This month marks the debut of the impressive new picture book JOSEPHINE: the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle, 2014). During a recent visit to The Cat and The Fiddle author Patricia Hruby Powell graciously answered my questions about the book.
1. How did you get the idea to write a book on Josephine?
Josephine was a dancer. I’m a dancer. I’m also a children’s librarian—a substitute librarian. Back in 2005 while working at the Urbana Free Library, we had a regular group of African American pre-teen girls in the children’s department who were vying for attention. They were—you could say—belligerent. Naughty. They seemed pretty lost—unguided, unfocused. I decided that Josephine Baker could be a great role mode. I went home with a few books—adult and children’s–and started researching. I knew Josephine had been a maverick, was sexy, beautiful, adventurous, wild, fearless–sort of like Madonna in the way she’s reinvented herself over and over—but I hadn’t known Josephine worked for civil rights or adopted 12 children of various ethnicities and religions. Josephine’s time had come. She deserved to be known by Americans. (Not just the French).
2. What were the highs and lows of writing this book? Could you describe your research process?
Highs: writing the rhythmic text. The words danced off my pen and onto the page. Josephine is such a lively subject. And there’s footage of her early dancing, some of which can be seen on my website. She’s so dang cute. And original. And she wrote five autobiographies—all in French—the first when she was about 20 and it’s wonderfully lively. There is plenty of primary source material for research.
Lows: I love to research, but I had to repeat my research too many times. The first time around I didn’t cite any of my sources. I brought Josephine to a workshop conducted by Carolyn Yoder of Calkins Creek. She liked Josephine but advised me to cite all my sources in the text. So I got all those (French language) books from interlibrary loan a second time, reread them and this time more biographies and recordings of interviews on obsolete technology, pored over them, and cited every last hiccup. And Carolyn turned Josephine down. But EVERYTHING was cited. When my agent, Anna Olswanger, read Josephine for the first time, she told me all those superscripted citation numbers were deadly, to get rid of them. Which I did. Later, after Josephine was acquired by Chronicle, it was sent to an expert and read for accuracy. A couple of my facts were challenged. So I had to go back and get those rare sources from interlibrary loan again and prove what I knew to be true. Over those years, Josephine’s French language autobiographies got much harder to find. They’d been disappearing at a rate.
You can learn lots more by visiting The Cat & The Fiddle.