Bessie, Josephine, Ella, and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm (Women's History Month)

Happy March, also known as Women's History Month! Every year, I try to showcase some great children's books about awesome women through history. As the mother of daughters, I think it's important to teach our girls about strong women who have overcome obstacles, whether they be prejudice, poverty, societal expectations, loss, any number of things. We're also coming out of Black History Month, and the girls were especially enjoying their music classes at school. Their wonderful teacher played a lot of jazz this month, which we love. I found a few picture books we hadn't yet read, and decided to showcase them here.

Bessie Smith and the Night Riders by Sue Stauffacher,
illustrated by John Holyfield.
G.P.Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, 2006.

Bessie Smith became known in the 1920s as "The Empress of the Blues." This book isn't an overview of Smith's career, which would probably be way too bawdy for a children's book. Rather, this is a dramatization of a little-known incident in 1927, when the Night Riders of the Ku Klux Klan rode in to disrupt a performance in Connecticut. Smith traveled to gigs via her own train car, performing in her own tent. That night, the KKK paid a visit to Smith's tent. A band member happened upon them when he stepped outside for some air. According to eyewitness accounts, the six-foot-tall Smith ran out and demanded to know what they were doing there. She barked at them to "pick up them sheets and run," and the stunned Klan members actually left! The book tells the story through the eyes of a little girl who might have been there, giving the event a child's eye-view that works well for a picture book.

Here is Bessie Smith's only known film appearance, a 1929 short called St. Louis Blues. I went ahead and included the whole film for you grown-ups. If you want to show the kids any clips of Bessie Smith singing, you may want to fast-forward to the musical numbers.

Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell,
illustrated by Christian Robinson
Chronicle Books, 2014.

I wanted to check this one out for last year's Women's History Month, but at the time, the waiting list at the library was too long! We read another picture book about Josephine Baker two years ago, which we enjoyed very much. This newer book, however, was much buzzed about, and last month, received multiple honors at the ALA Book and Media Awards (see here and here). It's also illustrated by Christian Robinson. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Christian Robinson's art? (Oh, yes, perhaps I have.) Josephine Baker was such a colorful figure, it's no wonder she inspires such colorful picture books. Josephine is extremely well done. It goes further into detail about her amazing life: her rough beginning in St. Louis, her early career as a teenager, the racism she encountered in New Orleans and New York, and how she became a celebrated figure in Paris. We also learn about her fabulous life off the stage. She got her pilot's license. She became a spy and resistance fighter in WWII. She adopted twelve children, from all over the world, calling them her "Rainbow Tribe." Powell also mentions how her extravagance cost her her home and stability for those children, as she spent more money than she earned. Finally, the book ends with her late-in-life comeback, her triumphant return to New York, and her death in bed after a night of post-performance parties. Even after all that, the author's notes give you added details, such as the fact she appeared with Dr. Martin Luther King, the March on Washington. 

Here are a few videos: the official book trailer, some dance clips from the 1920s, and a performance in London from the 1970s.

Sweethearts of Rhythm: The Story of the Greatest All-Girl Swing Band in the World
by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
Dial, 2009.
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were an all-female swing band that became especially popular during WWII. While most of the members were African-American, the band also featured Asian-American, Latino, and Caucasian members, as well - thus, the "International" part of their name. This is an ambitious picture book for older children. Instead of a straight-forward narrative, poet Marilyn Nelson tells the story in poems, from the point of view of the musical instruments, weaving the band's history, as well as the history of the world around them, into the instruments' story. I suggest reading the "Author's Note" at the back of the book first, then reading the book itself. Her idea is that the instruments are in a New Orleans pawn shop, swapping stories about the women who owned those instruments, just before Hurricane Katrina hits in 2005. Jerry Pinkney's watercolors are beautiful, and like the poems, illustrate both the women and the world around them: men going to war, victory gardens, the Japanese-American internment camps, segregated water fountains, USO tours, jitterbug dancing, victory parades. For more information about the band itself, you might listen to this NPR story.

Here are some videos to go with the book. The first is Jerry Pinkney, describing his process for illustrating Sweethearts of Rhythm. The second is a full four-song performance by the band, on film.

Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuosa
by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney.
Jump at the Sun / Hyperion Books for Young Children, 2002.
[Okay, brief pause: can we just take a second to admire how talented the whole Pinkney clan is?]

My daughters love Ella Fitzgerald. How can anyone not love Ella Fitgerald? Her voice was so beautiful, but could be so playful, so free. This is a cute book. It's told from the point of view of Scat Cat Monroe, a little feline figure hovering in the background of the artwork, as he narrates the story of how little Ella wanted to be a dancer. The day she got her chance in front of an audience, nerves froze her feet. Not wanting to let her chance pass her by, she opened her mouth and started to sing. Eventually, she hooked up with Chick Webb and His Orchestra, headlining at the Savoy in Harlem, where they bested Benny Goodman and His Orchestra in a battle of swing. It mentions how she was able to turn a simple jump rope rhyme like "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" into a fabulous bit of swing. Eventually, we learn about the decline of swing, as tastes gave way to bebop and cool jazz. Ella partners with Dizzy Gillespie, who encourages her to let voice become an instrument of her own, as she learns to scat and improvise, remaining relevant in the world of jazz. The picture book concludes there, but the Author's Note goes into Fitzgerald's recordings of the Great American Songbook and partnerships with even more musical greats, firmly cementing her legacy.

Here is the recording of "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" by Chick Webb and His Orchestra, featuring Ella Fitzgerald, followed by Ella singing "Mack the Knife" in 1960. I love this recording. Listen for when she starts improvising near the end!

Our snow melted yesterday, but it was replaced overnight! It's very cold today. While I love the cold and snow, I know plenty of you are dreaming of summertime, so I'll leave you with a little Ella and Louis Armstrong, and one of my all-time favorite recordings.

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  1. These Women's History Month posts of yours are really something to look forward to! All the books look amazing. I especially love the illustrations in Josephine and the one about Ella Fitzgerald looks amazing.

    1. Josephine is my favorite of the books. Ella is one of my favorite singers. :)


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