian Anderson by Betsy Graves Reyneau

Though Marian is portrayed as a determined person, the author also makes her human. For example, Marian was often nervous before her performances and sometimes sang with her eyes closed. Anyone who ever gave a presentation at school or work can relate to how Marian felt. Not everyone gets to study music in Europe as Marian did, but readers can still understand Marian’s homesickness.

The author points out that even though Marian was determined to achieve her dream of someday singing at the Metropolitan Opera, she had help along the way. Marian’s mother encouraged her to continue her private lessons when her daughter was rejected by the music school.

Famous music teacher Giuseppe Boghetti was less concerned with Marian’s skin color than with her talent. He told her that after two years with him, she would be able to sing anywhere. In addition, Marian’s church community helped out by paying for her lessons with Boghetti.

At the end of the story, Marian finally realizes her dream of singing for the Metropolitan Opera. She had to wait 16 years after her performance at the Lincoln Memorial, however. Readers can takeaway from this book that dreams can come true, but it might take time and some support from other people to accomplish them.

The back of the book contains a helpful timeline of important events in Marian’s life, including those the story doesn’t cover. I was disappointed that the CD that came with the book did not include Marian’s voice (it’s a narration of the book), but the bibliography says where readers can find recordings of her performances. Unfortunately the bibliography is hidden in the author’s notes at the back of the book, making it somewhat difficult to find.

In summary, this book does a wonderful job of introducing kids  and adults to a courageous African American woman who realized her dreams despite some people’s prejudices.

The Building of the Washington Monument

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

Washington Monument, Photo by David Bjorgen

On December 6, 1884, the Washington Monument was finally completed. The word “finally” is appropriate since construction on the monument ended 85 years after George Washington’s death.

While Washington was still alive many people wanted to dedicate statues to him, but he declined. He thought the country should spend its money on other things. Shortly after Washington’s death, John Marshall proposed a memorial to the first president. The memorial was to be built in the style of the ancient Egyptian tombs with a pyramid serving as Washington’s burial place. However, Congress could not agree on the design.

Thirty-seven years later John Marshall, who was now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, continued to fight for a memorial. In 1832 the Washington National Monument Society was formed. The society decided to hold a competition for the best design while collecting donations from citizens across the country.

Designs came in from around the world. The society required only that each design be “durable, simple, and grand.” Finally they chose a design by Robert Mills, a church architect from Charleston. Mills’ design included a temple with an Egyptian obelisk on top. Inside a colossal statue of Washington and a museum about Washington’s life were to be placed. Because the design was so expensive ($1 million in the 19th century), the society decided to start with the obelisk first.

The monument’s cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1848 with the same trowel that Washington used for the cornerstone of the capital. In a crowd of over 20,000 people that day were three future presidents, including a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

To raise money for the monument states were encouraged to donate commemorative stones to its interior. Even foreign countries donated stones to show their respect for the Revolutionary war hero and president. A controversy arose, however, when the Pope tried to donate a stone. Anti-Catholic groups stalled the construction.

During the Civil War the monument was again abandoned. Cattle grazed around it and soldiers practiced maneuvers in its shadow.

Congress decided to resume construction during the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1876. All the arguments about the design resurfaced. Congress was still short on money. This time, however, the US Army Corps of Engineers under Lieut. Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey was put in charge of the construction.

The country’s anniversary made both Congress and Casey eager to finish the monument. The design was scaled back. It was decided that the temple would not be constructed–only the obelisk. Despite these cost-cutting measures Casey still had several issues to deal with. For example, the scaffolding was rotted and there were flaws in the foundation of the monument. Casey’s crew reinforced the foundation with concrete. He also carried out the original plan to include the 193 memorial stones donated by states and countries into the interior walls.

The outside stones for the monument presented other problem for Lieut. Casey. The quarry used for the initial construction was no longer available. The builders ended up using two additional quarries with varying colors of stone. Today visitors can see three slightly different colored stones from the three different quarries on the outside of the monument.

On December 6, 1884 Lt. Col. Casey supervised as the capstone was brought out through a window and set on top of the monument. The aluminum tip made by Tiffany‘s was put into place by the lieutenant himself. At 555 feet and 5 inches the monument was the tallest structure in the world. However, the Eiffel Tower surpassed it the following year. Nevertheless, it is still the tallest structure in Washington DC and serves as a landmark for everyone who visits the National Mall.

The Washington Monument’s exterior and interior have endured quite a bit over the years. For example, in 2011 an earthquake struck 90 miles southwest of Washington DC. Though the monument was significantly damaged it was repaired successfully. The durability of the monument was anticipated at its dedication. During the ceremony, a speech by Robert Winthrop who had attended the opening ceremony in 1848 was read by Rep. John Long of Massachusetts. He said, “the storms of winter must blow and beat upon it…the lightnings of heaven may scar and blacken it. An earthquake may shake its foundations…but the character which it commemorates and illustrates is secure.”