ballerina

 

You don’t find an easy reader memoir every day. This one’s a rare gem. It tells the story of a Sierra Leone war orphan who becomes fascinated with ballerina and eventually becomes a professional ballerina. It’s co-written by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, the ballerina and her mother.

I was especially impressed by the way the narrative weaves together so many difficult themes. The narrator talks about her skin condition, vitiligo, and the teasing she endured because of it. She tells the story of her adoption, describing the uncertainty as well as the thrill that went with getting a new family and a new country. She takes us through her obsession with ballet. She shows us the loneliness of being black in a predominantly white workplace.

It’s a lot for a single easy reader to tackle, but this text does it with grace. There’s a lot for any new reader–or any human!–to connect with here.

Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer, by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Frank Morrison. Random House Step into Reading: 2014.

Duncan Tonatiuh’s distinctive artwork illustrates this story of a family that brought a lawsuit to desegregate schools. The story is long–2321 words!–but Tonatiuh makes sure everything is told from young Sylvia’s point of view.

The dialogue in the book keeps things lively, and I was delighted that the author included a note about that dialogue in the back matter, He writes:

The dialogue in the trial scene comes directly from court transcripts. i shortened and edited it for clarity and pacing. The dialogue in the rest of the book is inspired by conversations i had with Sylvia Mendez in October 2012 and April 2013.

The narrative voice shifts between Spanish and English. It’s clear and plain-spoken, with few poetic devices, as if the right outcome of this case is so obvious that it doesn’t need rhetorical flourishes.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation¬†by Duncan Tonatiuh. Abrams: 2014.

This book, about a landmark moment in jazz history, is written with a jazz-inspired narrative voice, playing with literary convention–there’s no end punctuation in the entire book–and dabbling with different poetic devices, like rhyme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia, without ever committing to one. The story’s told with staccato phrases in shotgun bursts. Ransome uses rich and vivid words. She describes sound “rippling and rumbling” and describes the experience of watching a performance:

Fast fingering

Drums thumping

Trumpets trumping

The back matter is longer than the text itself, which I always love when a book has intrigued me like this one did. I’m anxious to get more of the story and can usually find it in the back matter. Here, Ransome tells us “More about Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson,” provides a time line, and gives a “Who’s Who in Jazz.”

Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson: Taking the Stage as the First Black and White Jazz Band in History, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome. Holiday House: 2014.