Happy Feet, The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me, by Richard Michelson

Happy Feet, The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me, by Richard Michelson and E B Lewis

It was an “extra special” day, says the boys father. “Mama says any day I was born would be special, but Daddy says the twelfth of March 1926 was extra special. It was the day the doors swung open on the earth’s hottest, coolest, most magnificent superdeluxe dancing palace, the Savoy.” It’s a story that celebrates dancing, set in a glorious moment in New York’s past. And though it has a subtitle – “The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me” – its title describes the mood perfectly: Happy Feet.

A little boy watches his father in a shoeshine shop up the street. “My toes are tappin’ and my knees are swingin’,” the story begins, and because he was born on the day the Savoy opened, “My daddy calls me Happy Feet.” The boy waves to Stretch and Shorty as they head to the club, and the book has a real sense of place. “All the hep cats come to Pop’s.”

It’s the human touches that keep the story warm. The boy is proud of his father, who “banged nails” and “mopped floors” to build the shop near the club. The father wears a cautious face when he sets a sign on the sidewalk promising the finest shoeshine in Harlem. “Ask your daddy about the night he outdanced Twistmouth George,” teases a customer named Long-Legged George. And it’s the shoe-shining father who will fondly re-tell the legend.

It’s a fun memory that’s been lovingly preserved. “‘There were ballrooms before,’ my daddy says, ‘but none like the Savoy.'” At the club, Big Bea sparks a dance “so new it didn’t even have a name yet.” The story also holds a moving message, but it’s tucked subtly into the background. “When folks are swinging, and nobody better than nobody,” sings one of the club’s singers. “Salt and pepper – equal! Cats and chicks – equals! Everybody just coming to dance.”

E. B. Lewis is my favorite children’s illustrator, and his watercolors bring the story to life. “I like the strong human interest stories,” he writes on his web site. “The kind that evoke emotion… Stories that touch the heart.” The book’s jacket adds that the story’s author, Richard Michelson, “once won a disco dance derby in college…with a little help from his white polyester suit.” But it’s Lewis who seems to have a secret affection for the story’s characters, dedicating his illustrations “to Mr. Fuller at Fuller Shoeshine,” and adding simply: “Thanks for everything.”

After the father dances at the club, he somehow he senses his wife crying, giving birth to their son. And it’s on the last page of the book that Michelson makes a gentle connection between the joy of dancing and life itself.

“When you were born,” the father says, “I held you – so new you didn’t even have a name yet – high towards the heavens so you could shine.”

Jukebox Man, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn

Jukebox Man, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn

There’s a secret story behind Jukebox Man that’s hidden on it’s jacket. “Jacqueline K. Ogburn’s grandfather really was a jukebox man, and so was her father. She never had to buy records as a child because her grandfather had stacks of 45s…” The book is dedicated to her grandfathers – and the illustrator even dedicates the book to the author, “for all your help in bringing this book to light.” It’s a childhood memory that’s been lovingly preserved – but more than that, it’s a slice of Americana.

The story describes the magic that brought music to everyone. “He had jukeboxes in dozens of diners and restaurants, fish camps and truck stops all over the state.” One restaurant “smelled like hot grease and fish and biscuits,” and another like “coffee, vinegar, and damp hamburger buns. But soon the author is describing an actual jukebox itself, “a grand Wurlitzer, the kind with a curved top and bubbles in the tubes of lights.” Her grandfather stocks it with records, and then pours out the collected change. “I had never seen so many quarters, nickels, and dimes at once.”

A record falls into place and the lights come up when the music begins, but instead the illustrator draws the smiling grandfather as the excited girl makes her selection. Illustrator James Ransome knows that the real story is in the warmth that lies behind Jacqueline’s fond memories. Even the change from grandfather’s machines seem magical – there’s a drawing of the coins on the table, which the girl’s grandfather collects into long paper rolls.

Throughout the book, the girl simply follows her grandfather on his visits to the restaurants. It’s not much of a story, but it’s fun to catch glimpses of a 1950s America. There’s a diner with a neon sign. The truck stop waitress brings a Dr. Pepper. Eventually the little gets her own 45 record to keep – “Blue Suede Shoes” by Elvis Presley. Vinyl record were precious to a little girl in the 1950s, so it’s a real loss when she drops her record, breaking it to pieces on the floor of her grandfather’s workshop before she’s even gotten a chance to play it.

