Friday, May 14, 2010

Amiri & Odette

Myers, Walter Dean. Amiri & Odette: A Love Story. Illustrations by Javaka Steptoe. New York: Scholastic Press, 2009. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

I asked myself if there were modern dangers to young people similar to magic spells of folklore. The answer, of course, was a resounding yes, and I began to craft a modern, urban retelling of the Swan Lake ballet.
from "How I Came to Write This Poem"

Amiri is the basketball playing "prince" of the Swan Lake Projects, destined to fall in love with Odette, a woman "cursed" and owned by her dealer, Big Red.

I can't unknow the story of Swan Lake, so I am not a good judge of how clear that story in in Amiri & Odette to the non-balletomane. I can, however, say that there are a lot of little touches that hark back to the ballet in beautiful ways, such as Odile's (who is never actually named in the book) black mask at Amiri's party, but nifty connections to the ballet are not the strongest part of this telling. What Myers does fantastically is really make this a story that isn't about princes and magic; he makes it real. The curse is drug addiction and the evil wizard, a dealer. This makes the cause and effect of Amiri's profession of love for Odile a bit nonsensical (Odette's addiction and debt to Big Red will not magically go away if Amiri loves her and only her, nor will she be trapped in that life with no possible means of escape if Amiri doesn't love her), but it also leaves room for non-magical consequences. There is no but-the-spell-said moment that makes Amiri's mistake irreparable. Just because the deal is broken, doesn't mean that the curse is everlasting or that Odette is doomed. Myers' telling makes way for a change in the ending.

The artwork in Amiri & Odette is fabulous. It is dark and gritty and portends doom in a way that dozens of classical white tutus never could.* The artist's note says that the collages that make up the illustrations were painted on slabs on asphalt. They are large and hardcore; each a complete work of art on its own. The texture of the asphalt shows through and Chinese food menus, feathers, pieces of jewelry and other street flotsam are used throughout. The feathers surrounding Odette as she tells Amiri about her entrapment make her look like both an angel and a beast, much like the swan-woman Prince Siegfried is initially afraid of in the original story, even if all the audience sees is a ballerina in white. Or a girl watching a basketball game.

There have been countless stagings of Swan Lake, and all but the most traditional performances (the ones that dance four full acts) are showing some kind of adaptation for the modern audience. I can't embed the videos here, but I can give you links to a few versions of Swan Lake:
Classic Odette Variation by Svetlana Zakharova (2:43)
Classic Odile Variation by Svetlana Zakharova (2:40)
Matthew Bourne's staging of the pas de deux between Odette and Prince Siegfried (5:58)
Parody of the "Baby Swans" pas de quatre by Ballet Trockadero (1:37)

Book source: Philly Free Library

*Romantic white tutus (the long ones), on the other hand, suggest doom quite nicely. In the midst of this trend of YA paranormal romances, where is the modern day adaptation of Giselle?!?


MissAttitude said...

Good point, with all the paranormal/fairy tale retellings coming out, there should be more ballet re-tellings!

I've been meaning to read Amiri & Odette for the longest time, people rave about Walter Dean Myers (I've only read 2 of his books) and I love ballet, the dancing, the story, the music so I'm very intrigued by the idea of weaving elements of a ballet into a story about love and drug dealing.

Great review! And thank you for reviewing so many books that get overlooked.

I'm trying to read all of Walter Dean Myers' books before the Chicago Printers Row Festival and I think I'll read this one next.

Lawral the Librarian said...

MissAttitude - Good luck reading all of Myers' books! I'm sure you'll enjoy them even if you have to rush. :)

This is a great, quick read. It's really a picture book, just with YA themes. I think it gets overlooked for that reason; it may look too "baby-ish" on the outside.