Firebird is American Ballet Theater principal dancer Misty Copeland’s first children’s book. Now fast rising to the top of the American ballet scene, a feat that is virtually unheard of for a dancer of color, Copeland has been very vocal about the old-fashioned but very prominent and largely inescapable role of race in ballet, of her own struggles to be accepted and to advance as a so-called “non-traditional” ballerina. That she only just graced the cover of Pointe Magazine, a leading ballet monthly, at the very same time she debuted as Odile/Odette in Swan Lake makes the subject of this colorful picture book all the more a propos. Speaking to other young dancers of color, Firebird seeks to hearten those who face what seems to be insurmountable adversity. Through illustrations and a simple text that read as honest in their positivity and that, despite the meaning between the lines (i.e. it is ridiculously and yes, unjustly difficult for non-White dancers to make a serious career of dancing), communicate no bitterness and throw out no blame.
Rather than telling a story, Firebird is written in a poetic prose style that allows Copeland to speak directly to young readers who are wont to believe that they can ever achieve the success and stardom for which she has worked so hard. The painted collage illustrations place Copeland next to a young any-girl, as a sort of virtual mentor, dancing at her side, pushing her to keep reaching for the stars. The oversized book, whose full-page pictures somewhat overwhelm the sparingly punctuated, quasi-T.S. Eliot-style text, reinforces the feeling of a small child in a big world and what Copeland calls the vast “space between you and me”. The solitude and necessary inner-strength of a successful (but perpetual) student of ballet is visually depicted but prosaically countered by Copeland’s supportive ever-presence. And if it weren’t for the sometimes awkward, slightly stilted language of the Copeland voice, which is at once down-to-earth and pseudo-highbrow poetic, the book would soar as much as it wishes its readers to. It gets a bit too caught up in waxing poetic and wise, particularly given that Copeland is barely over 30 and very much at the beginning of her star career.
In the context of the trying circumstances that brought her to ballet, her biracial status, which has meant even more of a fight than is already part and parcel of the business, Firebird, reads as wonderfully encouraging and necessary. Firebird stands as yet another effort on Copeland’s part to bring glamour and diversity to the wider culture’s perception of ballet. Out of context, however, I found the ‘take heart’ tone a bit hackneyed and the language (and style) exasperating. I understand that Firebird is not supposed to be about Copeland; it’s supposed to be about “you”; I understand that she’s supposed to be approachable and ‘real’ in the way that stars seem not to be once they’ve become stars, but the style and language distract from that, which is a terrible pity.
My daughter, who is a seriously dedicated student of ballet, read the book, loved the colorful, emotive pictures, was swept up in the language—think: soaring firebird, point shoes, starry-eyed dreams—and very much appreciated the message. But, like me, she too was far more interested in Misty Copeland’s fabulous Firebird photograph and letter to the Reader, which communicate the very same message, but without the unintended pretentiousness or linguistic clumsiness of the book, proper. In other words, the book is almost discredited by the afterword, which does in a few short, essentially biographical paragraphs what the book strives to but doesn’t quite manage, even with its glossy, vibrant illustrations. Copeland is direct and unapologetically herself in her dancing; would that her editor had pushed her to be the same in her books because the message needs to be said many times, in many ways, loudly and clearly.
Recommendation: highly recommended Ages 7+
Reviewer: Julianna Tauschinger-Dempsey