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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Josephine, words by Patricia Hruby Powell and pictures by Christian Robinson. Chronicle Books, Raincoast. 2014. $19.99 ages 9 and up

"So, instead of dancing,
Josephine became the DRESSER.
She helped dress the dancers
down in New Orleans.
Until her usefulness ran out.
And who just happened to be in town,
but the ragtag JONES FAMILY -
Papa, Mama, and Doll."

I have seen videos of Josephine Baker's performances ( and was totally intrigued to read a book for children about her.

In the early half of the twentieth century, Josephine was an internationally known 'star'. In fact, by 1927, she was known to be the highest paid entertainer working in Europe. While a book intended for a young audience that introduces her celebrity as a dancer and performer can show much about her life, it cannot possibly bring full disclosure. She was NOT a children's entertainer. That does not negate her importance in history.

This beautifully designed picture book autobiography does much to show Josephine to be a strong, willful and bold African-American woman who didn't allow barriers of race and poverty to keep her from her calling - dance! Her mother had had the same dream. It was quashed by the need to help provide for her beloved family. At her mother's side, Josephine soaked up the music and the dream:

"She flung her arms,
                      she flung her legs,
Like she flung her heart and her soul.
'Cause DANCIN' makes you HAPPY
                       when nothin' else will."

Unable to find work in any vaudeville show, Josephine became a dresser. She watched from the wings and learned the routines, in case a chance to perform presented itself. When she did get that chance, she added her own flair, much to the delight of every audience. She faced the same segregation that all colored entertainers faced at the time:

                     kept squeezing tighter,
    way below the surface -
hot magma,
         MOLTEN LAVA,
                           TRAPPED WITHIN."

Paris offered artistic freedom, rapt audiences and a chance to do what she loved doing. It didn't matter her color or background. The audience wanted to be entertained. Josephine had found a perfect place to hone her craft and have her star rise. Eventually, she longed for home and fame in America. She became the 'FIRST and ONLY Negro Follies star. EVER.' But, discrimination forced her to return to Paris and show her gratitude to those who had supported her career. She worked for the French during WWII, and was lauded as a hero.

As dramatic as her stage life was, her personal life matched it. Following the war she married and, in her remaining lifetime, she adopted twelve children from varied cultural backgrounds. She dubbed them her Rainbow Tribe.

I love the design of this book! It is arranged as acts on stage, encompassing the various periods of time in her life and marked by her singular personality. There is so much to see, and to come to understand about the life she lived. I have great admiration for the team who created this book filled to the brim with Ms. Baker's personal triumphs, her mesmerizing personality and her great beauty. The acrylic artwork, the free verse text placed so purposefully and elegantly, the personal quotes and the celebration they create are exemplary. Bravo!

If reading this post has piqued your interest, please find the book at the library or in your nearest favorite bookstore. Then, you can really appreciate the brilliant pleasure of it. Further, you might want to check this out:

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