Title: Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao's Last Dancer
Author: Li Cunxin
Illustrator: Anne Spudvilas
Publisher: Walker & Co.
Concepts: poverty, child schooling and work, careers
Review: During China’s Cultural Revolution, a young boy named Li Cunxin endured extreme hunger, bitter cold, and a tiny bare living space that he shared with six brothers and his parents. They survived while countless others did not. Yet Li dreamed his life would differ from that of the fabled little frog who could not get out of the deep, dark well in which he lived.
An extraordinary and completely unexpected opportunity to live a better life came Li’s way when a small delegation visited his school searching for children with potential to become ballet dancers. They chose Li, and at the age of eleven he left his family to study ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. Although he missed his family terribly, years of rigorous training led him to become one of China’s best dancers, which in turn generated an invitation to study ballet in the United States. Li had managed to escape from the dark well, but he did not know for a long time if he would see his family again.
This beautifully-crafted children’s book, which Li Cunxin adapted from his adult memoir, offers a gripping portrayal of life during the Cultural Revolution and a moving depiction of his progression to adulthood and fame. To bolster the realism, the illustrator traveled with Li to China to visit his old village and the dance academy, and she trained in traditional Chinese painting techniques. Dancing to Freedom makes a valuable addition to any collection of children’s books that rank highly on artistic merit and substantive content.
Review by: Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children