When we try to name the biggest and best picture book biography authors out there, two names spring immediately to mind. The first is David Adler. Mr. Adler specializes in picture books that go by the straightforward titles of “A Picture Book of [Enter Name Here]“. It makes him easy to spot on a shelf. All his books look pretty much the same with stories that reduce their subjects to a couple key points. They are serviceable in the best sense of the term. They serve a purpose. They also couldn’t be more different from the works of the great picture book biographer Jonah Winter. Where Mr. Adler is all white borders and straightforward fonts, Mr. Winter’s books leap off the shelf and make a dive for your jugular. They pop and smack and wrest your attention away from the glittery fictional pack. His latest, Jazz Age Josephine, is no different. A witty and glam look at a person rarely seen in picture book bios, Winter uses his storytelling skills to spin the tale of a fine lady, never told in quite this way before.
“Well, she was born up in St. Louis, and she grew up with those St. Louis Blues / Yes, she was born in old St. Louis, and she grew up singin’ nothin’ but the blues, / She just had one old ragged dress and a pair of worn-out old shoes.” That was Josephine Baker back in the day. Fortunately, the kid had pep. She could move and goof off and her dancing was so good that it earned her some money from time to time. Little wonder that when her home was burned by angry racists she headed straight for New York City. There Josephine was able to get some roles on the stage, but the minstrel parts were particularly galling. So off she flew to Paris and once she got there, “Paris, France – instant fame! / Everybody knows her name!” And though she missed her home, she was a jazz age baby and a hit at long last.
I did a cursory check of the reader reviews of this book online and saw that some folks were a bit peeved that Mr. Winter dared to mention hot topic issues like racism and minstrel shows. I think that highlights why it is that this is the first time such a biography for kids has been attempted (there was Ragtime Tumpie by Alan Schroeder in 1989 but that just looked at Josephine’s youth). The story of Ms. Baker is more difficult than your average Rosa Parks / Frederick Douglass bio. If you’re going to talk about Josephine then you have to talk about why she left America. You have to talk about what the state of the country was at that time, and why she felt she couldn’t return there. Then there are other issues as well. For one thing, is it possible to talk about Ms. Baker without mentioning the banana skirt? Winter doesn’t talk about the costume (six-year-olds are notoriously bad at pronouncing the word “burlesque”) but illustrator Marjorie Priceman does include a subtle glimpse of it from the side in two separate pictures. Meanwhile Mr. Winter does a good job of making it clear that Josephine was sad to be away from the States but that to become a star she had to go elsewhere. Interestingly the book ends at about that point, leaving the Author’s Note to explain her work with the Civil Rights Movement.
Winter tends to have fun not just with what he says but with how he says it. In this particular case, he begins the sad story of Josephine’s beginnings in the model of a blues song. And anytime something sad happens (say, getting your home burned down) the text turns into blues. The minute she hits Paris that all changes. Suddenly you move from the standard jazz poetry format to something more eclectic (not to say electric). If you’ve chosen to read this book aloud to a class of kids (A) Be sure to point out how awesome it would be to walk your pet cheetah down the street in the morning and (B) Practice your zee-buh-dops. For that matter, you’d better practice your Boh doh doh-dee-ohs and your zop zop zop zop zoo-buh-dop zows as well. Winter knows how add music to a readaloud without using a single note. Just make sure you’ve practiced beforehand.
Part of the delight of this book is the fact that Josephine’s funny. And funny women do not appear in a heckuva lot of picture book biographies. Sometimes they will, but their jokey side will be hidden away from the world, leaving you to wonder if any one of them ever cracked a joke a day in their lives. There are a couple exceptions to this here and there, like Barbara Kerley’s What To Do About Alice : How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules Charmed the World and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy But generally speaking books that end with the heroine sticking out her tongue at the reader are few and far between. Those that you can find? Grab `em tight and don’t let go.
One of these days someone is going to track down the leprechaun Mr. Winter used to get his wish to consistently be illustrated by the most interesting artists in the biz and then we’ll all be in trouble. Honestly though, I don’t know how the man does it. How has he managed to corral the talents of Ana Juan, Red Nose Studio, Jeannette Winter (that one I understand), Sean Qualls, Andre Carrilho, Raul Colon, Calef Brown, Kevin Hawkes, Barry Blitt, Richard Egielski, and so many others to his cause is a mystery. Many of these folks had never illustrated a work of nonfiction a day of their life, but there was something about Winter’s style that enticed them. Now he’s lured Caldecott Honor winner Ms. Marjorie Priceman. Turns out, she’s a natural fit, and little wonder. Though she won an award for her perfectly nice Hot Air: The Mostly True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride (no stranger to nonfiction she) it’s her books like Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Lloyd Moss or Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Joan Yolleck that make it clear how perfect she’d be for this text. Picasso showed that she could capture Europe’s Roaring 20s with the right verve and flair. Zin! showed that when it comes to pairing with delicious wordplay, Priceman keeps up her end of the bargain.
Goache and ink are the name of the game with this puppy. And Priceman pairs the big flashy images of Josephine with small stick figures of her dancing in a wild and kooky pattern on the pages. There’s a great use of color too. From early browns and grays to the yellow spotlights of Broadway to the sheer overwhelming mass of color you get with Paris. In fact, the first time you even see Paris you have to tip the book on its side to just take in all the reds and oranges and purples on display. I love it when an artist makes you do something physically so that you get the point of the book.
The picture book format is necessarily limited so you won’t find any mention here of Josephine’s exciting work spying during WWII or really anything after the 20s. That’s fine. The point of a picture book bio is, to a certain extent, to give kids a glimpse of history through a memorable person. With Jazz Age Josephine they learn about a kind of racism they might not encounter elsewhere and a person who was truly one-of-a-kind. Bouncy, rhythmic, funny, and fresh, if kids are assigned a biography of an African-American in school, forget handing them something rote and stodgy. Hand `em this. I guarantee that its equivalent is mighty hard to find.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- What To Do About Alice : How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules Charmed the World and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
- Gertrude is Gertrude by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Calef Brown
- Charlie Parker Played Be Bop by Chris Raschka