Current Recommendations____

“A Dance like Starlight. One Ballerina’s Dream.” By Kristy Dempsey

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's DreamAuthor: Kristy Dempsey
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Publisher: Philomel, 2014

Ballet books have been and continue to be so ubiquitous as to be largely unnoteworthy.  This one, by Dempsey, clearly stands above many others.  This is based on facts about the career of the first African American ballerina to appear on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, set in the context of an imagined story about a little girl’s aspirations to dance.  Janet Collin’s accomplishments are described in an author’s note, including that she performed on a major stage before the better-known Marian Anderson did.
But the affirming aspect of this slight made-up story of a young black girl’s dream is the way her seamstress single mother’s encouraged her daughter’s dream.  The mother tells her that she should “…pick your dream up…off the floor of your heart…”  The unnamed young girl who narrates the story is able to attend a performance of Janet Collins because of her mother’s determination to encourage the dream.
Floyd Cooper, winner of both a Coretta Scott King Award and an Honor designation for previous of his books, here provides his usual softly-focused mixed media paintings which stretch across the double page spreads.  The text, set in white, contrasts effectively with the pastel art.

“Josephine” by Patricia Hruby Powell

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine BakerAuthor: Patricia Hruby Powell
Illustrator: Christian Robinson
Publisher: Chronicle, 2014

If there were a children’s book award given for sheer stylishness, this book would be the clear winner!*  What an impressive combination of art, design, and typography choice.  The art itself was created in acrylic, and Robinson has provided big, flat shapes with bold outlines and repeating decorative patterns.  These are usually set against solid backgrounds with no extraneous details.  Some of the best of the art are such pages as the opening which shows just Josephine against a block of color.
 The art itself reflects the visual and written record of the style of Josephine Baker (1906-1975) who grew from an impoverished childhood to become the reigning queen of dance halls in Paris and eventually garnered the respect that her earlier life in the United States denied her.
Opening and closing endpapers in bright rusty orange feature a silhouette- like image of Josephine bowing the reader into the book and facing back into the book at the close.  Chapter openings framed in stage curtains divide her life into segments by year, and end notes include Further Reading and Quote sources as well as statements from both the author, Patricia Hruby Powell, and the illustrator.  There is a rhythm set up in which a double spread with art and a smaller amount of text alternate with facing pages on which a lot of text moves the biography along.  Baker’s actual quotes are set in a type face different than the san serif one used for the major text.
The hard life of the daughter of a single mother who scrubbed floors, she always dreamed of dancing.  Starting out with a traveling family of vaudevillians, she managed to get herself a spot dancing and her immense talent quickly became apparent to others in the segregated world in which she lived.  It was apparent early that her talent for dancing (and for enhancing the effect with unusual and often minimal costumes) was her key to success on stage.  The author comments that she “wiggled like a serpent, slunk like a panther, and boxed like a kangaroo…” and that would lead to stardom. If there wasn’t a job dancing, she served as dresser for others in the show.   
But opportunities in the United States were limited and Paris was to be the key to the success she craved.  Tours through Europe and South America followed to more critical acclaim.  But prior to WW2, Europe “had come to a hard simmer,” and when war finally broke out, Josephine involved herself in a variety of unexpected activities, including working in a soup kitchen and serving as a spy for the resistance.  The illustration of her tucking a bit of information into her stocking is humorous.  Her life after the war was lived luxuriously but as she spent money faster than it came in, she had to tour again.  The appearance in Carnegie Hall at the age of 67 brought her acclaim and she continued touring.  Finally, a performance in a Paris venue brought more acclaim, and as many creative artists hope, she died doing what she loved doing, that night after the show.
The author creates imaginative language and doesn’t avoid words that child readers may not know, like “effervesced.”  “C’est magnifique,” in fact described her.
*A reviewer once commented about the work of Evaline Ness that it was “as stylish as a Gucci bag.”  Whether as a compliment or a criticism isn’t clear!

