From war-torn Sierra Leone to the US, to dancing for the Dutch National Ballet, this is a heartwrenching, life-affirming true story of a young girl orphaned by war and saved by ballet.
Michaela DePrince was born in 1995 in Sierra Leone. After the deaths of her parents, she moved to an orphanage from which she was adopted and taken to the US in 1999.
Elaine DePrince, her new mother, noticed Michaela's obsession with ballet and allowed her to begin lessons. Michaela went on to study on a scholarship at the Rock School for Dance Education and The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at The American Ballet Theatre, and is now a professional ballerina, who danced principal with The Dance Theatre of Harlem, in guest principal roles in South Africa and The Netherlands, and is now just starting with The Dutch National Ballet.
Michaela featured in the documentary First Position. Speaking out about her experiences, she is recognised throughout the world as an inspirational woman: she featured in Huffington Post's Most Amazing Young People of the Year and Newsweek's 125 Women of Impact. She has spoken at the United Nations for children affected by war and the Women in the World conference.
This book is made even more remarkable because it is a true story, relevant, set in current times and backed up by images, stories and interviews readily available on the internet. Consequently, it is ready for use in all social science subjects, and also for music and, of course, dance. The story starts in Sierra Leone amidst violence and tragedy which, whilst difficult for me as a white Australian to read about and to comprehend, must be addressed. The connotation of one photograph will never leave me. It is a beautiful image of a little girl holding a baby and kissing it on the head. However, Michaela, the little girl and also the protagonist, had to learn that violence against babies is not the norm before she could be trusted to hold the baby.
There are philosophical discussions and essays that can be teased out from this photo alone. For example, does the observation of violence perpetuate violence? There are many evocative and interesting photographs and many questions are raised by the story. Should, young, elite athletes perform though pain, as Michaela does? Does society expect too much? Why do we so often judge people by the way they look and not on their merit?
While this book does, necessarily, contain weighty subjects including violence, civil war, refugees, racism and adoption to an overseas country, it is a book of hope. In parts, it is very funny. Michaela is a very clever, likable and witty young person who deserves her many successes. This story is so much more than the story of a successful, contemporary ballet dancer.
Lois Best, ESL, Dalwallinu WA 6609
An extremely inspiring read and one that achieves its purpose of promoting hope. Born Mabinty Bangura, this novel is written in first person and retells her life story of leaving Sierra Leone as an orphan at age four. On her adoption and arrival in the U.S. Mabinty takes the name Michaela DePrince and at nineteen writes her novel with American foster mum Elaine DePrince. Predominantly set in the U.S, Hope in a Ballet Shoe offers a message of the rewards of hard work and determination. It is a motivating novel in terms of its content, but also motivating for young aspiring writers. A beautiful true story that proves that dreams can come true. Michaela not only deals with being orphaned at such a young age in Sierra Leone but, once she arrives in America, must also deal with racism and racism in the world of ballet.
This novel could be an eye opener for students not aware of world issues. It describes life in Sierra Leone and particularly the treatment of females. Classroom use would be applicable for years 8 to 11, however, it would be more engaging for a female audience. An All Girls class would definitely enjoy a unit of work with this novel as its core focus. Without being sexist, teachers could easily teach this novel to the females in their class and a more ‘male’ novel at the same time for male students. There are plenty of themes to use this novel as a thematic or issue related study (resilience, hope, families, determination, world issues, war, anti-racism, etc). I would definitely recommend Hope in a Ballet Shoe for any library, book club, writer’s club, classroom and teenage girl.
Jodie Webber, Hurlstone Agricultural High School, Glenfield NSW 2167
I first heard the story of Michaela DePrince after watching the acclaimed documentary First Position a couple of years ago. I am no fan of ballet. In fact, I had initially watched it purely for the sake of my ballet-mad daughter. The documentary, which explored the lives of several young dancers, was notable for me only because of the story of Michaela. For me, her story shone brighter than the others by a long way. Consequently, little persuasion was needed to get me to read and review this memoir.
