[Book Review] Dancing in the Rain by John Lyons

John Lyons (Author), John Lyons (Illustrator)
Peepal Tree Press, 2015
Poetry collection, ages 9 and up

Dancing in the Rain, a collection of poems for children by John Lyons, moves readers through a plethora of sensory details and experiences associated with the world of the child. Through a thematic focus on the art of dancing, which is maintained throughout the entire collection, Lyons presents a series of childhood events and encounters with the Caribbean’s natural and supernatural worlds. The culture, customs and landscape of Trinidad and Tobago are used as a frame to position the world of the child, but the world of the imagination, as captured through a creative display of sights, sounds, tastes and emotion, can be appreciated by children across the globe.
The poems are organized based on different aspects of Trinbagonian identity and culture, and celebrate and inscribe particular historical traditions and legacies of the Caribbean experience.
The poems can therefore be placed in various categories. There are poems about foods indigenous to Trinidad and/or the Caribbean like the Gru-Gru Bef, the mango, and the sour-tasting hog plum; poems featuring supernatural or mythical figures in Trinbagonian folklore; poems which zoom in on very simple childhood episodes; poems which celebrate the Trinbagonian landscape; poems about animals; and poems about popular cultural events in Trinidad and Tobago, such as Carnival.
By using these focal points, Lyons attempts to insert that which is usually overlooked, unappreciated or barely recognized. By centring these cultural aspects, Lyons offers Caribbean children a moment to experience and celebrate their identities and cultures. At the same time, the situations and emotional texture of each poem encourage the use of the imagination and zoom in on the universal experiences of children from multiple backgrounds.
The symbolic use of the well-known Trinidadian Carnival, such as in the opening poem ‘Carnival Jumbie’ helps to convey freedom and happiness, and the child’s identity is affirmed through her participation in the event. Through this opening poem, Lyons provides the young reader with important historical details but lightens the burden of this history through the use of humour and the poem’s scintillating dance-invoking rhythm. For example, after evoking important symbols like the silk cotton tree (which invokes the memory of slavery), and the need to acknowledge ancestral spirits, the poem shifts to focus on the Jumbie anxiously anticipating jouvay and “steelban music to breakaway,”
The idea of freedom pervades the collection. In the poem ‘Carnival Dance Lesson’, the self-confident voice of the child persona, who insists that “you can dance like me”, demonstrates the empowerment the child receives through this cultural event in which all children can “have some fun”. Freedom is also effectively characterized by a carefree sense of play which allows the child to both witness and experience the Caribbean landscape, whether through the imagination or by being physically present in this space. The concept of play is strongly present throughout the collection. The poems not only capture the playful trait of the child, but also celebrate it as playing a major role in the child’s experience of freedom.
The very title, Dancing in the Rain, encapsulates the notion of freedom. One of the significant messages Lyons seems to be sending is the idea that the child’s experience of happiness is dependent on how free he is able to feel as he journeys through life. This freedom is largely represented through the childlike sensibility and sense of imagination which run throughout the poems. Rain, which is certainly not typical of Caribbean weather outside of particular rainy seasons, is usually used to signify some kind of sadness or tumult. The child’s perception of rain however, is somewhat different from the adult view of it, and Lyons artfully employs this perception as a kind of blueprint through which to see the world he has constructed. The child’s perspective provides an untainted perspective of the world and establishes an outlook which sees all things as possible.
In the book’s eponymous poem, ‘Dancing in the Rain’, it is the “warm rain” that causes the children to “squeal”, although the rain “stings”. The rain brings turbulence to the natural flow of life: the clothes have to be taken off the line, the “yard cocks” have to seek shelter and the “charcoal black” sky darkens the atmosphere. Yet, the children welcome the opportunity to “pull off [their] clothes” and dance in the rain. The idea of dancing in the rain is therefore a metaphor for finding enjoyment and using movement to produce joy, even in times when the “brightness” of the sun is not present.
Music offers a means of escape from stagnancy or rigidity, and the poems are suffused with a sense of the musical. Music is depicted as being a part of the poetic, but is also seen as an alternative mode of expression which encourages the act and art of dancing, and enables an intermingling of worlds. Melody allows for greater expression and breaks through barriers which words are unable to conquer. In the poem ‘Prankish Gnome’, for example, it is “the music of garden bird” which allows the child to envision the “gnome” in the garden “dancing happily among the stars.”
