Tag Archive | America

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.”

Sally Arnold by Cheryl Ryan

Sally Arnold by Cheryl Ryan

There’s a secret character in Sally Arnold: the Appalachian Mountains. “The setting of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia…were ideal subject matter for my paintings,” says illustrator Bill Farnsworth – “combined with the very real people of this part of America.” Author Cheryl Ryan lived on one of the mountain’s crooked ridges, where she’d heard the folk stories about Sally Arnold. Ryan lives in a tiny West Virginia town on a crooked ridge they call Sally’s Backbone – and decided to write her own story about Sally.

She dedicates it to “all who have ever gone down Sally’s Backbone to Fox’s store.”

A little girl named Jenny works in her grandfather’s store, but she knows most people shop on Saturday night, when they come for a weekend visit to the country town. When she’s bored, she plays her fiddle and pretends it’s Saturday night. There’s a checkerboard on a barrel and canned goods on the shelves. And the customers tell stories of a woman named Sally Arnold.

There’s a real sense of the town and its people, so Sally assumes the size of a legend. Sally has white hair and she looks like a witch. She lived by herself, in a shack which was “ready to slide into the creek.” She was always collecting things, sometimes searching the ditches for berries, mushrooms, and wild asparagus. “Maybe she’s just lonely,” thinks the little girl – who is already lonely herself. And on Saturday night, Sally plays the harmonica while Jenny plays the fiddle and her grandfather strums on a banjo.

There’s a mystery around Sally, and Jenny wants to explore it. One day after church, she follows Sally to her shack up the ridge. But instead she falls into the creek, her wet hair covering her eyes. The next thing she sees are “blue eyes framed in wrinkles,” as Sally Arnold has the last laugh. “Well, look what the creek brought me today! Company!”

And it turns out that Sally’s shack has a charm all its own. There’s hummingbirds in the flowers by the porch. A lazy cat stretches and yawns. Sally weaves “gathering baskets” out of the cattails she’s collected at the mud flats. Ands he understands the life of a bluebird carrying straw. “She gathers what she needs from what she finds and makes something new.” And soon it’s Sally and the little girl who are searching the ditches and road banks for berries, mushrooms, and wild asparagus. “They talk. They sing. And they never, ever walk down the road empty-handed.”

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.”