Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

Josephine

Image Credit: Chronicle Books, Patricia Hruby Powell/Christian Robinson

A passionate woman full of energy, charisma and magic was Josephine Baker.

Patricia Hruby Powell uses the metaphor of volcano to describe Josephine’s personality and I think this is perfect. Ever since a little girl, she bubbled and popped and fizzled with pent up energy to perform and dance. She was born poor in segregated St. Louis to a single mother who also loved to dance. They shared a love of vaudeville. As a child she started out in the group The Jones Family but quickly moved on to The Dixie Steppers. Even in a chorus line she stood out with her distinct, silly style. She got hitched, went to broadway and used her smarts to get onstage and SHINE.

Look how spunky and charming she is in the film Zouzou (1934)!

Though she loved to perform, Josephine was tired of segregation and just barely getting by. She got the chance to head to Paris where as soon as she stepped off the steam ship, she wasn’t discriminated against because of her color and felt truly beautiful! She took Paris by storm, charming the entire city, headlining shows, staring in movies and drawing crowds with her energy and risqué banana skirts. She was in every way fabulous, scandalous and daring. When war came she spied for France and became a hero.

As she got older, she remarried and adopted twelve children from all over the world; her rainbow tribe. Though she worked hard to support her children and keep up her lavish lifestyle, she was put out of their mansion, the bills too much to pay. Luckily her friends helped her family and years later, at sixty-seven years old, she decided to give the US one more try. It was a success! America loved her and dear Josephine danced herself to eternal sleep.

Josephine2

Image Credit: Chronicle Books, Patricia Hruby Powell/Christian Robinson

The rhythm and energy of the writing in this book suits Josephine’s personality. It’s broken very cleverly into “acts” of her life. Robinson’s illustrations, as usual, are vivid and beautiful. His signature long bodied figures are perfect for Josephine’s limber body. The book opens with a red curtain, each “act” is introduced by a scene on a stage and finally, after we finish reading the story, the red curtain returns, flowers stewn on the floor below it. I love this touch. It brings the story full circle; she lived for performance. Robinson says in the end notes that he’s been connected to Josephine Baker’s story ever since he was young and it’s very evident in the loving way he depicts her.

Josephine has become one of my favorite biography picture books. It’s one that my bookstore never carried and I kept reading about online. I kept thinking “I’ve GOT to read that book!” After reading Josephine (or maybe even during, like I did), you’ll want to look up photographs and videos of this AMAZING woman. What a woman she was…

 

Recommended for: 2nd grade and up
Great for: Dance, Vaudeville, African-American, Segregation, Determination, Black Girls Rock, Black Girl Magic, Confidence, Courage, Rhythm, Energy, Paris, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion, Biography
Book Info: Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell/Illustrated by Christian Robinson, 2014 Chronicle Books, ISBN: 9781452103143

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgerald

SkitScatRaggedyCatElla

Image Credit: Candlewick Press, Roxanne Orgill/Sean Qualls

Ummm hmm. Ella’s voice is one of my all time favorites. What I like about this picture book is that it tells the story of her early life, when she was just a Raggedy Cat trying to survive.

Ella had a larger than life personality ever since she was a young girl. Growing up in Yonkers, NY, her family didn’t have much but they had plenty of music.  Her voice could draw a crowd. She and her friend Charlie learned the newest moves and made a little change on the sidewalks dancing for crowds. It was a time of Jazz Jazz Jazz. Her mother passed away suddenly and she ended up on 145th Street in Harlem, living with her aunt. She didn’t get much love there so she searched for something better, on her own.

Ella’s 1938 chart0topper “A Tisket A Tasket” which was included in a movie called Ride ‘Em Cowboy in 1942. Oh look she’s at the back of the bus!  >_<

She got into some trouble and found herself in a school for orphans. They beat the girls, especially the black girls, so she ran away, back to Harlem. She was on the streets and in and out of people’s homes but one day she heard about auditioning at the Apollo Theater and decided to give it a try. The crowd almost ran her off the stage but the emcee gave her another chance and she blew them away! Ella started to make a name for herself. Despite her plain looks, bandleader Chick Webb gave her a chance to join his band at the Savoy. Ella’s spirit shone through her voice, loud and clear. People loved dancing to her. The band got their first big hit when she wrote “A Tisket, A Tasket.” With that song she shot to stardom and didn’t have to worry about food, lack of nice clothes and a place to sleep ever again!

I like Sean Qualls’ art style. He likes to lay his acrylic down a little rough and scratchy and uses a palette of reds, oranges, blues and browns. I love the jazz scenes that show the vibrance of Harlem at its artistic peak. Author Roxane Orgill and Sean Qualls really did an excellent job of pairing story with illustration; when I finished the book, I felt satisfied. I learned so much about young Ella and her spirit.

If you’re looking for an excellent biography that celebrates never giving up despite the odds, check out Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat…and go listen to some jazz!

 

Recommended for: 1st Grade and up
Great for:  Jazz, Jazz Bands, Music History, History, African-American, Black Girls Rock, Black Girl Magic, Inner Strength, Family, Determination, Discrimination, Jim Crow, Apollo Theater, Harlem, Dance, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-fiction, Discussion, Biography
Book Info: Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgerald by Roxane Orgill/Illustrated by Sean Qualls, 2010 Candlewick Press, ISBN: 9780763617332

Jingle Dancer

JingleDancer

Image Credit: HarperCollins, Cynthia Leitich Smith/Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu

The next book to celebrate Native American Heritage Month is this gorgeously illustrated one called Jingle Dancer. In college I planned our annual powwow and I LOVE a good powwow so I was very excited to finally sit down and read this book. Jingle Dress also happens to be one of my favorite dances and powwow regalia. Maybe it’s the quiet confidence of the steps and the swish-swishswish of the metal cones moving across the floor in beat with the drum. It’s a beauty!

Jingle Dress Dance at Gathering of Nations. Watch Willow Jack in the Black and Neon Green! She’s my favorite. Her footwork and grace! 🙂

Cynthia Leitich Smith is Muscogee Creek and Jingle Dancer is about a little Muscogee Creek/ Ojibway girl who loves to dance. From the moment Jenna wakes up she hears the metal cones clink as she thinks about her grandma’s bounce-step. She’s ready to try dancing at the next powwow but her dress isn’t ready; she needs four rows of jingles for her dress to be able to sing. And so, she sets out to visit various family members and friends throughout the day, hears their stories and asks to borrow a row of jingles. With all her jingles in place, she remembers the people who helped her, as she proudly dances at the powwow. The Jingle Dress dance originated as a dance of healing, so like Jenna, dancers often dance for someone special or sick. Make sure to read the Author’s Note in the back of the book because there’s a lot of great information.

Leitich Smith is Native and the illustrators Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu are African American and Chinese. What a diverse team of authors and illustrators! This is SO nice to see! Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu’s illustrations glow; the watercolor paintings carry the rhythm of the dance and show the love between Jenna and her grandmother. Leitich Smith’s rich storytelling and the realistic illustrations make me feel like I’m back at a powwow. I love how this book shows a contemporary, loving Native family; many people think Native people are only in the past so representation is important.

I hope this picture book encourages you to learn more about powwows (the dances, the regalia, the food and the fun) and to maybe even seek one out when spring season comes!

Recommended for: All Ages
Great for: Native American Heritage Month, Powwow, Girl Power, Dance, Cultural Diversity, We Need Diverse Books, Family, Community
Book Info: Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith/Illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, 2000 HarperCollins, ISBN: 9780688162412