Monday, April 27, 2009

Amiri & Odette in Love

This is another fantastic poem-in-a-picture-book by Walter Dean Myers in the tradition of Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam (which I loved), a gritty, story-poem suitable for tween and teen readers. In this case, however, Myers has created a love story rooted in the “Swan Lake” ballet story. Cool, huh?

Myers provides a fascinating introductory “HOW I CAME TO WRITE THIS POEM” that considers the cultural roots of the folk story, the grace and drama of the ballet, and the violence and power of Tchaikovsky’s musical score. He sets the story in the red brick Swan Lake Projects in the city “teeming with life, alive with the everpresent promise of youth.”

The story unfolds in four “Acts” beginning with the Prince’s mother cautioning her son about the city’s violence and pleading with him to settle down. In a Romeo-Juliet “meet-sweet,” Amiri is in his element, playing basketball, when he spies the dancing Odette, and it’s love at first sight. She warns him of the spell she’s under, “I’m forever bound in shadow/ A prisoner to my pain.” If he proclaims his love to her and her alone, she’ll be saved. He eagerly does so and invites her to his party…

“Odette!” HE CALLS.


She pulls him with a stunning glance
Across the crowded floor.
Until kiss-close they begin the dance
That will flame his heart once more.
They dance like mist on water,
As light as summer breeze.
He touches her waist—she kisses his cheek.
Her eyes begin to tease.
They dance like salsa angels.
They cling like summer vines.
He begs for more—
she moves away.


Myers, Walter Dean. 2009. Amiri & Odette: A Love Story. Ill. by Javaka Steptoe. New York: Scholastic.

Unfortunately, it’s Odette’s evil twin and “O muffle the drum and mute the horn/ From love’s demise, despair is born!” In a positively Shakespearean conclusion, Amiri fights and defeats the evil Big Red (a drug dealer) and the lovers are reunited “Where joy lives in spite of sorrow/ And gladness now denies tomorrow.”

The book flap calls Amiri & Odette “part rap and rhapsody”—Amen! This lyrical telling is fast-paced and musical, with beautiful phrasing:

“A pane-shattering scream.
A scream-scattering pain”

And Javaka Steptoe’s art is the perfect complement, dark and textured, suggestive of a cityscape mural, with its painted-on-cinder-blocks illustrations. In an ARTIST’S NOTE at the end he shares that the “images are rendered with acrylic paint on slabs of asphalt” and he has “embellished the collages with candy wrappers, gold plated and 14k jewelry, newspaper, plastic bags and other items to give them a three-dimensional quality.” Add to this the use of white text on the dark backgrounds, with occasional juxtaposition of colored text, ALL CAPS, and syncopated spacing and indenting, and the words splay graffiti-like across the gravelly art. The overall effect is graphic and compelling and may inspire teen artists to create their own found art using available resources.

In the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS, Walter Dean Myers notes the many dancers who have “demonstrated that the classical arts could be brought into the urban arena to great effect” and I believe his new interpretation of Swan Lake (in Amiri & Odette) is a significant contribution to this tradition. I can definitely envision teen groups or troupes performing this as a choral reading, rap, pantomime, or dance—complete with mural backdrops created by peers. It’s an inspiring homage to the classic poetic and balletic story tradition—made fresh and new for young audiences.

Image credit:

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2009. All rights reserved.


OzWeaver said...


How wonderful to find your blog! I was looking around for poetry during this month of poetry, and posting some of my favorite poems on my own blog when I stumbled on yours! The world gets smaller and smaller!

I hope all is well with you!


Sylvia Vardell said...

How absolutely fun! Thanks for stopping by to comment. I love connecting this way!