The school year is drawing to an end and summer holidays beckon, so a good time to look at some holiday reading that might appeal to young aspiring dancers… Stars by Laura and Luke Jennings.  Our reviewer Dani Boucher is a Senior Lecturer in Education at Oxford Brookes University with a specialism in children’s literature and drama. She enjoys ballet immensely, both dancing and watching, and currently teaches RAD ballet classes for Oxford Academy of Dance.  She writes:

All the ingredients that go into this debut novel should signal a great deal of potential: a Booker-longlisted author and acclaimed dance critic writing with his teenage daughter for a similar-aged audience about an unlikely girl getting into stage school.  What could possibly go wrong?  On many levels, nothing is wrong with the concept and the execution will guarantee readers, but there is nothing new here, certainly nothing ‘unique’ as claimed by the cover endorsement.  The premise that someone from a dysfunctional family dreams of something bigger and, against all odds, manages to get a foot in the door of a prestigious stage school, has been done several times, most notably Noel Streatfield in ‘Ballet Shoes’.  But the reason that this has been done before is that the formula works: it taps into the hopes and dreams of those readers just beginning to imagine their paths in life, and to those who plug away at dance lessons day in, day out, having that dream lived out through these characters fuels the imaginings of their very own futures.  The fact that the protagonist, Jess, meets and becomes friends with girls who face other challenges, most notably deaf ‘Spike’ who is the best dancer in the school, widens the appeal and allows for many girls to identify with the characters.  This, however is where the potential starts to wane: this is a book for girls and girls alone.  The male characters are reduced to love interests and there is nothing here for a young boy with similar dreams.  When will such a book appear?

The rigours of the vocational school environment are equally not realised in a convincing manner; the reader is told that it is hard and competitive, but is not really shown. Indeed, much of the book is characterised by telling rather than showing, leaving little space for the reader to insert their own imaginings and interpretations.

All in all, the characters in the Jennings’ first book of the series seem plausible, if a little flat, and their language current, but the roundedness found in Streatfield’s novel, where the relationship between the children and the adults surrounding them is given greater credence than it is here, is sadly lacking.  Furthermore, the plot is so predictable that there is no real build up to a denouement and the characters undergo only the shallowest of transformations.  But this is not what this book is about.  This joins the ranks of other series fiction where the literary merit comes very much second place to the sense of comfort gained from knowing where one is with a book and enjoying wallowing in the safety of a lived dream devoid of challenges to thought or the act of reading.  This book will not teach children anything very much, about life or reading, but it will provide enjoyment.  The only question, however, is:  for whom?  The main characters are fourteen and their preoccupations are appropriate to their age but the language and style of writing is more suited to a much younger readership.  Whilst this is a book that plays on aspiration, the gulf, at times, jars to the point of feeling as though the authors have tried too hard to write ‘for children’.  Indeed the whole is rather formulaic which, in the end, is its greatest appeal.

Dani Boucher

16th June 2013

Laura and Luke Jennings (2013) ‘Stars’ – Puffin

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