Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell

JosephineCindy: Picture book biographies are all the rage in the publishing world and Josephine (Chronicle 2014) is one that our middle school book club members are passing around with enthusiasm. They have no idea who Josephine Baker was but after they read this we’ve dug out some longer biographies and they’ve enjoyed seeing photographs of her to compare with Christian Robinson’s fabulous highly stylized acrylic painting illustration. The Biography Channel offers this short video about Josephine in which the beautiful and the goofy Josephine persona  shines.

The book opens with a Josephine quote that aptly sums up this verse biography:

“I shall dance all my life…I would like to die, breathless, spent, at the end of a dance.”

After a childhood accident in which she almost lost her leg, the dancing Josephine hit the road performing at the age of 13, leaving behind the slums of St. Louis. Her long legs and comedic eye rolls carried her far…eventually to Paris where her popularity soared. Dolls with banana skirts were sold (capitalizing on one of her famous dance outfits) and she strolled the streets of Paris with her leopard wearing his diamond collar. Parisians began tanning to look more like Josephine (while she bleached her skin to look more white).

Powell’s narrative poetry and Josephine’s story makes this an engaging read aloud with many possibilities for discussion, follow up research and writing…but it doesn’t have to be an educational lesson either…it’s just a fun read.

Lynn:  I’ve long admired Josephine Baker and she is still a legend in France where people speak of her as if they just saw her perform yesterday.  I remember wondering if our kids would be interested in her but happily this book has been a hit with our book club.  Powell’s text is so engaging and I love the flow and rhythm of the text that gives a real sense of the music of Josephine’s time.  Christian Robinson’s acrylic illustrations are a delight too, using bold colors and designs and a lot of humor to match the text.

And what a story they have to tell!  In fact one of the things I wondered about was how could they condense Baker’s amazing and varied life – as well as her scanty costumes – into a book accessible for young readers.  This book managed it all well though and I love the way Powell shows readers Baker’s courage and persistence in breaking racial barriers.  She never stopped in that pursuit, even while working as a French spy during the war.  When entertaining allied troops, she insisted that the black soldiers sit in the front.  France awarded her a Legion d’Honneur for her bravery and she deserved it in so many ways.

My only quarrel with this wonderful book is with this quote – “She was OLD.”  Josephine Baker died at age 61 – not old at all from my perspective!  Just saying!






About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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