Fuse #8

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Review of the Day: Stompin' At the Savoy

I'm sitting here at my desk staring at two different children's books. Both books were published in 2006. Both books are named "Stompin' At the Savoy". But only one book is the title that has been getting raves, starred reviews, and generally healthy applause from he masses. Yes, when it all comes down to it, give me the "Stompin' At the Savoy" written by Alan Govenar over the one written by Bebe Moore Campbell anyday. In Govenar's case, we have a wholly original and interesting little biography. Ever heard of Norma Miller? You will. As one of the great Lindy Hoppers of the 20th century (to say nothing of the other dances she fit into her repertoire) this is the story of swing, of jazz, and of the Roaring 20s and pre-WWII America. It also manages to convey the rhythm and pure athleticism of dancing at that time. A wonderful tribute to a true New York original.

She was born on December 2, 1919 in New York City, a mere month after her father died. Her mother had two small children to support and was only twenty years old. Sometimes to pay the rent she'd throw rent parties, and it was there that Norma first started learning to dance. As she got older, she and the other kids would dance outside the great Savoy Ballroom until the bouncer frightened them off. When she got older she started dancing with a partner and she got so good that Herbert White (or Whitey) took her in as a dancer. Throughout the years Norma would tour Europe, find herself in Hollywood, work with the great Ethel Waters, and finally do what she loved doing for the rest of her life. Dancing up a storm.

Hats off to illustrator Martin French, by the way. Illustrations can sometimes make or break a biography, especially one as slim (54 pages) as this puppy. As you can see by the cover, however, French was a perfect complement to Govenar's tale. The first image we have of Norma is as a small child performing a fine Charleston at her mother's rent party. Later, you see her thrown over the back of the handsome Twist Mouth George (love the name), and performing in a chorus line at fifteen. But French is just as good at the calm quiet moments in Miller's life. There's a picture of her walking in Europe with a strong, sure, steady step. A shot of her father walking alone just as we hear how he died. A shot of Ethel Waters keeping it cool and looking like a million dollars (though slimmed down a great deal, if I do say so myself). Each picture perfectly illustrates what French is trying to say, and the result is a great glamorous and energetic look at early Miller's life.

I've noticed recently that when authors want to write biographies of great African-American women, they sometimes use the medium of children's literature to best tell their story. For example, the book "Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century American Girl", by Tonya Bolden told a fascinating story with what little facts the author was able to dredge up. In the case of "Stompin'", Govenar didn't lack for facts. After all, Norma Miller is still knocking `em dead as she continues to teach, choreograph, and dance. Author Alan Govenar probably chose to make this book a children's biography because so many exciting things happened to Norma when she was still basically a kid. Think about it. You're twelve-years-old and suddenly you're invited to cut a rug with the great Twist Mouth in the center of the Savoy. You grow up in an apartment that faces the back door of the Savoy Ballroom, allowing you to see the dancers through the building's curtains at night. At fifteen you go out to conquer Europe! This isn't just the stuff of legends. It's the kind of stuff that can teach kids a great deal of history in a really fascinating way.

With Norma alive and able to tell her own story (check her out on the book jacket cause she looks faaaaabulous), I guess Govenar didn't feel the need to site any sources at the back of this book. A pity too. I would have loved to have seen a good Bibliography of all the movies Norma Miller appeared in. Was she one of the dancers in "Stormy Weather"? Her imdb.com page is hardly the best source to check since it doesn't even mention her appearance in the Marx Brothers film, "A Day At the Races". What about kids who want to know more about Norma's life? If Govenar could have listed some books that Norma's mentioned in (like her memoir, "Swinging At The Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer", for example) that would have been useful. I'm not saying he didn't do a great job as it is. But when you deal in non-fiction it helps to go the extra mile.

In any case, this is certainly a hot little bio. It's short, so the reluctant readers may well get into it. It tells a story we just haven't heard enough about. It's fun, and factual, and a great glimpse into Harlem's past. One heckuva book and a fabulous addition to any library's biography section.


At 9:25 PM , Blogger What Maternal Instinct? said...

Hmmm ... Amazon sez Bebe Moore Campbell's book isn't due out 'til Sept. Are you looking at galleys?

I'd be curious to know why you found it lacking.

At 12:10 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Yeah. I saw the galley. I've nothing specific against it. But if you had to choose between the two, this is the way I'd suggest you fall.

At 10:29 AM , Blogger What Maternal Instinct? said...

It goes to show that just because someone's a good writer doesn't necessarily make them a good children's writer.

At 11:07 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

This shows how deeply dug into children's literature I am. I saw you write that and the first thing I thought was, "Bebe Moore Campbell writes for adults?".


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