Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation.

Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes (Ages 4-8) is told entirely though illustrated panels. (If you have doubts about the value of wordless books, read this.) I first fell in love with MacKay’s acclaimed cut-paper dioramas in Fall Leaves—but, wow, has she outdone herself here. Her art seems actually to dance off the page. It’s as if we were watching the ballet unfold from the same velvet seats as the story’s young heroine, who is attending the show for the first time with her grandmother. In fact, it’s precisely the experience of watching “The Nutcracker” to which McKay brings our attention.

The girl in the story is not as easily seduced as us readers by the prospect of going to the theater. In fact, she isn’t keen on leaving her house at all. Especially not to venture out into the rain and across town with her Gran, who surprises her with Nutcracker tickets. The girl looks stiff and miserable while getting her long hair brushed and her frilly dress on.

MacKay’s washes of browns and greys perfectly echo the dreariness of the cold, wet night. (I know we’re supposed to feel their contrast with the splendor of what’s to come, but there’s something just as beautiful for me about these pictures.)

Despite not getting the response from her granddaughter which she (likely) desires, Gran’s enthusiasm never wavers. She bounces along with a swing in her step and no umbrella.

When the pair enters the theater, it becomes clear the girl thinks her bad luck is only worsening. A boy around her age sticks out his tongue at her as she walks by. When they climb the stairs to the balcony, he turns out to have the seat next to her.

But then, the violinists begin, and the magic happens. Swirls of color sweep into view, and the dismal palette of the previous pages is juxtaposed by the vibrant reds, oranges, greens, and blues of the characters and sets on stage.

If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, those familiar with the ballet will have fun recognizing the different scenes as they flash by. Equally fun is identifying expressions on both the girl’s and boy’s faces, as they take in the performance for the first time. There’s anxiety at the nutcracker’s battle with the mouse king, for starters. And then relief—accompanied by a playful “I was never actually worried” glance at her neighbor—when Clara intercedes on stage to stop the mouse king.

What we begin to realize is that, much as we love seeing our favorite scenes from the ballet rendered so incredibly beautifully on paper, it’s actually just as much fun to watch the shifting relationship between the girl and boy in their seats. In their collective experiencing of the show, they become something more than strangers. Tentative at first, but with increasing warmth, they become playful, even a little flirty, with one another. It’s as if the magic on stage reaches out and holds them in its spell. Clearly, we are meant to draw parallels between the young children’s camaraderie and the relationship between Clara and the nutcracker prince. (McKay paints both the main characters and the dancers with refreshing racial diversity, adding another element of beauty to these relationships.)

Did I mention that by the time the show lets out, the rain has turned to snow?


Take away the stage lights, the lavish costumes, the festive sets, and the ethereal dancing, and there is still something magical about E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which long ago inspired “The Nutcracker” ballet. It’s a story about handmade gifts that grow in size and come alive on Christmas Eve, when the night is ripe for the unexpected and the impossible seems possible.

T.E. McMorrow (a former stagehand himself) taps into the spirit behind this timeless Christmas Eve tale in The Nutcracker in Harlem (Ages 4-8), which stars a young African-American girl named Marie, living at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the artist-rich Sugar Hill neighborhood of New York City. If Waltz of the Snowflakes has us hearing the classical music in our heads, The Nutcracker in Harlem has us conjuring up the soulful sounds of jazz—voices accompanied by trumpets, saxophones, and women dancing in head scarves and feathered boas. Brilliantly illustrated by the accomplished James Ransome, the story stays true to the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, right down to the sweet potato pie.

Our heroine, Marie, loves “the sound of Christmas,” but she doesn’t participate in it. Despite others’ encouragement to “let it out,” the shy, serious girl cannot bring herself to sing alongside her gregarious family and friends. In the pictures, she stands watchful and stiff on the sides. “She wished she could sing, but Marie was afraid she wasn’t any good.”

Like Clara in “The Nutcracker,” Marie gets a nutcracker doll from her Uncle Cab. It is carved, her uncle tells her, from “magical wood” and carries a drum around its neck. After everyone else has gone to bed, Marie sits in the dark beside the twinkling Christmas tree and rocks the nutcracker in her arms. In Ransome’s watercolor, we feel tenderness and affection, but we also identify a palpable sadness in Marie’s solitude.

