First, you have to believe that it’s possible. Can a person of color become a professional dancer? These diverse dance picture books plant the seed … but not for my kids.
I could never coax my girls into dancing. My oldest did one year at the Boston Ballet School when she was four. I was thrilled. She seemed really great at it. I envisioned her gliding gracefully into years of ballet culminating in a small part in The Nutcracker. Instead, her ballet shoes got a tad small with just two classes to go before the summer break. I let her just dance in them. She promptly quit after that, saying that ballet hurt her feet.
I tried again when we moved to the suburbs. The ballet class included tutus, stuffed bears, sunglasses and a juice box break. “Open like a birdie,” they’d tell the kids before popping the straw into their mouths so the juice box wouldn’t spill. Neither the tutus nor the stuffed animals tempted my girls away from the wall where they stood and watched for over an hour each week. They would only participate for the juice box.
PickyKidPix messing around with a tutu that came in the mail with a picture book. She pairs it with her soccer uniform.
Even though my kids don’t dance, I’ve tried to include a picture book about dancing with reference to their Korean, Chinese and Japanese heritage. Who knew that this would prove to be so challenging? Did you know that modern gymnastics that you see in the Olympics has its roots in classical Chinese dance?!
It’s interesting that there are a plethora of ninja-themed picture books but nary a ballet one with an Asian American character. Not even a minor one. It’s as if Asian American children don’t dance at all.
How about you? Do your kids like to dance or just read about dancing? My kids like watching kids dance as well via reality TV shows. Is there a better dance picture book about Asian culture that you like? Please share! Thanks!
Top 10 Diversity Dance Picture Books
10. Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Meyers
American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland tells a story of a ballerina counseling a young dancer not to give up. It’s her story of sweating at the barre, learning to grow steady in grace to rise through the ranks of ballet to become the Firebird. Her story will inspire young dancers everywhere, as she meant it too. When she grew up, she never saw a ballerina of color so this is her gift to us all. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
To Dance: A Memoir by Siena Cherson Siegel, illustrated by Mark Siegel
Siena is a young elite ballet dancer at the School of Amerian Ballet in NewYork. This is her story of dancing alongside luminaries such as Suzanne Ferrell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and George Balanchine. Husband Mark Siegel makes this graphic novel memoir a family affair by writing and illustrating his wife’s story that encompasses not just her journey as a young ballerina but also the family problems at home and in Puerto Rico. Siena references African, and Cambodian or Thai dancing in her memoir, as well as A Very Young Dancer, all of which influenced her. [graphic novel, ages 8 and up]
9. Mama, I’ll Give You the World by Roni Schotter & S. Saelig Gallagher
Luisa is planning a surprise for Mama’s birthday tomorrow. She stopped dancing after Papa left, working hard as a hairstylist at Walter’s World of Beauty. There’s an old photo of when Mama was happy, in Roseland, but Mama says they can’t go there. As Luisa assists Mama with her clients, she has secretly recruited them all to help. And when Luisa tricks Mama into returning to work in her prettiest dress, she finds that the hair salon has been transformed into Roseland and everyone is ready to dance.
The Roseland Ballroom was a multipurpose hall, in a converted ice skating rink, with a colorful ballroom dancing pedigree, in New York City’s theater district, on West 52nd Street in Manhattan. It closed in 2014.
8. Behind the Mask by Yangsook Choi
Halloween is coming and Kimin decides to go as his grandfather who passed away. His grandfather used to dance in Korea and Kimin once saw him dressed in a scary mask. When Kimin goes through his grandfather’s belongings, he finds many masks including the scary one as well as a Korean robe. This makes a very good costume. After trick-or-treating, Kimin discovers a note that was tucked inside the mask from his grandfather, reaffirming that he wanted his grandson to have his masks. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
Talchum, or mask dance, is a traditional Korean folk dance usually held outside. Masked dancers — traditionally peasants and farmers — enact dramas in song and dance, often criticizing and making fun of the ruling class.
7. Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
A contemporary Native American girl, Jenna, wants to dance the jingle dance at the next powwow but her Grandmother Wolfe doesn’t think there’s enough time to order the rolling jingles needed for her dress. She needs four rows of jingles in order for her dress to sing and everyone she asks is willing to help her out.
In this story, Jenna is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and is also of Ojibway (Chippewa/Anishinabe) descent. She lives in a contemporary intertribal community and family in Oklahoma.
6. Alvin Ailey by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney
When Alvin moved from Texas to Los Angeles, he encountered African-American Katherine Dunham and her dance troupe which not only demonstrated that African-Americans could be professional dancers but introduced him to the world of modern dance. Alvin wanted to study dance but in 1949, most dance schools would not accept black students. Luckily for Alvin, the Lester Horton Dance Theater School was inclusive for students of all races. After graduation, Alvin moved to New York City and studied ballet with Karen Shook and modern dance technique from Martha Graham. It was in New York that Alvin had the idea of starting a modern dance company that would dance to blues and gospel music. He found nine other dancers that shared in his dream. Their first show, Blues Suite, was a hit. Alvin’s African-American modern dance company would change the face of American dance forever. His dance company today has performed for over 15 million people in over forty-five countries. [biography picture book in chapters, ages 9 and up]
My girls and I went to an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performance for the first time a few months ago in Boston. There were dancers of all colors including Asians and Caucasians, signaling an inclusive message. The dancers told stories with motions; some easier to follow than others, though we enjoyed it all.
