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Emma and Julia Love Ballet

emma-and-juliaIt’s always an interesting exercise to look closely at a book that isn’t a top favorite. Don’t get me wrong: I love this book; I just wasn’t thinking of it as a Caldecott contender. But Julie Danielson named it (here) as a book she’d like to see considered. And, in fact, the actual Caldecott committee will be looking at many books suggested by another committee member, books that aren’t necessarily favorites of every committee member, or indeed even on some of their radars.

Unlike both Robin and Lolly, I’ve never served on the Caldecott committee, but I have served on the Newbery, and the process is similar: before committee members submit their limited number of official nominations (beginning around this time of year), they’ve suggested tens and perhaps hundreds of titles to one another, ALL of which need to be taken seriously by the others.

That’s the position I find myself in with Barbara McClintock’s latest picture book: taking it seriously because another person has suggested we all take a look.

The first thing I noticed is how effectively and cleverly McClintock uses color to focus our attention on the two main characters, and to link them visually. Check it out: we never see either dancer without some touch of yellow, pink, or purple—a yellow leotard, a purple hoodie, a pink ballet costume. McClintock introduces readers to her palette on the first spread, in which we see Emma waking up in her pink bedroom with yellow ballet poster and lamp, and Julia waking up in her yellow bedroom with purple mirror and sheets and pink slippers and pointe shoes. From here on (until the final page on which Emma and Julia’s parallel tracks finally meet), we see both characters solely in small vignettes and spot art, participating in their parallel activities throughout the day—and those pinks, purples, and yellows absolutely help readers locate Emma and Julia in each illustration.

I noticed the intentional lack of ballet-associated grandeur in the art. As I said, we get mostly small, homey views, meant to keep our attention on the people and the process, not on ballet as performance. The two sweeping double-page spreads in the book are of the spaces associated with the performance, not the performance itself: the grand concert hall; the stage. In other words, this is a book for readers who already love ballet. It’s not inspirational; it’s conspiratorial.

There’s a nice tension between art and text. Although the book is propelled by the similarities in Emma and Julia’s days, there are of course points of departure. Sometimes it’s the text that carries those points (“Emma’s mother drives her to her [ballet] lesson. Julia takes the bus by herself”), and sometimes it’s the art. On the spread where the text says, “Emma’s teacher begins class. Emma loves her teacher. Julia’s teacher begins class, too. Julia is devoted to her teacher,” both classes are lined up at the barre, but Emma and her classmates, wearing ballet slippers, vary in ability and toe-pointing prowess, whereas everyone in Julia’s class is wearing toe shoes and executing a perfect tendu.

One more thing: I know there has been an uptick in picture books featuring “casual diversity,” but I feel like it’s more than that here: that having Emma aspire to be just like Julia (as well as showing several other adult dancers of color) is more intentional than casual. It counts as subtext, not just window dressing.

Well, I’m really glad I spent time looking closely at this book. Thanks for suggesting it, Jules!


Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. Thanks, Martha! Did you see the tiny print at the end that it was a performance by Judith Jamison that Barbara once saw that inspired this? I love that.

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful examination of Emma and Julia.
    I’ve always enjoyed Barbara McClintock’s work, the detail is so meticulous, so beautiful. This book is gentle and the rhythm soothing – it feels to me almost like a lullaby.
    And I didn’t see the Judith Jamison reference, but I agree with Jules, that is lovely.

  3. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    And she took ballet class! You can see her in a tutu in The Horn Book’s Five Questions interview about this book 🙂

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, since there are not many African American ballerinas as role models for young girls, I too think this is more than just “casual diversity.” The real Caldecott committee won’t be able to place this one alongside FIREBIRD by Chris Myers, but parents, teachers, booksellers, and librarians can. 🙂

  5. I LOVE this book!! I have been sneaking it into the various venues for which I recommend books (put it on my website’s back-to-school list, for instance). It just works: works for kids taking ballet (some boys in those pictures, too!). Works as a sweet story for parents and children to read together. Works for casual diversity, yes, but there is definitely more to it than that–think of the different “message” if Emma and Julia’s races were reversed. It is SO rare in picture books that a young white child is looking up to and admiring an older person of color. And yet, it’s not preachy, a book-with-a-message.

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