Published by Sky Pony Press on November 1, 2016
Genres: YA, YA Contemporary
Source: YA Books Central
Magnolia Woodson wants nothing more than to get her and her sister, Rose, out of the pitifully small, clamming-obsessed Oregon town that hates them—she just doesn’t know how. Forced to put up with the snide comments and hateful looks the townspeople throw at them, Mags thinks she’s destined to pay for the horrible, awful thing her mom did—and that she’s left her and Rose to deal with—until the day she dies.
But when a nationwide televised dance competition posts tryouts in nearby Portland, Mags’s best friend, George, says they have to go and audition. Not only have they spent the past fourteen years of their lives dancing side-by-side, dreaming of a day just like this, but also it could be Mags’s chance of a lifetime—a chance to win the grand-prize money and get her and Rose out of Summerland, a chance to do the thing she loves most with everyone watching, a chance to show the town that she’s not—and has never been—a “no-good Woodson girl,” like her mother. But will the competition prove too steep? And will Mags be able to retain her friendship with George as they go head-to-head in tryouts? Mags will have to learn that following her dreams may mean changing her life forever.
Diversity Rating: 2 – It’s a Start!
Racial-Ethnic: 1 (identities unclear; I think Rio is black and Magnolia is biracial?)
QUILTBAG: 0 (a few queer characters, but the book is seriously biphobic)
Disability: 1 (Mags’s mom is a drug addict but only appears in the book via flashbacks)
Intersectionality: 1 (Mags and her sister are pretty poor)
Dance remains an underappreciated art and it’s an especially difficult one to translate into writing because it’s so visual. You can list off what the character is doing as they dance or be vague to let the reader’s imagination to do the job, among other things. Does Spin the Sky nail it? Definitely! Other problems in the book, like rampant biphobia, create a major sticking point, however.
MacKenzie handily establishes the stakes for Magnolia and makes the reader understand what Mags is going through. In her small Oregon town, she and her sister Rose are ostracized because their mom introduced the mayor’s daughter to drugs and she later died of an overdose. Then their mom took off, leaving the two sisters on their own to pay the bills and face the community that hold them accountable for their mother’s sins. If she can’t get into and win Live to Dance, she’ll never be able to escape. She’ll just have to live forever in a place where everying despises her.
Mags’s desperation to get away from everyone’s judgment and make something of herself with her incomparable dance skills practically bleeds from the pages. Further down her list of priorities but still there: her hope that her best friend George, who she believes is gay, will somehow return her feelings one day. Though George has a name like a Weasley, he’s all Slytherin inside; when he trips up at the Live to Dance audition, he uses Mags’s personal story to ensure he makes it to the show proper.
Naturally, Mags isn’t very happy about her supposed best friend airing her dirty laundry on national television for his own benefit. That’s when he becomes her enemy and rival instead.
Spin the Sky is a very slow read, seeing as it takes just over half the book to get to the auditions. From there, each round of Live to Dance passes almost too quickly, but each scene that takes place as Mags dances onstage is compelling with beautiful language. If you can get through the overly lengthy journey to the brightly lit stage of Live to Dance, all the time you’ve spent on the book starts to become worth it. The process of the show itself is questionable considering how quickly it moves and they pick all twelve finalists from a single day of auditions in a single city, but it’s still fun.
What isn’t fun is the rampant biphobia that comes from Mags’s mouth and thoughts. Since she came upon George kissing a boy a few years before and he felt nothing when he kissed Mags to see if he was into girls too, she’s believed he’s gay. When she vocalizes her belief for the first time, it’s more fuel for the fire that is their post-audition argument that results from him using her story to keep himself in the competition.
During the aforementioned argument, she says to George that “[y]ou either like girls, or guys. You don’t get to have it all, you know” (ARC, p. 237). Later on after he’s seemingly begun dating fellow contestant Rio, she says “I’m more confused than ever about George, his suddenly pissy mood, and–let’s just say it here–whether he prefers male or female genitalia” (ARC, p. 282). It seems Mags has never heard of bisexuality, pansexuality, or how deeply disgusting it is to conflate sexual attraction with genitalia. Sexuality is so much more complicated than that!
In the end, Mags doesn’t reflect on it and apologize to George specifically for what she said. Instead, she decides that, like how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world will never know whether George is into guys, girls, both, or more. The solution to biphobia is not bisexual erasure (and the novel never uses the word “bisexual,” by the way). There’s simply no way I could rec it to bi or pan readers and have a part in giving them a novel that disrespects their identities.
To be fair, these quotes come from my ARC and it’s possible they aren’t in the finalized book or the ending is different for Mags. Despite my best efforts, I haven’t been able to get a final copy to check these quotes against. If they are no longer in the book or they’ve been otherwise altered to counter or erase the unchecked biphobia, I’ll come back and make a note of that.
MacKenzie captures the spirit of a dancer with aplomb in her debut novel and brings the visual art to life on the page. Were Mags not so biphobic or were her prejudices checked in some manner, I’d be able to give the book a much more glowing review. Regardless, I look forward to what MacKenzie writes next and hope it will have all of the quality with none of the bigotry.