By Cyrisse Jaffee
A trio of new ballet books offer messages of inclusion and acceptance that both celebrate ballet and acknowledge some of its problems.
Boys Dance! by John Robert Allman, illustrated by Luciano Loazano. Doubleday, 40 pages. $17.99.
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Bunheads by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Setor Fiadzigbey. Putnam, 32 pages, $17.99.
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Welcome to Ballet School by Ashley Bouder, illustrated by Julia Bereciartu. Quarto Publishing, 64 pages, $19.99.
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Whether they’ve seen a live ballet, watched one on television, or seen ballet-like moves in animated movies, children are often enthralled by the grace and skill of ballet dancers. Ballet is also fiercely marketed to young girls, and although there are occasionally boys who take to ballet, the prima ballerina — often sparkly, slim, graceful, and clothed in pink — is the coveted ideal for many little girls. A conversation with children about how the professional ballet world reinforces sexism and unrealistic body images is certainly a useful and important one to have, but it may seem daunting. Here are several new ballet books offering messages of inclusion and acceptance that can help you celebrate ballet even as you acknowledge some of its problems.
Welcome to Ballet School by Ashley Bouder, illustrated by Julia Bereciartu, is a detailed look at the basics and features a diverse group of Black, white, and brown classmates (three girls, two boys). After practicing stretching, floor exercises, positions, etc., the children then put on their own version of Sleeping Beauty. Although the book features a teacher-narrator, this is more of an instruction manual than a story book, which may not keep kids engaged. Some less dedicated kids may lose interest. Written by a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, who also runs an arts collaboration dedicated to “furthering the inclusion of women and marginalized people in leadership roles in the performing arts world,” the book will appeal mainly to kids who are already taking — and loving — ballet. The drawings, by a Spanish artist who lives in Brazil, are serviceable, but may remind some of those Ty and other popular big-eyed toys.
The American Ballet Theatre (ABT) book Boys Dance! by John Robert Allman, illustrated by Luciano Lozano, is one in a series of books about dance done by ABT. Told in short rhymes, this is an upbeat, encouraging volume that explores the athleticism, skill, and strength required to dance, and references other types of dance and dancers — hip-hop, modern, tap, and jazz. It will help boys feel more comfortable pursuing dance, as well as expand the definition of ballet for little girls. The energetic and lighthearted illustrations show racially diverse boys and a male teacher, along with posters of famous male dancers, including icons such as Savion Glover and Gene Kelly. Short bios of ABT male dancers, with photos, are included at the end.
Misty Copeland’s Bunheads, illustrated by Setor Fiadzigbey, is another welcome addition to the variety of books about dance. Copeland, the first Black woman to be promoted to principal dancer at ABT, tells a lovely story about a young Misty who is enchanted when she hears the story of Coppélia at her very first ballet lesson. An older girl helps her learn more and together they perform in the ballet recital together — with Misty in a semi-starring role! Aside from the credulity factor (Misty is cast after just one class) this is a richly illustrated story, featuring an African-American main character, and filled with the beauty and excitement of ballet, performing, and friendship. It will inspire little kids everywhere.
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for the Education Department of WGBH. She holds a Master’s in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.