Lyons consistently presents two main conflicting forces: oppression and freedom. Through the juxtaposition of these two forces, the poet effectively pulls together varied layers of the child’s experience, and the diverse realities that have impacted or shaped the different worlds the child inhabits. At the start of the collection, Lyons establishes this image of freedom through the poem ‘Carnvial Jumbie’ which instantly pulls the reader into the musical world of Trinidad and Tobago’s calypso culture. This poem sets the tone for the collection because it introduces the idea that freedom occurs through movement, through action, and through dance. The calypso tune ─ “Jumbie jump high/Jumbie jump low/Jumbie jumpin to calypso...”─ is easily accessible to the reader through its rhythmic patterns. The alliterative phrases and the short-structured lines help to stimulate the interest of the young reader who finds herself quickly pulled into an irresistible melody.
Calypso, as a distinct musical form inherent in the structure of the poems, becomes a kind of language through which the child is able to communicate with all that is non-human, including ghosts and animals. Its presence helps to induce this sense of the fantastical in poems like ‘Woopsie’ and the ‘Agouti Story’, where the persona is able to connect with the animal and spirit worlds through the influence of the calypso. Literary sound devices such as assonance, onomatopoeia, and alliteration are used to maintain the rhythmic patterns in many of the poems. Various sounds associated with the Caribbean experience are also used to establish a sense of the musical. There are the animal sounds in poems such as ‘The Pig’s Boast’ and ‘Fowl Play’; sounds from the landscape that are created through the “tiptoe” movement “among dry bramble” in ‘Looking for Douennes’; or sounds associated with the imaginary, mythical world when the child persona hears the “nosily”, “rattling” bones of ‘The Climbing Skeleton.’
The motif of movement established in many of the poems is also deeply connected to the presentation of childhood experiences in the journey of the child. Through this motif, Lyons demonstrates the myriad ways in which dancing can be seen as moving: when “yuh…wine wid de riddum”; through the cut-loose movement of the fowl character in the animal, tale-based poem ‘Fowl Play’; through the “prancing” of the “prankish ghosts” in ‘Looking for Douennes’, and through the “candleflies moving about/lighting up and going out” in ‘Tadpole Comets’. Movement as dancing is also apparent in the personification of the willow and the wind in the poem ‘Natural Dancing Partners’ and even the beating heart of the child is described as dancing “wildly” in ‘Agouti Story.’
This motif of movement also appropriately reflects another common trait of the child, which presents itself both mentally and physically – children are always on the move. As is evident in the poem ‘Betty’s Breakfast’, where the child persona poses question after question to her mother regarding the chicken and egg cycle, the mind of the child is always racing with a sense of curiosity. Lyons captures this swift movement through his use of multiple rhythmic patterns. He shifts back and forth between a range of poetic forms, including the couplet, the triplet and the tercet, providing a lively set of rhythmic beats which imitate the fast-paced, fun-loving, adventurous nature of the child. Lyons honours this and other characteristics of childhood by using them as the nucleus for the situations presented.
The poems in Dancing in the Rain seem to be constructed through a set of ideas which centre on three main themes: continuity, sustainability, and inclusivity. A sense of continuity shines through in those poems that have an overt traditional or historical focus, which allows the reader to learn about Trinbagonian and/or Caribbean culture. The child is positioned as the agent of preservation. It is often the child persona, therefore, who not only introduces the various folkloric aspects and legacies of the culture, but who also helps to sustain them through the use of her imagination and his untainted mindset. Children are open to that which is different and that which might not be considered normal, therefore, they are more willing than adults to embrace and pass on the sense of identity presented in the “strange stor[ies]” and “strange music” being offered through the poems.
The idea of sustainability is invoked through the art form of storytelling which the child or animal persona in each poem uses to create and reinforce a sense of identity for both the individual and community. Finally, inclusivity is underlined through the poems’ focus on various forms of existence, including the human, animal and spirit worlds; elements of the physical landscape; and the folkloric presence in Caribbean culture. Continuity, sustainability and inclusivity become outcomes of childlike freedom, and interestingly enough, each of these factors also helps to preserve the freedom of the child and subsequently, the society.
Shortlisted for the CLPE Poetry Award (CLiPPA), this new collection of poems by John Lyons will certainly allow children to discover and affirm their personal and cultural identities as they learn to ‘dance in the rain.’

