A Band of Angels by award-winning author Deborah Hopkinson skillfully weaves the story of the Jubilee Singers of Nashville's Fisk College within the context of family lore. A loving narrator, Aunt Beth, tells an attentive niece how her great-grandmother Ella led the Jubilee Singers to perform the old sorrow songs, the songs of slavery, to audiences all over the world. Through seven years of travel, the young group earned enough money to salvage the ailing Fisk College, now Fisk University.
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.