The ‘80s were an exciting time to be in New York City. Just ask Rose, a devoted—if conflicted—ballet dancer and student at the High School of Performing Arts. She gets to experience it all: flamboyant graffiti rattling by on each passing subway car, Baryshnikov at Lincoln Center and David Bowie and the Police as the soundtrack to it all.
But it was also the time of the Cold War. The international tension is especially real for Rose, whose building in Queens is next door to a Soviet apartment compound. Government agents haunt the neighborhood like something out of a spy movie. It’s weird, but they’re used to it; Rose and her brother Todd joke that you can tell the difference between the KGB and CIA guys by their shoes—sneakers for the Americans, black shoes for the Soviets. And anyway, Todd is in love with Yrena, a beautiful teenage girl whose bedroom Rose can see across the alley from her own.
Truthfully, it’s the smaller details of Rose’s life that concern her more than the nuclear arms race. Her bossy best friend Daisy rejected her when she decided to go to a different high school to pursue ballet, but she hasn’t felt brave enough to befriend her eclectic new classmates yet, either. She’s lonely, and even dancing doesn’t offer much solace. It’s scary to think she might never be good enough.
The bulk of the story of Rose Sees Red unfolds over the course of one crazy night, when Yrena climbs through Rose’s window to make friends, and the two of them end up exploring Manhattan, losing and finding themselves in the process. This lovely story is a lot of things—it’s an ode to New York, to friendship as a revolution and to learning to be yourself. Cecil Castellucci uses analogy and symbolism in a wonderfully subtle way, underscoring emotional truths without bopping her readers over the head with them: “I never minded . . . when Daisy and I played at being prima ballerina and she would insist on being all the princesses and make me be all the other parts,” Rose tells us. “Often it was the other parts that got the more interesting movements of music.”