But her grandfather can make everything right, just by telling her to punch C-5 on the big Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner. There’s whirrs and clicks, and then three jukeboxes start playing all at once – and they’re all blasting Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes.”

“I laughed and Poppaw smiled, and we danced in the patches of light as the jukeboxes flashed red, yellow, and green.”

Cecil’s Story by George Ella Lyon


Cecil's Story by George Ella Lyon

“Think of it,” reads the book’s inside flap. “Your father is a soldier in the Civil War.” And the book doesn’t run from its premise. “If your papa went off to war…” begins the first sentence of Cecil’s Story. There’s a drawing of a shadowy room as a child eats breakfast in the sunshine.

The sentence rambles across two more pages – a beautiful drawing of a yellow sky and an orange sunrise, blue clouds spreading over a green field and a purple horizon. “…he might get hurt,” says page two.

“…and your mama might go to fetch him,” says page three.

The book was written in 1991 – the same year the U.S.entered the Gulf War in Iraq- and its story was said to be particularly timely. The journey to fetch your father might be long, warns page four. (Three children are left at a neighbor’s, one child unable to sleep.) “You’d help look after their cows,” reads the first cheerful caption, showing the boy with a beagle and five black and white cows in a field. 12 faded circles represent the sun as it moves over the fuzzy tree silhouettes in the background, leading up to the sad conclusion of the sentence.

“…and not cry till nighttime…”

The dog puts his head on the lap of the boy – seen from behind – as he waits for weeks for a word from his mother which doesn’t come. In the foreground, a chick hatches from an egg – 12 drawings showing the egg’s interior as it moves from yolk to life.

It’s the Civil War which has stopped the messages from getting through. The neighbors advise the boy to be brave, but he worries. There’s a drawing of a grey field – soldiers marching on the horizon. But even the soldiers in the foreground are faint and faded. He imagines his family without his father – the boy watching over his mother, raising the farm animals by himself. Would the plow be too tall? An orange and grey image fades into his patchwork bedspread – with the boy seen in the background, kneeling and praying.

“If your papa went away to war,” Lyon repeats again, this time adding to the hypothetical that he came back missing a limb or with a bad scar – “you wouldn’t be afraid, because you’d know he was still your papa…” They show the boy holding a stick with the fish that his papa had taught him how to catch, and a speeding rabbit that the boy would snare in a trap his papa helped him build.

And the last sentence reminds the reader gently that he’s still your father who shows the same tenderness, calling him “the man strong enough to lift you now with just one arm.”

Red Flower Goes West, by Ann Turner and Dennis Nolan

Red Flower Goes West, by Ann Turner and Dennis Nolan

It’s a reckless journey, and the children must ease their minds with a red flower. It’s 1849, and the father has sold off the family’s farm so they can pursue gold and free land in California. Red Flower Goes West chronicles their long journey and all its hardships, plus the joys of a child’s perspective. The book’s jacket promises “a poignant portrayal…of this defining period in American history.”

The children are unenthusiastic about the journey – and so is their mother. (And on top of everything else, the oxen are ugly.) “Ma tightened her lips, dug a red flower from her garden, and set it in a wooden box,” announces the second page. The children’s mother insists that she won’t travel without the flower, which had come from her own mother’s garden. And when the family crosses the Missouri river on a ferry boat, daughter Jenny says the flower is “a traveler, like us.”

The drawings are simple and grey, though that may be to suggest the passage of time, or the difficulty of their trip. The child looks doubtfully at his mother as she hands him a box with the flower. Their ferry boat looks tiny on the enormous Missouri river. And the father nearly drowns when they can’t afford another ferry on an even swifter river.

When the father starts to drown in the river, his son clutched the Red Flower and “told her to watch over Pa.” (Just then an Indian dives into the water and rescues him.) “If that flower dies, we’ll never get to California,” the son says later, when they’re trapped in the barren drylands. But days later the flower grows a new leaf, and Jenny cheers that they’ll be saved. And at that moment, they spot green trees – and a river running between them.

