Early Celebrity

Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights up The Stage
By Alan Schroeder
Illustrated by Cornelius van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
(Lee & Low Books, 2012, New York, $18.95)

Though little known today, Florence Mills was one of America’s most famous entertainers during the 1910s and 20s. She sang and danced in nightclubs, vaudeville, and musical theatre, and her voice, dancing, and versatility awed critics and audiences alike. In 1927, at thirty-one, she died tragically of tuberculosis at the height of her fame. Neither film footage nor audio recordings of her survive, and so the woman who once performed for sold-out theatres has faded into obscurity.

In Baby Flo, Alan Schroeder and illustrators Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu imagine the early years of Florence Mills and her precocious entry into show business. Drawing on the few known facts about Mills’ childhood, Shroeder invents dialogue and situations for the budding performer and her family, who lived in a depressed area of D.C.  Although the text is too long for the youngest readers or listeners, Baby Flo’s language is as exuberant and captivating as its subject. In a nod to African-American oral traditions, the biography often sounds like a tale spun by a knowing raconteur: “Straight up: Florence was a remarkable child, and that’s a fact,” it begins. Van Wright and Hu’s watercolor illustrations evoke the joy her art brought to herself and others. Though readers see her mother, a laundress, balancing laundry on her head, though see sheets hung as partitions in the family’s small apartment, it is Florence’s wide smile and dancing feet that spring off the page. Like sunshine, the irrepressible little girl casts a rosy glow over the people, sidewalks, and rooms that are privy to her art. Van Wright and Hu also capture the gentle nuances of expression on the characters’ faces – the soft smiles, the looks of pride – that show the effect Flo’s gift had on those she touched.

Baby Flo may generate interest in Florence Mills; unfortunately, as readers will be unable to see her dance or hear her sing, they will not be able to experience her art. However, the picture-book biography is a warm tribute to a forgotten star and a much needed reminder that performance is, above all, about communication between performer and audience, not a celebration of celebrity.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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