Dancing for Freedom

By Patricia Hruby Powell
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
(Chronicle Books, 2014, San Francisco, $17.99)

Famous for the bananas she wore, the Charleston she danced, and her comedic flair, Josephine Baker is synonymous with Paris in the twenties and thirties. But there was much more to Baker than her flamboyant performances and lifestyle. In Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrator Christian Robinson celebrate Baker’s style and substance. This picture-book biography transports readers from the entertainer’s humble beginnings in St. Louis to her international renown: along the way, Powell explores Baker’s civil rights activism and her work with the French Resistance. Powell incorporates the artist’s words with her own narrative, which, at times, flirts with verse echoing the jazz Baker danced to: “RAGTIME MUSIC – / raggedy black music – / gotta-make-the-rent music – / lift-my-soul music – / GOLDEN-AGE music.” Although Robinson’s childlike, folk-art inspired paintings seem, at first, diametrically opposed to Baker’s glamour, they nonetheless convey the star’s dynamic stage presence. In fact, the stage is a motif throughout Josephine; spreads depicting open curtains announce each new chapter of Baker’s life. Although Josephine is a picture-book biography, it is longer than most picture books and works well for older readers: that alone makes it a fitting tribute to its larger than life subject.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


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