About the Author

Dr. Aisha Spencer is a lecturer in Language and Literature Education in the School of Education at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, in Kingston, Jamaica. She has lectured in the area of children’s literature, is a Caribbean children’s literature advisor for Lantana Publishing, has worked closely with Caribbean children’s authors over the years and has written articles and reviews on Caribbean children’s texts. She has been teaching language and literature for over eighteen years and is especially passionate about finding innovative material and pedagogy to help children and youth better connect with and enjoy all genres of literature. Her current research projects focus on analysing and evaluating children’s responses to literature in both elementary and secondary institutions across the Caribbean.

[Excerpt] Dancing in the Rain by Lynn Joseph

Back in August, Jamaican independent publisher Blue Banyan Books (formerly Blue Moon Publishing) released Dancing in the Rain, Américas Award winning Trinbagonian author Lynn Joseph's third young adult novel. Here is the publisher's description:
Twelve year-old Elizabeth is no normal girl. With an imagination that makes room for mermaids and magic in everyday life, she lives every moment to the fullest. Yet her joyful world crumbles around her when two planes bring down the Twin Towers and tear her family apart. Thousands of miles away, yet still touched by this tragedy, Elizabeth is swimming in a sea of loss. She finally finds hope when she meets her kindred spirit in 8 year-old Brandt and his 13 year-old brother, Jared.

Brandt and Jared, two boys as different as Oreo and milk and just as inseparable, arrive on the island to escape the mushroom of sorrow that bloomed above their lives in the wake of the tragedy. Elizabeth shows them a new way to look at the world and they help her to laugh again. But can Elizabeth and Brandt help their families see that when life brings showers of sadness, it’s okay to dance in the rain?

Set against the dazzling beauty of the Dominican Republic, Dancing in the Rain explores the impact of the tragic fall of the Twin Towers on two Caribbean families. It is a lyrical, well-crafted tale about finding joy in the face of loss.

Dancing in the Rain won a Burt Award for Caribbean Literature (2015) prize.
We are pleased to exclusively share this never-before-published excerpt from the novel.

Dancing in the Rain

© Blue Moon Publishing/Blue Banyan Books 2016


in the beginning...

