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'Dance' teaches kids about illness

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TACOMA, Wash. -- When young-adult novelist Dia Calhoun was a child, she loved "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale about sisters who mysteriously disappeared every night and returned in the morning with their shoes in tatters.

Calhoun also has Bipolar II disorder. In an author's note in her new book, "The Phoenix Dance," she writes that she has long wanted to write about the disorder, which causes dramatic mood swings from manic highs to depressive lows.

When the Tacoma resident reread the fairy tale as an adult, the thought of the depressed turn that the princesses' moods must have taken after their endless nights of manic dancing started the wheels turning.

"The Phoenix Dance" is an imaginative retelling of the princess tale with a 14-year-old aspiring shoemaker as its main character.

Phoenix Dance, apprentice to the royal shoemaker, is ambitious and creative. After her master loses his royal appointment because the princesses wear his shoes to shreds, Phoenix enters a contest to win the appointment back. Once she starts drawing designs for shoes, she can't stop.

"One idea suggested another, which leaped to another, like a cascading waterfall leaping from rock to rock, sweeping her along in its powerful stream. She felt ablaze with light, drunk on ideas -- ecstatic, possessed, seized," Calhoun wrote.

Though the book doesn't mention bipolar by name until the author's note at the end, anyone familiar with the disorder will recognize Phoenix's manic creativity and her plunges into debilitating depression.

In the book, it's called the Illness of the Two Kingdoms. A healer and her herbs help Phoenix manage her episodes. Even though the story takes place in a fantasy setting, Calhoun tackles real-life bipolar issues, such as finding the right combination and dose of medications and whether becoming stable is worth giving up the highs of the manic periods.

The other story line is typical, but still exciting, fantasy fare, as Phoenix takes a cloak of invisibility she's given and volunteers to find out where the princesses go at night. The answer involves dragon boats, mermen, fire, a wicked wizard and, ultimately, Phoenix coming to peace with her illness.

Calhoun has written an engrossing and unorthodox combination of fantasy adventure and the story of a young woman grappling with an illness. It's an important book, as bipolar disorder is diagnosed with increasing frequency among adolescents.

c.2005 Tacoma News Tribune

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