Watson’s biographical distillation of the life of jazz singer and dancer Florence Mills is endearing and affectionate, at just the right level for very young readers.
The child who “lived in a teeny-tiny, itsy-bitsy house” won singing and cakewalking contests all over Washington, D.C., and became famous dancing with her sisters. When Florence was a young teen, the girls performed in Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre in New York, and from there, Florence landed roles in Shuffle Along and From Dover Street to Dixie, introducing jazz to white audiences and mesmerizing crowds. Robinson’s big-eyed portrayal of Florence and her work is terrific: jazzy, geometric and lively. The city scenes, stage moments and glimpses of Florence on- and offstage are sweetly retro; 20 blackbirds on stylized, blooming branches on both front and back endpapers add charm to the work overall. Mills’ generous personality comes through clearly, and Watson aptly uses lyrics from Mills’ songs to help emphasize the story. Watson describes Florence’s decision to turn down a part in the Ziegfield Follies for chances to perform with other black actors and singers and to continue to “use her voice for more than entertainment”—to sing for equal rights. Young readers and listeners will feel the thrill of her success here and in London and the sadness of Florence’s death at age 31.
Her brief life is well worth celebrating, and here it is done well. (Picture book/biography. 3-8)