by Sam Juliano
A painstaking performing art that requires years of training, unwavering application and physical stamina, ballet is a highly technical form of dance that has over the years taken on its own vocabulary, based on the French parlance. It requires skill and inherent aptitude, but as a number of recent picture book authors and illustrators have attested to in rapturous and soulful works, desire and passion mean more than any talent, latent or flowering. A pair of 2014 works about balletic aspirations in the Big Apple, Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper’s A Dance Like Starlight and Christopher Myers’ Firebird include pointed racial overtones. The former traces the path from insecurity to self-assurance for an African-American dancer at a time when opportunities were limited, and the latter depicts how an unsure girl is boosted by a towering professional. In large measure Molly Idle’s Caldecott Honor winner from 2013, Flora and the Flamingo, a wordless book about self-discovery, basically explored the same themes. Employing a parallel narrative structure renowned veteran author-illustrator Barbara McClintock in her latest ravishing work, Emma and Julia Love Ballet tells a story of infatuation and immersion from both sides of the aisle – a story that implies that whether you succeed or are headed towards that vital plateau you are basically operating on the same wave length. McClintock, a master of the subtle detail, initially establishes the common lifestyle elements by chronicling a seemingly typical day from an early morning yawn to a late night revelation. The young girl Emma sleeps in a bedroom dominated by varying shades of pink. She advertises that there is just about nothing she loves more than being dressed up in her ballerina costume. Even her miniature night lamp pays homage to her great passion. Her costume hangs on a hook over her bed, and the rest of the objects – teddy bears, dolls, oversized books, a flower adorned yellow hat all scream elementary school age, while the older girl Julia is the caretaker of a far more spare, ordered and mature room, complete with professional dancing shoes, a pager photos that confirm her balletic prowess. Their age disparity is again evident in the manner of independence at breakfast time and in their clothes – Emma wears her pink dress with matching backpack lorded over by a teddy bear, while Julia prepares in minimalist surroundings, which McClintock reveals through open doors as a suburban single story home and a town house condominium. Emma gets a ride to he ballet school, while Julia left to her own devices boards a bus. The pervasive, all-encompassing specter of ballet is even evident on a poster inside the bus shelter.
The door to Emma’s ballet school is a veritable farewell scene that echoes daily grade school departures, enhanced by pastel colors and an open cluttered yellow compartment stand where students mill around. Meanwhile, Julia heads for a stage door. Inside is a locker room where belongings are made secure. McClintock makes a vital point of differentiation in parallel widescreen panels that feature rails surrounding the ballet mat. Like impressionable young children Emma loves her teacher, while Julia, past the stage of blind adoration fueled by only time spent together, is devoted to her mentor. Yet in both cases says the author, the teachers crack the whip. As they both stretch and move, Emma – minus her costume is a fledging gymnast and ballet wannabe, while Julia is busy refining her moves, twirls and extensions. So as not to set the underlining passions apart McClintock first asserts “Emma and Julia love ballet,” a soulful refrain that is repeated several times more in this vignette laden book. Forays into tap ands jazz by their friends, segue into the strongest proclamation in the book yet, one that rhetorically (and acrobatically) confirms what we have already seen – some of Julia’s friends are performing on Broadway.
After the students say goodbye to their teacher they are claimed by their parents in a celebratory scene comparable to a team win in a classroom spelling bee competition. But there can be no mistaking this euphoria for anything but a ballet related event close at hand. Emma is over the moon that she will be escorted into the city for a real ballet performance by her parallel soul mate. In the lead up McClintock again establishes the differences in her main characters’ lives – Emma is set to have a family dinner while Julia snacks on fruit and cheese. Emma must confront the responsibility of homework, Julia unwinds in leisurely mode before her performance by reading a book. Emma is as pretty as pie in pink overload, while her family deals with a traffic jam enroute to the city. (McClintock, a Connecticut resident with close ties to Manhattan knows well the price to pay for living outside the metropolis, and her visual allusion is a delight. Emma is none too exasperated as she smiles broadly out the car window) In a scene all to reminiscent of Lincoln Center and the ballet company who perform at the New York State Theater across from Avery Fischer Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, McClintock lines the walkways with that all-too-familiar autumnal foliage, while inside the winding staircase to the upper levels and the ubiquitous giant chandeliers. Then in a quartet of captures we see excitement framed in variant ways. Emma is thrilled to receive a program, one she reads twice over, while Julia, waiting in the wings has her own proverbial butterflies as she waits for the curtain to rise. Though there can be little doubt seasoned ballet veterans with a co-passion for the cinema might be envisioning at least a few images from The Red Shoes, McClintock’s moony stage design evokes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Emma of course isn’t missing a step, an arm extension nor a pause. And hearts fly on the stage and in the seats, followed by bows, wild applause and program signings. Emma tells Julia she is certain she will one day dance on stage, and Julia smilingly tells her back that she too once had such dreams. The decorative costume spread during the big embrace represents one of the illustrators most ravishing tapestries in the book, and it appears at the most emotional juncture. McClintock sets aside the opening pink end papers for a more polished purple at the close to signal a an aspiration has now officially been given wings. The watercolor art in the book is created with India ink and it is buoyant, ebullient, and colorful in an earthy tone. She doesn’t overplay the upbeat mood with garish saturation, and is especially adept with clothes and décor, which of course this book physically revolves around. It was a wholly ingratiating idea to have a young white girl looking for guidance from an African-American, and it provides a welcome rebuke of sorts for the terrible times when race impeded the realization of aspirations earned by work and dedication.
McClintock has revealed in interviews that elements of the story and the characters are autobiographical. She has fashioned a work of accelerating emotional power, bringing her trademark illustrative elegance to the proceedings. In a career of endless picture books treasures this may well be finally the time she rings the Caldecott bell.
Note: This is the third entry in the 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.