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josephineThe subtitle of Patricia Hruby Powell (author) and Christian Robinson (illustrator)’s fabulous picture-book biography of the early-twentieth-century African American dancer and iconoclast is “The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker” — and the book is truly as dazzling as its subject. So we can get that major, crucial criterion “appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept” out of the way right off the bat; this book will be hard to beat in that category. Every adjective I can think of for the book’s art — vivid, bold, electric; essential; full of verve and pizzazz and razzmatazz — applies to the book’s subject as well. The saturated colors (a rainbow of them — and again, how appropriate); the visible brushstrokes — also brilliantly appropriate for a book about such an outsized and charismatic personality.

I used the word essential up above. I’m not exactly sure I’m using it correctly, but here is what I mean. On the spread where Josephine finally gets to join the chorus with the Dixie Steppers and immediately stands out from the crowd, all we see is four figures forefronted on a page of a rather neutral color — no background at all. The four figures — dancers in the chorus — are delineated about as simply as cartoons: circles for eyes, circles and lines for mouths and noses. Nobody has the correct number of fingers. This is pared-down, impressionistic painting — except that somehow artist Robinson makes Josephine Baker stand out so starkly from the others that you barely need to read the text  (“The chorus kicked forward, / she kicked backward… / They strutted, / Josephine shimmied instead”). Where the other figures are basically vertical, Josephine is all curved kinetic motion — hips swinging to the side, arms outstretched. And with just a white crescent for her smile and a few lines for her rapturously closed eyes, Robinson captures her ecstatic joy in dancing.

More “appropriateness”: the book uses the framing device of a stage to tell the story of Josephine’s life. It opens with a double-page spread of a stage, red theatrical stage curtains pulled closed: the performance is about to begin. From then on each section (“The Beginning”; “Leavin’ with the Show”; “My Face Isn’t Made for Sleeping”; etc.) opens with a spread of that stage with curtains pulled to the side, a few props or pieces of scenery in place, ready for the action to begin. (I particularly appreciate “The Beginning” ‘s center-stage spotlight; we are clearly expecting a star to enter.) This framing device is a brilliant choice for a woman who made such an impact on performance art and who felt most alive when dancing onstage. And notice that the book’s final double-page spread, after all the text has been presented, including the account of Baker’s death, is an echo of the first closed-curtain one, this time with flowers strewn all over the stage floor in tribute. It’s a poignant and appropriately dramatic end to a dramatic story.

There is so much more to talk about in Josephine, and I hope you’ll join in the conversation about this exceptional book. I’d like to hear all the ways YOU think it’s excellent in terms of the “execution in the artistic technique employed;
  • Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  • Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  • Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  • Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.”

P.S. Josephine, which was published in February, is the winner of a 2014 Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Award for Nonfiction, and the awards ceremony is tomorrow night at Simmons College, with a colloquium the next day. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I will say that Josephine fans who attend the colloquium will be very happy with one of the treats in their goody bags.

P.P.S. I am sure I will be much more informed after listening to the illustrator and author of Josephine this weekend, and I will be sure to share all insights gleaned in the comments below.

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. Fantastic celebratory review of a book that deserves this kind of singular attention. I also like Christian Robinson’s GASTON, released in 2014 as well, but I’d agree that this book rates a slight edge because of the mature subject, connection of style to subject’s personality and a generally more audacious approach. Obviously, GASTON was the more popular with the first graders, but that is to be expected. Great point about the superlative use of the framing device. The full pages of typography are brought into this scheme beautifully. Love the marquee, the decks on the boat and the Carnegie Hall spreads, but there is a marvelous unity here.

    Unquestionably one of the finest picture books of this year. Stunning.

  2. Is this a picture book? Or an illustrated book?

  3. Linda, it is an illustrated book to be exact, but I would assume most would still categorize it in the picture book category, which I think is fair enough.

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Thanks for such a great introduction to this book.
    I think I am drawn to this criterion: Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.
    Kids are not going to know who Josephine Baker is and this is a perfect book to introduce her. I DID know her basic story, but there were so many details of her life that were surprising to me. I did not know about the Rainbow Tribe nor her stint as a spy, for instance. I thought Powell’s words were clear and powerful, especially when it came to race relations in the US compared with France. I could easily see older (life fourth through eighth graders) reading this book and using it as a jumping off point for learning history as Powell touched on so many important events.
    Robinson’s illustration and design extend the text–using visual clues (train tracks to show her migration, cursive to show direct quotations from Baker, the only black background to foreshadow her death) to help the young reader understand the story. The spreads without illustrations are placed on solid painted backgrounds, making the edge of the pages look a little like a rainbow…like the tribe.

