Song and Dance Man

written by Karen Ackerman
illustrated by Stephen Gammell

Karen Ackerman's Song and Dance Man
illustrated by Stephen Gammell

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-8

A children's book about vaudeville!

I tend to think that the most connected families have a real knack for mythology.

Not mythology in the sense of making stuff up. Mythology of the sort where family members past and present are ascribed qualities that render them a little larger than life, or that at least give youngsters something to associate their elders with.

Not "That's your Aunt Jane." Not "Aunt Jane's an accountant." Instead...

"Your Aunt Jane never missed a day of work in her life. Not even the day she gave birth!"

That's the kind of mythologizing I hear when the young narrator of this book opens with,

Grandpa was a song and dance man who once danced on the vaudeville stage.

Makes me smile. Makes me pretty sure that kid and his siblings have a healthy family life. After all, for that mythology to work on a personal level, the kids have to learn what vaudeville was. And to value it.

Song and Dance Man is a sweet book that captures the day when Grandpa finds the energy to take the kids up to the attic, open an old trunk and put on a show. Grandpa is going to bring his own myth to life.

This special hour starts with some joyous dress-up, as the kids try on the gear that emerges from the trunk while Grandpa starts setting the stage. But then it's time to pull up a seat and enjoy the show.

Author Ackerman captures not only the joy but Grandpa's slow easing into the old rhythms - as the joints loosen and the muscles warm - but the sense that this was an all-out, last in a lifetime performance for the best audience ever.

We tell him we wish we could have seen him dance in the good old days, the song and dance days. He smiles, and whispers that he wouldn't trade a million good old days for the days he spends with us.

Illustrator Gammell won the 1989 Caldecott Medal for his work here. His deft use of colored pencils has the rich effect of watercolor but with infinitely more precision. One can only imagine the time that went into each composition.

Song and Dance Man celebrates communication across the generations and might even inspire a little mythology in your own family.

collaged images from Song and Dance Man

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