There’s some American history behind the book – and the people who created it. Dennis Nolan, the illustrator, dedicates the book to a grandfather “who was born on the prairie on the way to California.” And the author dedicates the book to her father, “who has gone on his last great journey.” As the story ends, the nights are beginning to cool, and the family has reached the Sierra mountains. To help the oxen complete the crossing, the family themselves will walk along with the packs.

“California, here we are!” Pa cheers, and they settle in a peaceful green meadow. They plant the flower in the ground, and bring it water from a nearby stream. “We were like that red flower,” the boy decides, “dug up from our home soil, ferried over rivers, jolted over plains, drylands, and killer mountains.” For all its harsh history, the book finds a sweet metaphor.

“Red flower will grow new leaves and buds. And so will we, so will we.”

William’s House, by Ginger Howard

William's House, by Ginger Howard

Ginger Howard studied architectural photography, and she’s even restored two historic homes. (She dedicated the book to “Jim and Jimmy Remond, always ready with hammer and nails.”) So for her first children’s book, she told the story behind a house built in 1637. “William knew just the kind of house he wanted,” her story opens. And soon she’s revealed that William is settling in America, though he was born in England.

“William cleared an area 20 feet square,” Howard writes, dedicating a whole page to the saplings and trees used for posts and fences. Since they don’t have any glass, William uses a translucent animal horn to create a window for his wife. Then he builds a fireplace in the corner, and stuffs corn husks into a bag to make a bed.

In fact, if this book has a fault, it’s that there’s too many details. Howard lists out the tasty dishes eaten by William and Elizabeth, and the problems with their stored food that tells them it’s time to build a cool cellar. In August the winds blow, and William realizes that “It is windier here than at home in England.” So to save the home from being crushed by a falling tree, William next cuts down all his trees.

The illustrations are colrful, drawn by an advertising storyboard artist named Larry Day. Day has two children, and used them as models for the children in “William’s House.” I like how he used an old-fashioned font on the title page, with a parchment scroll over a rustic landscape with birds in the sky. But like Howard, this is Day’s first book, and I wondered if that gave him an extra enthusiasm – or a novice’s uncertainty?

In the story, William puts shingles on his roof in autumn. Then in winter he replaces it with an even steeper roof to keep the snow from piling up. In January he builds a bigger fireplace. And when he realizes that it’s nothing like his home in England, he also realizes something else. “This is our new home. Welcome!”

Unfortunately, that’s the end of the book. Its whole story is about a construction project! But luckily, there’s a secret second story that’s scattered throughout the book. As Day’s watercolors illustrate the father’s worries about his house, Day tucks black and white sketches of William’s boys playing in the nearby woods. It’s a crucial component to the story, because it gives it an extra playfulness, and even some childish warmth.

Howard’s text may offer a peek into 1637 – but thanks to Day’s cheerful drawings, readers also get two more!

Bewildered for Three Days, As to Why Daniel Boone Never Wore His Coonskin Cap, by Andrew Glass

Bewildered for Three Days, As to Why Daniel Boone Never Wore His Coonskin Cap, by Andrew Glass

What do Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, and Johnny Appleseed have in common? They’ve all appeared in children’s books by Andrew Glass. But in 2000, Glass turned his attention to Daniel Boone, the famous Kentucky frontiersman. Glass starts with a true piece of history – that Daniel Boone never actually wore a coonskin cap – then invents a tall tale that explains why!

Writing about Indians is a delicate subject, but Glass finds a way to have it both ways. A young Daniel Boone farms a “hardscrabble” field with his brothers, they’re suddenly surprised by a tribe of Cherokees. Glass writes their “warriors burst through the trees, shrieking and waving hatchets.” But it turns out they’re friendly Indians, who have come to protect them from a more hostile tribe. “It was only a terrifying misunderstanding,” explains Daniel Boone’s mother.

Glass’s illustrations are almost impressionistic, with bright colors, almost like an American Gauguin. It seems oddly appropriate for a story set in the mid-1700s. Glass mixes some real history into his tale, and soon the Indian’s son is telling Daniel Boon about a fertile farming land that waits beyond the dark mountains. And Glass drew a funny illustration of Boone waking in the woods, only to discover a hairy bear standing over him.

It’s difficult to be both the illustrator and the author, and Glass sometimes offers too many details. He devotes a whole page to Boone’s thought process, explaining why he decided to chase the bear who had stolen his coonskin cap. But Glass seems determined to present a sympathetic explanation for the Indians’ hostility. (“The Delaware [Indians] live in the forest and love the savage wilderness as their mother. When we ask them to honor our fences, it is an unreasonable thing we ask.”)

There’s some exciting scenes, like when young Daniel Boone jumps off a 60-foot cliff to escape an attacking tribe of Indians. (The Indians gawk as Boone lands in a tall tree, while the text explains the rest of Boone’s escape.) Boone ends up hiding in a hollow log – all night – while the tribe of braves camps for the night, never realizing how close he is. Boone intrudes on a family of raccoons, and to thank them for his hide-out, he promises, “sure and solemn: I will never again wear any of your kin on my head.”

In an author’s note at the end of the book, Andrew Glass admits that Boone probably just preferred wearing a wide-brimmed hat. But he thought a promise to raccoons would be more dramatic!

Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone

Peppe the Lamplighter, by Elisa Bartone

It’s loosely based on a story about the author’s Italian grandfather. (Elisa Bartone’s grandfather immigrated to the United States from a town near Naples, according to the book’s jacket.) She dedicates Peppe the Lamplighter to the memory of her grandparents and her father. And illustrator Ted Lewin just dedicates it “to the American Dream.”

It’s a sad story about Peppe, who lives in a tenement. His mother is dead and his father is sick, and “he had to work to help support his sisters: Giulia, Adelina, Nicolina, Angelina, Assunta, Mariuccia, Filomena, and Albina.” The last sister still lives in Naples with her uncle, a priest who runs the orphanage. Peppe visits the shops in Little Italy, hoping to find a job.

Illustrator Ted Lewin “has loved Little Italy since he first moved to New York,” according to the book’s jacket, and he draws beautiful pictures of the people in Peppe’s neighborhood. There’s a white-haired butcher (with a bristly moustache and a top hat), and “Fat Mary” who makes the cigars. A bar full of businessmen even watch as Peppe asks Don Salvatore, the bartender, for a job washing glasses. And word finally spreads to Domenico, the skinny lamplighter, who says he’s “going back to Italy to get my wife.”

Lewin’s illustrations bring the story to life, including touching pictures of the boy’s family waiting for him at home. But Bartone’s text gives each character a real personality. “Did I come to America for my son to light the streetlamps?” the proud father rails. And after he slams the door behind him, all the sisters contribute different words of support. “It’s a GOOD job, Peppe,” says his sister Assunta.

Peppe walks down the street at twilight, and opens the glass of each streetlamp to light it, and the description makes it seem exhilarating. Bartone describes it as a “joyful” feeling, and the boy imagined each small flame to represent promise for the future. “It was almost like lighting candles in the church for special favors from the saints,” Bartone writes, and the boy makes wishes for each of his sisters.

“This one for Giulia, may she have the chance to marry well… This for my mother, may she look on us with pleasure…”

The angry father heckles him from the window, while even Fat Mary tries to coax him to smile. But one night Peppe doesn’t go to work – and his little sister gets lost in the dark. The father agonizes over his missing bambina, and finally has a change of heart. “‘The streets are dark, Peppe… Tonight the job of lamplighter is an important job. Please, Peppe, light the lamps.

“You will make me proud.”

Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince

 Twenty-One Elephants and Still Standing, by April Jones Prince

In 1883 the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, and the magic moment is captured in a story by April Jones Prince. “For 14 years they’d watched it rise,” she writes, “the cities’ schoolteachers, bankers, cabinetmakers, pointing and gawking, ooohing and aaahing…” The woven steel cables are “graceful and strong, like stairways straight to the stars.” Prince describes the achievement with a kind of poetry in 21 Elephants and Still Standing, and she spins a good story out of the people’s reactions!

