What Makes a Good Book About Dance?

How can books inspire and excite children about the riches of dance? How can these books connect with their interests both in  dance classes and outside of them? Dance books can put into words and images the language of the art form as well as the feelings and passion of dancers. It’s easy to find books about dance in general; think of the many picture books starring dancing animals, showing little girls in tutus, or highlighting kids with two left feet who finally, almost magically, learn how to become graceful. But a well-rounded collection should include more realistic and rewarding titles that focus on diversity within the art form and that accurately portray dance, dancers, and dance-specific vocabulary in an engaging, eye-opening way.

Dancers like Us

The children’s-book stereotype of dance as little Caucasian girls in tutus does a disservice to youngsters, perpetuating the idea that only one kind of person can be a dancer. Books should highlight the diversity of dancers, in terms of gender, race, nationality, and physical abilities, for example, to allow a wide variety of children to see themselves reflected.

Dance by Bill T. Jones and Susan Kuklin is one of the best books about dance for children. The text poetically and elegantly describes the elements of dance such as shape, level, and lines in the body. Jones himself, one of the most famous male modern dance choreographers of our time, is the star of the book, and the photographic images of a strong, athletic African American male dancer are beautiful, playful, and inspiring, especially for young boys.

Two other recent books highlight young African American dancers. A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student tells the story of a thirteen-year-old girl at the Ailey School in New York City. In a style reminiscent of Jill Krementz’s A Very Young Dancer, author Valerie Gladstone, supported by José Ivey’s dynamic photographs, shares the details of Iman’s life as she trains at school three days a week in preparation for a performance. The thorough text describes Iman’s various classes, her own  reflections about dance and training, and how she balances her life as a middle school student, regular teen, and dancer. Beautiful Ballerina by Marilyn Nelson, with photographs by Susan Kuklin, shares images of Dance Theatre of Harlem students for younger readers. It highlights four African American ballet students of different ages. Through accessible text and vivid  photographs, readers will be able to connect with and look at ballet through a new lens.

Setting a global scene, George Ancona’s Let’s Dance! depicts people from diverse backgrounds all over the world participating in dance. Ancona has written many books about dance (see also Olé! Flamenco, page 48), and this volume, complete with photographs, provides a useful overview of the art across cultures. It works nicely hand-in-hand with To Be an Artist, a book about dance as well as other forms of artistic expression. Both concise titles give young readers an introduction to dance  throughout people’s lives and around the world and offer a wide range of styles and experiences.

Many students need books that address differing physical abilities. Dancing Wheels and Ballerina Dreams are two examples that highlight “mixed ability” dance. Dancers are shown moving around in wheelchairs, using crutches, and sometimes being helped  by an assistant. Dancing Wheels shares the story of the title company (based in Ohio), its founder Mary Verdi-Fletcher, and several young dancers working with the company. The detailed text offers a window into physically integrated dance, a style that may be new and unfamiliar to many students and will be gratifying to all of them, regardless of ability level. Children will be inspired to see that everyone can dance and be creative and artistic with their bodies.

Ballerina Dreams is also a valuable addition to the dance book collection. It tells the story of five young dancers, ages three through seven, with cerebral and Erb’s palsies participating in ballet classes in New York City. How powerful it is to see the  students working hard over the course of a year in order to build the strength to go on stage in their costumes and perform.

A Variety of Styles

Though many books for children focus on ballet, there are other styles of dance that could raise readers’ interest in the art form. The following books represent a variety of dance forms, some of which require formal classes, while others might be learned  through friends or passed down through families and could take place anywhere!

A good book to start with for a general introduction is Alphabet of Dance, a survey of styles including hip-hop, square dancing, line dancing, and Irish dancing. Clear, detailed illustrations show numerous dancers, both male and female, joyfully participating in the activities.

Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award winner Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles — Think of That! by Leo and Diane Dillon tells the story of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, considered by many to be the greatest tap dancer of all time. This picture book biography’s catchy rhymes, use of repetition, and playful rhythms reflect the dance form’s own patterns in a unique and exhilarating way.

George Ancona’s Olé! Flamenco provides detailed descriptions of flamenco dance, including its history, music, rhythms, movement, and costumes. Ancona does a thorough and engaging job, with his text and photographs, covering the many elements of this elegant, rhythmic form, and any readers curious about flamenco will come away with a good understanding and appreciation for it.

Drumbeat in Our Feet by Patricia A. Keeler and Júlio T. Leitão focuses on African dance. With each page exploring a different aspect of African dance, the book provides history, general information about the various roles of dance in African cultures, and  inspiration for all, in addition to facts about costumes, music, and performance. Detailed paintings beautifully support the text.

Choreographer Debbie Allen’s Brothers of the Knight is a modern version of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” tale. Kadir Nelson’s playful illustrations of the dozen young African American characters celebrate the ways in which dance can be a part of our everyday lives, outside of a dance studio, as a fun-filled, joyful, social activity.

Exploring the joy and beauty of informal dances at home, readers can also enjoy Mabel Dancing, Kitchen Dance, Dancin’ in the Kitchen, and Kathleen O’Byrne: Irish Dancer. All four picture books show children dancing at home and reveling in the activity of moving to music with family members.

Two recent books called Modern Dance — one by Wendy Garofoli (in the Snap Books series published by Capstone) and the other by Andrew Solway (in the Dance series published by Heinemann) — are clearly written introductions to the hard-to-describe dance style. These series, best for library collections, describe the style’s origins, important figures, format of a dance class, key descriptive words, and more. Readers curious about other dance styles need look no further than the next entry to find out more; the Dance series also includes books about ballet, hip-hop, tap and jazz, Latin and ballroom, among others, and the Snap Books series includes titles on Irish step, swing dance, break dancing, and dance team.

