Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

Patricia Hruby Powell
Illustrator:  Christian Robinson 
Poetry Picture Book
For ages 8 and up
Chronicle Books, 2014   ISBN: 978-1452103143

Being born to a poor, single, African American mother, Josephine had the cards stacked against her from the moment that she came into the world. She and her mother lived in a shack in a slum in Saint Louis, Missouri, and her mother scrubbed floors when she would rather have been dancing in a vaudeville act. At least, when you were dancing, your worries left you for a while and you could “let your body LAUGH, / Or CRY.”

   Like her mama, Josephine loved to dance. She also loved to tell stories, to be the center of attention, and “to entertain.” She danced because dancing can make a person happy “when nothin’ else will.” When she got older she worked alongside her mother and grandmother and saved her earnings so that she could go to the Booker T. Washington Theatre. This was a “negro” theatre where African Americans performed.

   Josephine joined a street act, and when the group was invited to perform at the Booker T. Washington Theatre as an extra act for the Dixie Steppers she was there. She “danced like she was / ON FIRE,” and so impressed the Dixie Steppers that she was invited to join them.

   Though she was a born performer and delighted audiences, Josephine found it hard to survive as an entertainer in the United States. The color of her skin was so often held against her and when she was invited to perform in a club in Paris, France, Josephine jumped at the chance. When they arrived in France, Josephine was amazed when she and her fellow performers “were welcomed,” on the train, and when she performed Josephine said, “For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful.”

   In this remarkable book blank verse is paired with colorful artwork and quotes from Josephine Baker’s own writings, and other sources, to give readers an extraordinary poetry journey into the life of one of the world’s great women performers. The book is divided into sections, each one of which explores a different part of Josephine’s life.

   At the back of the book readers will find notes from the author and illustrator. In one we find out more about Josephine Baker, and in the other we read about what inspired the illustrator to create the artwork for this book.