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African Am. Lit #1

Multicultural Literature for Youth

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African American Literature

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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 palette. 

 

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.