When the idea of writing a post about ballet books for teens came up I literally jumped at the chance. But as I thought about it more, and thought about all the reasons I loved hearing the stories of ballerinas and dancers, I wondered why it also seemed like such a fitting subject for teens to be interested in. After reading many fine ballet books, written for both teens and adults (which we’ll get to in just a second), I came up with the following theories:
1. Ballet is an form of the young. Many dancers begin their training as children, and by the time they become teens, they’re entering professional careers. The single-minded dedication that is required to dance at that level demands the kind of commitment that any teen on a sports team, working to master a musical instrument, or studying for important exams could relate to, and yet…
2. Ballet is somehow less accessible, more mysterious, a closed world that can only be accessed by being a part of it, or reading about it.
3. Ballet is a world of constant paradox: to look effortless on stage, dancers have to endure incredible tests of stamina, strength, pain, and sacrifice. There’s a whole lot of conflict in a a world like that, which makes for great storytelling.
Eager to peer into this secret world of beauty, tradition, grace, and the most hardcore training imaginable? Check out these titles:
Bunheads by Sophie Flack. Before even discussing the story, can we talk about this cover?! It’s one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen, and instantly conveys so much about the story. Hannah, the narrator, is a professional ballet dancer working her way up through the corps de ballet to hopefully become a soloist and star. A romance with a boy outside the world of dance begins to make her question her devotion to dance and the price she must pay to advance, and the kaleidescopic view of this cover reflects the mood of the story. It is a world of exacting precision, uniformity, and repetition. Sophie Flack is a former dancer with The New York City Ballet, and her story rings with authentic details without sensationalizing the lifestyle of a dancer. A perfect introduction to the world of professional teen dancers, written by an insider.
To Dance by Siena Cherson Siegal tells a similar story, but in the format of a graphic novel. (It’s also a past winner of the Robert F. Siebert Informational Book Award!)Siena’s story is a direct memoir, and tells about her journey not only through the world of dance, but from Puerto Rico to Boston and ultimately to the New York City Ballet. This is a quick read that lays out the ballet world visually for readers to observe while keeping the story uniquely personal.
A Very Young Dancer by Jill Kremetz treats readers to the same first-hand look at the world of a ballet student, but is illustrated photographically. It follows a young girl (not yet even a teen!) through her days at the School of American Ballet and a performance of The Nutcracker. Published in 1976, it can be a little hard to track down copies these days, but for generations of hopeful dancers, this book was their introduction to that world of glamour and discipline.
Dancing on My Grave by Gelsey Kirkland is the autobiography of one of the most celebrated prima ballerinas of the 1970s and 80s. At the time of publication in 1986, it was one of the first books to reveal the dark side of ballet as Kirkland frankly discussed her struggles with anorexia and drug use as well as the extreme expectations of the directors and company she danced for. Written for adults, this book is aimed at a more mature audience, but also examines the teen years that launched her career with sensitivity and honesty. (And the cover may rival Bunheads in dramatic presentation)
Rose Sees Red by Cecil Castellucci is an interesting twist on the traditional ballerina story, telling about the intersecting lives of two dancers, one American and the other Russian, during a single magical night at the height of Cold War era New York. Like Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, the night becomes a life-changing adventure for both characters, and although dance initially unites the girls in spite of their differences, the story is more general and may appeal to a wider audience than those looking for a glimpse into the professional world of dance.
Various Positions by Martha Schabas not only takes readers into the heart of a ballet school, but also presents the complications one dancer faces when realizing she has feeling for her teacher.
Audition by S. Ward similarly looks at the loneliness dancers can face when a talented dancer who has won a scholarship at a prestigious school finds herself falling for a choreographer.
Mao’s Last Dancer by Cunxin Li is a unique memoir of a male dancer, chosen to study in Bejing during China’s cultural revolution. As with many of the best ballet titles, the story of dance is really an introduction to a broader portrait of a time, place, and inspirationally determined individual.
Last but not least, I can’t end a post about Inspirational True Stories of Finding Yourself Through Dance without mentioning Center Stage, one of my very favorite (pretty cheesy) ballet movies ever. Come for the juicy romance, stay to enjoy what is surely one of craziest examples of “cutting edge” ballet choreography to ever grace the stage.
There are so many more ballet books and movies out there; I know that this list isn’t complete, but would love for you to add your favorite recommendations in the comments!
— Mia Cabana, currently reading A Feather on the Breath of God by Sigrid Nunez (and going to see a real ballet performance in a few weeks– after reading so many great themed books, how could I not?)
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