Review: Dance Like a Leaf

Dance Like a Leaf
Author: AJ Irving
Illustrator: Claudia Navarro
Barefoot Books
Ages: 4 – 9 years old (Grades P to 4)

“Burgundy leaves hum softly, curling at the ends. Crisp and fragile, they hang by a thread.”
–AJ Irving, Dance like a Leaf

A gentle book that slowly introduces the concept of death, Dance like a Leaf, tells the story of a young girl who shares many Autumn traditions with her grandmother. As her grandmother’s health deteriorates, the young girl begins to lead, rather than follow. Until ultimately, she carries-on the traditions with only her grandmother’s spirit by her side.

The book starts a September, with the grandmother in good health; and progresses through the Autumn with her health declining slowly. With each step, Irving steers us with gentle, almost lyrical “word pictures” (beautifully accented by Navarro’s warm, lush illustrations) easing us through the decline. Take for instance:

Grandma forgets her scarves.

“I think you need three,” I say.

“I think you’re right,” Grandma says.

Dance Like a Leaf

The steps are gradual, so that by the time we finish the story, the grandmother has finished her journey. This, both Irving and Navarro do exceptionally well. Their words and illustrations morph seamlessly to create a picture of grief that is beautiful, heartfelt and warm. The words are sparse, but they say so much:


Nearly naked trees shed the last of their leaves.

Grandma’s bed is empty.

Our teacups sit in a tidy stack.

Our scarves hang like a rainbow, quiet but vibrant.

Irving’s writing flows effortlessly, gliding across the page with a warmth that engulfs the reader, cushioning the crescendo. As I was reading the book, I was reminded of the opening sequence of Disney’s Up, where we fall in love with a relationship before death ultimately breaks its bonds. Irving had far fewer pages to get the feeling across; yet we are left with the same emptiness and ultimate feeling of resilience. No small feat for a first-time author.

There are those that think that children in the target age range are too young to process a book like this. In fact, they are too old not to have the proper tools to process grief. Oftentimes children are left to their own devices to handle the death of a loved one (or indeed any loss) without the means to understand what’s going on. This book goes a long way towards providing one tool for that arsenal.

By the way, the book does not “end” until the back cover. As with all things in life, make sure you get all the way to the end.

Dance like a Leaf (Support an Independent Bookstore)
Dance like a Leaf (Hardcover at Amazon)*

More books for this Age Group can be found here.

My thanks to Edelweiss and the Publisher for providing an Advance Copy of this book. The views expressed herein are my own.

*As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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