    Christian Robinson has two other books out this year: GASTON and THE SMALLEST GIRL IN THE THE SMALLEST GRADE. Lots for the committee to think about.

  5. Tremendous comment Robin! 🙂

  6. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    OOOOH. I was hoping someone would ask this. I love opening that confusing can of worms!
    What do others think?

  7. Lynn Van Auken says:

    I can’t imagine Josephine in a year’s time without at least a couple of shiny stickers on the cover, but I, too, am especially excited about the way this book speaks to a child audience. While brilliant in their own right, other picture book biographies recently discussed here fall short of this criteria, IMHO. On a Beam of Light, A Splash of Red, A River of Words, and this year, Frida, are less likely to land in kids’ hands independent of a teacher, librarian or other adult acting as intermediary. And even if a child were to pluck one of these books off the shelf on their own volition, I’m not sure how much they’d “get out of it” without an adult reading partner.
    Josephine, however, needs no help. Kids will be drawn to the book by the artwork. will stay with it because the text is accessible and poetic, and will be able to close the cover without having to turn to an adult for explanation. And I LOVE that!

  8. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Brief post- BGHB symposium report:
    Illustrator Christian Robinson noted that he struggled with how to tell the story of an adult’s life to children, and eventually decided to concentrate on capturing the emotional content of Josephine Baker’s life. And how did he do that? Through COLOR.
    That really makes sense to me!

  9. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Thanks for that, Martha. I think it’s really hard to decide which details make it into a book for children and I would love to have heard him talk about how he decided what stayed and what went.
    I love the use of color in this one.

  10. Susan Dailey says:

    After “Hugo,” I’ve given up trying to figure out what the committee will think is an illustrated book. I know I questioned whether this book was a picture book when I wrote comments about it. Am I remembering correctly that there are text only pages that appear on “painted” paper?

  11. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Of course, the definition of an “illustrated book” is tricky, but for me it has nothing to do with the presence in a book of text-only pages. (Which, as you correctly recall, *Josephine* does have. I think though that the colors pick up on the emotional content of the story and continue to convey emotion, and that helps create cohesion as a child turns the pages.) It’s not an illustrated book for me because the pictures are not decorative; they help tell the narrative. They aren’t secondary to the text; they are integral to the text. They help create a sense of movement through the story; they propel page turns. An illustrated book for me is one where you turn the pages in order to keep reading (or you don’t feel the compulsion to turn pages at all — you might just browse); a picture book for me is one where you turn pages to both see and hear/read what happens next.

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Gee. MVP, that sounds like a vote for HUGO CABRET 😉

  13. Not that it’s definitive or anything, but the BGHB judges didn’t think of JOSEPHINE as a picture book. 🙁

    Robinson’s color palette (not to mention his style) does not vary much in GASTON and THE SMALLEST GIRL IN THE SMALLEST GRADE. Can you talk about why it’s more appropriate–in a distinguished way–to this particular book?

  14. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Linda, I think the BGHB placement had to do with the fact that JOSEPHINE is a biography, and thus nonfiction, not that the committee didn’t consider it a picture book. Nonfiction picture books win BGHB awards all the time in the nonfiction category: see, for instance, ELECTRIC BEN last year and GEORGIA IN HAWAII the year before that… and many. many more examples.

    Your second question is one the actual committee will be grappling with, of course. Although, it’s possible that they will decide that the palette and style is equally appropriate for *both* GASTON and JOSEPHINE! To me the books present very differently and have completely different visual effects. Color plays a much more intense role in JOSEPHINE than it does in GASTON, for one thing. And humor is played up more in GASTON than in JOSEPHINE.

    Other opinions? Robin will be posting about GASTON in about five minutes, coincidentally. See you there/then for more discussion!

  15. Susan Dailey says:

    Martha, thanks for your explanation of an illustrated vs. picture book. I think the illustrations are amazing and really enhance the story! I also like the endpapers, which seem to capture Josephine’s character.

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