Téo’s Tutu by Maryann Jacob Macias + illustrator, Alea Marley
Dial, 2021. 32pp
What a delightfully perfect addition to the glaringly white cisgendered ballet book shelves. What an excellent addition to picture book shelves period.
The first remarkable thing after lingering in awe at the hair in Téo’s family, is that when they are recalling the Swan Lake performance that inspired Téo’s interest in ballet, the ballerina had dark brown skin and black hair. “If you can see it you can be it,” is the maxim that came to mind. But then, when has that stopped other creators from rendering that muse in paler hues.
Swan Lake is not Téo’s first muse; the story opens with the energy of he and his parents, Amma and Papí dancing, “These were the hands that twirled him during the cumbia and waved to the bhangra beat when they all danced at home.”
“But ballet was nothing like cumbia or bhangra,” we are reminded. And we learn that Téo is going to venture even further into difference, wearing the ballet costumes that are gender assigned to girls culturally—and from the get-go.
Instructor Ms. Lila is supportive, the environment normalized to personal expression. One of the boys will ask with a child’s curiosity in a quiet sequence, and that is it—until the recital and they get to pick their costumes. This is when the outside world intrudes—as is a popular ingredient in ballet stories; the awareness of an audience and an expectation. “As he grabbed his leotard, Téo felt everyone’s eyes on him. This wasn’t the kind of audience he wanted.” A consciousness enters the story that what may be allowed and even nurtured in some contexts may not be in others. What should also be noted here is the illustration on this page. Téo sits between the two girls and two boys, Téo foregrounded, his back to the others in the circle. What Téo doesn’t see is that they are preoccupied with their own articles of clothing. Only one is looking in his direction and there is nothing in his expression to suggest judgement or concern. Who’s eyes is Téo (&/or the author) referring to?
Notice, too, the facing pages, the warm tone of the circle, framing the scene on the left, the scene of a classroom and its students surround a spilled open box full of possibilities and their teacher encouraging them to “Please choose the costume you’d like to perform in.” This is safety, familiarity, the comfortably contained space. Opposite is unframed open white space, a different expression of possibility. It suits the tonal shift of the story of addressing the outside.
Téo will take and try both costume options at home and demonstrate how they affect him. Marley continues to be excellent here in rendering his experience, the blues and blacks, the rigid lines of the square, of his legs and arms. You can see him rock between stiff legs. That gentle look of distress. The opposite page distinctly effervescent, the circle, the stars, the pink, orange, and yellow palette. One just isn’t Téo, and certainly not the Téo we’ve come to get to know and love.
When that last line of the page is posed–“But what if the audience doesn’t love him back?”—it’s hard not to answer: how could they not? But we also understand how hard it is to put our vulnerable authentic selves out there. We understand the nature of performance—even as (especially as?) a child.
The turn of the page finds Téo looking in the mirror, the page another blue box. Fortunately, he follows the invitation of those yellow curling vines and stars and notes surrounding his Amma at the door to his room (not-gendered, btw). Téo enters a page framed only by his dancing parents and familiar colorful lines that express movement, music, and joy. This is just one of many loving family portraits in the picture book; my favorite is to come as it is recital day.
Amma: “These are the ways we must be brave sometimes.”
Papí: “Tú eres valiente.”
Those familiar with Marley’s work will continue to enjoy her excellent use of color, in tone and lighting. I spoke of her framing and juxtaposition, of her added complexity to the narrative (re: the gaze). I love her skill with movement, both that of a singular figure and that of the composition of a page—and her ability to sweep you up in the story, not only directing our gaze, but complementing the narrative. I was especially impressed with the 4 page sequence from they “gathered” to “walked onto the dark stage” to the “curtain opened.” Facing us, rotated and facing away, then the left to right as they move across the stage. It is the story in two pages: they gather, they move through back stage in the dark—holding hands—and then sent off to ‘flutter’ + ‘twinkle,’ ‘poised’ + ‘balanced.’ It carries all the tension building from the beginning and releases it. It functions as another aspiration, and in the end will affirm the effort and the art. I believe the writer of the words is persuasive, but Marley’s hand creates the impact here. All those visual elements she’d been threading, her skill to move and move us, is such a pleasure to see weave and build to such lovely concluding pages.
Maryann Jacob Macias and Alea Marley’s book is one of gentleness and delight that will appeal to audiences beyond dance-book shelves, because it is about what it can mean to be a part of something tender and wonderful—your self, your family, your community, your culture. It is about the power of that nurturing environment and the anxiety/uncertainty of when we are inspired/provoked to move beyond it. Téo does this more than a few times and with such grace, with such valiance. That arabesque he’d struggled with now “poised and balanced.”
Maryann Jacob Macias is a graduate of the City College of New York, CUNY and the Solstice MFA Low-Residency Program at Pine Manor College. Our family is Indian and Colombian, and we love to enjoy and explore the many shared characteristics of our cultures. This is her first picture book.
Alea Marley is a picture book illustrator. Born in the UK with Barbadian roots, she is currently based in North England. Other titles: The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh (by Supriya Kelkar); For more glorious hair: Get Up, Elizabeth! and This is Ruby (by Sara O’Leary) And Dance: Charlotte and the Nutcracker (by Charlotte Nebres) and Goodnight, Little Dancer (by Jennifer Adams).