5. Lion Dancer: Ernie Wan’s Chinese New Year by Kate Waters
It’s Chinese New Year in New York City and young Ernie Wan is very excited because he gets to dance his first Lion Dance to celebrate! His father, a Kung Fu teacher, has trained him and his siblings to dance the intricate and always-moving Lion Dance. Chinese New Year is full of traditions including new clothes, red envelopes, feasts but especially the Lion Dance parade. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
4. A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student by Valerie Gladstone, photographs by José Ivey
What’s it like to study at the prestigious Alvin Ailey School in New York City? 13-year-old Iman Bright takes us through her life balancing school, violin, and dance. We meet her friends and her teachers including the famous Ms. Judith Jamison, the Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Iman’s story will inspire young dancers but also readers who just like to voyeur into the lives of other young people like themselves. [advanced non-fiction picture book, ages 9 and up]
3. Suki’s Kimono by Chieri Uegaki, illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch
The Obon dance (Bon Odori) is a welcome dance in celebration of deceased ancestors visiting their descendants during the Obon festival which happens during late summer in Japan Everyone puts on colorful lightweight cotton kimono and does a simple and rhythmic dance in the street. When I was visited Japan, I was able to participate even though all the moves were new to me.
image from Japanory
In this picture book, Suki wants to wear her kimono on the first day of school even though her sisters discourage her because they think the other kids will tease her. They do but Suki doesn’t care. When she gets up to tell the class about her summer, she demonstrates the Obon dance she learned. And she gets a standing ovation! [picture book, ages 4 and up]
2. Lola’s Fandango by Anna Witte, illustrated by
1. Dance by Bill T. Jones and Susan Kuklin, photographs by Susan Kuklin
Bill T. Jones is an American artistic director, choreographer and dancer and his aim in life and in this book is to nourish and encourage kids to express themselves through dance. He’s a great role model for kids of all colors but especially for boys who want to pursue a career in dance. [picture book, ages 2 and up]
More Diversity Dance Picture Books
Danza!: Amalia Hernández and Mexico’s Folkloric Ballet by Duncan Tonatiah
Amalia Hernández created El Ballet Folklórico de México, a dance troupe that celebrated regional and indigenous dances of Mexico. A dancer and choreographer, Amalia combined ballet and modern dance with folkloric dances. reflecting the traditional culture of Mexico in a new and exciting way. Tonatiah details how Hernández became a dancer as a child and how she was inspired to start this international sensation dance group. His illustration, inspired by pre-Columbian art, match perfectly with the aesthetic of El Ballet Folklórico de México dance. [picture book biography, ages 6 and up]
Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas
Li Cunxin, a poor peasant boy, had been chosen from millions of children in China to study ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. He practiced for years and by the time he was eighteen, he had become one of the best dancers in China. His talent brought him to America to study ballet and by twenty-one, he was able to travel the world, escaping from poverty during China’s Cultural Revolution. [picture book, ages 6 and up]
The Cambodian Dancer: Sophany’s Gift of Hope by Daryn Reicherter, illustrated by Christy Hale
Sophany is a classical dancer in Cambodia who performed for the King of Cambodia but when the Khmer Rouge took over, she had to flee and ended up in California. Dancing traditional Cambodian dance brought her great joy and she decides to teach Cambodian children who do not have this link to their culture. [picture book, ages 5 and up]
As evidenced in part by the innumerable apsaras (celestial dancers) that adorn the walls of Angkorian and pre-Angkorian temples, dance has been part of Khmer culture for well more than a millennium, though there have been ruptures in the tradition over the centuries, making it impossible to precisely trace the source of the tradition.
The Apsara Dance is a Classical dance inspired by the apsara carvings and sculptures of Angkor and developed in the late 1940s by Queen Sisowath Kossamak.
Boys Dancing: From School Gym to Theater Stage by George Ancona
Four boys — Ely, Raptor, Logan, and Ryan — train with teachers from the National Dance Institute of New Mexico. From ballet to musical theater, tap dance, and sword fighting, the boys are part of five hundred students that will perform more than twenty dances inspired by children’s books. It’s a message of reading and dancing for all. [nonfiction picture book, ages 5 and up]
Hip-Hop Lollipop by Susan McElroy Montanari, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
In joyful rhyme, Montanari captures the pop ‘n lock rhythms of hip-hop as a little girl dances her way to bedtime. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Bowwow Powwow by Brenda J. Child, translated by Gordon Jourdain, illustrated by Jonathan Thunder
This bilingual Ojibwe/English picture book is a story of a family attending a powwow and the spiritual associations with it. The powwow dream sequence includes traditional dancers, grass dancers, and jingle-dance dancers, as well as a drum group. The connection of the Ojibwe song and dance is connected to past and present through the powwow. [picture book, ages 4 and up]
Pilar’s Worries by Victoria M. Sanchez, illustrated by Jess Golden
Pilar loves dancing but the thought of auditions for the show makes her nervous, and this spills into her school day. Her mom and friend Sebastian remind her to breathe and give her encouragement. She is then able to self-talk positive thoughts and decides she is ready to audition. Despite being nervous, she shines. Performance anxiety can affect kids who are not dancers, singers, or actors. The tools Pilar utilizes model ways kids can help themselves relax in difficult moments. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
Let’s Dance by Valerie Bolling, illustrated by Maine Diaz
Written in lyrical rhyming text that makes the dances come alive, author Valerie Bolling introduces dances from around the world. Illustrator Maine Diaz brings these dances joyfully to life. [picture book, ages 3 and up]
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.