Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
Written by Patricia Hruby Powell; Illustrated by Christian Robinson
Published by Chronicle Books, 2014 (available in February)
ISBN # 9781452103143
Grades 2 and up
Dancer, spy, mother, star.
In a new picture book biography as dynamic as the life it describes, author Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrator Christian Robinson paint a spirited portrait of Josephine Baker, the illustrious African American entertainer who proved to the world that “Black is beautiful.” The book is divided into six sections, or six acts, each introduced by a double-page spread framed with stage curtains to establish the setting for the next phase in her life’s adventures. Powell’s biography follows Baker’s rise from a childhood of poverty and segregation to worldwide fame, complete with all the bumps in between. Written in free verse, Powell’s text is full of metaphor, onomatopoeia, and lively rhythm, a fitting tribute to Baker’s own free forms of self-expression. Together with Robinson’s acrylic paintings, vibrant colors, and exuberant folk-like forms, we understand that beneath the events is a story of tenacity and buoyancy, infusing each page with a sense of hope and freedom. Appropriate for celebrating February as both Black History Month and Women’s History Month, Josephine is a versatile and vital book to add to your classroom.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Text as Song and Dance. Patricia Hruby Powell’s text is itself as lively and rhythmic as the music and dance that filled Josephine Baker’s life. Invite students to read aloud the text (drawing upon the original oral tradition from which poetry emerged), using the format, font, and other print features as cues to how the words should be read. For example, words written in all capital letters might be said with a powerful or exuberant voice, while the white space and line breaks on each page might indicate the flow and speed of phrases. Watch a few online videos of Josephine Baker’s dancing (several can be found on YouTube by just typing her name into the search field), and help students draw comparisons between the song and dance in the videos and the song and dance conveyed through reading aloud the text.
African American Choreographers and Dancers. Josephine Baker was one of many African Americans who shaped the art form of modern dance. Watch the PBS series Free to Dance, and read other picture books about African American choreographers and dancers, such as Alvin Ailey and Norma Miller (see Further Explorations below). Study their dance styles and techniques, watch some online footage of them on YouTube and compare them to what we see in modern dance today. You might also want to viewing a few episodes of reality television dance contests, such as So You Think You Can Dance?, with students to help them do visual comparisons and clearly identify and credit the contributions of Baker, Miller, Ailey, and others.
Black Entertainment History in America. Use the websites listed below in Further Explorations, as well as reference materials from your local library to identify other notable Black entertainers in American history. What is similar and different about their rise to fame? What is different? How have those achievements developed over time, and in what sociopolitical context were those achievements made? Invite students to select other Black entertainment pioneers to study, and have them put together a multimedia presentation gathered of what they learned.
Josephine the Inspiration. Josephine Baker’s work has inspired other entertainers throughout the last century. Search the Internet or ask your local librarian or media reference specialist to locate videos and examples of dances, routines, songs, and other forms of entertainment inspired by Josephine. For example, you might want to compare her famous Banana Dance with Beyonce’s “Deja Vu” video (both can be found on YouTube). Ask students what the difference is between inspiration and imitation, and then have them discuss which is more flattering or complimentary to the original artist. Then ask them whether they think Josephine would admire what those other artists are doing today.
Black Women Pioneers. Dance and music weren’t the only fields in which Black women made history as pioneers in the United States. Similar to the activity above, have students identify and research notable figures such as Sarah Jane Woodson (first African American female college professor), Alexa Canady (first African American neurosurgeon), and Condoleeza Rice (first African American national security adviser and Secretary of State).
Josephine the Spy. It’s been said, including by herself, that Josephine made for the perfect spy during World War II. Using some of the websites listed below, as well as resources from your local library, have students conduct research to explore this period in Josephine’s life more extensively. How did she become trained in espionage? What risks did she face? How did her work as a spy specifically contribute to the Allies’ victory?
Beauty in the Entertainment Field. When she first arrived on stage in the U.S., Josephine Baker was scrutinized for her skin color and skinny frame, which were not standard for beauty at the time. In Paris, however, she became an overnight sensation and was admired for her beauty. Engage your students in an inquiry that takes on the following questions: What are the standards for beauty in the entertainment field today? How does it differ depending on cultural or historical perspective? How much do these standards contribute to an entertainer’s success, in contrast to his or her talent? Are there examples of entertainers or celebrities who have gained fame or “success” more because of their physical appearance than their talent? Can someone become a successful entertainer in music or in film when they challenge traditional notions of beauty? Can those same entertainers also help redefine what it means to be beautiful? Encourage students to then create a list of qualities needed to be successful as an entertainer and scrutinize each of those qualities in the same way you inquired about beauty.
Why do they think this is the reality? How might these statistics become more equitable?
Patricia Hruby Powell’s website
Christian Robinson’s website
Official Site of Josephine Baker – Josephine Baker Estate
A History of Josephine Baker – Sheldon Concert Hall in St. Louis
Women Who Changed America – Josephine Baker
Black Entertainment History in America Timeline
Famous Entertainment Firsts in Black History – photo gallery
Black History Firsts in Arts & Entertainment
Pioneers in Negro Concert Dance – PBS
Free to Dance – PBS series
National Women’s History Museum
ABC News – Top Spies You Wouldn’t Suspect
Dillon, L. & Dillon, D. (2007). Jazz on a Saturday night. New York: Blue Sky Press.
Govenar, A. (Ed.). (2006). Stompin’ at the Savoy: The story of Norma Miller. Ill. by M. French. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.
Pinkney, A. D. (1993). Alvin Ailey. Ill. by B. Pinkney. New York: Hyperion Paperbacks for Children.
Schroeder, A. (1989). Ragtime Tumpie. Ill. by: B. Fuchs. New York: Little Brown.
Schroeder, A. (2006). Josephine Baker: Entertainer. New York: Chelsea House.
Stuchner, J. B. (2008). Josephine’s dream. Ill. by C. Walther. Silverleaf Press.
Winter, J. (2012). Jazz-age Josephine. Ill. by M. Priceman. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Filed under: Poetry
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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