dancing, dazzling Josephine Baker

by Wendy Lawrence

I love a book that you can’t easily categorize, and this is one of them. At first glance, you think it’s a picture book, bright and boldly covered. But it’s also thick, almost like a middle grade book, and is 104 pages. When you look at the words, you realize it’s a kind of poem, the whole book written in beautiful language that mimics the dancing of its protagonist, Josephine Baker.

josephineTitle: Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
Author
: Patricia Hruby Powell
Illustrator: Christian Robinson (who has worked for Pixar and Sesame Workshop)
Genre: Nonfiction, Poetry, Art, Dance, African-American
Ages: 7 – 10, but younger children could be read a few pages and older children could use as a research text

This book tells of the life of an amazing woman who ran away from the slums of St. Louis with a dance troupe and made her way to Carnegie Hall and theatres in Paris. She fought tremendous racism, performing at clubs where she wasn’t even allowed to walk through the front door, places she wouldn’t have been allowed to eat. Josephine Baker ended up leaving for Europe where she felt better received and found tremendous success. The book doesn’t dance around any issues: it talks about the Ku Klux Klan, World War II. It talks about how she bleached her skin with lemon juice and how, even after beings so well received in France, she was called a “savage” and a “devil” in Austria. Always wanting to please, she dressed the next night in all white and sang a gorgeous lullaby, a Negro Spiritual called “Pretty Little Baby”. It worked. They called her an “angel”.

Josephine Baker adopted twelve children throughout her life, her famous “Rainbow Tribe”. They came from eleven countries and Josephine brought each of them up celebrating their own religion–Buddhist, Shinto, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and animist. She had a gorgeous and interesting life. She was still performing in her seventies when she died in her sleep after a long night of dancing.

The press release that comes with the book dutifully mentions how it is perfect for February (African-American history month) and April (Poetry month), but seriously, let’s hope it’s read all year long. I love that you can use this book to introduce some very heavy topics to your child, but in a very colorful, happy, positive way, not only because of the colors in the book, but because of the colorful, energetic character who titles it.

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