My mother says she knows exactly who loves her and can place them in numerical order as to how much they love her. On September 11, I have just started second grade and already I miss my first grade teacher, Ms. Simon, who never shouted, never banged her hand on a table and never made me cry - all acts of terror my new teacher, Ms. Feliciano, has committed in the first week of school.
Every day after school, Jared and I wait for Mommy to come home from work. On September 11, we go home early. Jared picks me up from my new classroom and holds my hand all the way home. Jared never holds my hand. Jared doesn’t talk to me at all. He doesn’t turn on the computer. He doesn’t let me turn on the television. He doesn’t do anything but lie on his bottom bunk bed and stare up at the top bunk. When I try to turn on the computer, he shouts at me, “Turn it off.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Mom might call,” is all he says.
Jared never cared about Mommy calling before. It is a constant fight they have. She complains that he’s always on the internet so she cannot get through on the telephone. She asks him to at least wait until she calls to see if we are alright and then he can go on the internet. Jared never listens.
“It’s important,” she tells him, her voice rising when he shrugs his shoulders at her. Her face gets red and she takes deep breaths and then goes to her bedroom and closes the door.
But on September 11, Jared doesn’t turn on the internet to check out his newest Neopet. I sit on the floor next to our bunk beds. I look at Jared and he turns away so I can’t see his face. Something weird is happening. At school, the teachers had been scurrying in the hallways and lining us up to leave a half-day early. Ms. Feliciano had been extra nice and had asked the class if any of us had parents who worked in or near the World Trade Center.
I raised my hand proudly because my mother worked right there. I said that she was a lawyer in a big company and I had visited the tall towers and ridden the elevator up those bridges to the sky many times. Then, I saw the look on Ms. Feliciano’s face. Why was she scrunching up her eyes and frowning? I said my mother worked there - wasn’t that the right answer? She came over and patted my head and then left the room. When she came back, Jared was with her. He’s in the eighth grade. He’s been diagnosed a genius and got to skip third grade. I wished I could skip second grade. But I haven’t been diagnosed anything as yet. Jared told me quietly to get my back pack and come on.
Now, here we are – waiting for something. At least, Jared is waiting for something, so I wait, too.
Except pretty soon, my stomach starts growling and I go into the kitchen to make a peanut butter and grapes sandwich. Jared doesn’t say a word when I smash the grapes between my bread. Usually, he says it’s gross. I say it’s the same thing as putting grape jelly on bread. I just skip the jelly part and go straight for the grapes. He says it’s a baby thing to do. I hate it when he calls me a baby. But I get him back. I tell him I am Mommy’s joy. That’s what she calls me, her joy.
But then Jared always snaps back, “You might be her joy, but I’m her heart.”
He’s right. Mommy calls Jared her ‘heart’ and she calls me her ‘joy’. I’m not sure which is better. Heart or Joy? I mean, you love with your heart, so she really loves Jared. But you’re happy if you feel joy so I make her happy. But not everything you love makes you happy. Sometimes, the person you love the most makes you the saddest. Life is funny and I have a lot to figure out and all this waiting for something to happen is making me hungry, so I eat.


there is sadness...

