Meet… Nellie Melba, Janeen Brian (author), Claire Murphy (illus.), Random House, 2016

Synopsis: Dame Nellie Melba was Australia’s first classical music star. The beauty of her singing was celebrated around the globe. She was appointed Dame Commander, OBE for her enormous fundraising efforts during World War One and today she is commemorated on Australia’s hundred dollar banknote. This is the story of how she rose to fame, and how she brought opera to Australians in the city and in the bush.

Meet…Nellie Melba is the latest addition to Random House’s “Meet…” picture book series about the extraordinary men and women who have shaped Australia’s history. Past books in the series include those on Captain Cook, Ned Kelly, Banjo Paterson, Don Bradman, Weary Dunlop, and Sidney Nolan.

Author Janeen Brian wrote the Ned Kelly book in the series, and her experience in documenting the history of famous, influential Australians shine through in this new title as well. With a wealth of information available about opera star and fundraiser Dame Nellie Melba, this book could have easily become overwhelmed with details. The writer has chosen, though, to highlight the most remarkable aspects of the singer’s career, as well as communicate Melba’s grit, determination and Aussie spirit, without getting bogged down in facts.

With so many non-fiction picture books on the market about famous Australian men, it’s always lovely to see a new title that highlights the strengths and achievements of females who have done great things over their lives and made a real difference. Melba’s perseverance to become a world-famous opera singer (at a time when opera was barely known in Australia), and her triumph against the odds as a single, divorced mother in the late 1800s, really shines through in the text.

Brian seems to have captured the real fighting essence of a girl who had a dream and the determination to see it through, even when family members and society tried to keep her from achieving her goals. In the opening of the book, for instance, Nellie’s father snaps at her to ‘Stop that whistling! You sound like a tomboy’, to which Nellie simply juts her jaw and responds, ‘Then I’ll hum.’

This optimism and resilience is illustrated perfectly by Claire Murphy’s pictures, which are full of colour and light. Her work also beautifully captures various styles and settings of the late 1980s to early 1900s, from the Australian bush through to the glamour of a Covent Garden stage or the harsh realities of World War I in Europe where Melba raised money for war charities. The illustrations will help children to develop a better understanding of that period of time too.

Meet… Nellie Melba is an inspiring historical picture book for young children that will no doubt be very popular with schools and libraries. The story is readable and relatable, even though the events happened so long ago, and both girls and boys will surely be keen to get to the end to discover how Melba overcame obstacles and lived her life in her later years. The book ends with a timeline full of additional details about the singer’s life and her influence on Australian culture.

Meet… Nellie Melba is recommended for junior readers aged around five or six years and up.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Random House, in exchange for an honest review.

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