Cover to Cover…‘Josephine’

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You love to sing because it’s your thing and you dance when you get the chance.

On the sidewalk and in the park. For school, for church, or just for yourself, you gotta open your mouth and move your feet. No doubt about it, you’re the kind of kid who needs a stage.

So what would you do if you were told that you couldn’t perform because your skin was the wrong color?  In “Josephine” by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson, one woman decides to do it anyhow…

Josephine’s mother loved to dance. It made her happy but she didn’t do it much because there was rent to pay and children to feed. So instead of dancing, Josephine’s mother scrubbed floors.

While her Mama worked, Josephine listened to sidewalk horns and honky-tonks and “sponged up that funky music.”  She loved to dance, too. She loved it so much that she worked hard to earn pennies so she could watch “the Negro theater” where Ma Rainey sang and others shimmied. Josephine loved performing so much that she left home at age 13 to work with the Dixie Steppers. She was just a kid, but she could help dress the dancers—and as soon as they let her, she joined the chorus line.

Yippee!  Josephine was finally able to dance and sing to crowds, but she still wasn’t allowed inside certain hotels or restaurants. They were for “WHITES ONLY.”

When the Dixie Steppers broke up, Josephine found herself a long way from home in East St. Louis. She fell in love, married a man named Baker in Philadelphia, and then left him to go to Broadway where she found fame.

But the color of her skin kept her from the kind of fame she really wanted. It was frustrating, and Josephine felt like a volcano sometimes—until she was invited to perform in “La Revue Negré” in France.

Ooh la la, the French seemed color blind! And they were wild for Josephine Baker!

And yet, there was one thing Josephine hadn’t done, and it bothered her. She hadn’t become a star back home in America. She needed to do it—but was America ready for her?

As I was reading “Jose­phine” through for the first time, something tickled the back of my mind. I liked the colorful illustrations by Christian Robinson well enough, but that wasn’t it. The story is familiar, so that wasn’t it, either.

And then it hit me: the words.

Author Patricia Hruby Powell’s story is written almost like scat: quick lines, be-bopping here and shooby-loobing there, rising and falling as though Josephine Baker herself was singing the story. It’s infectious, even in the sad parts. Your little one might not notice that hoppity-bop but once you do, you won’t be able to not see it.

I think smaller kids might enjoy this book for the artwork but readers ages 8-to-12 will probably get more out of “Josephine.”

(“Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker” by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Christian Robinson, c.2014, Chronicle Books, $17.99/$21.50 Canada, 104 pages.)

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