Mommy does not know it, but Jared loves her best of all. I know because of him not going on the internet on September 11. Mommy cries and cries on the sofa as she listens to her cell phone messages, as if the messages starting at 8:48 a.m. that day sums up her entire life. But it’s the message she didn’t get that means the most.
Mommy doesn’t actually have her cell phone. She lost it on September 11. It disappeared like a lot of other things that day . . . people, buildings, and the stars I used to watch at night with Mommy when we took our walk to the park, which she won’t do anymore.
A week after September 11, Mommy figures out that she can check her cell phone messages from our regular home telephone. She calls the number for a phone that had been obliterated. I learned what ‘obliterated’ meant this week. It means completely destroyed. Like the Towers and Mommy’s cell phone.
Mommy listens to her messages over and over, and then she writes them all down, every word, filling up the blank spaces around her with information to stop her tears. It doesn’t work.
  1. Message received at 8:48 a.m. Her father calling from Sosúa. “Honey, please call me and tell me you’re okay. I’m looking at the News right now. A plane just crashed into your building. I remember when we went to the salsa concert under the stars there. Please call me and let me know you’re okay.”
I can hear the worry even in the written message.
  1. Message received at 8:50 a.m. Mommy’s work friend Alison calling from the office. “Izzy, where are you? We’ve got to get out of the office now. Meet me and Phil at the elevators. Now!”
  2. Message received at 8:53 a.m. Rudy calling from the office.
“Izzy, tell me you’re at Court and not here. Something horrible has happened. We can’t tell but they’re saying we should stay right where we are for now. I don’t think so. We’re leaving. We’re at the stairs by the Women’s bathroom. Meet us there.”
  1. Message received at 9:05 a.m. Mommy’s sister, Sonia, calling from the Republica Dominicana. “Isabella, I am praying for you. I am praying real hard. I know you are fine. I know it.” Auntie Sonia lives in Samana next to the beach and fishes every day. She stands upside down on her head to pray, which she calls meditating. I imagine her standing on her head praying for Mommy.
  2. Message received at 9:09 a.m. Rudy calling from the office. “Izzy, it’s me again. This is not an accident! We’re on the stairs. It’s jammed. We need to get out of here now. Where are you?”
  3. Message received at 9:16 a.m. Grand Pop calling again. “Isabella? Call me back.”
  4. Message received at 9:23 a.m. Mommy’s best friend, Alex. “Isabella, I’m in Philly at a deposition and just saw the News. Please call me and let me know you didn’t go to work today, or you’re having a late tea at the shop on Broadway or you’re in Court at trial . . . or something!”
  5. Message received at 9:37 a.m. Tony Hernandez calling from? “Princessa, I hope you’re okay. I’m worried about you. I know you’re still mad at me, but call me and let me know you’re okay.” Hmmmmm. Who was that? Mommy has secret friends who call her princessa?
  6. Message received at 9:41 a.m. Mr. Sola calling from where? “Isabella, I am asking everyone from the office to call in to my cell phone or home phone as soon as they get out of the building. There are just no words for this. Good luck.” Mommy’s boss. He doesn’t mind if I come into the office on Saturdays with Mommy to help her make copies and staple piles of papers together with Exhibit tabs. I feel something fierce and sad in his words.
  7. Message received at 9:45 a.m. Grand Pop calling back. “Isabella, call me as soon as you can. I am waiting.”
  8. Message received at 9:48 a.m. Daddy calling from the Brooklyn Bridge on his cell phone. “Izzy, call me and let me know where you are. I’m walking over the Bridge. I’ll go get the kids from school as soon as I get home.” Daddy never came to the school to get us. He did not make it to his home where he lives with his new wife until the sun was almost setting. He walked the entire way in his hard, black polished shoes and his feet hurt for a long time but he said that was nothing. Nothing at all.
There were many more messages. Messages with people crying. Messages with people sounding dazed and stuttering, and not making any sense. Messages from all the people who loved Mommy. She has a list. It is numbered and she holds it close to her.
Then, one day, Mommy turns with her eyes full of tears toward Jared and whispers, “Why didn’t you call me?”
Jared stares at her.
“Why didn’t you call me at work, or on my cell, or something? Were you too busy playing on the internet?”
Jared doesn’t answer her. He looks back at her and she looks at him and in between them shimmers a light that wavers up and down trying to catch them both in its rays but it can’t.
I watch them and I want to shout at Mommy that Jared loves her more than everyone on that list because he didn’t even turn on the computer that day. Or the television. Or anything. I want to tell her that Jared had laid on his bunk bed and closed his eyes and turned his face so that I couldn’t see he was crying.
That was the only day Jared hadn’t called me a baby when I made my peanut butter and grapes sandwich. It was the only day he held my hand. It was the day I knew that even though he talked back to Mommy, even though she threw up her hands and yelled at him, even though they seemed as if they were two panthers looking crossways at each other, deep down they loved each other more than anyone else. Jared was Mommy’s heart. But what Mommy didn’t know was that she was Jared’s, too.
And, in the days following September 11, I began to understand that your heart is never wrong. It is only your mind that gets confused. Your heart tells you much more than what your mind is thinking. But Mommy isn’t listening to her heart. She’s keeping lists and crying.

About the Author

Lynn Joseph is the author of ten books for children and young adults including the picturebooks An Island Christmas, Coconut Kind of Day, Jump Up Time: A Trinidad Carnival Story, Flowers in the Sky and Fly Bessie Fly. She has authored two collections of Trinbagonian folklore stories, A Wave in Her Pocket and The Mermaid’s Twin Sister which won the Américas Award for Children & YA Literature in 1994. Her young adult novel, The Color of My Words (HarperCollins, 2000), was named an ALA Notable Children's Book, an International Reading Association Notable Book for a Global Society, a Notable Children's Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies, and a Jane Addams Honor Book. It was also awarded the Américas Award for Children & YA Literature in 2000. Her MG/YA novel, Dancing in the Rain, was awarded Third Prize in the 2015 Burt Award for Caribbean Literature 2015. It was named a Kirus Best Book of 2016. Lynn graduated with an M.F.A. in Writing for Children & Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and teaches writing workshops to adults and teenagers.

[Book Review] Dancing in the Rain by John Lyons

John Lyons (Author), John Lyons (Illustrator) Peepal Tree Press, 2015 Poetry collection, ages 9 and up D ancing in the Rain , a colle...