An Unlikely Ballerina
“a heroic tale with a true female hero.”
The majesty of a ballerina leaping and twirling onstage is one that many little girls respond to with passion, and why not? It’s all there, beauty, grace, discipline, and amazing feats of exquisite power and athleticism. And costumes! Make up! Romantic stories and thrilling, Heart-stopping music! Magical lighting! And beautiful men to dance with.
But not many girls themselves get to follow this dream. Or even aspire to the hard work and sacrifice that is required. In this new title from Kar-ben we learn about a Jewish girl from London, Lily Marks, who has weak legs. Despite wearing clunky corrective shoes, there is no improvement. When she is threatened with leg braces, her mother inquires about some other solution. “Would you be willing to try an experiment?” the doctor asks.
Dancing lessons! Lily perseveres, her legs improve and grow stronger. She exclaims: “Dancing lessons are the nicest kind of medicine.”
As she excels, her parents give her private lessons. Soon, she infects her little sisters with the urge to dance, and Papa builds a stage for them. At eight years old she wins first prize in a contest. Despite chicken pox, she thrills an audience with a school performance of Arabian Nights.
The great ballerina, Anna Pavlova, also Jewish, is to perform in London. Lily begs her father to somehow arrange a meeting. Soon, she is to dance for the star at her home, Ivy House. Passing fountains and swans, Lily walks up to the grand house and dances for the great star. Pavlova says “You can become a fine dancer.” But “your life will be hard work, and you must be prepared to give up many pleasures.”
Lily Marks devotes her life to ballet and becomes the legendary Alicia Markova. This frail girl with wobbly legs becomes the first ballerina assoluta in history.
We get a well-rounded biography here, at times, perhaps a little wordy, as the art has its own story to tell. Cosei Kawa, a Japanese illustrator who won the Macmillan Prize in 2007, does a beautiful job of capturing this world, and varies the graphics to great effect.
But no young reader will have trouble with the fullness of the story. Kar-ben’s mandate, to publish books of Jewish interest, is well-served with its light touch but inclusion of Lily’s religion. It earns a secure place as a heroic tale with a true female hero.