A Season-Dancing, Heart-Opening Retro Review of My Mama Had a Dancing Heart — by Rosanne L. Kurstedt
My Mama Had a Dancing Heart (Orchard Books, 1995) by Libba Moore Gray and illustrated by Raúl Colón is a fun-loving, hand-clapping, heart-happy book that never gets old.
Libba Moore Gray effortlessly tells the story of a mother and her daughter through season-specific dances. Her use of noun-verb and verb-verb phrases adds rhythm and musicality to the story. From the word choice, to the repetition, to the illustrations this book captivates readers from the very first page.
The line, “My momma had a dancing heart and she shared that heart with me,” opens and closes the book. I’m a big fan of stories that begin and end the same. If done well that is—and Libba Moore Gray does it spectacularly. The closing sentence carries so much more weight, so much more meaning than the first. Each time I read the last sentence, I relive the characters’ journey and re-envision their relationship. I am comforted by the circularity, which not only provides closure but also hope. Hope that the daughter will continue to share her dancing heart like her mother so lovingly shared with her.
I’ve been reading this book with students since it was first published over 10 years ago. Each time, I’m amazed at how engaged students are with the playful language and how easily students relate to the mother-daughter relationship. I’m also amazed by the deep conversations that ensue, especially when working with upper-elementary students. They discuss whether or not the mother is still alive and that the mother lives in the daughter’s heart especially when she dances. Students also note how much influence the seasonal dances and activities had on the daughter, which inevitably leads to discussions about some important influences in their own lives.
Not only does this book elicit deep conversation, it is also a wonderful mentor text for students’ writing. It can be used as a model to show how authors create a mood by playing with words, in this case by using the noun-verb and verb-verb phrases and also as a model for show not tell. After all, Libba Moore Gray does not tell us the daughter became a ballerina, she shows us.
after satin-ribboning my feet
and listening to the violins
onto the stage I go
My Mama Had a Dancing Heart is a forever-celebrating, heart-swelling book that should continue to be shared for decades to come. I’ll leave you with some student poems inspired by Libba Moore Gray’s language.
Rosanne Kurstedt, Ph.D. is the Associate Director of READ East Harlem / Hunter College, an Adjunct Professor at Hunter College, a children’s and educational author, and the founder of The Author Experience, a newly established non-profit that organizes and funds author visits for schools in low-income neighborhoods. This is Rosanne’s first time contributing to The Nerdy Book Club, but she has been a long time supporter, spreading the word on social media. She is also the Assistant Regional Advisor for the New Jersey Chapter of SCBWI. You can find her at www.rlkurstedt.com, @rlkurstedt, and more sporadically on Facebook.