May 13, 2014

TURNING PAGES: A TIME TO DANCE, by Padma Venkatraman

This book pretty well had me at the cover. Like Venkatraman's earlier novel, CLIMBING THE STAIRS (and WOW, the Spanish language cover of that book) this cover was so visually arresting, I wanted to dive into the imagery. Dance is gorgeous and graceful and -- well, the sorts of things I am not. I like the cover more, because it doesn't show the model's face. Is she pretty? Is she hot? Who knows? Who cares! It's not about the dancer -- it's about dance. It's not about yet another airbrushed young adult on the cover of a young adult book - but about placing the reader in that space, allowing them to imagine themselves as dance - as a dancer.

Reading the jacket copy, I learned that this book was about someone who could have been a "former dancer," but chose not to be. If you're looking to be inspired by the human spirit, you'll find that in this novel. But more, and better -- if you're looking for a novel about a real person whose hopes and dreams were nearly impossible to achieve -- who then took, with fumbling hands, all that was inside of her and stretched as far as she could reach, to touch divinity - well, then, you'll find that here, too.

Before I started this book, I didn't know much about Buddhism, nor bharatanatyam dance, nor yoga, which is a practice of Buddhism. Within A TIME TO DANCE is information on both. Often we forget that diversity in young adult literature is not just about ethnicity or gender -- diversity is also about religious faith - or lack of religious faith - too. This is a beautiful, beautiful novel in verse about courage, ability, dance and faith.

'There are as many perfect poses as there are people.'
And Vyasa understood that yoga
is about embracing the uniqueness within.
Shiva sees perfection in every sincere effort.
He loves us despite - or maybe because -
of our differences."

p. 174 of the ARC

Concerning Character: Veda has loved classical dance to the exclusion of all else. She's a student who tries, for her mother's sake, to do well in her maths and sciences, but dance - being present in her lithe and muscular body - is what she truly calls her own. Her Paati and her father delight in her talent, but her mother remains disappointed that her only child will not fulfill her dream of being an engineer. It causes friction -- but eventually, her mother sees that she's trying, and reaches back toward her. Their shaky reconnection is a blessing when a car accident crushes Veda's leg and it is amputated below the knee. Attuned to the music of applause, Veda's world is now flat and tuneless. Everything -- seeing herself as beautiful and capable, getting around on her own, finding her independence -- seems impossible. Not to mention dancing... that will never, ever happen again. Or, will it? In simple, clear poetic phrases, Padma Venkatraman leads readers into an intricate dance of belief and possibility,

Critical Reader Reaction: While this novel explains a lot about a particular faith, it is more a story of lost faith, where faith has the meaning of universal hope, instead of a specific denomination. Veda begin to dance, because she visited a temple as a tiny child which depicted Shiva dancing. She lost her first love - dancing for Shiva - when she learned the heady glories of applause. She lost her faith in her body - its attractiveness - when she lost her grace. When she loses one of her doctors, she loses an infatuation which, from the outside, readers will see is imbalanced. There are a lot of losses in this book -- a LOT. Much of the book is spent on the tiny, painstaking steps it takes Veda to walk back to where she had been -- then walk past that place, to stand somewhere stronger. This is what gives the narrative arc its singular beauty and strength. It is a story of true faith, that what once was lost can, after a time, be found again, because it never leaves us.

I always say that I don't always love novels in verse, but honestly, I need to retire that line. The last several of them I've read are profound, and this one is profoundly moving -- and just truly beautiful. Pick it up -- even if you're not a fan of dance or religion or poetry. The simple, yet sensual language paints castles in the air.

The author makes note that this book is a guru dakshina - which is a Sanskrit word that refers to a thanks, offering, or an acknowledgement to a teacher after lessons have been learned - which is a beautiful thought. This book was inspired by a real-life dancer who danced again after a serious physical injury, which, more than its starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Voya, and School Library Journal, makes this book a resounding success.

"That's what the best dancers do.
They focus on dance.
They forget their feet, their bodies,
their dancer selves.
They let dance tug their souls upward.
And as they rise,
they lift their audiences closer to heaven, too."

p. 206, ARC

I received this book courtesy of the publisher, and all quotations are from the Advanced Readers Copy. You can find your copy of A TIME TO DANCE by Padma Venkatraman online, or at an independent bookstore near you!

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