Riffle Backstory: Q&A with Patricia Powell, Author of Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

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Before Patricia was a writer, she was a dancer and storyteller. She danced all over the world including Greece, England and New York City! So it only makes sense that she's combined her greatest passions into a biography on Josephine Baker, a famous African American dancer from the 1920s, for children! She lives and writes in Illinois with her husband and dog.

What are some current Middle Grade books that you wished your younger self could have?

There are so many. Helen Frost’s shape-poem novel Salt, Frost’s Keesha’s House; Crossing Stones; Diamond Willow, Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, Joyce Sidman’s poems, Deborah Ruddell’s poems, Matt Phelan’s Around the World graphic novel, Candace Fleming’s Amelia Lost, nonfiction about Amelia Earhart, Bobbie Pyron’s A Dog’s Way Home and Dogs of Winter, Rosalyn Schanzer’s Witches, Kathi Appelt’s books, particularly The Underneath, Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth book, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and the wonderfully mysterious Midnight Zoo by Sonya Hartnell.

There just wasn’t anything in my early years like the selection or quality that are written these days for middle grade readers.

Growing up, who did you look up to as your real life/ historical hero?

Very close to home. I idolized my mother, who was a pianist and composer. She nurtured my creative self—allowed me time to draw, to dance around the house and out the door—let me follow my muse. This drove my sister nuts. But my sister was also my hero. I might still be lying on my back pulling on my socks, dreaming, if my big sister hadn’t lit a fire under my bottom to go out and have adventures. We were frequently in trouble for minor infractions in our middle class neighborhood—breaking into the old deserted Creamery Factory at the railroad tracks. Actually I instigated that one, but I’d been trained by my sister, Monica. She was the one who led us in the middle of the night, out the upstairs bathroom window, along the kitchen roof, a jump down to the garage roof, down to the ground. Then we ran across town, climbed the fence and went swimming in the Recreation Park pool. We weren’t bad, just naughty. And it’s all material for writing, but haven’t used those stories yet.

Historic hero? I thought Joan of Arc was pretty cool--a teenaged peasant girl leading the French to victory. I was crazy about Peter Pan. Both my sister and I wanted to be Peter Pan. Peter Pan was a boy, but played by Mary Martin on the TV movie, so she was kind of androgynous. And we didn’t want to grow up. Our childhoods were so great. Maybe that’s why I write for children and young adults.

Growing up, who did you look up to as your literary hero?

I loved Big Red and Irish Red about Irish setters, by Jim Kjelgaard, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the author’s name when I read those books. Maybe, Louisa May Alcott. I loved Jo in Little Women. I remember reading Up the Road Slowly by Irene Hunt. Years later, after having had a career in dance, started writing, and earned a degree in Library Science, I discovered that book was a Newbery winner. And then I met the very aged Irene Hunt (93) in a nursing home right here in Champaign in 2001. A dancer friend, Kora, was her part-time caretaker and introduced me. I think Ms. Hunt understood that I admired her work and I was honored to meet her. She died a short time later on her birthday. E.B. White—his Charlotte’s Web was the absolute best.

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t worry. Everything is going to work out. (You are not going to be homeless).

If you could have lunch with any historical figure, who would it be?

Just one? Emily Dickinson? She might not talk. But that would be okay. Just being with her would be phenomenal. Jane Austen? Isadora Duncan? Mark Twain? Nijinsky? Yes, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Or, of course, Josephine Baker when she was quite young—nineteen or twenty, or even younger.

  • Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Books)