“New York and Brooklyn, dwarfed by its arches, knew the future had entered their sights.” Fireworks are launched for hours, and “flags waved, bands played, kids hoorayed before bigwigs in top hats galore.” But Prince knows that the real excitement comes from the people moved by the event. She imagines them thinking about the things they’ll do, and marveling at its architecture in the streets below.

“But so long and so lofty, its cable so new – some had to ask, Is it safe?”

It’s Prince’s first book for Houghton Mifflin, but she’s helped along with some suitably grand illustrations that were contributed by Francois Roca. He draws platforms crossing over paddle-wheel steamships, and a boy sailing under the bridge as fireworks explode in the sky. But when questions are raised about safety, the bridge is shown in the shadow of a cloud. Sunlight shines on the river and it lights up the clouds – but the Brooklyn Bridge is a dark silhouette. “Who wants to bargain THIS bridge won’t dance in the wind?”

“Both the bridge and [P.T.] Barnum embodied the audacious, can-do spirit of the latter 1800s,” Prince writes on the book’s jacket, “and their coming together seemed a perfect, outrageous window on the times.” Her book describes the famous circus owner as “larger than life,” a “world-famous showman” whose ideas “weren’t contained by a tent.” And Prince shares the wonderful story of a May evening in 1884, when Jumbo the elephant marched down Broadway, past City Hall, “past mothers, fathers, and children.”

It’s a true story, and it’s one worth remembering. (To verify the story, author Prince “traveled to museums and libraries, scrolled through old newspapers, viewed documentaries, scoured books old and new, and called upon experts.”) All of P.T. Barnum’s elephants filed onto the Brooklyn Bridge – twenty-one elephants in all. And when they came out the other side, it’s P.T. Barnum that assure the crowd that the bridge must be sound.

As white fireworks lit up the sky.

The Ride: The Legend of Betsy Dowdy

The Ride: The Legend of Betsy Dowdy

Here’s a good book about American History for girls. “Can one girl save the Revolution?” asks the cover of The Ride. The book tells the inspiring true story of a young girl named Betsy Dowdy who performed her own version of Paul Revere’s famous ride. “In Elizabeth City, North Carolina, the Daughters of the American Revolution named their chapter after Betsy Dowdy,” explains an author’s note at the end of the book. It’s a colorful children’s picture book, but it was based on her legendary real exploits more than 200 years ago.

“Sometimes legends start in the quietest of places,” the book begins. This one started in North Carolina, where the King’s soldiers are shown pointing their rifles threateningly at a colonist who wants freedom. “When 16-year-old Betsy Dowdy heard Papa talk about war approaching, she felt as helpless as a ghost crab skittering along the sand,” writes author Kitty Griffin. But the nearest rebel militia is 50 miles away, and Betsy suddenly overhears a message that a man in a boat delivers to her father. “Lord Dunore and the redcoats are marching to Great Bridge. They’re after your ponies and our supplies!”

Betsy packs her supplies – a wool cloak, a knife – and scratches a note for her father with white chalk on a piece of slate. She whistles for her horse, telling her “We’re riding for freedom,” and then fords across the cold water of the river. The night air is cold as she rides through the forest, and after many miles she explains her mission to a ferry boat owner, and begs for a ride across the river.

“You’re a pepper pot, Betsy Dowdy,” he says, and it is a very exciting story. The book’s illustrations are very colorful, sometimes filled with bright and engaging yellows and sometimes with dark, moody purples and blues. Illustrator Marjorie Priceman had already won two Caldecott Honor awards, and her simple style is fun and effective. As Betsy leaves the ferryman, she’s shown galloping again through the purple night-forest of North Carolina.

“Liberty is our dream,” says the ferryman, and Betsy repeats the word to comfort herself. She sees a snarling fox, and she’s even knocked off her horse by a tree branch. But her horse neighs for attention, and she takes it as a sign to continue. And eventually an orange light rises as she reaches the militia rebels’ camp.

This would be a great book for children, because it makes the American revolution accessible to even the youngest readers. (At the general’s camp, there’s even the flag with a snake labeled Don’t Tread On Me.) It’s got everything you could want in a children’s picture book – it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s brightly-illustrated.

It teaches a lesson about perseverance, and about history – but it’s also just a really great read.