Perhaps it's understandable to feel a bit ambivalent about Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. In his films he was ever-smiling, never angry, always dancing, deferential even to the likes of Shirley Temple. But the fact is, Bill Robinson (Luther Robinson till he forced his brother to swap names with him) was a genius, possibly the greatest tap dancer who ever lived. Even now practitioners of the art don't quite know how he made his moves.
Bojangles was a child star, though an obscure one, who started dancing when he was 6 in beer gardens in his native Richmond, Virginia. Around the time he turned 8, he began to tour with Mayme Remington's dance troupe, later joining the vaudeville circuit and working for 25 years in the black theater. By the time he was discovered by white audiences, at age 50, he was making about $3,500 a week.
Leo and Diane Dillon's children's book Rap A Tap Tap: Here's Bojangles Think of That! is a charming tribute to the dancer. The book follows Bojangles, painted as a long-legged and handsome young man, as he dances in and out of the lives of folks going about their daily business. Shopkeepers, shoppers, musicians, a bunch of swells on their way to a nightclub, poor folks warming their hands above a barrel fire all are blessed with a moment of astonished joy thanks to Bojangles' flying feet. The book's end finds the hoofer triumphant rich and famous in tie and tails.
Created from washes of warm color that allow the reader to see one wall of a building through another, or an elevated subway track through a tree, the Dillons' illustrations are cleverly used to capture Bojangles' journey and his fancy feet, which are presented in multiple-exposure fashion. This new book from a pair of celebrated storytellers includes an afterword with information about Bojangles' life. Rap A Tap Tap is an ingenious introduction to the legendary dancer. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.