When Marie awakens after briefly dozing off, the tree has doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size, and the glass ornaments have come to life. So, too, have the dolls and the wooden soldiers, the latter now an army led by the nutcracker himself. In sweeps a second, equally formidable army made up of enchanted mice and led by a mouse general, who charges ahead with cries of “Candy Cane!” and “Marzipan!”

The battle rages on, until it’s time for Marie, like Clara before her, to intercede before the mouse general destroys the nutcracker. But instead of kicking or throwing a shoe at him, Marie picks up the fallen nutcracker’s drum and begins to play. Marie’s power comes from within, but it comes in the form of music.

At once, the mice return to normal size and scamper away, and Marie is left with the nutcracker prince, with whom she dances beneath falling snowflakes. Marie does what we’ve been hoping she will do from the moment we meet her: she closes her eyes and sings. Her entire face softens, and her eyes sparkle.

When Marie wakes again, she is in her bed. It is Christmas morning, and she is surrounded by her smiling parents and her brother. Only an extra drum under the tree suggests that perhaps Marie wasn’t dreaming after all. That and the fact that later in the day, when the guests gather again in her house to sing, Marie joins in.

In McMorrow’s Author’s Note, he says about the story’s ending: “Just as the memory of The Nutcracker remained with Marie, so too did the memory of the Harlem Renaissance remain in the American soul.” Music and art have incredible power to transport and transform. Another reason why next year, you’ll find us in the audience of “The Nutcracker,” relishing once again the magic of the season.

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Review copy of Waltz of the Snowflakes provided by Running Press Kids. The Nutcracker in Harlem published by Harper Collins Children’s. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

A Fresh Take on a Holiday Tradition

November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

After last week’s "The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipatsomber posts, I am shifting tones to herald one of the most spellbinding picture books of the year, inspired by one of our family’s favorite holiday traditions.

I confess I never liked The Nutcracker much as a kid. I thought the Mouse King was creepy, I thought the dancing was long, and I thought the Sugar Plum Fairy’s castle consistently under-delivered on such a lofty name. Either I was a cranky kid, or I wasn’t seeing the right performances (or reading the right books ahead of time).

Then I became a parent and two things happened. First, beloved British illustrator Alison Jay came out with arguably the sweetest, cheeriest, and loveliest picture book adaptation of The Nutcracker—one that the kids and I have looked forward to unpacking with our Christmas decorations and savoring afresh every year.

Secondly, my husband and I started taking our kids to the Washington Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Warner Theater in DC, a deliciously accessible performance for young children, where twinkling lights and perfect tutus send shivers of excitement down our dressed-up spines (and whose creative liberties involving a Mouse King cast in a Revolutionary War battle scene ensures my son is every bit as enchanted as his sister).

Now that we are Nutcracker enthusiasts—and now that Tchaikovsky’s music officially marks for us the start of the holiday season—I decided that this year we were ready to explore the darker, more mysterious intonations of the ballet.

And, just like that, the Thailand-born British illustrator Niroot Puttapipat launched the most breathtaking children’s edition of The Nutcracker that I have ever seen. Inspired by the sets from Marius Petipa’s original production in Saint Petersburg on December 18, 1892, the sophisticated adaptation not only hearkens back to the origins of the story, but it nudges at our dreamy subconscious in the same way that, say, Grimm fairy tales do. Puttapipat’s book isn’t scary, but it has an element of mystery and magic that feels just the tiniest bit unsettling—and leaves us wanting more.

If Alison Jay’s book is sugary and sweet and makes us want to twirl across the living room, Puttapipat’s keeps us squarely transfixed on the page. My kids and I cannot stop looking at this book. Some of you may already know Puttapipat’s unique artistic style from his previous Jingle Bells and The Night Before Christmas (clearly, I’m late to jump on this bandwagon).

In The Nutcracker, delicate black silhouetted figures—almost haunting in their absence of detail and expression—are set against sumptuous swaths of color. Expanses of black set pieces are juxtaposed with meticulous fine-point detailing, like the embroidery on the Nutcracker Prince’s coat or the ornaments on the Christmas tree.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

Think of these like the landscapes of our dreams, where certain things take shape but others are shrouded in darkness.

It’s not just the unexpectedness of these visuals that entices; it’s also the emotion that radiates from every page. There’s no expression on young Clara’s face, yet we feel her heartbreak as she crouches beside her broken nutcracker.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

We feel Clara’s worry as she watches the battle between the come-to-life nutcracker and the evil Mouse King (before she chucks her slipper at him to end things once and for all).

