Simonie and the Dance Contest
Simonie and the Dance Contest
At morning recess, when the sun came up and gave them some light, Simonie and Dana practised on the playground. The snow was flat and crisp, so Simonie and Dana stamped out a circle and practised dancing in opposite directions inside it.
Simonie lives in Taloyoak, Nunavut, and is excited to compete in the community’s annual Christmas Jigging Dance Contest. As he diligently practices over the span of weeks, he finds that he has the footwork down but has difficulty being one with the music. He wonders if he be able to feel the music in his bones by the day of the competition, and, with the help of family, friends, and lots of practice, he does!
Simonie and the Dance Contest is a solid story about working towards a goal and overcoming setbacks, a perennial and vital subject in children’s literature. Matthews handles the topic well. Simonie practices for weeks, a realistic span of time to (somewhat) master such a skill, and perseveres when he has difficulty getting it right. He asks for feedback from several people that he trusts and graciously accepts what they have to say, a skill in and of itself! The realism of the story does feel stretched, however, when Simonie and his dance partner end up winning first place in the contest. This win may not bother most readers, but not everyone can be a winner, and it would have been nice to see Simonie happy with a lower finish. The concluding sentence stating that Simonie was proud because “he knew he had danced his best” rings a little hollow considering that he took first prize.
The story takes place in Nunavut, and all the characters appear to be Inuit. Simonie calls his parents Anaana and Ataata, with the Inuktitut words being italicized on their first appearances in the text. Other than this and the main plot of the story, there are few indicators of the community’s cultural heritage. That being said, I am not Inuit so am in no way qualified to identify or assess the accuracy of cultural symbols or practices. Neither the author nor illustrator identify as Inuit in their bios, although Matthews does live in Taloyoak, and so the omission of cultural symbols was likely a respectful one.
Overall, Simonie and the Dance Contest does a wonderful job of providing both a window and a mirror to life in the Arctic. For those not familiar with life in the north (such as this reviewer), the story is accessible and approachable while providing small details that shed light on day-to-day life in a small northern community. For example, the mention of Simonie and Dana waiting until recess to practice because that is when the sun comes up is easy to miss but serves as a great discussion starter for children about the length of days in different places on the globe.
The writing in the English version is, for the most part, spot-on. The author balances emotions, environmental description, and action well, making this moderately long picture book read smoothly and quickly. The only major critique is the odd inclusion of Simonie’s love of reading. Looking at her dedication, it is clear that the author has a love for both reading and dancing, but the focus on reading in the first two pages (“He loved [reading] so much that he practised reading syllabics everywhere”) seems odd. It particularly feels misplaced when reading never comes up again.
The artwork found in the story is typical of that found Inhabit Media books, with high contrast illustrations and slightly cartoonish characters. The humans, both principal and background, have little variety. Everyone’s build is slightly blocky, with no one being particularly skinny or large. Skin tone and hair colour likewise are consistent throughout the cast. That the illustrations make the characters their focus and have simple backgrounds helps to keep the reader’s attention centred on the protagonist and his experiences. The scenes appear reasonably dynamic, but there are a couple of instances where Simonie feels static even though he has been caught mid-motion.
Simonie and the Dance Contest is a welcome picture book entry on the topic of “practice makes perfect”, with an Arctic flair. An Inuktitut edition is also available.
Sadie Tucker is a children’s librarian at the Vancouver Public Library.