The Peasant Prince, just published in Australia, tells the inspiring and now beloved story of author Li Cunxin in a picture book format. From a childhood of near starvation in the Chinese countryside to stardom in the highest echelons on classical ballet, Li told his story first in the 2003 adult memoir Mao’s Last Dancer, now in development as a film with director Bruce Beresford.
Encouraged by his friend, children’s book illustrator Graeme Base, Li pitched the memoir to Penguin and was enthusiastically encouraged first to write more, then to write in more detail, and eventually to cut some of the many hundred thousand words he had delivered. The finished book, an immediate success, soon came out in a young readers’ edition. The former dancer, by then a stockbroker, began doing book tours, where parents and schools urged him to do a picture book.
Li had read books illustrated by Anne Spudvilas to his own children and had loved them, so when she was suggested as illustrator for the picture book, he knew immediately that she would be “fantastic.” Anne got a grant from the Australia China Council to accompany him on a trip he was making to China, where she met his family, dance teachers, and ballet school friends. “She soaked it all up,” he said in a recent radio interview, and even decided to study Chinese painting. “Her first batch of illustrations took my breath away,” he said. He was especially impressed with how Anne had captured his family members.
“It’s been a great experience,” Anne emailed me recently, after we met at the book launch party for Elise Hurst. Li agrees. The illustrations really help tell the story. “Kids today are so privileged,” he said on the radio. “I think the picture of our family table when I was young, with just a tiny bit of food on it, might help them see how different my life was. Even my own kids seem to appreciate my story more since the books came out.”
More on Anne’s adventures in China coming soon…
Added on July 2008
The Peasant Prince is now available in the U.S. as Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao’s Last Dancer (Walker).