Sunday, May 2, 2010

Review: Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You

My daughter is a dancer so when I stumbled across this book in the pile of books awaiting parent reviews in the middle school library Book Buzz stack, I snagged it. I personally have two left feet but I have now watched enough dance classes, recitals, and competitions to feel like I know a little something about the whole thing. Cirrone did a nice job using the dance world to highlight teenaged body image issues and societal expectations and pressures surrounding bodies, especially but not limited to girls'.

Sixteen year old Kayla is a ballerina. She works hard and is quite good. But Kayla doesn't look the expected part of a prima ballerina. In short, she is very busty. Her dance instructor at school suggests a breast reduction, even going so far as to give Kayla the name of a surgeon. And Kayla is passed over for a plum role in the production of Cinderella, reduced to the comedic roll of an ugly stepsister because the outside choreographer refuses to look past her shape and recognize her talent. As Kayla agonizes over whether or not to submit to surgery that would allow her to better chase her dream of a career in dance, she is also faced with a typical teen fledgling romance with Gray, the good-looking new boy in school, and the usual girl conflict with a fellow student exacerbated by the competition for parts.

While Kayla battles her own insecurities, her older sister faces the censorship of her senior art project, which is partly inspired by the body issues that Kayla is facing, and red pointe shoes start showing up around school with the message that "dancing in red shoes will kill you" causing a flurry of panic and an investigation of the threats. Of course, when the shoes start appearing, no one knows yet who will be wearing the red shoes in the production but it turns out that it will be Kayla, the other ugly stepsister, and Cinderella's mother.

Cirrone ties together the various plot lines nicely with each adding to the commentary about societal expectations and body image. She manages to do this without coming across as preachy and also without making Kayla seem inauthentic for a sixteen year old. The characters are definitely left-of-center off beat but they are still kids, even with their occasionally over-earnest discussions. Although the secondary characters aren't as fully developed as Kayla and act mainly as foils to her, staying within their prescribed roles: entertaining best friend, serious and advice-laden older sister, etc., they are still enjoyable to read. The pacing of the plot is good and the resolution of the mystery, while somewhat anti-climactic, reinforces the theme of the whole.

The one wrong note that did strike me is when the girls receive their pointe shoes for the production. While renting or borrowing the rest of the costumes for the show, it is pretty inconceivable that the local dance company would send shoes as well. Pointe shoes are very individual (my daughter, admittedly a difficult case, probably tried on 20+ in her size before she was properly fitted) and it would be very unlikely for the girls to dance in borrowed shoes that weren't fitted to their particular feet. But that's a minor quibble and those with an interest in dance or in feminist issues like the body will find much to enjoy in this middle grade novel.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, as usual. However, what I'm really interested in is this Book Buzz thing at your kids' middle school. How does that work? Do the parents write reviews that go in a newsletter or blog of some sort?


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