Aidan Chambers’s Dance Sequence, six novels with shared themes (though not characters) debuted 30 years ago with the publication of Breaktime. This month, Amulet Books is releasing paperback reissues of this young adult novel, as well as the second installment, Dance on My Grave. The publisher will reissue the third and fourth books, Now I Know and The Toll Bridge, in spring 2009. The volumes have new cover art with a unified look and include new afterwords by the author.
Published in Chambers’s native England by Random House U.K., Dance Sequence has a somewhat peripatetic publishing history on these shores. The first three novels were originally released by Harper & Row, and the fourth by HarperCollins, between 1978 and 1992. The fifth book, Postcards from No Man’s Land, was acquired by Susan Van Metre, now editorial director of Amulet Books, when she was an editor at Dutton. Penguin retains rights to this title, which was released in hardcover in 2002 and reprinted as a Puffin paperback in 2004. After Van Metre moved to Amulet in 2002, she signed up the final volume, This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn, which was published in hardcover in 2006 and in paperback this past spring.
“Aidan and I had built a nice rapport, and I believe he saw Amulet as a good home for This Is All,” says Van Metre of the author’s decision to follow his editor to her new house, adding that she had hoped for the opportunity to bring the earlier books back into print as well. “The timing seemed right, since Amulet has recently brought the final book out in paperback,” she says.
Chambers, recipient of the Carnegie Medal (for Postcards from No Man’s Land), the Printz Award (for This Is All) and the Hans Christian Andersen Award for his body of work, did not initially expect that this sequence would stretch to six novels. “As I was finishing the second, Dance on My Grave,” he recalls, “I had an entirely irrational feeling that there would be six.”
The author says that the books’ storylines, which explore language and how individuals create and recreate themselves through language, are fictional, but include incidents based on his actual experiences. The novels’ settings, including Amsterdam and England’s seaside town of Southend, “are all real and are places I’ve lived,” he explains. “I think it is Hal in Dance on My Grave who, replying to his teacher’s question about whether the story he wrote for homework is autobiographical or invented, says that his story is invented but he has felt all the emotions. I’d say the same of all my novels.”
Each book took multiple years to write, says Chambers, and the writing did not come more easily with time. “I huff and puff and struggle with every sentence, paragraph and page—sometimes every word as well,” he remarks. “And as the sequence progressed, it got harder because I had to avoid repeating myself and had to dig deeper and deeper into myself—or, as my wife puts it, cut closer and closer to the bone.” The final installment proved to be the exception. “This one came the easiest and with the greatest pleasure,” he says of This Is All. “It happens also to be the book I’m proudest of. It brings together everything in the other five.”
Given its title, it is not surprising to hear Chambers say that the sixth novel is the last in the sequence. “This one concluded the pattern, finished the whole story,” he says. “To use painting as an example, the six books are like six pictures hanging on their own in a gallery. When you first go to see them they seem to be six different paintings. But as you leave the room and turn back to take one last look, you realize that, in fact, the six pictures make one big picture, which is more complex than any of them on its own.”
Van Metre believes that the novels were “ahead of their time” and is optimistic about the Dance Sequence’s viability in today’s market. “I believe their time has come now in terms of their bristling intelligence and their recognition of the intellectual curiosity of teens,” she says. “The books are demanding of the reader just as the characters are demanding of life and of one another.”
Breaktime and Dance on My Grave by Aidan Chambers. Amulet, $8.95 each paper ISBN 978-0-8109-7262-9; -7261-2