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To Dance

Written by Siena Cherson Siegel and illustrated by Mark Siegel
Aladdin/Simon & Schuster
64 pages, $9.99
ISBN-10: 1416926879
ISBN-13: 9781416926870

Too many people see children's books as the very antithesis of "all ages" — to them, anything written for children must obviously be too dumbed-down to be of any interest to them. It's a shame, because as more sophisticated comics fans will tell you, this attitude cuts one off from some of the best cartooning ever produced. You don't have to dumb anything down to tell good stories to children; you need only use direct language and know how to communicate visually to get the job done, and satisfying these requirements can often produce works that really do appeal to all ages. It's not the easiest task in the world, but many artists have become renowned for its accomplishment.

Take, for example, Siena and Mark Siegel's new book, To Dance. This charming graphic novel may be intended for children ages 8-14, but the story it tells will appeal to anyone who has ever aspired toward mastering a difficult and demanding craft. In To Dance, writer Siena recounts an early love of ballet, how it led her from Puerto Rico to New York City and the School of American Ballet, one of the most prestigious dance schools in the United States, and the joy that learning to dance and participating in ballet performances gave her.

 

This sequence and below ©2006 Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel.

 

Of particular note is the cartooning of co-creator Mark Siegel, who brings this story to life with an astute use of sequence and a lively and expressive line. The only previous work by Siegel that I'd seen was a previous children's book, Seadogs, and while his art was perfectly adequate to the task presented in that book, here it rises to a different and thornier set of challenges: giving life to a tale of personal discovery rather than character conflict, and conveying dance through still images. The latter can be an especially vexing task; as with the depiction of any activity involving motion, the temptation to add speedlines or draw a Muybridge-like collection of consecutive still images will sometimes result in adequate pagework, but it really requires more in order to carry such a story for anything longer than a few pages. Siegel uses a combination of consecutive images, single images that capture the essence of a given performance and a smart application of framing and page-design techniques to bring young Siena's world to life.

 

 

The obvious measure against which to judge such a job would be Kyoko Ariyoshi's eye-popping masterpiece of graphic virtuosity, the pioneering shoujo ballet-manga Swan, which on the face of it seems about as fair as using Chris Ware's ingenious page designs as the template from which to judge a four-panel comic strip... but Siegel's layouts, while nowhere near as complex as Ariyoshi's stunning performance on the page, nonetheless use some of the same tricks, albeit simpler, streamlined versions of same. I have no idea if he even knows who Kyoko Ariyoshi is to begin with, but the fact that Siegel's work doesn't immediately fold in the face of such a comparison is itself impressive.

Of course, it would all be meaningless without Siena's heartfelt story of childhood aspirations and achievement to serve as anchor. In 64 pages, she imparts a joyous love of dance to the reader, and when noting toward the end the injury that forced her to give up her dreams of life as a professional ballerina, she still manages to step lightly past what would be a tragic and jarring note in less capable hands, and concludes her tale with a hopeful and affirmative coda. To Dance is a delighful ode to the dreams that drive and define us, and how they can enrich our souls even if we ultimately fail to achieve them. Bravo!

 

This essay appeared on the then-website of The Comics Journal sometime between 2006 and 2008.

 

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