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

The text, which runs along sidebars on each spread, is adapted by Kate Davies and closely based on the original texts by E.T.A. Hoffman and Alexandre Dumas. Yet, rather than feeling stiff or outdated, it too soars with drama and lyricism, aiding and embedding Clara’s magical journey alongside the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Sweets.

They traveled by swan over gold-flecked oceans and silver-edged cities. Clara held her breath, her eyes wide. As she gazed at the twinkling lights far below, snowflakes pirouetted past. The prince caught one and gave it to Clara. “Try it,” he said.

Clara let the snowflake dissolve on her tongue. “Mmm. Rosebuds and raspberries!” she said.

“Mine is peppermint and honey,” said her prince. “Every snowflake tastes unique.”

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

The Land of Sweets does not disappoint. While the text describes lemonade flowing from fountains and lollipops growing in flower beds, Puttapipat’s magical picture (it might be my favorite) delivers us a castle whose dark spires stand bold against a shimmering night sky; a moss-draped walking bridge that’s fit for starry romance; and a Sugar Plum Fairy whose wings look like they have been cast in sugary ice. It is enough to make Believers out of the most hardened of us.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

Oh, but there’s more. As Clara and the Prince prepare to enter the castle, the page turns to reveal a pop-up spread of cut-paper art that might be one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen in a children’s book.  This is a castle that delivers: a castle at once light and dark, at once festive and mysterious. The silhouetted figures that flank the scene are nods to the different styles of international dance that follow in the actual ballet.

"The Nutcracker" by Niroot Puttapipat

What happens inside the castle is largely left to the imagination (until we go to the ballet, that is). The book—somewhat abruptly—concludes on the next page, with Clara waking up back home with the wooden nutcracker in her arms. “What a wonderful dream, she thought. But she could still taste lime and mint…”

And then something happens that is not in the Alison Jay version and which elicited an audible shudder from my daughter (“Ooooh, Mommy, that’s so mysterious!”). I’ll let your children discover that surprise on their own.

Traditions have the best chance of standing the test of time if fresh life can occasionally be breathed into them. Niroot Puttapipat reminds us that our family has only scratched the surface of enjoying this 125-year-old ballet.

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Review copy provided by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Taking the Stage

May 26, 2016 § Leave a comment

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintockThis past Sunday, my five year old took the stage for her first ballet recital. She had been on a similar stage in previous years, for the culmination of her creative movement classes, but this was the first time that she was—in her words—“going to look like an actual ballerina.” And she did. Not so much in her tentative leg extensions and arm raises; not so much in the piece of satiny fabric draped around her waist (which looked nothing like the tutu Emily had envisioned her costume would entail); but in her gorgeously perfect posture. I sat three quarters of the way back in the audience, my life’s blood just a pink speck on the stage, but oh my goodness did she stand upright like she had all the confidence in the world: her shoulders down her back, her chest lifted, her chin tilted upwards ever so slightly. It was the posture of someone whose body has never failed her, who has not yet felt the weight of the world on her shoulders, who stands like that simply because she is totally and completely at home in her person. It also happens to be the posture of a ballerina.

Emily believes herself to be a ballerina every time she dons her pink leotard, tights, and ballet shoes. Her leaps may be unrecognizable as such, but in her mind they are the leaps of stardom. When I sneak peeks on her in class, working at the barre, her face is scrunched in concentration. And then I catch her catch sight of herself in the mirror, and I watch as her face breaks into a silly smile. She waves her arms purposefully and tilts her head, all for the sole purpose of delighting in her mirror image.

And yet, for all her age-appropriate moments of self-absorption, Emily is also beginning to identify with the larger world. She is seeking out ways to understand her actions, her personality, her appearance, in relation to those around her. One such world is, of course, that of “actual ballerinas.” Emily has heard her teacher talk about her own dancing; she has thrice been to The Nutcracker. She romanticizes this professional realm of rehearsals and performances, and she is hungry to forge a connection with it.

It is this hunger—this hankering to exist on the periphery of real ballet—that Barbara McClintock so lovingly captures in her new picture book, Emma and Julia Love Ballet (Ages 4-8), which she has both written and illustrated. McClintock gives us a day in the life of Emma, a young red-haired aspiring ballerina, and her professional counterpart, Julia, whom Emma gets to watch perform that evening at a prestigious venue. Every action in Emma’s (presumably weekend) day—waking up, driving to ballet class, learning movements at the barre, eating an early dinner with her family—is mirrored by a similar one in Julia’s life—waking up, taking the bus to the studio, rehearsing, snacking with other dancers before the show.

