MAY 11:

  • Happy birthday Zilpha Keatley Snyder (The Egypt Game), Francine Jacobs (Sam, the Sea Cow), Juanita Havill (Jamaica’s Find), Peter Sìs (Tibet Through the Red Box), and Jane Sutton (Don’t Call Me Sidney).
  • It’s the birth date of Sheila Burnford (1918-1984), The Incredible Journey.
  • Painter Salvador DalĂ­ (1904-1989) was also born on this day. Read The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Salvador Dali by Angela Wenzel.
  • Happy birthday Minnesota, the 32nd state as of 1858. Read V is for Viking: A Minnesota Alphabet by Kathy-jo Wargin, illustrated by Karen Latham and Rebecca Latham.
  • It’s National School Nurse Day. Read Cherry Ames: Boarding School Nurse by Helen Wells.

On May 11, 1894, Martha Graham was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the age of sixteen, she saw her first dance performance “and that night my fate was sealed.” In her early twenties Graham moved to Greenwich Village, New York, and joined the Follies, with assorted animal acts and chorus girls. In 1926 she started her own dance company and evolved a new type of dance based on “emotion, breathing, and spare, angular forms.” The Martha Graham Company also became the first racially integrated dance company in the United States.

Of all art forms, dance, which depends on movement, remains the hardest to convey in a book—particularly a book for children. Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan took on this task in Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring and succeeded brilliantly. At the beginning of the book, they write that though art is sometimes created by one artist, other times “it is the result of artists working together—collaborating—a forge to something new.” Then they introduce three fabulous artists: Martha Graham, who created the dance; Aaron Copland, who fashioned the music; and Isamu Noguchi, who constructed the stage setting. Readers watch each of them work on their contribution to the ballet. Noguchi carves marble, granite, and wood to create a stage. Copland chooses the Shaker hymn “It’s a gift to be simple” as the melody for the “Ballet for Martha.” Graham trains the dancers. Not all goes smoothly; at one point she has a tantrum, screams, yells, and even throws a shoe.

Then on October 30, 1944, in Washington, D.C., the first performance of Appalachian Spring occurs. Up until this point in the book, many passages of text are needed to explain the development of the dance. Then the authors cut back their words, allowing artist Brian Floca to work his magic. Using small vignettes and double-page spreads he brings both the dancers and the dance to life. They jump and leap and dominate the stage. Floca’s strong portraits of the individual dancers allow readers to feel, for several pages, as if they are witnessing this historic event.

Those who want to watch a performance to round out their experience of the book can check out the easily accessible video. In a tribute to three artists, Greenberg, Jordan, and Floca, themselves a triumvirate, show how creative people work together to fashion something new. If you love the arts, dance, or simply creative information books for young readers ages six through twelve, you will not want to miss this performance. Bravo! All three deserve a standing ovation.

Here’s a page from Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring:


Originally posted May 11, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: 20th Century, Dance, History, Women
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Ballet for Martha


  1. AZ says:

    Beautiful book…

  2. I have loved this book from the day I first held it in my hands and turned the pages reliving that wonderful piece of music, dance, set converging. And you are so right in my opinion, the three artists putting this book into existence also created a masterpiece!

    Wow, and on the same day you mention the Cherry Ames books, favorites from my own childhood…thanks as always Anita.

  3. Anita says:

    Carol: Thanks for the comment. I didn’t know you were a Cherry Ames fan, and now I do!

  4. Great review of this book. Happy birthday, Martha!

  5. G.Perry says:

    I’m waiting on this book to come from the library now for my first reading of it.

    Since I’ve not read today’s book, a couple of things came to mind from today’s review. One was Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit, which I keep nearby.

    And the other thing was my love of Aaron Copland’s music, as well as the Shaker hymn “It’s a gift to be simple” and it reminded me of hearing the extraordinary John Langstaff sing “Lord of the Dance” at the Christmas Revels in Cambridge. There are few voice / song combinations more vibrant or life affirming in all the world than Jack Langstaff’ singing those Revel songs.

    Can’t wait to read Ballet for Martha.

  6. Sandra Jordan says:

    Thank you! Intelligent appreciation first thing in the morning….way better than oatmeal to warm an author’s heart. Since it is Martha’s birthday you might have noticed the celebratory Google Doodle on Google’s home page. For the story of its creation (and the Graham Company’s touring schedule) see the Martha Graham home page http://marthagraham.org/center/

  7. Anita says:

    Sandra: Hearing from you makes my day. And thanks for pointing out the Google Doodle — also such a nice celebration of Martha’s birthday. Thank you for this wonderful book.

  8. Jen Green says:

    Thank you so much for sharing! It sounds like such a great book, I can’t wait to look it up. Thank you!

  9. Michelle says:

    This book is on order to come to our library. I am so excited to read it to my daughter. Thank you so much!

  10. Vicki Solomon says:

    I began my dance career (now I’m a children’s librarian) studying with dancers from the Graham Company, and then, with Martha herself. When this book came out about these three artists creating this dance I was overjoyed. But I could not imagine that it would touch very many other people. How wrong I was, and, and how delighted I am to be wrong! Thank you for highlighting it.

  11. G.Perry says:

    I enjoy all the comments on this site, but I have to say, my attention heightens when an author comments. That has lead me to take an interest in that author’s own books, on more than one occasion.

  12. Christine says:

    Read this book with my daughter today. (Thanks for the mention ahead of time that it was coming up Anita.) We homeschool and it led to the perfect morning of interest driven study. Not only are we learning about the 1940’s in history, my daughter is a dancer. We loved reading the book and then watching the You Tube videos of the dance. What a great way to learn about Martha. Thanks for bringing this beautiful book and dancer to our attention.

  13. Erica S. says:

    I think it’s so magical that, even with YouTube and Google and all the other ways to actually see a performance of Martha Graham’s dancing, this book still takes the cake as one of the best ways to experience the creative energy and brilliance that goes into the creation of a performance like this. Well done, Sandra Jordan, Jan Greenberg, and Brian Floca!

  14. Andrena says:

    This is one of Brian Floca’s most beautiful illustrations I believe! The intensity of the story is lovely – and joined with Floca’s illustrations I was enraptured!

  15. Erin says:

    I was lucky enough to have my copy of Ballet for Martha signed by both authors and brian Floca last summer at a conference. I first read the book for my Nonfiction class, and I immediately bought a copy. I danced for a long time, and always love stories about dancers, so I knew I needed this book on my shelf. The cover illustration is so joyful that whenever I see it, it makes me want to dance!

  16. Gretchen N. says:

    I fell in love with this book from the moment I opened it for the first time. I gave a copy to my cousin who has been a ballet dancer for years and she loves it as well. I’m so glad you included it!

  17. suzi w. says:

    LOVE THE ILLUSTRATION YOU CHOSE (as I am having tantrums daily, and then, yes, figuring it out.) How did I not know that Martha G. was born in Pittsburgh???

    Thanks for this blog, Anita. It is such a treasure.

    Suzi W.

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