Ask any young person today if they know what vaudeville is and the closest they might come is to guess it’s a new online website or game. Thanks to Alan Schroeder’s newest picture book, Baby Flo, they’ll wonder no more. Some might question why Schroeder thought that a child’s eye view into the life of Florence Mills would be a perfect fit for a picture book; I, for one, think it’s genius.
Florence Mills was a bright and shining star of dance and song for most of the thirty-one years of her short life which began in Washington, D.C,. in 1896 and ended as a legend of the American stage in 1927. It was a hard road to vaudeville stardom from Goat Alley, one of D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods, especially when you read that she began her career at the age of three! Now you can begin to understand why Schroeder wrote the story of this African American star as a picture book. In today’s world of talent-scouting television programs, little Florence Mills would have been a natural. America’s had talent for a long time.
Flo’s first public singing was an impromptu performance for the butchers at a local store, where she was rewarded with more money than her mother made as a laundry woman ($3.85). This scene is captured by the lively illustrations of Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. Between the story itself, the illustrations that almost seem to dance off the page, and Schroeder’s narrative which captures the cadence and rhythm of little Florence Mills, this is a book that can be appreciated by children, parents, grandparents and anyone else with a ready lap and child nearby.
Early vaudeville and the theaters of Harlem are a rich vein of America’s entertainment history, capturing the economic and social struggles of those times and their singers, dancers, musicians, and composers. For African American performers, the struggle was harder than most, but as Schroeder writes in the first sentence of his book, “Straight up: Florence was a remarkable child, and that’s a fact.” Baby Flo and its story of one little girl’s success, will give heart and encouragement to every small child who likes nothing better than to sing and dance. Florence performed both in America and Europe and her verve and talent paved the way for all African American performers to follow.
As in all of Schroeder’s picture books about historical figures, he completes his story with Author Notes, sharing the rest of Florence’s story after her early years to the last performing years of her life. If you have the good fortune to buy or borrow the book from your local library, have some prep fun by going to http://www.florencemills.com/, it will whet your appetite for Baby Flo and make you wonder why Schroeder didn’t write this book before now (and how many other stories are out there, waiting to be rediscovered and retold). -s.s.
Also written by Alan Schroeder is In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage. This book is also available and has been reviewed on Bookin’ with Sunny.