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

As I’ve mentioned before, Barbara McClintock is beloved in our house: her jewel-toned, highly detailed India ink watercolors have a sweet, romantic quality that tugs at the heart strings. McClintock is at her best when she features passionate, determined young heroines. One of our favorite picture books is Where’s Mommy?, written by Beverly Donofrio and illustrated by McClintock—the parallel stories of a little girl and a young mouse living under the same roof—whose visual presentation takes a side-by-side approach similar to what we find in Emma and Julia Love Ballet. For young readers, these books present more than an opportunity to compare and contrast: they encourage readers to see themselves as part of a larger whole.

At five years old, Emily is only just beginning to understand that the world does not begin and end with her, that there are literally billions (well, maybe in her mind hundreds) of things happening at any given moment, most of which she cannot see (and might not even be able to imagine). In Emma and Julia Love Ballet, McClintock isn’t simply saying, Hey kids, here’s what professional ballerinas do to get ready for a performance. Rather, she’s saying, Hey kids, look at how what you do in and around ballet class is similar to (and a little different from) what professional dancers do. The leap is not large: after all, my Emily already believes she looks the part.

The book’s text is sparse (McClintock is an illustrator by trade), which means there are ample opportunities for conversation, the likes of which reading specialists often cite as the biggest benefit of sharing picture books aloud with young children. “We stretch like that in my class!” “Look, Mommy, she gets her leg really straight; I’m still working on that.” “I can tell Julia is the star of the show, because she has the fanciest tutu.” None of these things are spelled out in the text; yet all of them factor into the visual narrative. (McClintock, who wrote the story to honor her older sister’s childhood obsession with ballet, sat for hours in studios sketching professional dancers.)

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

The story peeks when Emma arrives with her parents (and older brother—this detail has not gone unnoticed in our house) at the giant theater, which towers above her with vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Here, McClintock’s spread is guaranteed to elicit goosebumps from aspiring dancers and theater goers alike.

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

In the audience, Emma watches as Julia and the other dancers “bend, and swirl, and leap” across the stage. “Emma watches every move. She can feel every lift of the dancers’ arms, every step and pause.”

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

Naturally, with one ballet recital under her belt, my Emily is now a self-proclaimed expert on all matters of the stage: “When you are waiting in the wings, Mommy, you have to be COMPLETELY SILENT. Then, when you go out on stage, it’s like it’s happening by magic, and the people in the audience are thinking, where did those dancers even come from?”

At the end of the performance, Emma’s parents take her backstage, so that she can meet Julia and get her autograph. “‘Someday,’ Emma tells Julia. ‘I will dance onstage—just like you!’”

"Emma and Julia Love Ballet" by Barbara McClintock

My Emily feels the need to point out—every single time we read this story together—that Emma should have brought Julia a bouquet of flowers when she went backstage. Emily was quite thrilled to have received three herself last Sunday. It’s all part of the gig.

Ballet Recital


Other Favorite Picture Books About Ballet and Dance Performance (fiction and non-fiction):
Tallulah’s Toe Shoes, Tallulah’s Tutu, Tallulah’s Solo, Tallullah’s Nutcracker, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger (Ages 4-9; see my post here)
Lili at Ballet and Lili Backstage, by Rachel Isadora (Ages 4-8)
A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream, by Kristy Dempsey & Floyd Cooper (see my post here; Ages 5-10)
Firebird, by Misty Copeland (Ages 5-10)
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad (Ages 6-10)
Alvin Ailey, by Andrea Davis Pinkney & Brian Pinkney (Ages 6-10)
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jim Greenberg, Sandra Gordan & Brian Floca (Ages 8-12)
Child’s Introduction to Ballet: The Stories, Music, and Magic of Classical Dance, by Laura Lee and Meredith Hamilton (Ages 8-12)

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Review copy courtesy of Scholastic. All opinions are my own. affiliate links are provided mainly for ease and reference–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Dancing Outside the Comfort Zone

July 9, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra BoigerSomewhere along the way, in our frenzy to make sure our children are anything but ordinary, we’ve stopped letting them be bad at things. So fervently do we want them to feel the taste of success from an early age (as if this guarantees them achievement later in life), that we steer them almost immediately in the direction of things at which we believe they’ll excel.