"Twelve Dancing Princesses" by Dorothee Duntze

The Twelve Dancing PrincessesIllustrator: Dorothee Duntze
Publisher: North South, 2013

Duntze creates an appropriate, if not unexpected pastel world in which to set this tale. She minimizes the unpleasantness (i.e.: each man who comes to try to discover the princesses’ secret loses their heads), but the princesses continue to elude their father's consternation at where his daughters go to dance every night.
The artist creates a fanciful array of colors and patterns with no particular connection to a realistic depiction. The girls' dresses, for example, are not simply an exploration of color and pattern. The bell-like shapes of the ball gown skirts make another pattern of their own on the page. Attenuation is a hallmark of Duntze's art: her women are about 9 heads tall, from top to toe, and clearly thin as rails. The illustrator uses a variety of page layouts. This includes some double spreads, set amidst small individual pieces of art facing single page spreads. Type is placed in a variety of locations on these borderless pages.
An interesting experience with youngsters could be to use the Duntze version and compare It with a different retelling. This is only one of many retellings which often reveal variation in plot and language. Another interesting comparison could involve children in looking at either her Rapunzelor her retelling of the Princess and the Pea.

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"Saint-Saens's: Dance Macabre" by Anna Harwell Celenza
Saint-Sanss Danse Macabre
Author: Anna Harwell Celenza
Illustrator:JoAnn E. Kitchell
Publisher: Harcourt, 2013
In the mid 19th century the streets in Paris were full of life, though underneath the city is a cemetery which fascinated people to the degree that these catacombs were open for people to visit. The widely respected composer, Camille Saint-Saens was one of the many visitors. The result has become one of his most popular pieces of music.
For those not familiar with this piece the publisher has included a CD with a performance by the well-respected Pittsburgh symphony led by one of the most important contemporary conductors, Lorin Maazal. The author and illustrator have here produced the 8th title in a very popular series. It runs from Bach to Ellington. Celenza deals with only part of the composer’s life, well written to bring his thoughts and words to life for young children. A prominent poet of the time, as well as a very popular singer also included in the action surrounding the composition of this ballet.
Kitchell’s art continues the visual approach in the earlier books. A firm black pen line outlines naturalistic colors with little attempt to create the third dimension. Celenza, a professor of music, presents authentic research in an author’s end note, though the book itself can communicate with children without this.
An interesting aspect of this particular book is that it describes the reaction when the work was first performed. Some people in the audience applauded but others shouted their displeasure, for instance “Scandalous!” How interesting that the work elicited such strong feelings in the same way that Stravinsky’s *Rite of Spring did. Musicians who explore the boundaries of conventional composition, like **Charles Ives, are often not appreciated until much later.
Authors of books for children about the arts are particularly important in this era when children are far less likely to encounter music and arts program in the schools. The job of acquainting children with the arts thus often falls now to grade level generalists who can certainly appreciate the help that books like this offer them.
*Book about this by Lauren Stringer is review elsewhere in the “music” blog section.
**See Charles Ives Review elsewhere in the "music" blog section
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Previous  Recommendations         

"Bea At Ballet" by Rachel Isadora

Bea at BalletAuthor: Rachel Isadora
Publisher: Nancy Paulson Books, 2012

"Bea At Ballet", by Rachel Isadora, is much more than a ballet primer for the preschool set. True, it includes clearly labeled items, from clothing to equipment to positions, simply but appealingly portrayed on wide white spaces with accurate terminology. Etiquette and expectations during lessons are depicted as are genuine fascination and love of ballet.

