Although it's early in the year, this new picture book by Jonah Winter about African-American singer and dancer Josephine Baker is already one of my favorites! Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis in a poor family, living in a shack with rats and no heat and went on to become an iconic performer in Paris, one of the symbols of the Jazz Age. At an early age, she learned to be a clown, dancing and making silly faces for money. Her talents would provide her a ticket out of what Winter calls the "general misery of her childhood." When she gets to New York, she winds up in the chorus line, where she performs in blackface. Looking for better opportunities, she left for France, which became her adopted country and where she wasn't "scorned for the color of your skin."
What's so special about this picture book? Several aspects make it a stand-out title. First, the rhythm of the text, which just demands to be read aloud, put to music and to become a dance number. Winter perfectly captures the vital rhythms of the dance age in the quirky rhythms of his poetry:
"Josephine, oh Josephine, you know you're in the big time now.
Josephine, oh Josephine,
grown up and in the big time now,
makin' people hoot and whistle
every night you take your bow."
And we can't forget the incredibly exuberant illustrations, done in gouache and ink, by two-time Caldecott honoree Marjorie Priceman, illustrator of Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin and others. You can see an extended excerpt of the artwork at Simon & Schuster's site. The vibrant colors, movement and energy of the artwork remind me of Matisse and other painters from Paris in the 1920's, and are a perfect fit for Winter's rhythmic text.
While this picture book does not detail all the aspects of Baker's life, an author's note provides some further biographical details on her history. This is a great title for both Black History Month and Women's History Month as well.
For more information on Josephine Baker, see her official website. HBO did a biopic on Baker, The Josephine Baker Story, which is available on DVD, in 2001. It stars Lynn Whitfield as Baker and Ruben Blades as her lover/manager.
If you want to check out Baker's infamous banana dance (alluded to in this book only through the illustrations), you can see a video of it on YouTube!