With so many of today’s children starting instructive activities at younger and younger ages, joining in a few years down the road can feel to a child like everyone else is light years ahead of him or her—a daunting prospect at best. And we parents get squirmy around daunting. We fear the fallout of failure, despite contemporary psychologists berating us, Failure is good! Failure is critical! It’s through failure that children learn how to stand firmer on their own two feet!

What’s stopping us from all holding hands and letting our children outside their comfort zone?

Cue the power of summer camp. For ten summers, I attended the same sleep-away camp in the Green Mountains of Vermont. The camp was the opposite of fancy (“It’s homey,” my New York City mother announced dubiously the first time we pulled in.). But I adored how laid back and accepting it was. As a camper, you could wander into any activity. As a counselor, you could teach virtually any activity (skill secondary to enthusiasm). Fortunately, my parents weren’t sending me there to master tennis or horseback riding or to emerge at the end of the summer with perfectly glazed pots that might justify the hundreds of dollars they were spending.

That camp became a haven for me. A place to experiment. To discover and be embraced for who I was. And I failed constantly. I failed to advance to the next swimming level. I failed at fighting off homesickness. I failed at having the right frayed jean shorts. I failed at friendships. There were no parents around to lecture or moralize or pick me back up or interfere on my behalf. And, boy, did I love it.

There are still moments in my life where I would give anything to run out my problems in bare feet across that giant archery field, flanked by the beauty of the mountains.

In addition to its nostalgic camp setting, Tallulah’s Tap Shoes, the newest in the charming picture book series by Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger—and my personal favorite to date—does a magnificent job of exploring a girl’s growing pains at starting (and not necessarily succeeding at) something new.

Last summer, I sung the praises of Deer Dancer, Mary Lyn Ray’s picture book aimed at creative, free-form movement, the kind of dance that my then three year old was loving in her weekly class. At almost five now, my Emily can no longer resist the tutu, and she is begging for me to enroll her in “real” ballet classes this fall. Which puts her in deep infatuation with the Tallulah books (not to mention their glittery book covers).

Don’t let the shimmer fool you: these stories are rich with substance. If Deer Dancer was about exploration, the Tallulah books (Ages 5-9) are about the discipline of dance. They follow young Tallulah from her days in a beginning ballet class (Tallulah’s Tutu); to her ambition to perform (Tallulah’s Solo and Tallulah’s Nutcracker); to her struggle on pointe (Tallulah’s Toe Shoes); to, finally, her broadening her repertoire at dance camp (Tallulah’s Tap Shoes).

The best thing about these five books is that they NEVER SHY AWAY FROM RAW, HUMAN EMOTION. On view is the full spectrum: the lovely and the not-so-lovely sides of Tallulah’s personality, which grows more complex with each year. We get her determination, her passion, her focus, and her compassion. As well as her jealousy, her disappointment, her impatience, and her haughtiness.

She is a perfectly imperfect role model for our children.

By the time Tallulah’s Tap Shoes comes in the sequence, Tallulah is sitting confidently in the saddle. That is, she has established herself as a skilled and accomplished ballerina. She can’t wait to board the yellow school bus to dance camp, where, between swimming in the lake and making friendship bracelets, she can excel in ballet lessons to her heart’s content.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

But there’s a catch. She also has to take tap lessons. And she knows nothing about tap.

Tallulah runs the predictable gamut of reactions. She begins by dismissing tap as “baby stuff” that will be easy to pick up. But then she watches green-eyed with jealousy as a girl with “shiny black hair,” who has been taking tap for as long as Tallulah has been taking ballet, can make seemingly effortless music with her feet.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

Feeling like she alone is constantly on the receiving end of the teacher’s criticism, Tallulah becomes convinced that she has turned from being the “best student” in ballet to the “worst student” in tap (the dramatic flair is strong in this one). In one final defense mechanism, she decides tap is not worth doing if she can’t do it well, and she begins to skip her lessons, hiding out in the Arts and Crafts cabin and pretending that she doesn’t care a smidgen about any of it.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

All the while, there is a parallel dynamic at work. The black-haired girl is having the exact same reaction to her struggles with ballet, similarly convincing herself that it’s not worth her time, while secretly feeling disheartened and embarrassed. The two girls strike up a competitive but ultimately redemptive friendship, as both begin to see themselves reflected in the other. “You’re not the worst,” Tallulah assures Kacie. “Not at all…Teachers always correct everybody.”

