Tag Archive | New York City

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.”

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.