Sunday, April 15, 2012

Jazz Age Josephine by Jonah Winter; illustrated by Marjorie Priceman

Boh-doh-doh-dee-oh! Boh-doh-doh-dee-oh!

Okay, now sing those words.

And while you are at it make them sound like some musical instrument. This is called scat-singing made popular in the Jazz Age and a form that Jonah Winter doodles across the pages of his terrific picture book biography, Jazz Age Josephine. I made the mistake - or maybe not a mistake - of not reading this book beforehand and when I tried to sputter through the zee-buh-dop-zows and boh-doh-doh-dee-oh it did NOT sound like any musical instrument you'd find in any band. The kindergartners laughed so hard three grabbed their knees and rolled backwards like roly-poly eggs. And things got really interesting when we tried to do the Charleston dance. Let me tell you, I am NO Josephine. Josephine Baker to be exact.

African American Josephine Baker was singing the blues in St. Louis during the 1920s. She lived in a house with no heat, little food, and rats a-nibblin' at her feet. As a teenager she snuck into the dance tent and made people laugh with her funny faces and terrific dancing where she made some money entertaining people. One night in St. Louis, some white people burned down the homes of many black people and Josephine decided it was time to leave. She went to New York City where she got a job on the stage. She was in the chorus and played the Minstrel. While audiences loved her, she was disgusted with the degradation of her race in the Minstrel role. She left for France where she found different stage roles and became famous.

The writing style combines riffs and rhythms to reflect jazz songs. If you are wondering what is a riff, like I was, it is a sentence that is repeated usually at the same part and in the same pitch.  The first part of the book trumpets rhyming couplets and riffs, People, listen to my story, 'bout a girl named Josephine. / People, listen to this story, 'bout a poor girl name of Josephine. / She was the saddest little sweetheart this side of New Orleans, while the second part of the book shimmy and shakes the riffs with scat-sentences such as, Boodle-am Boodle-am Boodle-am SHAKE! Boodle-am Boodle-am Boodle-am SHAKE! When Josephine goes to Paris, not only does the tone of writing change as it picks up a new beat to reflect the excitement of the stage, but the illustrator signals a change in the story direction by forcing the reader to tip the page up and down and illustrating Josephine at the Eiffel Tower. The setting now only shows Josephine in or besides the Paris theater house.

Can you tell the students favorite part of the book? That's right... the last page where Josephine is sticking out her tongue. Josephine is funny. Not only does she stick out her tongue, she crosses her eyes and bugs them out making audiences laugh. The author's note on the last page says that Josephine was so good at clowning in the show that she got a job on the New York stage at the age of 15.  Kindergartners are not going to understand the complexity of this story but they do get the humor and enjoy the repetitive language patterns. Although  one boy clearly understood when the black folks homes were being destroyed by white people because he shouted "meanies!"  The kids also liked it when we danced the Charleston and they liked singing, Boodle-am Boodle-am Boodle-am SHAKE! 

Priceman's use of ink pen and gouache illustrations move Josephine across the pages like a gymnast on a springboard. Josephine is energetic, fun, and flexible with the flapper costumes and hairstyles so reflective of the roaring 1920s. Priceman adds some tidbits to the story such as the illustration of Josephine in her most famous banana peel skirt costume. The colorful Josephine also had a cheetah as a pet and would bring it on stage. If you want students to hear some Jazz music, listen to Louis Armstrong's Heebee Jeebies (the third audio clip) which made scat-singing famous. Make sure you read this book out loud or sing it.

Good luck!

Reading Level 2.4
5 out of 5 Smileys

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