Review of the Day – Alicia Alonso: Prima Ballerina by Carmen T. Bernier-Grand
When I was a kid I took a fair amount of ballet. I liked it. Kept me on my toes (yuk yuk yuk). I retain fond memories of that time in my life, but don’t be fooled. I’m just as likely to groan when I see a children’s biography of a ballerina as anyone. “Not another one!” I’ll kvetch. Never mind that ballerina bios don’t exactly stuff my shelves to overflowing. Never mind that when artists like Raul Colon are involved the end result is going to be magic. Never mind that author Carmen T. Bernier-Grand has attempted to sate my unquenchable thirst for original biographies of people never covered in the children’s sphere before. It was only when my fellow librarians repeated the phrase, “No. Really. It’s incredibly good” to me in about thirty different ways that I finally picked the dang thing and cracked it open. Fun Fact: It’s incredibly good. Who knew? [Aside from all those children’s librarians, of course.] From the pen of Ms. Bernier-Grand comes a biography that tells the balanced, nuanced story of a woman pursuing the art form she loves in the face of personal tragedies, political upheavals, and worldwide acclaim/blame.
A child named Alicia Ernestina de la Caridad del Cobre Martinez y del Hoyo dances in her Cuban home. “Like light, / she’s barely aware / of the floor beneath her dancing feet.” Few could suspect at the time that she would grow up to become perhaps the greatest Cuban ballerina in the world. After years of practice she marries at fifteen to a fellow dancer and moves to New York. It’s there that she is discovered, just in time for her retina to detach. But even blinded she dances in her head and when she comes back to the stage her toe shoes are glued to her feet with blood. Back in Cuba she starts a dance company that suffers under the dictator Batista and does better under Castro. When the decision comes to dance for Cuba or the U.S. she stays with her roots, to the admonishment of the exiles. To this day she dances still. A final author’s note, list of ballets she’s performed, awards received, a Chronology, Glossary of terms, Sources, Website, and Notes appear at the end.
Books for children that deal with Cuba make me wish I had been a better student in school. My knowledge of the Cuban Revolution comes in bits and pieces, fits and starts. Recently we’ve seen quite a few titles concerning this moment in history but often I found them strangely black and white. In books like “The Red Umbrella” for example, characters were portrayed as incredibly black and white. When one starts to join with Castro, she becomes evil near instantaneously. Sometimes historical choices and moments have bits of gray in there, though. Part of the reason I liked Alicia Alonso as much as I did had to do with these gray areas. First off, it was one of the few books to speak about Dictator Batista. Next, here you have a woman who chose to stay in Cuba. As the Author’s Note explains, “Alicia had to chose between living in the United States and living in Cuba. She chose Cuba. Exiled Cubans called her decision despicable. They had fled Cuba because of Castro’s repressive dictatorship, and they considered it an insult to their forced exile to have their diva return to Cuba.” That’s a very good explanation of the reasons why Alicia faced signs in America when she performed reading, “ALICIA ALONSO / WHY DO YOU FIND KILLINGS BY CASTRO / MORE ACCEPTABLE THAN KILLINGS BY BATISTA?” At the same time, the Cuban government funded the ballet under Castro and refused to under Batista. A good children’s book doesn’t have to go into minute details regarding political squabbles. It just has to offer facts and human decisions. Bernier-Grand walks that tightrope better than many.
The choice to make this a verse biography is fascinating. It’s hardly the first I’ve seen, but I’ll confess to you that it’s one of the better ones out there. Normally verse bios are younger picture books intended for the four to eight-year-old set. Bernier-Grand is shooting for older kids with this one (few children’s books for little kiddos contain sentences like, “To be a professional ballet dancer is fit only for prostitutes”), so why verse? Why not write a straight bio and call it a day? Certainly I know some librarians who find free verse horrendously annoying. “Why did she break the line right there? GAH!!! There’s no reason for it!!!” Me, I don’t mind so much. I find books written in this style a little arbitrary in their choices of where to break up the lines, but it doesn’t concern me. To my mind, a book of this sort is best for the reluctant reader crowd. Picture it. The kid is handed an assignment to read a biography about somebody Hispanic or someone female and alive (a weirdly difficult request to fill if you’re a children’s librarian). The book must be more than 50 pages long as well. So the kid is handed this book and discovers that (A) It’s not scary and (B) It’s more than a little beautiful, thanks in no small part to the work of one Raul Colon.
There’s a comfort in a Raul Colon creation. You know when you pick up one of his books that the man’s not going to let you down. Just once I’d love to see what happens when he tries to make something look ugly. What would that even resemble? The world may never know since he’s be stuck to his watercolors and pencils (both colored and lithograph) for some time now. Colon has created images of many a famous person in the past. He’s represented everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Roberto Clemente to Abraham Joshua Heschel. With Ms. Alonso, Colon’s subject is still alive (as of this review) and one has to assume that she is pleased with the man’s version of her. The Alicia of this book is a true beauty. Many will be the little girl who looks at her and wishes to actually be her, lifetime hardships or no. In Alicia, Colon allows himself to represent the world of dance on the page. Characters leap and twirl and glide, so that their movements look as though they are defying gravity, if with some effort. Not the easiest thing to reproduce on a page.
Here’s a criticism that I hadn’t really considered when I picked up the book. One person I know who read the story had a hard time getting past the pink words that introduced each section. They started searching frantically for something in the illustrations or text that would justify the use of that color. “Is it just because she’s a ballerina? Is that why the text is pink?!?” I had no answer for that. Blue appears in the images far more than pink. It simply seemed to be an arbitrary choice on the publisher’s part. Not a glaring flaw, but one that may throw the occasional adult reader off.
Ballerina biographies for children often need a hook of some sort. It’s easier to write about a ballerina when there is something important to say. That’s why books like Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina by Rosemary Wells and Gary Kelley or To Dance by Siena Siegel work as well as they do. Their subjects face struggles, both internal and external, and persevere. To their ranks comes Alicia. Not a household name exactly here in the States, her story is worth hearing because it concerns a woman overcoming physical challenges as well as personal and political ones. To show a life and judge it in the context of its times is a challenge for adult writers. It can be doubly hard for children’s authors, so the accomplishments of Alicia Alonso can be said to be all the greater. A fabulous bio.
On shelves now.
Source: Borrowed copy from library for review.
Misc: It’s Poetry Friday, all you happy campers. Check out Writing the World for Kids for the round-up.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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