Jazz Age Josephine

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Jazz Age Josephine Book Poster Image
Jazzy bio of Josephine Baker inspiring, bittersweet.

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 1 review

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids learn that in the early part of the 20th century, African-American performers were expected to perform in blackface in the U.S., which is one of the reasons Josephine Baker fled to Paris. They also hear about Jazz Age dances like the Charleston and the Turkey Trot, and see Josephine doing her famous banana dance.

Positive Messages

The implicit mesage is follow your dreams and don't stand for oppression. Believe in equality and yourself, and do what you must to assure that you will be treated fairly, even if it means leaving home.

Positive Role Models

Josephine Baker is a great American hero, someone who used her talent to escape poverty and racism and, though it is not covered in this book, fought against segregation. An Author's Note recounts how she appeared at the 1963 convention where the Rev. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and in France she adopted 12 children of from around the world, calling them the "Rainbow Tribe." When she died in 1975, 20,000 people lined the streets of Paris for her funeral procession. 

Violence & Scariness

In Baker's childhood, whites burn down houses in the black neighborhood of  St. Louis, forcing the black people to run away, and then chase after them. Two white men are shown brandishing flaming torches as a black family flees. Picture's of Josephine's very poor childhood include a scene in which she is sleeping in a shack on a wood plank floor, under newspapers because she had no blanket, and a large rat is nearby.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this fun picture-book biography treats the very serious subject of racism in America in the early part of the 20th century. African-Americans in St. Louis are burned out of their homes, chased by whites, and forced to flee. Josephine Baker leaves and never comes back. She makes her Broadway debut at 15 but is forced to wear blackface (kids may need some explanation of this former demeaning theatrical practice), and ultimately finds stardom and respect overseas in Paris.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byComm0nSenseMom November 30, 2021

Ages 4+ = absolutely not.

My kindergartener brought home a library book last month called “Jazz Age Josephine” by Jonah Winter that she selected from her school library. The cover looked... Continue reading

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What's the story?

Young Josephine is born in 1906 in St. Louis and grows up very poor, "singin' nothin' but the blues." When kids are cruel to her, she makes funny faces with her eyes bugging out or crossed. She is a great dancer and figures out she can get paid for dancing and pretending to be a fool. After whites burn down her black neighborhood, she leaves and joins a traveling show that takes her all over the United States. She makes her Broadway debut at 15, but, like other African-American performers in that era, is forced to wear black face makeup to exaggerate her features for comic effect. "Each night she wore those baggy pants, / she wore what people called 'blackface.' / As much as all those white folks loved her, / it was an insult to her race." In 1925, at age 19, she heads to Paris, where she finds fame and fortune, dancing, singing, and making funny faces -- finally treated with the kind of respect she could never attain in the U.S., where, as the Author's Note explains, "she had been offered only humiliating roles."

Is it any good?

JAZZ AGE JOSEPHINE is an exciting picture book biography of one of the world's most beloved entertainers of her time. Winter's jazzy rhyming verse and two-time Caldecott Honoree Marjorie Priceman's bold, exuberant illustrations capture the deprivation of Josephine's childhood, the triumph of her performing career, and the glitz and glamor of the 1920s, known as the Jazz Age. Baker playfully dances across the pages, contorting her body into animal poses and kicking her long legs with abandon. It's a vivid portrayal that conveys Baker's irrepressible energy, as well as her melancholy at not being able to return to the land of her birth, lest she face prejudice and discrimination. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why Josephine Baker felt she had to leave the United States to happy and successful.

  • Why is it important to read about famous people who lived a long time ago. What can we learn from them? 

  • How does the illustrator show the fun and excitement of performing and living in Paris? Do you notice how the colors change from her poor childhood to her dazzling life on the stage?

  • How do the author's rhymes convey the energy of a great dancer and singer?  

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories of the African-American experience

Themes & Topics

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