by Patricia Hruby Powell
Chronicle Books 01/14/2014
Age 7 to 0 104 pages
“I shall dance all my life. . . . I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.” – Josephine Baker, 1927”
“JOSEPHINE danced a sizzling flapper dance—the Charleston. Knees squeeze, now fly heels flap and chop arms scissor and splay eyes swivel ad pop. Josephine, all RAZZMATAZZ, erupted into a Roaring Twenties—a VOLCANO. America wasn’t ready for Josephine, the colored superstar. THE WORLD WAS.”
“Josephine—born poor, out of wedlock in honky-tonk town—rambunctious SAINT LOUIS, Mississippi—home of barrelhouses, nickel shots of whiskey and gambling halls—home of RAGTIME MUSIC—raggedy black music—gotta-make-the-rent music-lift-my-soul music—GOLDEN-AGE music.”
Freda Josephine McDonald, born June 3, 1906, lived on the poor side of Saint Louis, Mississippi. From an early age, she wanted to dance. Josephine loved telling stories and she loved attention. She endured the race riots, dispelling her fear and her anger with dance. She believed all could live peacefully.
“I didn’t have any stockings. . . . I danced to keep warm.”
At age thirteen, Josephine stowed away, became a chorus line dancer, often in reverse of the others, giving the audience fits of laughter. The line kicked front, Josephine kicked back; the line strutted, Josephine shimmied; and the audience laughed. What Josephine did not do was eat in the white-only restaurant. In Philadelphia, age 15, Josephine met her future husband Willie Baker. He was a Pullman porter (see review HERE*) But she left him and headed to New York City and the first all-black Broadway show Shuffle Along. She entered the building through the back door.
“Wasn’t there any place in the world where color didn’t matter?”
Invited to perform in LaRevue Nègre, Josephine sailed to France where she found the color-blindness she knew was possible. Josephine became the opening act, doing the Charleston. The people exclaimed, “Black is beautiful,” and for the first time, Josephine’s name was in lights,
Josephine made records, starred in movies, and danced her way around Europe, Egypt, and South America. But America was still not welcoming, so in France, Josephine, her American-fueled hurt fresh, learned to fly a stunt plane, met a millionaire, and once more married. World War I erupted across Europe.
“France has made me what I am. . . I am prepared to give my life for France.”
Josephine joined the Red Cross, spied for France, wrote in invisible ink, and carried contraband, rising searches and worse . . . all for France. A Barcelona cough became a Madrid pneumonia, then in Casablanca exhaustion, and finally, a North African hospital. Newspapers declared her dead, but Josephine was well. She helped win the war and received France’s highest honor, the Lègion d’Honneur. Josephine Baker was a hero.
Her third marriage resulted in twelve children, all adopted, all different races, different countries: her “Rainbow Tribe.” Josephine’s bills soon became more than her income and her outgo was much too high. Soon she and her tribe became homeless, living on the generosity of friends. Josephine Baker had come full circle.
At 63, Josephine played Carnegie Hall in New York City. The crowd finally, unanimously, cheered.
“We’ll show the world that racial hatred is unnatural. . . .Children of different races can grow up together as brothers.”
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is a biography of a vibrant, loving, loyal woman who surpassed many obstacles to dazzle the world, help change it, and live in it as few others have or ever will. Josephine Baker was dynamite and she exploded onto the stage. Truth is, after reading this book and briefly writing “The Story,” I have run out of words. Josephine Baker was bigger than life itself. The author / illustrator team of Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson have collectively made a stunning picture book that will entice young and old alike.
The illustrations capture the gracefulness and the zaniness of Ms. Baker. The segregation of the times—in the United States—was a distraction to Ms. Baker but never a way of life. She was colorblind, living her life as one color: human. Josephine practically danced out of the womb, joyful about life, performing, being on stage, singing, and dancing. All of this is evident in Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, a beautiful book.
I think this Chronicle Books picture book is a fine tribute to Ms. Baker and enlightening to those that read it. Teachers will find ways to implement the book in social studies, music, and art classes. Homeschoolers now have a biography like no other children’s biography. It is complete, precise, intense, beautiful, and full of history as lived through Ms. Josephine Baker. Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker is, at its most basic, a beautiful piece of art in both text and illustration.
Josephine Baker does the Charleston and her comical act 1925
ALL QUOTES ARE FROM JOSEPHINE BAKER in Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker.
JOSEPHINE: THE DAZZLING LIFE OF JOSEPHINE BAKER. Text copyright © 2014 by Patricia Hruby Powell. Illustrations copyright © 2014 by Christian Robinson. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA.
“I wore my heart on my toes and my soul on my lips. I sang for the Paris that created me and I wept as I danced.”
NONFICTION BOOK #2 for 23014 and the Nonfiction Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy