It’s clear that Josephine Baker is one of those few celebrity icons who transcends generations. My parents loved her, I loved her, and now my girls love her thanks to the new book, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker. And despite it being a book for kids, if it weren’t for Christian Robinson’s wonderful illustrations, you might think it was an adult-targeted poetic ode to the legendary performer.
Patricia Hruby Powell’s prose feels like jazz itself, dancing across the pages with a kind of defiant playfulness; the random line breaks, indentations, metaphors, erratic use of all-cap words are writers’ tools I can never resist when they’re employed well. And wow, are they. How can you not be captivated from the very first page?
Knees SQUEEZE, now FLY
heels flap and chop
arms scissor and splay
eyes swivel and pop.
erupted into the Roaring Twenties–a VOLCANO.
I wondered if grade schoolers would be too caught up in the musicality of the writing to take away the poignant, captivating story of Baker’s life but I don’t think that will be the case. Especially with the help of Robinson’s vibrant, evocative illustrations, along with a parent’s guidance.
To be sure, this is not a story dumbed down for children with all the tough parts glossed over; you’ll find references to her birth out of wedlock; plenty of descriptions of racism and segregation; the controversy over Josephine’s skin color which was neither white enough nor black enough; details of her “miserable” life towards the end, just before her final comeback. It all presents a great opportunity to discuss so many things with your kids. Including how much has changed since her time–and how much hasn’t. (I say as I sit here examining how few Black actors have the chance of collecting statues this award season.)
I am simply taken with Josephine in every way. It’s one thing to have a great story to research and write about as an author, but I can’t think of anyone else who could have brought it to life in a way that honors Baker’s memory so spectacularly as Powell has.
Your kids may not get all the nuances just yet, but you will. And that’s what makes Josephine a keeper.
Find Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson from our affiliate Amazon, or support your local indie bookseller.