Josephine and Marian (Women's History Month)

Continuing our Women's History Month picture book series...

Josephine Baker and Marian Anderson were two very different entertainers.  Josephine was a product of the Jazz Age.  She was a wild comic dancer and singer.  Marian Anderson was gifted with a stunning voice, a natural talent that was evident when she was just a child.  Both women faced the pain of racial prejudice, though, and both women were embraced by European audiences when race hampered their American careers.

Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2012.

As you can tell by my humble photographs, Jazz Age Josephine is vibrant and colorful, much like its subject.     Kudos to Marjorie Priceman!  The first half of the book is written in the form and rhythm of an old blues song.  (Think Bessie Smith or another 1920s blues singer.  I actually started singing the text to a generic blues melody, and Big Sis begged me to keep it up!)  We learn about Josephine's childhood in St. Louis, the poverty she endured, and how she learned to make funny faces and dance funny dances to cheer herself up and earn money on the streets.  According to the book, she ran from St. Louis to escape a fire, eventually ending up in New York, sleeping on a bench in Central Park.

She made it to the chorus line of a show, but her routines were blackface numbers and so insulting that she decided to leave the US for France.

And it is here that Jonah Winter changes up the text, adopting the fast-paced rhythms of 1920s jazz.  Josephine becomes the toast of Paris, and while the book laments that she will never be so famous in her homeland, Josephine lived a joyous life in Europe.

Only so much of Josephine Baker's life and career would fit in a children's picture book, but she's an awesome subject to research on your own.  She was involved in the French Resistance movement during WWII.  She was active in the Civil Rights Movement in the US during the 1960s, often working alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  She adopted 12 children! Here is the official Josephine Baker website.  Three of her French films are available on video, separately or in a boxed set, and if you poke around online, you may find them available for streaming as well.  Lynn Whitfield won an Emmy award for her portrayal of Baker in HBO's The Josephine Baker Story. Some footage of Baker's famous banana dance has shown up on YouTube,  but here are a couple of performances I showed the kids after reading this book.

When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson
by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick.
Scholastic Press, 2002.

When Marian Sang is a stately book, perfect for the dignified Marian Anderson.  Pam Muñoz Ryan tells Marian's story plainly: Marian singing at home in Philadelphia, at church, at neighboring churches, Marian desperate for proper voice lessons, the death of her father. When her father died, her church promised to band together and contribute the money needed for Marian's lessons. Marian waited in line at a music school in 1915, only to have the door slammed in her face because of the color of her skin.  She saw her first opera, but performing in an opera seemed like an unattainable dream.  She continued to sing, traveling with her accompanist, until she was finally accepted for lessons with a master teacher.  After two years of lessons, she boarded a ship for Europe, where she could travel and perform without the indignities and restrictions placed upon people of color in America.  She did become a star in Europe, and it seemed like she could perform anywhere, until she returned to her own country.

Excerpts from spirituals are interspersed throughout the text.
 On Easter Sunday, 1939, Marian Anderson famously sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  She sang there because Constitution Hall refused to allow her perform, and Howard University could find nowhere else in Washington, DC, that would allow a black performer on the stage.  She sang for 75,000 people.  After the Lincoln Memorial performance, Marian continued to sing the world over.  The book ends with Marian finally reaching the unattainable, a place on the Metropolitan Opera stage.

The beautiful illustrations are by the amazing Brian Selznick.  I love Brian Selznick art.

I still have such a stack of books!  So many awesome women to read about, and so many wonderful authors and illustrators helping to bring them to life.  I love books.  Thanks, amazing women, for everything you've done for the world.  Thanks, books, for existing.

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  1. Great work collecting all these Danzel! Love the Josephine illustrations.


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