While this book is not strictly categorized as “poetry,” the author is a poet, and the text of this book reads like free verse, as with this description of a ballet performance:
“When she glides onto the stage,
I don’t know
if I am dreaming,
if I am even breathing,
because she doesn’t seem to touch the floor.
She twirls and
my heart jumps up from where I’m sitting,
opening wide with the swell of the music.”
The story is narrated by a fictional young African American girl in New York in the 1950s who dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. Her mother cleans and sews costumes for a ballet school, and the little girl dances in the wings as she waits for Mama. The Ballet Master lets her join lessons from the back of the room, but she is not allowed to perform on the stage with white girls.
One day she catches bits of a story in a newspaper about Janet Collins: “first colored prima ballerina… Metropolitan Opera House.”
Mama uses half the money she saved for a new sewing machine to take her daughter to see Janet Collins perform, and they are both inspired:
“Mama and I dance our way home
under the night sky,
and I don’t even try
to catch a glimpse of the first star.
no need to waste my wishes.
I’ve got dreams coming true.”
The award-winning illustrator, Floyd Cooper, known for his use of warm tones and historical accuracy, is the perfect choice for this story. His technique of “subtraction” to erase shapes from a background of paint, softens the pictures and gives them a gauzy quality, adding to the sense that this is a story from the past.
Discussion: Before you get to the Author’s Note at the conclusion of the book about who Janet Collins was and when she danced, there is no indication this story takes place in the early 1950’s. The Note provides brief background information on Ms. Collins, born in 1917 in Louisiana, who became the first African American to be hired full-time by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, initially performing in November, 1951.
Ms. Collins experienced a great deal of resistance in her attempts to perform in professional classical dance troupes. In 1932, for example, she was asked to join the prestigious Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, but she would have been required to paint her face and skin white to appear on stage. She turned down the offer. She was also not allowed to be on tour with the rest of her ballet company in parts of the Deep South. She retired in her forties and joined a Benedictine community.
The poetic prose is quite nice, and Cooper’s illustrations are lovely as usual, but I think it would help understanding of the story to know at the outset that it takes place in an earlier time.
Evaluation: Any story is enhanced by the outstanding artwork of Floyd Cooper, and the integration of ballet is a topic not often covered by other books.
Published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, 2014