Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff
The Dancing Pancake, written by Eileen Spinelli and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2010), is a middle grade novel in verse. Eleven-year-old Bindi is really struggling with the fact that her dad has left her and her mom. She also has to adjust to the new apartment she and her mom have moved into and The Dancing Pancake, the diner her mom and Aunt Darnell have just opened. There are definite perks to being part of a diner: Bindi and her friends Albert, Megan, and Kyra sit in the back booth and eat waffles with strawberries and whipped cream or triple-decker grilled sandwiches with root beer floats. But mostly Bindi is feeling mad-sad-bad about all the changes in her life. Then there is Grace, the homeless woman who is a regular customer at The Dancing Pancake. Bindi wants to rent a room for Grace but her mom won't help her. Why must everything be so frustrating???
One of the first things I noticed about The Dancing Pancake (and this is just an observation, not criticism) was that, unlike a few other novels-in-verse, each "chapter" cannot stand as an individual poem. The Dancing Pancake is one long poem. My first impression of The Dancing Pancake was that it was a surface level exploration of a preteen dealing with her parents' separation. It didn't seem to go very deep into the thoughts and feelings of Bindi. This was initially disappointing, as I believe the novel's form and content were naturally ripe for "deep exploration." As I continued reading, my opinion of the book changed. I saw that The Dancing Pancake was not a shallow story; it was actually a compelling story that stirred young readers and left gaps here and there for them to fill in with their own imagination and their own thoughts and feelings about the characters and what was happening.
There seems to be a bit too much going on in the novel because aside from Bindi's family, The Dancing Pancake is also about business at The Dancing Pancake (the diner), Bindi's friendships, and Bindi trying to help the homeless Grace. But having all these side stories works out. At its heart, The Dancing Pancake - as it should be - is about LIFE from a child's point of view.
I'd like to mention something I especially appreciate about the timeless illustrations that accompany this timeless story. Joanne Lew-Vriethoff has illustrated Bindi's Uncle Tim (Aunt Darnell's husband) as African American and Bindi's cousin Jackson (Uncle Tim and Aunt Darnell's son) is illustrated as obviously of mixed race. Nowhere in the story is Uncle Tim's and Jackson's skin color mentioned, so this is just the illustrator's touch and contribution to the story. So many illustrations in children's books seem to use white as the default for characters' skin color when the stories could easily apply to different races. I am happy that Lew-Vriethoff's illustrations realistically reflect America's multicolored society.
To end this blog post/book review, I'd like to tell you how a young reader responded to the novel: I read several pages of The Dancing Pancake aloud to my sixteen-year-old cousin Bobby. He listened very attentively and when I didn't want to read aloud anymore, he asked if he could borrow the book - and he finished reading it. (By the way, Bobby's parents are divorced. I am certain this is part of why the book appealed to him.) Bobby is what teachers and librarians call a "reluctant reader." It's true what they say. Give a reluctant reader an interesting book to read and he will be reluctant no more.
[I bought my own copy of The Dancing Pancake.]