Written by Richard Michelson, Illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Gulliver Books, 2005
I’m sittin’ in Pop’s Shoeshine Shop. My toes are tappin’ and my knees are swingin’.
The plot in a nutshell: A father reminisces with his son about the Savoy’s opening night
The boy is called Happy Feet because he was born on the night that the Savoy Ballroom opened in Harlem in March of 1926. His father had helped build the ballroom and set up his shop right next door the ballroom, thinking of all the people who would stop for a shine on their way to the Savoy. One of the regulars tells Happy Feet to ask his dad about the night he ‘outdanced Twistmouth George.’ Dad’s eyes light up and he says it’s his favorite story and he launches into the tale of the night Happy Feet was born. On the Savoy’s opening night, all of Harlem and even rich white folks from Hollywood showed up. He points out that, when people are dancing, they’re all equal. Dad had been locking up the shop when Twistmouth George came by for a shine and the two of them went over to the Savoy. He describes the dancers and the different dances that were going on, and he grabs Happy Feet, spins him around and lifts him up. Then he says that he heard his wife, ‘countin’ out her own rhythms’ and he went home to meet his new son, and lifted him up to heaven. As the story ends, Happy Feet daydreams about headlining at the Savoy and imagines his name up on the marquee.
I knew very little about the Savoy ballroom when I started reading this book and was so won over by author Richard Michelson’s story that I found myself reading multiple articles on the subject after I finished the book. He helpfully includes a page of information in the back of the book, detailing some history about the Savoy, along with short biographies of five of its most famous dancers. The book uses a lot of slang terms from the time period, most of which can be inferred through their context. I loved the ‘hepcat’ terminology, although I think younger kids might need some help deciphering it.
Illustrator E. B. Lewis matches the story’s energy and heart with watercolor paintings that manage to capture movement and emotion, along with the fashion and style of the roaring twenties. According to the book’s jacket, he enjoyed painting the dance pictures in this book so much that he went on painting new ones, even after he had completed the artwork for the book. This was one of those books that I felt was a labor of love, since the story language and artwork both made me feel that they were created by those who had a real passion for their subject. And yes, it also really made me want to dance.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that sharing something you love with others breaks down the differences between you and focuses on the things you have in common.