Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Josephine #nfpb2014

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My favorite reading challenge in 2014 is Kid Lit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

This week, I’ll also be linking my post to Aarti’s #Diversiverse Reading Challenge. If you read and review diverse books between September 14-27, consider adding your review to Aarti’s link-up. And even if you don’t link up, this challenge is a wonderful resource for discovering new books to read. As Aarti brilliantly points out, to read diversely, you don’t need to change your book reading habits and preferences, though you may have to change your book finding habits.


Patricia Hruby Powell’s free verse biography of Josephine Baker captures the larger-than-life personality and exuberant spirit of Josephine herself. Powell subtitles her biography “The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker,” and dazzling it certainly was.

I knew little about Baker except that she was a famous dancer, and Powell is especially good describing Baker’s performances and exploring what was so unique about her as a dancer. But dance and performance weren’t Baker’s only interests, and Powell is also careful to place her life and work within the context of 20th-century African-American experience. Baker experienced segregation and race riots growing up in St Louis, and as an adult, she was outraged to find herself repeatedly excluded from “whites only” hotels, restaurants, and clubs. She became a Civil Rights activist, refusing to perform in front of segregated audiences, writing articles about her experience, and even speaking at national Civil Rights marches. Baker moved to Paris in the 1920s, found the relative lack of racism and prejudice refreshing, and eventually became a French citizen. She even worked for the French resistance during World War II. She never fully stopped performing, partly because she needed to earn money to support her large family–she adopted twelve children!

Josephine is thoughtfully designed, really a work of art. The pages are heavy, glossy, fully and variously colored. The typography and placement of words changes and varies from page to page, giving the impression of words dancing. Illustrator Christian Robinson’s work is especially strong. His style brings incredible movement and energy to the story. I also loved his choice to introduce each “chapter” of Josephine’s life with an illustration of a stage set piece with curtains opening, as if Josephine’s life itself were unfolding like a show.

The book is just over 100 pages, so we’re not really in picture book territory anymore, and the complexity of the thinking and writing often reflects that. The publisher recommends this book for ages 7-10, and perhaps shared in chapters, it could work for a seven-year-old, though I can’t imagine sharing it with any seven-year-olds I know. I see its age range as considerably higher than 10.


9 responses to “Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday: Josephine #nfpb2014”

  1. Holly Mueller Avatar

    I loved this book! Such a gorgeous cover!

  2. Linda Baie Avatar

    I need to find this book, especially for one class that is studying all facets of Freedom. I didn’t know it was a longer story. Thanks, Elisabeth for the review with good information so we can judge what fits best.

  3. Michele Avatar

    I like that – change your “finding” habits!
    I read this book earlier this year and loved the verse and illustrations. I lifted some of the text to use with 4th graders, but even for them there were parts I needed to alter. Definitely not for a 7 year old!

  4. carriegelson Avatar

    I haven’t read this yet but am intrigued. I think the cover is a stunner.

    1. Elisabeth Ellington Avatar

      This cover absolutely nails it–just dazzling.

  5. Lindsey Avatar

    That looks beautiful. My son is six so maybe we will get it in a few years!

  6. Myra GB Avatar

    You had me at typography. I am hoping we already have a copy of this book in our library. Gorgeous!

  7. aartichapati Avatar

    Wow, what a unique book! It sounds fantastic – also, like one that would be pretty to have on a coffee table 🙂

  8. […] review of a nonfiction picture book biography of Josephine […]

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