I first heard the story of Michaela DePrince after watching the acclaimed documentary “First Position” a couple of years ago. I am no fan of ballet. In fact initially I had watched it purely for the sake of my ballet-mad daughter. The documentary, which explored the lives of several young dancers, was notable for me only because of the story of Michaela. For me her story shone brighter than the others by a long way. Consequently little persuasion was needed to get me to read and review this memoir.
Written as a collaborative project between Michaela and her adoptive mother Elaine, “Hope in a Ballet Shoe” tells the story of a young girl living in war ravaged Sierra Leone who goes on to become a successful ballerina in the US. The story begins in Africa and encompasses Michaela’s first memories living as the only child of devoted parents in rural Sierra Leone. When civil war breaks out she is orphaned and so begins a life of uncertainty until her eventual liberation and journey to the US.
Obviously, this is a story about ballet, and it is clearly one that will be enjoyed by those with an interest in this genre. However, Michaela’s story transcends this and is equally a tale about survival and triumphing against adversity. For me this nearly overshadowed her dancing journey (one marked by persistence) and eventual success as a dancer. Thematically the story’s celebration of the refugee voice and exploration of racism in contemporary society make it a sound choice of text when exploring these specific issues in the classroom. However, the account of Michaela’s experiences in Sierra Leone, while not overtly graphic, might be distressing for very young readers making this text suitable for older Young Adults (14+).
While the language is not notable for its beauty or sophistication it is highly accessible. It is relatively short read making it a suitable choice for shared study in class from grade 10 upwards. Senior students might find this an excellent choice for independent study and it would pair harmoniously with the likes of Li Cunxin’s “Mao’s Last Dancer”, the film of the same name (2009), or the picture book “The Peasant Prince” by the same author.
Michaela’s story, speaks to a broad audience extending beyond those with an interest in dance. Though brief, is an inspiring and worthwhile read, suitable for older YA readers and the mainstream adult audience.
Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden
**Allen & Unwin provided me with a free review copy for this book. I have otherwise not been paid for any review or endorsement of this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased view.**