Monday, October 18, 2010

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring

As you know, I am always on the lookout for new, interesting nonfiction.  One nice thing about our new library is that they have a display of the new children's nonfiction.  This is especially helpful because it is ultimately interfiled with the adult nonfiction, making it harder to spot interesting nonfiction.  The cover is so joyous and vibrant, with the dancers' arms thrown exuberantly in the air, that it attracted me right away. 

This is the story of the collaboration between Martha Graham, Aaron Copeland and Isamu Noguchi in the 1940's.  Martha came up with the idea to create a ballet which would be a "legend of American living".  In the retelling of the collaboration that created this masterpiece, Greenberg and Jordan also weave in information about all three of the artists and their individual creative processes.

There are some things that are truly stunning about this book.  One of these things are the layers of collaboration evident in this book.  There is the described collaboration between Graham, Copeland and Noguchi.  This is truly awesome - while Martha created the script for what she envisioned, she did so with constant input from Aaron Copeland.  And he wrote the music knowing the way she moved and danced.  Noguchi had worked with Graham many times before, so they too had a strong working relationship.  This creation is something I think young people do not have experience with, and the depiction of this by the authors and illustrator is a marvel.

However, the seamless collaboration between the authors and illustrator is also a marvel.  The authors have written together many times before, and the text is truly beautiful.  The sentences are short and poetic, where every word counts.  You get a real sense of how the ballet is composed without any superfluous information.  Brian Floca's illustrations are an equal match to the beautiful text.

His watercolors are precise yet flowing.  They carry the emotion of the ballet capably.  As I mentioned earlier, the cover illustration is so joyful, and there are equally compelling portraits of Martha Graham in anger and frustration and the dancers concentrating with every ounce of their being.  Floca also has created a variety of illustrations, from spot illustrations to double page spreads.  This keeps the reader's eye moving, giving a sense of the ballet's movement to the reader.  The illustrations in this book are so sweeping in comparison to his detailed work in Moonshot, but it is just as gorgeous.

This book has wonderful back matter, which I really appreciate in a work of nonfiction.  There is a bibliography (including a film of the ballet being performed) and citations.  But most importantly, there are biographies of each of the collaborators.  I think this is a wonderful connection for students who were not previously aware of their work.  I also think the subject matter makes this book much more appropriate for older students.  I love seeing so much information being imparted in the accessible picture book format.

An absolutely stunning collaboration about an equally awe-inspiring collaboration.  Well recommended.

Ballet for Martha:Making Appalachian Spring.  Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca.  Roaring Brook Press, 2010.

Monday, October 11, 2010

All We Know of Love

Natalie has lived with her father for the past four years, four months and fifteen days.  Since the day her mother walked out the door in the middle of a sentence and never looked back.  This has, of course, totally shaped the teenager Natalie has become.  She is fairly disconnected from her father and has stopped sharing anything real about herself with anyone.  Instead she gives each of the people in her life (including her best friend and boyfriend) little glimpses of herself.  Natalie is surely heading for trouble when she lies to her father about going on a trip with her best friend.  Instead she hops on a bus down the East Coast to ask her mother to complete the sentence she never finished – it was something about love.
Road trips are a classic theme in young adult literature (off the top of my head, one of my favorites is in An Abundance of Katherines).   Many coming of age stories happen during road trips, as the road seems to give teenagers the freedom to really discover themselves, especially when there are no parents around to tell them what to do and how to do it.  All We Know of Love takes place during the 24 hour trip to St. Augustine, Florida.  Natalie doesn’t really plan this trip extensively, and so she has little money, no food, and a cell phone rapidly running out of battery when she leaves.  Her decision not to buy snacks in the Stamford, Connecticut bus station leads to a side trip through Maryland when her bus leaves her stranded at a small diner.  While Natalie is certainly on her own on this trip, she is not without adults to help her complete her journey.
The whole novel is about love – between Natalie and her parents, between Natalie and her best friend Sarah, between Natalie and her boyfriend, Adam.  But I especially like how Baskin gives us a look into other characters’ perspectives on love.  Each of the characters who touch Natalie’s life on this trip reflects on love within different chapters along her journey.  Natalie may not ever hear their backstory, but we are privy to some of it.  For instance, there is the young runaway in the Baltimore bus station, whose younger sister has died, leaving her feeling confused and unloved.  These short narratives within Natalie’s journey influence how we continue to read Natalie’s story.  This is a creative way to keep the story from being told wholly from Natalie’s perspective, thus limiting our understanding of love to Natalie’s understanding.  These characters are all memorable and unique, and add layers to Natalie’s journey.
Another addition to our understanding of Natalie’s trip are the quotes at the beginning of each chapter.  Each quote is about love, but also gives a subtle hint about what will take place .  For example, a dictionary quote on the connection between friendship and love leads a chapter where Natalie betrays her best friend for her boyfriend, and another character reminisces about an old friendship.
This book is delicately written and beautifully told.  You can’t help reading to find out not only what will happen with Natalie’s mother at the end of her journey, but also if Natalie will find herself.  I haven’t really written about Natalie’s relationship with her older, manipulative boyfriend, but you really root for Natalie to recognize her own desperation and arrive at a new place of strength.  At the end of her journey, Natalie doesn’t get the answers she expects, but it is definitely worth the trip.
All We Know of Love - Nora Raleigh Baskin.  Candlewick, 2008. Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.