One-Minute Book Reviews

January 23, 2011

‘Ballet for Martha’ – A Book a Tiger Mother Might Claw for

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When Martha Graham, Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi teamed up

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. By Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 48 pp., $17.99. Ages: See  below.

By Janice Harayda

Ballet for Martha will surely lift the heart of any Tiger Mother who is looking for something to read to a second-grader who needs a break from perfecting her Mandarin and practicing the piano for three hours a day. How often do you see a picture book not much larger than Where the Wild Things Are that describes how three people collaborated on an American masterpiece? And that shows the kids what they, too, can achieve if they are geniuses like Martha Graham, Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi?

Any Tiger Mother might claw to read aloud the lines in which Graham reacts to the discovery that some of her choreography won’t work with Copland’s music: “She has a tantrum. She screams. She yells. She throws a shoe.” A Tiger Mother might also love the way Graham keeps rejecting Noguchi’s ideas for the sets for Appalachian Spring, a dance about a 19th-century couple’s wedding and anticipation of their new life on the frontier. And a Tiger Mother would have no trouble answering unresolved questions such as: Why does the Pioneer Woman at the wedding – an older figure inspired by Graham’s grandmother – look so much younger and more seductive than the Bride? Is that a come-hither look she’s giving the Husbandman? And is it beyond second-graders to wonder if something is up between the Pioneer Woman and the groom?

Most of all: a Tiger Mother might identify with the fiery revivalist preacher who marries the Bride and the Husbandman: “Towering, glowering, leaping like a cat. His long arms point toward the couple.” Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan don’t answer their rhetorical question: “Is he warning them of hard times ahead?” But they explain other things in their afterword. One is that Copland won a Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring. Could a Tiger Mother ask for more than book that implies that even 7-year-olds can benefit from reading about what it takes to win a Pulitzer?

Best line/picture: A quote from Graham: “My dancers never fall to simply fall. They fall to rise.”

Worst line/picture: “She screams. She yells.” It’s redundant.

Ages: Ballet for Martha is informative and well-illustrated. But it embodies a paradox: Many children reject picture for chapter books starting at the age of 6 or 7, and this picture book seems pitched to the strong readers who may snub it because of its format. The publisher recommends Ballet for Martha for ages 6 to 10. But it lacks the high drama or comedy that many children at the younger end of its age range want. And older ones might prefer an illustrated chapter book like Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life (Clarion, 1998), billed as a volume for ages 10 and up and written by Russell Freedman, who won a Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography. Because Graham’s dances were a reaction to classical ballet, children might also get more from Ballet for Martha if they read a good book about ballet first.

Furthermore: Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have won many American Library Association honors for their books, which include Action Jackson (Square Fish, 2007). Brian Floca wrote and illustrated Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Atheneum, 2009), a New York Times Best Illustrated Book. Ballet for Martha was a runner-up for the ALA’s 2011 Robert L. Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished information book” of the year for children.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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