This book, based on a true story, focuses on the childhood of Florence Mills, “the sweetheart of the Harlem Renaissance.” Flo, born in 1896, grew up in “Goat Alley” – one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Blessed with talent, she started performing when she was just three, earning small change and winning local dance contests. When she was seven, she actually got to appear at the Bijou Theater. The book ends when Florence and her father see her name up in lights at the Bijou, and they head off for ice cream in celebration.
An extensive author’s note at the back of the book tells the rest of the story. Florence, as pretty as could be, continued to sing and dance, performing up and down the Atlantic seaboard. She got married in 1921, and also joined the cast of the hit musical “Shuffle Along.” Her popularity increased and she performed in London and Paris. The Prince of Wales reportedly went to see her show thirteen times! As the author marvels, “Her fans included Charlie Chaplin, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and songwriter Irving Berlin, who considered her the ‘greatest of all colored performers.’”
Reading on, I was stunned and saddened to learn that Florence developed tuberculosis and died in November of 1927, just 31 years old. Thousands attended her funeral in Harlem. Duke Ellington’s composition “Black Beauty” is believed to have been written in her memory.
Evaluation: Admittedly I was more interested in what happened to Florence Mills later in life than in her start as a precocious child star. But children will no doubt be thrilled to learn that even at a very young age they can be recognized as stars by adults, and grow up to be wonderful successes. And the watercolors by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu that illustrate her childhood manage to convey the infectious joy that Flo was said to share with all around her.
Published by Lee & Low, 2012
Hardcover: 40 pages
Ages 6 and up