The Masquerade Dance by Carol Ottley-Mitchell w/illustrator Daniel J. O’Brien
About the Book: Inspired by a very real and incredible young man, The Masquerade Dance tells of a boy who is mesmerized by the “drum drum drum” of the masquerade beat and whose biggest dream is to dance the masquerade. It is parade day in St. Kitts-Nevis carnival and Saulo is excited to see the masquerades perform, dance, and drum, drum, drum. But things don’t go quite as planned. Be careful, you too will fall in love with the masquerade dance after reading this rhythmic tale told in rhyme. The masquerade is a performance with Yoruban roots, influenced by indigenous Caribbean styles and European dance forms, and performed in many Caribbean islands, including St. Kitts-Nevis where it is an integral part of the carnival festivities.
*Full disclosure – this Advance Review Copy was submitted to me by the author Carol Ottley-Mitchell, and the publishing house Caribbean Reads Publishing, owned by Ottley-Mitchell has also published two of my books (Musical Youth and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure). While we have an ongoing professional relationship, this review like all others is my honest response to the book under review*
I like the art – its mix of hyper-realism and colourful/vibrant cartoonishness, distinctive character choices (e.g. Granny’s funky grey-streaked but not olding grey hair and blue-framed glasses, Ms. Jones in her fashionable fluffiness, the palpable eagerness of the boy, Saulo), the way the setting, including the masqueraders, boldly fills up the pages (barely contained) so that the scenes seem to pop and pulse. The rhyming couplets and repetition designed to be read out loud and meant to suggest a musicality of their own, at the same time has natural Caribbean speech peppered in – “Okay. You wait here in this spot./I’ll run home and turn on the pot./Mind Ms. Jones. Stay here in the shade, from there you can watch the masquerade” when Granny finally gives in to the eager boy’s pleas. Saulo’s enthusiasm, the artist’s visualization of the masquerade, and the narrative’s aural cues – “and they’ll drum drum drum and hop and dash/their mirrors will swing and jangle and clash” – make the Carnival come alive.
Of course, in two ticks – in the very next set of panels – after promising to stay in one place, before Ms. Jones can catch him, Saulo is in the thick of things, underfoot and in the way – the dog, too. My favourite panels in the 24-page book are, for the immersive experience of the Carnival and its infectious pull on a young boy, pages 8 – 13: beginning with Ms. Jones making a lunging grab for Saulo, the colours of the Carnival like a sea, its tide pulling him further away from her. Regret, inevitably, follows as he becomes one of the children lost in the Carnival (the ones who usually end up having their parents summoned to the police outpost – ‘will the parent of so and so please come to the police outpost to collect them’ – it was a thing or is a thing). “I wish I had minded what granny said/I wish I had stopped where she told me to stay”, the boy moans covering his ears, one eye closed against the over-stimuli, the dog growling at all the noise, intense expressions and the suggestion of sound and movement always on the musicians faces and in their actions, and poor Ms. Jones faint and panicked in the far background. The artist makes fun choices like the super imposition of colourful texts over some of the scenes reinforcing what you’re seeing and hearing, and the way the visuals mirror the narrative – Ms. Jones is always there a face in the crowd pursuing her ward. One of the masqueraders, an old man, places a headpiece on the boy’s head, herding him in a way, even as the masquerade history (and its connection to Africa) he ‘whispers’ is related. Having played mas the likelihood of any sustained whispered conversation is implausible in my view. But the consequence, in this instance, is the boy feeling at one with the masquerade, not frightened by nor lost in it – Ms. Jones no longer panicking but dancing the background, the dog too is happier, and Granny now back on the road, not looking as vexed as she might otherwise be. Her grandson won’t take telling (not when it comes to the masquerade)…but there is no real danger there, and she too can appreciate the pull of the masquerade – as we’ll soon see.
The story does feel somewhat old school given how mas has evolved, in this soca-splashed era of triple decker speakers, in to something a little less innocent than the masquerade depicted with its traditional garb and old school bands with their hand instruments. I like that the book reminds that mas is ancestral and meaningful – as the boy gets caught up and hears the history or feels it like someone catching the spirit in church, “I lift one leg and I spin in the street/I catch a hammer. I am not afraid./Now I’m dancing the masquerade.”
Soon, as noted, it’s a family affair and magically – the particular magic that Carnival has – everyone is there. As someone who remembers seeing my mom in the masquerade, being with my mom in the jouvert and jamming, this seems very plausible. And the story ends on an upbeat note.
Only thing, Granny, the text makes no further reference to her, and though we see her, it would’ve made for some narrative closure to circle back to her textually. And I did notice that there was no mention of a father, rather emphasis on the Caribbean traditional family unit of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and neighbours; whether deliberate or not, it’s a detail picked up by my adult brain.
Overall though not only a colourful book but a joyful one. There is an ‘About’ right after which confirms what the drawn setting had hinted at, that this story is set in St. Kitts, though it really could be any Caribbean country that still has any semblance of the traditional masquerade – the highlanders, moko jumbie, sensay fowl, and the like. With its additional notes, the book strides to be not only a cultural tool but also an educational one. Nicely done; quick (and colourful) read overall and good for classroom or reading club story time.
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