Selina Alko (Why Am I Me?, Can I Touch Your Hair?) introduces readers to Roberta Joan Anderson “before the songs” in Joni: The Lyrical Life of Joni Mitchell, the first picture book biography of the folk music icon.
Living in a small town in Canada, young Joni felt like “an upside-down bird on a wire” in a family who didn’t share her creative ambitions. The book chronicles her bout with polio at age 10; her interest in painting and poetry; her discovery of music and songwriting in art school; her marriage to and subsequent divorce from folk singer Chuck Mitchell; and the launch of her career in Greenwich Village. Alko sketches brief stories of the inspirations behind several of Mitchell’s most beloved songs and albums, including “Big Yellow Taxi” and Blue. She also includes portraits of the handful of musical luminaries who were contemporaries to Mitchell—Bob Dylan, Mama Cass, Leonard Cohen and more.
The illustrations, rendered with acrylics, collage, found objects and even wildflowers, are busy with occasional skewed angles, but Alko always keeps Joni their focus. Vivacious colors swirl in melodies, music notes and lyrics that undulate across the pages in banner-like waves. A wing motif dominates with birds, butterflies and winged insects. The final spread notes that the truth Joni shared in her music gives us freedom, and “freedom gives us wings to fly”—here, Joni herself is painted in flight. The color blue dominates, perhaps a nod to Joni’s most iconic album.
Alko, who in the backmatter relates a personal anecdote of having first heard Joni’s music at age 9, shares Joni’s life story with affection and drive.