John’s Turn

I have a LOT of feelings about this book, educ was just released, hitting the shelves of you local book shop, so I’m just prefacing this review by saying: this is deeply personal to me. It is, and I’m not pretending otherwise.

It’s so personal that when I saw Mac Barnett announced he was writing a book called John’s Turn, art by Kate Berube and I saw the descriptions, I wrote to the people I’m in touch with at Candlewick and said, “Look, I want to see this. I have a baby boy, I need this book yesterday. Please.” (Confession time: I was so excited when the book arrived, I tore the jacket when I opened the package and almost cried. Sorry, Candlewick!)

The first thing I saw was that he’d dedicated the book to Rafe (his baby boy, a little younger than the Spriggan). And I knew this was the book I was looking for.

A few anecdotes and memories.

Years and years ago, I read Frank Augustyn’s autobiography, Dancing from the Heart. In it, he describes the frustration of conveying that it’s entirely possible for a man to to dance ballet because he finds it beautiful. It doesn’t have to be apologetically qualified by “and you have to be very strong to do it! Did you know, hockey players sometimes learn ballet to train their muscles?” Men can love beauty, too.

These days, I take the Spriggan around, and he’s a deliciously chubby chonk, tall and decidedly interested in such activities as climbing onto tables. And reaching up to counters. And pulling things off of counters. And– ok, he’s 16 months old, we have to be nimble around him.

So people see my Spriggan and tell me he’s ready to be a linebacker, or play hockey, or… you get it. No one told me that about my daughter, of course, though she was also consistently tall for her age. (She was less prone to climbing on tables, but I’ve yet to hear any correlation between toddlers climbing on tables and those who become professional athletes?)

My regular reply is to smile and say, “I’m expecting him to be the next Nijinsky, actually!”

This is actually antithetical to my parenting philosophy– insofar as I have a parenting philosophy? I tend to think parenting comes down to “love your kid for who they are, not who you want them to be.” That’s about it. Oh, also try not to let them get the bread knife. So my knee-jerk response of “No, he can dance ballet!” is not really intended as “AND HE WILL!” but more of a “stop it with pigeon-holing a typically squooshy little 16-month-old boyo as a future footballer, ok?” I can’t with that attitude, I can’t.

Now, I could be unfair. Perhaps the response is coming from those who really enjoy sports, and want to share that enjoyment. (Although then why didn’t they say this to my daughter, who was so remarkably graceful?) But I don’t think there’s any denying that books about boys who enjoy dancing because dancing ballet is beautiful is fairly rare. As in, I cannot think of a book for small children about ballet featuring a boy which is simply focused on being sensitive to the emotions and beauty. Older books tend to get into gender and sexuality, younger ones usually sidebar the beauty if ballet turns up at all. It’s just cute, you know? We laugh, indulgently.

So what of parents who want their boy-child to move in a world that’s not exclusively cars and trucks (what did boys enjoy before the invention of the internal combustion engine?), that doesn’t glorify war (I think of Tove Jansson, writing during WWII, and declaring she didn’t want to have children because if she had a boy it would be too hard to see him turned into canon fodder), and that involves animals that aren’t extinct (not just dinosaurs)? What if you want your child to see beauty and be allowed to enjoy that? What if you are a parent who loves music and art and theatre and ballet and want to share that with your children of all genders? At this point in parenting, I don’t see that recognized in my world, and my decision to simply not buy clothing representing anything involving an internal combustion engine or anything military has significantly reduced available items– and ratcheted up the price of his snazzy wardrobe. You have to pay a premium for not-vehicle-related clothing. That’s depressing. And it leads me to this book, which allows a young boy the chance to dance and enjoy dancing– although not untinctured by anxiety.

That’s the rant. Here’s the book.

Mac Barnett is simply a genius of the written word, and Candlewick (well, many publishers– What Is Love? was Chronicle, and they paired him with Carson Ellis!) consistently does him proud in their illustrator pairings and design and production. Here he’s working with Kate Berube, whose scenes showing John dancing really blew me away, though my personal favourite picture in the entire book is the one starting us off before the title page. You flip the vintage yellow endpaper (calling to my mind the colours of The Philharmonic Gets Dressed) and there’s John…

Oh my. Look at him. {Side note: when I watched Mac Barnett reading this aloud on his Instagram account, which I highly recommend since he reads aloud beautifully, I noticed he held this open for a beat before turning the page. Mac, you like this spot illustration, too, don’t you?}

Now, you expect to hear John’s thoughts, don’t you, after that? Mac Barnett is too smart for you. He lets Kate Berube communicate with you what John’s feeling, since he knows full well how good she is at communicating kids’ emotions in her art. Mac tells us everything from the perspective of the class “we.” Who’s the speaker? Could be a student, could be the collective personality of the class– honestly, that’s the wrong question, Deb, get with it! The point is that the story is in first person plural and that’s your grammar lesson for the day, class. So: on Fridays after Assembly and before class, if we’re good, someone gets to perform for the whole school, and, in typical School Curriculum Language ™ it’s called “Sharing Gifts,” which the narrator points out is a pretty awful name but a great idea. (I loved that touch. Isn’t that always the way? Now I’m working in a school library a bit, I understand why, too… who has time to come up with a good name? It’s a school! We barely have a book budget, and we sure don’t have a marketing budget, and there’s shelving to do. Sharing Gifts. Perfect.) There’s a two-page spread of performances past: tuba, magic tricks, jokes.

Today was John’s turn: “He was quiet at breakfast. We knew why. He was nervous.”

We readers? We remember that nervousness from before the title page. It’s already on our minds.

Hey, remember how I said Mac Barnett is a genius of the written word? One of the reasons I say this is that he never, despite anything I said up above, talks to parents on one level and down to kids at another. So parents and kids are on the same page here. We get a sense that John’s nervous because he’s going to dance ballet because we see him changing into dance clothes. Kids know that too. They may be wondering why that would make him nervous? (I’d love them to think that way, would be great.) But the kids in the story don’t know what John’s going to do, they ask. “He’s doing a dance,” is what Mr. Ross replies.

Page turn. John comes on. The kids know he’s positively palpitating with nerves. And Mr. Ross turns on the music. Strings. {NB: on the book club, Mac played a waltz from Coppélia as Mr. Ross turned it on. Playing music with it was an idea I’d considered, but wondered if it would be gimmicky, distracting? It worked extremely well.}

This is where the art takes over: the subtle nuances of John’s delight in the dance, the rhythm of his body moving to the music, and the glow of his joy in the grace and beauty arches across the spread– and back– and back again, to a page turn of delight… And then the narrator notes that it’s the school’s turn, and the spontaneous joy of their applause shows their genuine appreciation both of beauty and dance and of their classmate’s pleasure in performing ballet.

I was so impressed by the subtle truth of it all, the emotional honesty of everyone involved. The kids giggle before the dance. They wonder, when they hear the music, how you can dance to that kind of music? But these are kids, not obnoxious, hidebound adults, so they watch their friend and they learn. They enjoy the beauty and they find a new source of pleasure in life.

Yes, I confess that this is a book I’m emotionally invested in– for a reason! I was the kid in school who loved classical music and opera and ballet and was nervous and increasingly, as I grew, was mocked for it. Let’s not talk about Grade 6 and up, ok? But I really do think that if grownups shared books like this before Grade 6, it would make a difference. Today I played David Oistrakh performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in the library for a class of Grade 3 students and they got quiet and listened. The kids are open. It’s the adults who close the doors.

Mac Barnett and Kate Berube throw doors open here. They say, “You have room to love beauty, enjoy music and dance, wear your sheer delight in it on your face.” And I am so very grateful.

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