From School Library Journal
Grade 3–5—A poignant memoir of a boy caught in the difficulties of life in Maoist China, this is the author's own story of how he was given a chance to break the bonds of his bleak life and become an international star. First told for adults in the bestseller Mao's Last Dancer
(Berkley, 2005) and now available in a Young Readers' Edition of the same name (Walker, 2008), this picture-book version is an inspiring tale of the willingness to make the most of one's opportunities, even when it entails tremendous personal sacrifice. Li and his family lived the life that most ordinary Chinese endured during Mao's reign: substandard housing with little to eat and less to hope for. When his teacher recommended him for the Beijing Dance Academy, he got his chance to break free, but he had to train far away from his home and family. Li's intense training paid off, as he was offered the chance to dance with the Houston Ballet, and his greatest dream was realized when his parents were finally able to come to the U.S. to see him perform. This fascinating, heartfelt story is perfectly matched by Spudvilas's masterful paintings. The somber grays and blues of the first part of the story underline the bleakness of Li's life, giving way to bursts of color when he defects to America. The figures are beautifully drawn, with infinite care given to details of expressions and surroundings, resulting in a realistic portrayal of the people and places.—Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, LaSalle Academy, Providence, RI
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As a boy in China, Li identified with the trapped frog in one of his father’s stories: “Even though the frog jumped and hopped, the well was just too deep.” Li’s own leaps proved more successful; his selection for a rigorous dance-training program led him from his impoverished village to ballet stardom. The absence of political references in this picture-book autobiography, based on Li’s Cultural Revolution memoir for adults (Mao’s Last Dancer, 2005), sometimes leaves confusing gaps, as when the dancer’s “dramatic defection” (mentioned on the jacket flap) is presented only as an unexplained, lengthy separation from his parents. The historical note delivers more information, although most children will need an adult’s help to connect the facts with Li’s experiences. Worlds away from her abstract work in Woolvs in the Sitee (2007), Australian award-winner Spudvilas’ delicate, inked line-and-wash illustrations, influenced by Chinese brush painting, will register strong emotions, even among readers unfamiliar with the tale’s political subtexts. Her paintings make an attractive, resonant package that will especially enhance collections supporting Chinese-language and culture curricula. Grades 2-4. --Jennifer Mattson