Josephine Baker belonged onstage: vibrant, volcanic, fearless. She shimmied and shook from East St. Louis to Broadway—the only black dancer ever to front the Ziegfeld Follies—barred from the white performers’ entrance. In France she experienced integration and became an international sensation. She fought for civil rights, mandating integrated audiences at stateside shows in the 1950s, and adopted 12 orphans of different races and religions to prove they could live together in one harmonious home.
“She was an original. She was so charming, unique, adorable—she was just adorable in that early footage—and very, very funny,” says Patricia Hruby Powell, author of Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson. “When you go to France, everybody knows Josephine Baker, everybody of every generation, but people in the U.S. more often than not don’t. My first hope for this book is that a new generation will know and appreciate Josephine.”
Like its namesake, Josephine is utterly original. The biography, pegged for children ages 7-10, transcends those bounds both verbally and visually. Robinson’s elegantly simple illustrations capture Josephine’s kinesthetic qualities in old autumnal hues that conjure classic circus posters. Powell’s slam-bam free verse has a Jazz Age-evoking musicality, incorporating everything from magmatic metaphor to Baker’s quotations.
“JOSEPHINE danced a sizzling flapper dance—the Charleston. Knees SQUEEZE, not FLY hells flap and chop arms scissor and splay eyes swivel and pop. Josephine, all RAZZMATAZZ, erupted into the Roaring Twenties—a VOLCANO. America wasn’t ready for Josephine, the colored superstar. THE WORLD WAS,” Powell writes.
Robinson was ready for Josephine: He caught his first glimpse of the famous Paul Colin poster, Josephine in her banana skirt, on a family trip to New Orleans when he was 13. The image inspired him to learn more, and Baker became a personal role model.
He admires Powell’s fresh take on Baker’s storied life. “When I read the manuscript for Josephine, I think what I loved most about it reminded me that books, especially for children, don’t have to be a certain way. There’s this freedom that’s there if you take it. I admire the freedom and looseness of the language. I love the way Patricia was able to capture Josephine’s spirit, like a dance.”
As a former professional dancer, Powell may be specially qualified to communicate those squeezing knees, flapping heels, scissored arms and swiveling eyes. However, it was her role as a substitute summer librarian, working with a group of preteen African American girls, that inspired her to tell Baker’s story. “The girls were unfocused, they were lost and I thought they needed a role model. Having been a dancer for my whole life, I certainly knew who Josephine Baker was. I didn’t know everything she had done, but I thought she could be the one,” says Powell. “I’m hoping that kids will look at her life and say, ‘I can do anything I want to do’—just to be sparked by that confidence.”
“Same here,” Robinson says. “I hope that this just reminds a generation of people that you can come from wherever and end up wherever you want to be. Your background doesn’t determine where you can go.”
Baker traveled the world as an international superstar, playing sold-out shows into her late sixties. Her extravagant philanthropy left her penniless at times, but she always picked up and forged ahead, dancing until the day she died, still giving her all. As she said ahead of her final show: “I wore my heart on my toes and my soul on my lips. I sang for the Paris that created me and I wept as I danced.” That extraordinary passion should be an inspiration for generations to come.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.