Monday 30 March 2015

My Top Five Books About Ballet by Jane Lawes

Ballet stories are a staple of middle grade fiction, especially at the younger end. I devoured them when I was a child (and I still do). Maybe it’s because many of us went to dance classes when we were kids, so we could relate to the stories, but they were at the same time full of glamour and aspiration, full of the nervousness and thrill of performance. The first book in my new Ballet Stars series, Perfect Pirouette, is published on 1st April, so I wanted to look at the ballet books that have influenced me and inspired me, and some recent books I’ve enjoyed as well.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Let’s look at Ballet Shoes first, probably the most famous of all dance stories. The story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil and their discovery of the wonderful world of performance made me long desperately to be the fourth sister. Pauline and Posy’s passion for performance runs throughout the book, but it’s about way more than just dancing. The relationship between the three adopted sisters is the heart of the book, and it includes plenty of realistic arguments as well as the bond that holds them all together: their aim to get the Fossil name ‘into the history books’. It’s a cosy, heart-warming classic that I’ll always love going back to. Plus, it gets loads of points for showing a girl being great at fixing cars and dreaming of flying a plane.

Summer’s Dream by Cathy Cassidy

A much more recent book is Summer’s Dream from Cathy Cassidy’s Chocolate Box Girls series. When I read this, I immediately wanted to be part of the Tanberry family, just like I wanted to be a Fossil sister when I was young. Summer’s passion for ballet comes across from the very beginning, and the book deals with a similar theme to the first book in my Ballet Stars series – obsession, and how it can be both a good thing and a bad thing. In Summer’s Dream obsession leads in the direction of an eating disorder, something it’s extremely difficult to get right in fiction for middle-grade readers. Cathy Cassidy writes it well, never trivialising the disorder or making it seem easy to get over, and focusing on Summer’s emotions more than on her behaviour.

Hope in a Ballet Shoe by Michaela and Elaine DePrince

Okay, so this one’s not fiction. Hope in a Ballet Shoe is the autobiography of Michaela DePrince (written with her adopted mother Elaine DePrince). Michaela is a 19-year-old ballerina with Dutch National Ballet, but her life has not been easy. She was born in Sierra Leone, and when her parents died, she was sent to an orphanage where she witnessed the horrors of war. A photograph of a beautiful ballerina torn from a magazine gave her hope and when she was adopted by an American couple, she began to take dance classes. She quickly showed an incredible talent for ballet, but as she progressed with her training she experienced racial prejudice and other setbacks. Her story, one of ambition and dreams overcoming obstacles and fear, is really inspiring. It’s full of fun and enthusiasm, too, and Michaela writes about dancing like the ballet-mad teenager that she is. Parts of it are definitely not suitable for the younger end of the middle grade bracket, but the darker elements are written in a way that can be read by older children.

Dance Club: Footprint in the Clay by Mal Lewis Jones

One for fans of middle grade mysteries! When Annie moves from Scotland to a town in England, she quickly makes friends with Pip and Cherry, girls in her class at school who love dancing as much as she does. She joins their ballet class, and they also form a lunchtime dance club at school. But the real excitement starts when a footprint in a bag of clay in the school art room leads to a mystery that Annie and her friends must solve. There’s also a really fun rivalry with the mean girls from a rival dance school. Mal Lewis Jones also wrote a series set in a ballet boarding school, but I always preferred the funny, mystery-solving antics of Dance Club, set in the familiar worlds of the classroom and the church-hall-ballet-class. The books are out of print now but if you find old copies anywhere, they’re worth reading!

Star Turn by Jean Ure

Without any doubt, the author whose books have influenced me and inspired me the most is Jean Ure. She wrote loads of ballet stories, but my favourite was always Star Turn. It’s the story of a friendship between Jessamy, the youngest daughter of a famous ballet family, and Karen, who lives with her grandmother and is teaching herself ballet in secret because her grandmother can’t afford to pay for classes. It’s witty and fun, dramatic and heartfelt, and the two main characters are so passionate about ballet that it still makes me wish that I was friends with them. Jean Ure’s books are where I learned many of the things I know about ballet. I knew the names of ballets and dancers before I’d even seen much more than The Nutcracker, and most of that knowledge comes from this book. I love the detail about ballet steps and exercises. I love Jessamy’s wearied irritation with her busy parents and her famous older brother, and Karen’s sincerity and determination to dance, no matter what. As a child, what I loved most of all was that that it was a combination of a world I recognised – a classroom, a shopping centre, a tube train – and a world I longed to be part of. If you like books about ballet, read this one.

Jane Lawes is the author of Ballet Stars, a new series published by Usborne for readers aged 7 and up. Find out more at or follow her on Twitter @jane_lawes

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