Li Cunxin, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas,
The Peasant Prince
Viking/Penguin (Australia), 2007.
Li Cunxin’s The Peasant Prince, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, answers a demand made by parents and teachers after the success of Li’s 2003 multiple award-winning memoir, Mao’s Last Dancer. An immediate hit when it was published in Australia, that story of a Chinese boy plucked from poverty to become an international ballet star (and defector) was appealing enough, but meanwhile Li had also married an Australian ballerina, moved to Melbourne, and retired from ballet to become a stockbroker. No wonder he was a popular motivational speaker. And no wonder teachers and parents clamored for a picture book version.
The picture book tells the story through the use of two vivid images, one of a boy tying his wishes to a kite and the other of a frog living in a “deep dark well” and longing to see the world above. The magic of Spudvilas’ tender brush paintings brings those images and Li’s story alive for young children.
Describing his family’s desperate poverty, Li mentions hating his brothers’ “feet in my face” as they slept crowded together in their tiny room; the illustration also shows newspapers covering the walls of the room. When he leaves home at age 11 to attend the Beijing Opera school, “I could feel my mother’s love as she held me tight in her arms,” Li writes, and the soft blues and delicate gestures of Spudvilas’ brushwork convey the scene’s powerful emotion. Drab blues brighten to yellows and browns in Beijing, where Li’s flexible young body is trained and he makes a lifelong friend. For the illustrations of Li's life in the U.S. Spudvilas changed her medium from Chinese brushes on rice paper to oil painting, "to achieve the rich and glossy colour of the big city, in contrast to the low key colours of the Chinese scenes." Still, the colors are relatively muted until the wonderful day when Li’s parents can come to see him dance in Houston. Throughout this inspiring, beautiful story, images of Li’s leaps and extensions express the joy and freedom that dance gave both to Li, and ultimately, to his family. The book is a great writer-illustrator collaboration, with images and text equally carrying the narrative.
A page of information “About Li’s China” gives children some background about China’s isolation and poverty during Li’s childhood and about subsequent changes in the country. Penguin will publish the book in the U.S. in 2008 as Dancing to Freedom. Li’s story is also being made into a film by Bruce Beresford.