“Well, you aren’t the worst in tap,” Kacie told her. “If you keep practicing, you’ll get better. Then you might love it. And we could even take lessons together.”

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

Tallulah returns to tap, practicing her flap steps (which, like the ballet steps in Singer’s other books, are detailed on the endpapers of the book to the absolute fascination of my daughter) until they begin to sound louder and clearer. And Kacie gives ballet another shot, demonstrating more control over her glissades. Neither girl is the best at her new sport, but neither is the worst. In fact, what they discover is a broad and beautiful middle ground, previously invisible to both of them.

Maybe I’m right where I’m supposed to be, Tallulah thought. For now.

"Tallulah's Tap Shoes" by Marilyn Singer & Alexandra Boiger

What if we free our children to explore, even embrace, this middle ground? Will they try more things? Will they learn more about themselves? Will they enjoy life more?

It’s perhaps no coincidence that there is little to no parental presence in Tallulah’s Tap Shoes. The girls work things out on their own and with one another. Together, they create an existence acceptable to both of them. A place where they can excel, fail, hang out in the middle, or—even better—do all of the above.

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Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

For the Dancers

July 29, 2014 § 3 Comments

"Deer Dancer" by Mary Lyn Ray & Lauren StringerOne of our greatest rewards as parents is watching our children experience joy. For me, I get to see that look of joy upon my daughter’s face each time I peek through the fogged glass into the studio where she takes her weekly dance class. It’s a look that’s markedly different from the furrowed brow of concentration she often wears when observing something new; or the aghast expression of betrayal when her brother knocks over her tower of blocks; or her silly mischievous grin while tearing across the park with friends. When she dances, she is lost in the moment; she is happy; she is free. It’s no wonder that she asks me almost every single day, “When’s my next dance class?”

In a world in which our girls are dying to get their hands on pink tutus, ballet slippers, and all the glitter that seems to equate ballerinas with princesses, I love that Emily’s class is very deliberately titled Creative Movement. True ballet, with its discipline and choreography, doesn’t start until age five at this studio. In the meantime, the emphasis is on movement, on body awareness, on feeling the music. The girls and boys imitate animals, hop through hula-hoops, and roll across the big open floor.

Where children’s books are concerned, there are many charming, full-of-heart stories featuring the indoor world of ballet (my favorites are mentioned in the lengthy list at the end of this post). Still, I find it especially refreshing that, in their new picture book, Deer Dancer (Ages 3-6), author Mary Lyn Ray and illustrator Lauren Stringer have taken dance out of the mirrored studio and into nature, where the trees make their own music, and where movement is at its freest and purest form. To put it another way, Deer Dancer is as green as it is pink.

The dark-haired, rosy-cheeked girl in the book, with her mix-matched ensemble of tees and leggings, worn under a pink sheer skirt, has “a place I go that’s/ green and grass./ a place I thought that no one knew—until the day a deer came” (by the way, I love the loose, sing-songy prose, perfect for a book about movement). Whether by coincidence or not, during dance class the next day, the teacher tells the students to “hold your head as if you’re wearing antlers,” to “listen with your cheekbones,” and to “look with the eyes in your shoulders.” Frustrated at not being able to master these things in the studio, the girl heads back to her grassy clearing in the woods to practice. When the buck again appears, she watches him closely to learn his movements, then partners with him in an improvised dance of leaping and turning and moving in circles around the grass. I love the way in which Stringer has painted the deer and the girl, as they first approach and bow to one another. I love her closed eyes and swept back head on the opposite page—as if, in the first few seconds of the dance, she is already transported.


From the decade I spent at summer camp in Vermont, one of my dearest memories is of heading down to the archery field by myself after dinner, taking off my shoes, and racing back and forth across the vast stretch of flat grass. In the descending sun, the grass glowed jade, much the way it does in Stringer’s vibrant acrylic paintings. Eventually, I’d collapse on my back, panting as I took in the magnificent mountains rising in the distance. For those few quiet moments, my body felt completely free of whatever (dramatic) tween and teen angst I’d been holding inside.

Today, apart from places like sleep-away camp, it is becoming increasingly harder for our children to develop intimate, independent relationships with nature. And yet, as Deer Dancer reminds us, we cannot give up on this dream for them. There is nothing quite like letting our natural surroundings inspire us to leap; to feel the music in the wind; to hold our antlers high. I hope that mine and yours will always find freedom in movement.

