By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Mariko Turk to the WNDB blog to discuss her YA novel The Other Side of Perfect, out May 11, 2021!
For fans of Sarah Dessen and Mary H.K. Choi, this lyrical and emotionally driven novel follows Alina, a young aspiring dancer who suffers a devastating injury and must face a world without ballet—as well as the darker side of her former dream.
Alina Keeler was destined to dance, but then a terrifying fall shatters her leg—and her dreams of a professional ballet career along with it.
After a summer healing (translation: eating vast amounts of Cool Ranch Doritos and binging ballet videos on YouTube), she is forced to trade her pre-professional dance classes for normal high school, where she reluctantly joins the school musical. However, rehearsals offer more than she expected—namely Jude, her annoyingly attractive castmate she just might be falling for.
But to move forward, Alina must make peace with her past and face the racism she experienced in the dance industry. She wonders what it means to yearn for ballet—something so beautiful, yet so broken. And as broken as she feels, can she ever open her heart to someone else?
Touching, romantic, and peppered with humor, this debut novel explores the tenuousness of perfectionism, the possibilities of change, and the importance of raising your voice.
The Other Side of Perfect dives into issues of rediscovery who you are when your life changes suddenly. Although Alina’s exact experience as a ballerina with an injury isn’t universal, this is common in high school. How did you bring that universality into Alina’s specific story?
I tried to be honest about how a young person would react to a devastating change that upends their entire identity. In my first draft of the book, Alina handled things relatively easily. I think I felt so much for her situation that I wanted her to get through it as unscathed as possible. I wanted to protect her from the pain. Not only did that make for a pretty boring story, but it was also dishonest. The journey through an unexpected, life-altering change would not be an easy one for Alina or for any other young person.
So I thought frankly about how tumultuous Alina’s emotions would be in this situation, and how difficult—or impossible—the recovery process would seem to her at times. Once I let her have those messy feelings, the story felt both specific to her and more representative of how rocky the road to rediscovery would be for any young person.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Did you surprise yourself while writing this book?
I’m a pantser. Writing is how I think. Themes, characters, and plot all take shape when I’m drafting. It’s such an exciting feeling when you dive into a scene with only a vague idea of where it’s going, and you end up realizing something crucial about the story as a whole.
One example in TOSOP is the first extended, one-on-one conversation between Alina and her love interest, Jude. When I started writing, I only knew the scene was going to show them tentatively getting to know each other, and I ended up discovering a key aspect of Jude’s backstory that also helped generate a major theme of the book. But that’s the ideal pantsing outcome. If pantsing were always like that, I’d have finished every book I ever started. Instead, I have tons of unfinished manuscripts on my computer because I got stuck somewhere along the way and didn’t have a road map to see me through. So pantsing has its benefits and pitfalls.
And I did surprise myself while writing this book. After all those years of writing incomplete manuscripts, TOSOP is the first book I ever finished. Best surprise ever!
Did you do any research for this book? Can you tell us something you didn’t end up using in the book that you loved learning?
How pointe shoes are made! Many professional ballet dancers wear handmade pointe shoes that are crafted and customized by one specific pointe shoemaker. Dancers can get so attached to their makers that they won’t wear pointe shoes made by anyone else.
I love the idea that ballet dancers and pointe shoemakers have this really important, almost intimate relationship, and yet they rarely ever meet. It’s so evocative! It could inspire so many stories that I would want to read!
If you could design your dream panel to promote this book, what would it be about? What other authors would love you to have on it with you?
One thing I’ve always admired about ballerinas is their ability to make complex, difficult movements appear light and graceful. Similarly, I’ve always admired books that tackle complex, difficult themes while maintaining a light, romantic feel.
So my dream panel would be about all the work that goes into crafting stories like that, and it would feature a couple of my favorite YA authors who are masters at it: Emma Mills and Maurene Goo.
World-building is often considered a fantasy and sci-fi necessity, but it’s also important in contemporary, especially in a book where your protagonist is a pre-professional ballerina. What was the world-building like for The Other Side of Perfect and how did you make Alina’s experiences with ballet come alive?
There are two worlds I wanted to bring to life in TOSOP. There’s the elite ballet world, which Alina is mourning the loss of. And then there’s the high school world, which is Alina’s new—and at first, highly disappointing—reality. A lot of the tension in the book comes from Alina’s shifting thoughts about both worlds.
To bring both worlds alive, I tried to see them through Alina’s specific perspective. At first, Alina sees the ballet world as beautiful and perfect, so I focused on her nostalgic, rose-colored memories of dancing. By comparison, the high school world seems mundane and alienating, so I made sure to depict the shabbiness of the school auditorium and the theatre kids’ confusing, inside jokes—all the things that make Alina feel like she doesn’t belong. Slowly, as Alina’s perspective shifts, and she begins to see the ugly parts of ballet and the beautiful parts of high school, the descriptions of each world change, too.
What other books do you see The Other Side of Perfect as being in conversation with?
Phil Chan’s Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact. Chan is a dancer, and his book details a lot of the issues Alina grapples with in TOSOP regarding racism in the ballet world. In his book, Chan also discusses how he works with choreographers and artistic directors to rework ballets that feature offensive Asian representation, such as The Nutcracker (a ballet that figures heavily in TOSOP).
Chan’s book illustrates some of the work happening right now to address ballet’s racist past and present. I’d love it if readers who are moved by Alina’s fictional journey found ways to become involved in these types of initiatives in real life.
And do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming kidlit?
In terms of dance books, I’d recommend Paula Chase’s Turning Point, which is a wonderful recent upper middle grade book that gives an insightful look at the pre-professional ballet world from the perspective of a young Black dancer.
Right now, I’m reading Sia Martinez and the Moonlit Beginning of Everything by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland. I love how it combines contemporary YA romance with folklore and sci-fi and other unexpected things. It’s so impressive. I highly recommend it!
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
What are your favorite movie dance sequences?
I love so many movie dance sequences (every movie should have one, in my opinion) but here are my top 3:
- Rich Man’s Frug from Sweet Charity. It’s so odd and wonderful. The choreographer, Bob Fosse, has such a distinct style.
- Ten Minutes Ago from the 1997 TV version of Cinderella. I taped the movie when I was a kid and watched it over and over again, wishing I knew how to waltz.
- The Vamp sequence in “Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain. This dance plays a big role in THE OTHER SIDE OF PERFECT, and I’ve always loved its energy.
Mariko Turk teaches writing and rhetoric classes and works as a writing tutor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She received her PhD in English from the University of Florida, with a concentration in children’s literature. The Other Side of Perfect is her debut novel.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. She also teaches in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and is a book reviewer for Booklist. She received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for her work in the publishing industry. Her writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives in Boston with her wife and their two literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.