Written as a collaborative project between Michaela and her adoptive mother Elaine, Hope in a Ballet Shoe tells the story of a young girl living in war ravaged Sierra Leone who goes on to become a successful ballerina in the US. The story begins in Africa and encompasses Michaela’s first memories living as the only child of devoted parents in rural Sierra Leone. When civil war breaks out, she is orphaned and so begins a life of uncertainty until her eventual liberation and journey to the US.
Obviously, this is a story about ballet, and it is clearly one that will be enjoyed by those with an interest in this genre. However, Michaela’s story transcends this and is equally a tale about survival and triumphing against adversity. For me, this nearly overshadowed her dancing journey (one marked by persistence) and eventual success as a dancer. Thematically the story’s celebration of the refugee voice and exploration of racism in contemporary society make it a sound choice of text when exploring these specific issues in the classroom. However, the account of Michaela’s experiences in Sierra Leone, while not overtly graphic, might be distressing for very young readers, making this text suitable for older Young Adults (14+).
While the language is not notable for its beauty or sophistication, it is highly accessible. It is a relatively short read, making it a suitable choice for shared study in class from grade 10 upwards. Senior students might find this an excellent choice for independent study and it would pair harmoniously with the likes of Li Cunxin’s Mao’s Last Dancer, the film of the same name (2009), or the picture book The Peasant Prince by the same author. Michaela’s story speaks to a broad audience, extending beyond those with an interest in dance. Though brief, it is an inspiring and worthwhile read, suitable for older YA readers and the mainstream adult audience.
Tanya Grech Welden, Secondary English Teacher, Gleeson College SA 5125
This outstanding exposé of the life of a young African girl who was orphaned in war torn Sierra Leone deserves as much kudos as possible. As a model for the power of valuing social justice and the value of dreaming a dream, this novel provides a humane insight into many issues confronting African politics and the status of adoptees in the USA. Michaela and Mia escaped from the war ravaged country of Sierra Leone. After being slotted into an orphanage for young children, they witnessed as toddlers the vicious and inhumane militant groups plundering the small African country. The sister’s experienced sensory abuse in so many ways. The smell of rotting humans, the visual experience of death and mutilation, the taste of rotten food and the sensations felt with physical beatings and mental anguish permeated their early childhood lives.
Whilst being held caringly by Papa Andrew in the orphanage, these two youngsters see hundreds of refuges passing their wire fence. On the ground, Michaela procures a magazine photo. A photo of a ballerina which leads to a dream that was so improbable in its reality and that this novel so beautifully develops. The DePrince family in the USA are part of an adoption program that rescues orphaned African children and integrate them into American society. Over the years that the two sisters are nurtured, the ballerina photo becomes an iconic part of their lives. The sacrifices that the DePrince family make to ensure the safe and experiential lifestyle that the girls accessed were amazing.
The education the two youngsters experienced was a major part of their development. Even in kindergarten, when the boys played cowboys, it was Michaela and her innocence that showed the boys how a real person looks when they are shot … quite confronting. Progressing through high school is always an issue for teens and this time is explained from a determined set of eyes. Michaela interacts with a variety of dance companies on the path to realizing her exceptional potential in this field of endeavour. The ups and downs of being a ballerina with dark skin are so clearly enunciated. How these issues are confronted and managed are so well described for the reader. The ending has a twist that captures the emotions of any reader … teens included!
Learning Activities related to Hope in a Ballet Shoe:
Trevor Dangerfield, Elisabeth Murdoch College, Langwarrin VIC 3910
The front cover says it all: “Orphaned by war, saved by ballet.” Michaela was rescued from poverty and a life of misery in Africa by an American family who adopted a large number of children in need. Michaela writes of her changing circumstance and is extremely honest about her own shortcomings and the blessings that fell on her on her arrival in America. The chance finding of a Dance magazine cover during a moment of intense fear and danger inspires and guides Michaela throughout her life. Not only is the story of her attainment of her life goal to dance at the highest level absorbing but also the selflessness of her adoptive parents and their ability to create a united and fully functioning family is highly inspirational.
Peta Harrison, Teacher Librarian, Albany Senior High School, WA 6330