Tuesday, August 16, 2022

It’s Her Story: Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was not always topless when she performed in the iconic banana skirt, so it really isn’t cheating to depict in some sort of bikini top. Be honest, when you see a graphic novel biography of Baker for ages 7-10, isn’t your first question how they depict her vintage Parisian costumes (or lack thereof)? Parents who are fans can certainly supplement as they see fit, but those who are also concerned about the premature sexualization of their children shouldn’t object to anything in Lauren Gamble’s It’s Her Story: Josephine Baker, illustrated by Markia Jenai, which goes on-sale today.

Gamble does indeed follow the chronological facts of Baker’s life, including her triumph in Paris, her clandestine service with the French resistance during the German occupation, and her support of the American Civil Rights movement. Someone should really write a separate book about her work as a spy, because it is such an intriguing historical episode, but at a kid-friendly 48 pages, Gamble’s bio does not have the time or space to get sidetracked.

The only real problem is the clunky dialogue, which unnecessarily echoes the sentiments of the descriptive captions. They are mostly declarative or condemning statements that do little to humanize Baker. Young kids are smart, they can handle a little humor and nuance.

Regardless, Jenai’s art is colorful and vibrant, capturing the elegance and extravagance of Baker’s stage career. Some panels would make great posters, if the dialogue balloons were stripped out. It is also nice to see them drop Ethel Waters’ name—we can always hope the young readers will look her up too.

Baker sang and acted on film, but she is arguably the most enduringly popular dancer in history. You don’t see these sorts of graphic novels for Isadora Duncan, do you? She was years ahead of her colleagues in crafting her image, in films like
Princess Tam Tam (also referenced in It’s Her Story), which are still highly entertaining. Gamble and Jenai tell her story in an appropriately lively manner. Recommended for hip parents and children, It’s Her Story: Josephine Baker is now available at book retailers.