Pinkney, Andrea Davis. 1993. Alvin Ailey.
Illustrated by Brian Pinkney. New
York: Hyperion Books for Children. ISBN: 1-56282-413-9.
Illustrated and written by a husband and
wife team, Alvin Ailey follows the future dancer from his Texas roots
through his early dancing and choreography career. Readers see many of the influences in Alvin’s life, including the
“music and rejoicing” at True Vine Baptist Church in Texas; his mother, Lulu, who hoped for more opportunities
when she moved Alvin to Los Angeles; and the time Alvin was mesmerized by Katherine Dunham, the first Black dancer he had
ever seen. Once Alvin studies modern
dance with Lester Horton, his passion and natural talent emerge as he creates new steps, body motions, and rhythms. Finally,
Alvin moves to New York and forms
his own African-American modern dance company. The audience greets his creation,
Revelations, with thunderous applause, and Alvin
is on his way to a promising career. A historical note at the end tells readers more about the Alvin Ailey American Dance
Theater, a company still popular today.
“Hand painted with oil pastels,”
Brian Pinkney’s appealing scratchboard illustrations convey a sense of movement and rhythm (Publishers Weekly). Alvin
and other dancers are often positioned diagonally, which makes them seem active. In addition, Pinkney paints white swirls
around the dancers, heightening the sense of motion. In a two-page spread near the end, the costumed women in Revelations seem to be dancing right off the page. Emphasizing yellow, red, blue, and green, Pinkney uses a colorful
Andrea Davis Pinkney tells her story in
rhythmic, colorful, descriptive language that parallels the illustrations. Her language has a poetic quality. For example,
she writes, “Alvin’s tempo worked from his belly to his elbows, then
oozed through his thighs and feet” (unpaged). Later on she says, “The women flaunted red-hot dresses with shoes
and stockings to match; the men wore black hats slouched low on their heads. They danced to the swanky-swank of a jazz rhapsody”
(unpaged). The text and the illustrations work together and do not overpower each other.
Both Pinkneys provide numerous cultural
markers in the illustrations and text. They also provide examples of racism in that era. The illustrations clearly depict
facial features and hairstyles of African-American people. Readers see Alvin and his mother in a Black gospel church, swaying
and singing “Rocka-my-soul in the bosom of Abraham” (unpaged). Alvin’s
modern dance company danced "...to blues and gospel music - the heritage of the African American people" (unpaged). Readers see several exmples of racism and the effects of racism. Alvin and his friend, Ted,
secretly watch a dance performance through the back alley. Most likely, they would not have been allowed in the Biltmore Theater
in 1947, even if they had the money. When Alvin arrived in L.A.,
“not everyone could take dance lessons.” He finally finds a dance
school that “welcomed students of all races” (unpaged). In New York,
Alvin is surprised to see so many Black dancers.
This book is highly recommended for
ages 6 and up. The text is long for a single read-aloud to young children, but teachers might use the chapters as natural
breaks. Teachers will heighten students’ enjoyment by inviting students to create modern dance movements.