a list of…five books that pirouette, swing, do-si-do, waltz and tap!

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca

Appalachian Spring is an American classic.  Most of us know it as a moving orchestral piece.  But it was born as a ballet, with accompaniment by a small chamber group.  To bring it into being required the efforts of three brilliant artists — a dancer/choreographer; a composer; a set artist.   Those three Americans were Martha Graham, Aaron Copland, and Isama Noguchi, and their amazing talents and collaborative efforts are the subject of this beautiful book.

It began with a dream of Martha Graham, to write a wordless story, a story told in dance, about America’s pioneers.  As she wrote the script, revising it over and over again, she asked Aaron Copland to compose the music for her ballet.  Her story had evolved into the tale of a young Pennsylvania farmer and his bride on their wedding day.  Aaron Copland discovered a Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts, as he worked, and wove the poignant melody throughout his music.  Artist Isamu Noguchi designed a set to transform the stage into the spare outlines of a tidy farmhouse, while Martha choreographed the storytelling dance movements.

It premiered in Washington, D.C., in October, 1944.

This book is written as gracefully as the motion of a dancer.  It’s simplicity reflects the mood of the art it describes.  Although the subject matter is complex, this sparsely-worded telling is quite accessible to young elementary children.  Brian Floca’s gorgeous watercolors bring alive the elegant simplicity of the ballet, as well as the particular, intriguing aspects of each artist’s contribution.  Ahhhh…he does such nice work!!    Short biographical sketches of Graham, Copland and Noguchi are included.  The book was awarded a 2010 Sibert Honor for excellence in informational children’s books, and I very much agree!

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

The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem opened its doors in 1926 and danced its way into history over the next 30 years.  This “Home of Happy Feet” brought about a new dance called the Lindy Hop, heard the smooth jazz vocals of a new talent named Ella Fitzgerald, stepped and spun non-stop with band leaders like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.  In an era when blacks and whites were barred from mingling together, the Savoy was one of the first integrated dance halls. 

Experience the heady days of the Savoy as a young boy nicknamed “Happy Feet” tells of all he sees and hears at his pop’s Shoeshine Shop located right next door.  Meet such famous Lindy Hoppers as “Musclehead” Manning, “Whitey,” “Twistmouth George,” and Big Bea as they spin and dip and flip in a swirl of energetic jive!  The story is told with hep cat, twenties-era lingo, full of its own cool beat and smooth swing.  It’s a happy, warm story of a father and son, woven in with the sparkle and sensation of the Harlem Renaissance.

The watercolor illustrations are superb!  The fab fashions of the dancers in their crisp white shirts, suspenders and snappy fedoras, high heels and swishy dresses, the classy interior of Pop’s shoeshine shop, the cool purple night and the bouyant excitement of the dance floor, all done in gorgeous, light-soaked paintings.  Lewis is a multiple-award winning illustrator and I am anxious to enjoy more of his work.  You can view some of his paintings at his website and an assortment of his illustrations at this gallery.

Barn Dance, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Ted Rand

Full moon shinin’, shinin’ big and bright,
Pushin’ back the shadows, holdin’ back the night.
Not a thing stirrin’, quiet as could be,
Just the whisper of the leaves on the cottonwood tree.

Not a thing is stirring…except one curious, gangly boy, gazing out his farmhouse window at the moonlit yard…beckoned by some far-off music drifting his way on the sweet breeze.  When he follows those enchanting notes from the fiddle he finds himself in the midst of a hummin’, yeein’ , rockin’ , sockin’ good time in the barn, with the scarecrow on the fiddle, and cows and pigs whirling about; a grand bustle of do-si-do-ing field mice and flappin’ chickens!  There’s nothing to do but join right in!  A rollicking good time is had by all until the sky warms up for the coming of a new day, and everyone tiptoes his way back to his proper place.

This was a grand favorite of my kids; I cannot tell you how many times we read it.  Enough to memorize it, that’s for certain!  In my daughters’ Very Official Babysitting Trials, this book has also come out on top every time.  Rhythmic text, the magic of a midnight barn dance, Rand’s delightful, bright, exuberant pictures…plus apparently a je-ne-sais-quoi quality that pops this book to the top of kids’ lists!  Test it out on your own family.

Knockin’ On Wood: Starring Peg Leg Bates, written and illustrated by Lynne Barasch

Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates was a legendary tap dancer who entertained audiences around the world with his amazing skill…despite having only one leg. 

When Bates was just 12 he lost his leg in a cotton gin accident, but he did not lose his tenacious will to dance and to live life to the full.  Beginning with a roughly-hewn peg leg made by his uncle, Bates not only became as adept at tap dance as any two-legged dancer alive, he invented showstopping moves of his own.  Bates performed on TV, toured with the USO, and was even invited to dance for the king and queen of England.  He endured decades of racial prejudice on his tours, until he finally had the means to build his own resort in the Catskill Mountains where Black Americans were welcomed.

This story of a man who never gave up, a dancer who excelled at his art,  is told in an optimistic, pleasant style which matches Bates’ temperament.  The ink and watercolor illustrations are sunny and colorful, easily accessible to young children.  A black-and-white photo of Bates displaying one of his acrobatic moves makes a nice addition.  Intriguing, inspiring story.  You can watch historical footage of Bates’ amazing dancing on You Tube.

Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire, by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch

Long black coat-tails and spiffy top hat; crisp white shirt and black-and-white spats.  A cane.  An umbrella.  And the fluid sway and swish and tap and shuffle of an impeccable dance routine.  That’s our picture of Fred Astaire.  How did he get his start?

Turns out it was his sister who led the way into dancing.  The Astaire family’s hopes were pinned on Adele, who at age seven was already a talented dancer.   Five-year-old Fred was more of a tag-along.  Yet he loved to dance.  Their first dance number together was as a miniature bride and groom, tap dancing on fancy wooden wedding cakes, followed by a costume change into a lobster (Fred) and champagne glass (Adele) for some more wedding cake topper dancing!  Oh my.

This brother-sister team worked hard and danced for a living through many long, difficult years.  When Adele opted to marry, at age 34,  Fred launched off into partnerships with others, including of course, Ginger Rogers, and plunged into the film industry where his tirelessly perfected dance moves have been preserved for us to enjoy.

Really interesting story, including a great list of suggestions for further reading, listening, and viewing.  Jorisch’s striking illustrations capture the fashions, architecture and ambience of vaudeville and the Roaring Twenties as well as the irrepressible grace of Fred Astaire.  Delightful!

Amazon links for these books:
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring
Happy Feet: The Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers and Me
Barn Dance! (Reading Rainbow)
Knockin’ on Wood: Starring Peg Leg Bates
Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire