The opening of Mac Barnett and Kate Berube’s John’s Turn ushers readers into an elementary school. Every Friday at this particular school, students gather in the cafeteria for what’s called assembly. Best of all, if everyone behaves, one student “gets to do something for the whole school.” The school dubs this tradition “Sharing Gifts.” (In one of many instances in the book that proves Barnett is no stranger to how children think, we read: “A lot of us think that’s a kind of dumb name, but we also think Sharing Gifts is the best.”)
John is reticent and uneasy on the day of his turn for Sharing Gifts. While Mr. Ross makes announcements, John prepares behind the curtain. In a series of vignettes, we see him change into a leotard, pants and slippers. John has decided to perform ballet.
Berube’s warmly colored illustrations capture how John’s apprehension turns to confidence and even elation as he dances; his facial expressions and body language are spot-on. Much of this perfectly paced book is devoted to John’s performance, including five elegantly and economically composed, almost wordless spreads. In one, John gracefully lifts himself in an arc across the page. In the next, he moves across and down the spread in a series of steps, Berube’s sure lines showcasing his strength and skill. Near the end, a blur of movement ends in John’s beaming face as he is suspended mid-air in a leap.
Barnett wisely avoids heavy-handed commentary about ballet and gender stereotypes. There is no need for it. In John’s accomplished, nuanced and athletic performance, readers can see for themselves that boys, too, do ballet.
And anyway, at its heart, John’s Turn is about much more: It’s about the abundant and everyday courage of children, and it is also about “sharing gifts.” John faces down his fear to share his gift with determination, beauty and a style that is all his own. A true gift, indeed.