But it is much more. This is a lovingly told story of how Bea and her friends view ballet. Isadora blends her Caldecott Honor-winning black lines from BEN'S TRUMPET and pastel palette from ON YOUR TOES: A Ballet ABC in this story of a ballet class with young Bea. Mocha the well-mannered dog observes Mr. Paul and Ms. Nancy teaching a diverse troupe of toddlers who engage, body and spirit, in every aspect of ballet.
Isadora’s gently curved lines, expressive features, subtle gestures and shading, delicate patterns and soft edges all create impressively competent round-bellied dancers floating in an almost magical white space. Their earnest efforts include pointed toes, graceful hand extensions, and utterly believable spins and stumbles. From cover to cover it is evident: Bea and her friends LOVE to dance.
Bea's class is delightfully diverse and includes young boys whose enthusiastic efforts show great promise. Here's hoping the current popularity of dance in mass media will provide cultural acceptance of that interest, rather than resulting in the teasing depicted in OLIVER BUTTON IS A SISSY, by Tomie dePaola, a reaction more typical in the past.
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"When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky" by Lauren Stringer

When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet, and One Extraordinary RiotAuthor: Lauren Stringer
Publisher: Harcourt, 2011

The works of this composer (1882-1971) and dancer (1889-1950), changed the face of modernism in those arts. Of the two, Stravinsky is the better known to audiences today, though indeed he isn’t widely known beyond classical music fans. Nijinsky, the best known dancer of his era, is almost completely unknown today, apart from dance enthusiasts. When the two met, and created the Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) they may not had been aware that they have been creating an event of sound and movement unlike anything else which preceded it.
The story line describing this event includes a well-crafted parallel description of the people in the audience who loved the production and those who hated it. Reports on the riot which occurred at the conclusion of the 1913 premier was widely reported in the popular media.
The aural and visual images which author Stringer composes with her words are impressive. For example when Stravinsky composed by himself , “his piano trilled an orchestra…”When Nijinsky composed dances by himself, “his legs leaped- a deer!” . These images contrast effectively with that Stringer writes for Stravinsky (“His piano pirouetted a puppet…”) and for Nijinsky (“His torso trumpeted a melody…”) She continues with interesting patterning in writing in describing the audience divided reation at the premiere. “They stood on their seats and shouted: “Boo! Boo! Boo! “ contrasted with : “They stood on their seats and shouted: Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!”
The author provides extensive end matter, including a description of how she came to research and write this duo biography, brief factual paragraphs about each of the men, other material about the dance itself, and finally some notes about her creation of the art for the book. All of this is quite interesting to adults but probably won’t be of much interest to children. This raises as do some other recent picture books about important adult creators in the arts. A question to be considered. Who is the audience for such books. Kathleen T. Horning deals with the important question of audience in her article about Madeline's Rescue (The Horn Book Magazine, May/June, 2013 P35-41).
For further information about these important creators, see:
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"Ballet For Martha: Making Appalacian Spring" by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian SpringAuthor: Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
Illustrator: Brian Floca
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press, 2010
Martha Graham, (1894-1991), the doyenne of modern dance, influenced many if not most of the modern dancers working until now, and reshaped what was considered dance. While ballet continues to be the most prevalent dance form performed on stages, when Martha began to rethink what she wanted to convey through her evolving very spare approach to movement, it was truly revolutionary. Born nearly 20 years earlier, Ruth St. Denis was also exploring new forms of dance though it was Graham whose name remains in the general consciousness.
After studying with Ruth St. Denis at the Denis Shawn Troop she set out on her own. Her process of developing Applechian Spring is unique. Before developing the dance, she wrote the script, a task one does not ordinarily think dancers do. In this case her dance making included not only the process of writing, and planning the steps but also of editing the dance as it evolved. It also included working with the composer, Copland and the set designer, Noguchi
Graham was convinced of the rightness of the path she was forging. It included, “…rarin’ to go rhythms…” though many of the movements she designed throughout her long career were not conventionally pretty.
The book includes sections: “Curtain Call,” biographical sketches of Graham, Aaron Copland, (1900-1990)and Isamu Noguchi(1904-1988). The three artists most directly involved in creating Appalachian Spring, as well as a section of notes and sources.
The two authors, Greenberg and Jordan have collaborated to critical accolades for a number of books described on their website (
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"Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire" by Roxane Orgill

Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele AstaireAuthor: Roxane Orgill
Illustrator: Stéphane Jorisch

Publisher: Viking, 2007
Reviewed by: Kristine Wildner, Holy Apostles School, New Berlin, WI

Focusing on the early dancing careers of Fred Astaire and his older sister Adele, Roxane Orgill takes us back to the magical time of dance entertainment during the early 20 th century in an illuminating picture book biography. Beginning their dance careers as children, the Astaires performed on the vaudeville-circuit, eventually moving on to Broadway. Equal partners, the pair experienced a few growing pains, yet persevered through hard work, determination, and innovation. As Fred moved on to motion pictures, Adele quietly retired to family life.
Although most of today's children have never heard of Fred Astaire and know little of his legacy within popular entertainment, they will be inspired by his early dance career with his sister.
Stéphane Jorisch's line and water color illustrations bring the Astaire's story to life. His attention to detail and masterful depiction of light and shadow transport the reader back in time to the magical settings of early 20 th century dance. Alternating text and picture boxes with full page spreads, the layout invites the reader into the world of show business. Emotions of not only Fred and Adele, but also the stage hands and audience depict the excitement of this matchless time and place. For older children, an interesting comparison would be to look at the art that Jorisch did for Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky (Kids Can Press, 2004), quite different than the art for the Astaire book.

Footwork: The Story of Fred and Adele Astaire includes resources for further reading, listening, viewing and websites and is an excellent stepping stone to further research. Traditional values of hard work, practice, and perseverance permeate the story. Fred is a prime example to boys who enjoy dance and to everyone who works hard to perfect and improve their craft.
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“José!” by Susanna Reich

Jose! Born to Dance: The Story of Jose LimonAuthor: Susanna Reich
Illustrator: Raúl Colón
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 2005

Susanna Reich, formerly a dancer, clearly knows how to present the most important parts of the story she is telling. Having researched the life of this Mexican performer, teacher, and choreographer, Reich recounts enough specifics to draw readers along the path from José's noisy birth, through his uncertainty approaching a career, to his meeting two of the most important figures in the dance world, Doris Humphry and Charles Weidman. Drawing on their influences, Limón formed his own touring dance company and influenced many young dancers as a teacher at Julliard, one of the most prestigious art schools in the US.
His determination to master challenges emerged early, when as a new emigrant child, he encountered other children's prejudice. Early in life José was interested in both art and music but the meeting and ongoing connection with Humphry and Weidman was to help him make a final career choice. Unlike others who chose to dance, Limón came to the art form when already a young adult. Clearly this was another challenge to overcome, as after only six weeks of study he was able to make his debut.
Colón's art is full page, soft edged presentation of key moments in José's life. Suitably hazy colors with minimal though sufficient background details. Color is especially masterful in breaking up space. For example, when he frames José's head when the child is sitting at the breakfast table, the back and sides of the chair form a frame (second opening). The leaving home composition (ninth opening) is another example.
Readers might compare this with “Dance” written by Bill T. Jones reviewed at the bottom of this section of the blog.

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“Dance” by Bill T. Jones
Author: Bill T. Jones
Photographer: Susan Kuklin
Publisher: Hyperion, 1998
Publishers find ballet books a lucrative market. Young girls consume these with gusto far less frequent among these books are those which include a token boy. Very unusual is a book focusing on a male dancer. Thus Hyperion is to be commended for focusing on a modern dancer, a male. This extends both the awareness of gender as well as reaching beyond conventional ballet.

On helpfully empty white pages, Jones shows through Kuklin’s photographs( and his purposefully simple sentences, the many reasons he dances, what he feels when he dances, and how he uses his entire body to accomplish his purposes. The photos and words show clearly how he prepares his work, the shapes (lines and curves) he makes and how he uses space (high and low). All together an admirable combination of dancer and photographer celebrating two arts together.
Here is another idea for Hyperion; as Jones is both a dancer and also a choreographer, how could they produce an equally effective book about the art of choreography?

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