Book Reviews, Bookishness, Mamaishness

Books for Little Dancers

My family has had a bit of a “Sunrise, Sunset” moment here lately, because Bethany and I are taking dance lessons from the same teacher this year. It’s actually Bethany’s second year in the program, and she’s loved it. When the school announced an adult class was forming, I convinced a dear friend to join me, and we jumped in.

I hadn’t danced since college, so the learning curve is pretty steep, but it’s also exactly what I needed. The class is only an hour, once a week, but it’s a chance to reconnect with something that was a huge part of my life for a long time. I’m a lot older and a little wiser, though, so I no longer care about whether or not I look silly or whether or not I’ll be ready for a recital. Heck, it’s an awful lot of work just to remember a combination.

Nonetheless, it’s an amazing space for me each week, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. Bethany is jealous that she doesn’t get to join me, and I am relieved that I am still working slightly beyond her in terms of technique. 😉 To celebrate our family’s little bit of dance togetherness, I thought I’d share two dance books that I love.

book about martha graham, kids dance book

Last spring, I was looking for a book about an American cultural icon, and my dancing friend suggested I look for something about Martha Graham. I discovered Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, and bought it on a whim. (IndieBound/Amazon) It turned out even better than I could have anticipated, because it focuses on the three people who came together to create Appalachian Spring: Martha Graham (choreographer); Aaron Copland (composer); and Isamu Noguchi (designer).

The book details a tiny bit of each person’s biography, and then weaves their stories together within the context of the story of the ballet – not just its plot, but the nuances of its creation. Even if you’re not a dance fiend, you can still find some inspiration in this story of camaraderie and artistry.  Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s text deftly explains the plot of this piece, and also helps the reader understand the way that dance choreography changes in interpretation over time.

dance books for kids, martha graham book, appalachian spring book

While I wouldn’t necessarily expect a young reader to grasp that concept initially, the book’s overall flow makes it an interesting read for even the youngest dance lover. There is a bit of additional historical information in the final pages that provides a glimpse into each artist’s life and larger work. For my fellow history lovers, there are even extensive footnotes providing additional sources for further reading. (That’s right – footnotes in a picture book. Delicious.)

For me, Brian Floca’s illustrations do capture the spirit of the piece, and include plenty of white space in a minimalist style very reminiscent of Noguchi’s designs for the ballet’s set. To channel Levar Burton, though, don’t take my word for it. Let your little reader watch at least a portion of the ballet itself. An early film of the ballet is readily available on YouTube, with Graham herself dancing the lead. Watch the first part below:

dance books for kids

When I saw To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel (IndieBound/Amazon) at the library, I grabbed it, because I thought it might be a graphic novel I could like. (Sorry to the aficionados out there, but I just can’t get into the genre.) Fortunately, my instincts were correct and it was actually a graphic novel I could enjoy. It’s an autobiographical story, with illustrations by the author’s husband, so you definitely feel the pull of dance in the narrator’s life.

What struck me initially was that the book that inspired author Siena Cherson Siegel to dance and keep dancing was also a book I poured over as a child. That book – A Very Young Dancer, by Jill Krementz (IndieBound/Amazon) – might seem outdated now, but I have no doubt that it encouraged an entire generation of twinkle toes. Siegel’s evident joy in movement is also something I remember, though my talent and aspirations climbed nowhere near the heights that hers did.

Siegel doesn’t beat around the bush. She leaves her family behind in Puerto Rico to move to the U.S. and advance her dance education. As she does, you read about the exhaustion, the stress, and eventually the injuries that led her to leave dance as a profession. She returns, however, knowing that she needs that source of expression in her life. I particularly appreciated the honesty that runs throughout the novel: Siegel’s life isn’t perfect, and her story as a dancer doesn’t culminate in a breathtaking career as a prima ballerina.

Rather, she works through her childhood ambition, reaches some audacious goals, and then makes a wise, though heartbreaking, decision. For this reason, I think that this is the sort of book that would resonate with many kids, even those whose “thing” isn’t dance. The illustrations, by Mark Siegel, are more varied than those found in many graphic novels, and they accompany the text without overwhelming it.

Please note that due to some difficult situations described in this book, I would not consider it appropriate for the youngest readers. There is nothing that would prevent me giving it to a mature fourth or fifth grader, but you will want to pre-read it to develop your own opinion.

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