Monday, April 18, 2011

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan and illustrated by Brain Floca (2010)

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian SpringBallet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring came into our house with a stack of other ALA award winners ordered by our university library (It was one of the 2011 Sibert Honor Books, given for "the most distinguished informational books published in English" for young readers.)  It's not the kind of book I would have otherwise taken home to share with my four year old; recommended by its publisher for ages 9-12, both its concept and its research methods (Primary text sources! and Footnotes!!) seemed a bit too sophisticated for a preschooler.

But I'm glad that I did, and so is my daughter, who can easily sit through the whole book (just 48p, including notes, many with minimal text) without getting antsy.  She is captivated by the dancers' movements and does not seem bothered by vocabulary and concepts above her level (certainly the authors' short, crisp, measured prose helps).  Most importantly, she genuinely seems to connect with the idea (familiar from baby ballet class) of using your body's movement to tell a story. 

Ballet for Martha is the 10th collaboration by authors Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, whose previous---and award-winning---work together frequently deals with art and artists (as in Action Jackson and Vincent VanGogh: Portrait of an Artist).  Interestingly, Greenberg's body of work also includes two edited poetry anthologies (one a Printz award winner) that explore intersections between poetry and visual art.  Illustrator Brian Floca has won two previous Sibert honor awards, both for books that he both authored and illustrated (Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 and Lightship). 

This book introduces Appalachian Spring in a way that is vivid and highly accessible, even to those not very familiar with ballet.  It effectively captures both what is revolutionary and what is distinctly American about this production.   At the same time, Flora's muted palette and pairing of ink with watercolor not only shows us the beauty of Graham's radical, intense, and often uneasy choreography but expertly recreates the expression and movement of the dancers.  What makes this such a distinctive and profound book, though, goes beyond the ballet itself and into an exploration of the creative process.  The authors and illustrator show---with a light, understated hand---the challenges, conflicts, and even tantrums that are part of the truth of this story.  But the thread that dominates is the story of a magical collaboration between choreographer, composer, and set designed that emerges slowly, sometimes painfully, but in the end triumphantly. 

Worth Noting:  Googlebooks offers a few pages of text and Flora's lovely jacket illustrations here.  And School Library Journal blogger Betsy Bird (Fuse #8) offers a far more detailed review here, with links to an interview with Brian Flora and to YouTube clips of the ballet itself.  And yes, I feel vindicated that she too thought the book was fine for a younger audience, recommending it for ages 5-10.

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