Accuracy of the Form

Books about dance can articulate the language of the art form, providing definitions and correct terminology to help children really understand what dance is all about. They can also help paint an accurate picture of life as a dancer by showing the hard  work and day-to-day experiences of people who practice the art.

Elisha Cooper’s Dance! describes several days in the life of a professional dance company. Students hear about the ins and outs of dancing in a company — warming up, working with a choreographer and musicians, costume fittings, dress rehearsals, and opening night for a performance.

Watercolor and pencil illustrations, both spot art and larger scenes, along with dynamic text design, reflect the constant movement of dancers at work. Rachel Isadora, a former dancer who has written and illustrated numerous picture books about dance, created On Your Toes: A Ballet ABC to introduce readers to ballet basics. The book provides an alphabet of accurate ballet terminology such as arabesque, developé, and reverance. With oil pastel drawings, it’s both a useful and eye-pleasing starting place for ballet vocabulary. Another useful title by Isadora, Bea at Ballet, addresses a preschool audience and highlights girls and boys just starting out in ballet. In a supportive and encouraging environment, the children learn about what to wear, how to position their feet, and how to follow along with the music (they practice by clapping their hands), before bowing goodbye for the day.

A Dictionary of Dance is an alphabet book that includes useful dance terminology such as choreographer, improvisation, and variation. Mixed-media illustrations — collage, sketches, paintings — depict a diverse group of young boys and girls engaged in a variety of dance styles including ballet, tap, Dragon dance, hula, and folk dance.


Tales of Dancers

Some books open a window into the history of dance and the lives of famous dancers. Subjects include Josephine Baker, Maria Tallchief, Alicia Alonso, Isadora Duncan, Alvin Ailey, José Limón, and Martha Graham. A few notable examples are on the next page.

Ballet for Martha by Jan Greenberg and Sandra JordanJan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan’s Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring, illustrated by Brian Floca, tells the story of the collaboration between choreographer Martha Graham, composer Aaron Copland, and sculptor Isamu Noguchi to create one of the most famous performances in the modern dance canon. The book’s unique structure and fluid illustrations make it a standout for both text and art.

Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina describes the life of the famous Cuban ballerina. Carmen T. Bernier-Grand’s poetic verse, along with flowing illustrations by Raúl Colón, lyrically shares the details of the ballerina’s childhood and career in an engaging, eye-opening way.

Jazz Age Josephine describes the life and times of African American dancer Josephine Baker. Jonah Winter’s rhyming text and Marjorie Priceman’s dynamic pictures convey the energy of this notable woman.

A good book about dance inspires children through words and images. It opens up the world of dance training, backstage experiences, performing, and celebrating through movement. Together with words and pictures we will stretch, jump, turn, and leap. A good book about dance shares the magic and joy of the art form in all of its roles in cultures throughout the world.

Good Dance Books

To Be an Artist (Charlesbridge, 2004) by Maya Ajmera and John D. Ivanko

Brothers of the Knight (Dial, 1999) by Debbie Allen; illus. by Kadir Nelson

Let’s Dance! (Morrow, 1998) by George Ancona

Olé! Flamenco (Lee & Low, 2010) by George Ancona

Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina (Marshall Cavendish, 2011) by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand; illus. by Raúl Colón

Kathleen O’Byrne: Irish Dancer (Brighter Child, 2002) by Declan Carville; illus. by Brandan Ellis

Dance! (Greenwillow, 2001) by Elisha Cooper

Rap a Tap Tap: Here’s Bojangles — Think of That! (Blue Sky/Scholastic, 2002) by Leo and Diane Dillon

Modern Dance (Capstone, 2008) by Wendy Garofoli

Dancin’ in the Kitchen (Putnam, 1998) by Wendy Gelsanliter and Frank Christian; illus. by Marjorie Priceman

A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student (Ottaviano/Holt, 2009) by Valerie Gladstone; photos by José Ivey

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring (Porter/Flash Point/Roaring Brook, 2010) by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan; illus. by Brian Floca

Mabel Dancing (Candlewick, 2000) by Amy Hest; illus. by Christine Davenier

Bea at Ballet (Paulsen/Penguin, 2012) by Rachel Isadora

On Your Toes: A Ballet ABC (Greenwillow, 2003) by Rachel Isadora

Dance (Hyperion, 1998) by Bill T. Jones and Susan Kuklin; photos by Susan Kuklin

Drumbeat in Our Feet (Lee & Low, 2006) by Patricia A. Keeler and Júlio T. Leitão; illus. by Patricia A. Keeler

A Very Young Dancer (Knopf, 1976) by Jill Krementz

Kitchen Dance (Clarion, 2008) by Maurie J. Manning

Dancing Wheels (Houghton, 2000) by Patricia McMahon; photos by John Godt

A Dictionary of Dance (Blue Apple, 2007) by Liz Murphy

Beautiful Ballerina (Scholastic, 2009) by Marilyn Nelson; photos by Susan Kuklin

Alphabet of Dance (Soundprints, 2010) by Barbie Heit Schwaeber; illus. by Damian Ward

Modern Dance (Heinemann, 2008) by Andrew Solway

Ballerina Dreams (Feiwel, 2007) by Lauren Thompson; photos by James Estrin

Jazz Age Josephine (Atheneum, 2012) by Jonah Winter; illus. by Marjorie Priceman

From the January/February 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Jill Homan Randall
Jill Homan Randall
Jill Homan Randall is a professional modern dancer in Berkeley, California, and the dance teacher at the Hamlin School in San Francisco. Randall maintains the blog Dancing Words, about children’s books on dance (www.dancingwords. typepad.com).

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