Other Favorite Picture Book Stories (& Biographies) About Dance:
Bea at Ballet, by Rachel Isadora (Ages 1-4)
Miss Lina’s Ballerinas; Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Prince; Miss Lina’s Ballerinas and the Wicked Wish, by Grace Maccarone & Christine Davenier
Dogs Don’t Do Ballet, by Anna Kemp
Brontorina, by James Howe & Randy Cecil
Flora and the Flamingo, by Molly Idle
Tallulah’s Tutu; Tallulah’s Solo; Tallulah’s Toe Shoes; Tallulah’s Nutcracker, by Marilyn Singer
Lili at Ballet, by Rachel Isadora (Ages 4-8)
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, by Jan Greenberg & Sandra Jordan (Ages 7-12)
Jose! Born to Dance: The Story of Jose Limon, by Susanna Reich & Raul Colon

Connecting Through Diversity

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy DempseyA rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among us white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them.

It is worth noting one exception. In today’s bookstores, racial diversity is most evident in picture books that are concerned, not with a story about an individual, but with a broad, sweeping depiction of urban life. Books like Water in the Park (discussed here) and In the Town All Year Round (discussed here) do a fine job of representing people of different skin colors “as an integral and valued part of the mosaic” (to borrow Myers’ words), in which kids are growing up today. But, let’s be honest: from the standpoint of the publishers and the booksellers, this is a safe route to take; these harmonious covers show white children alongside those of color. In other words, they are still seen by white buyers as relatable.

Which leads me to my own question. I wonder if we as parents play a larger role than we realize in the scant publication of books starring individuals of color. Are we unknowingly standing in the way of our children seeing and identifying with the communities around them? When I read Myers’ piece last week, I immediately thought of my initial reaction to the uplifting new picture book, A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream, by Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper (Ages 4-10). The story is about a poor black girl, living in mid-twentieth century Harlem, who longs to be a ballerina. Dempsey and Cooper have loosely based their book on those, like our young, wide-eyed heroine, who had the opportunity to watch Janet Collins’ debut as the first African-American ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951.

When I first paged through the book at my local bookshop, I got goose bumps from the sheer lyricism of the language. Certainly, a story-told-in-poems format seems perfectly matched to subject matter about dance and transcendence; but what really struck me is how this beautiful, buoyant language contrasts the daily struggle of the girl and her single mother—a mother who works days and nights as a laundress and seamstress, but a mother who doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice a new sewing machine in order to give her daughter a glimpse of what her promising future might hold. The moments leading up to the performance are breathlessly described through the daughter’s eyes:

Waiting now
for the bus,
my feet won’t stop
their trippy-trappy,
jumpin’ jiggle,
can’t-hardly-wait wiggle.

But then I fell directly into the trap. I thought, “I have to bring this book into JP’s school!” I immediately categorized it as “a book with a lesson” (race! poverty! history!). I didn’t buy the book, but instead took a picture of its cover and requested it from the library, as I do the other books I bring into my son’s elementary classroom. Once I classified it as such, it never occurred to me to share it with my three-and-a-half year old daughter, who loves dancing as much as she loves snuggles and pizza and playing with her brother.

And yet, who ended up going through my pile of books by the door and picking out this one for story time? “Mommy, look! This one is about a ballerina!” I started to say that this story was intended for older kids, but I stopped myself when I saw her sheer delight upon flipping through the subdued, grainy paintings, in hues of browns and pinks, each one filled with longing and sadness and wonder and joy. And so I read it. And then I read it again. And again. And I saw that I had been grossly mistaken. Yes, this is a book with a powerful and important message about breaking down racial barriers. But it is also about a little girl with a passion; about a mother who loves her; about the awe that we all feel in the presence of art. It is also about something that every single child, regardless of race or class or background, feels at one point or another—and that’s the inner stirrings of hope. Or, in our narrator’s words:

puffs up my chest
just a bit.
One day,
those voices
will be
for me.

As Walter Dean Myers fervently reminds us, books starring children of color or children of lower economic classes are critical to the identity formation of those individuals (not to mention their interest in reading). Equally important, however, is that these stories, especially the ones about everyday triumphs and failures, find their way into the hands of the broader population as well. Our children are not nearly as literal as we often assume them to be. They aren’t born seeing the world in black and white. They are born with a natural ability to connect as human beings. And books are a great place to nurture these connections. But we need to make them accessible to our children. And we need to spend money on them—in order that there will be more published every year.

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