Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Raven Wilkinson: A True Inspiration

Misty Copeland, the first female black principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, has been in the news and mentioned on social media again and again over the past few years. She's also become quite well known in the world of children's literature. For young readers, she's been featured in You Should Meet Misty CopelandWhen I Grow Up: Misty Copelandand A Girl Named Misty: The True Story of Misty CopelandMisty is obviously a role model for many young girls and has even written a picture book of her own -- Firebird -- that uses her story to inspire girls everywhere to reach for their dreams. But who inspired Misty Copeland?


The answer is someone you may or may not have heard of -- someone featured in the picture book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, written by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. I feel very privileged to have learned about Ms. Wilkinson's powerful story through this book, which is full of details and sometimes sobering illustrations that really help the reader settle into the story's historical time and setting.

"When I was twenty-three years old, I watched a documentary called Ballets Russes. This was the day my life and my purpose changed," Misty Copeland writes in the foreword of the book. "I discovered a black ballerina named Raven Wilkinson, and it was in her that I saw myself and what was possible." Misty was already a professional ballerina when she learned about Ms. Wilkinson, and now is honored to call her both a mentor and a friend.

Trailblazer begins with a young and passionate Raven seeing the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform when she was just five years old. It then takes readers through Raven's childhood and difficult journey to become the first black ballerina to dance with the very same company. After Raven first auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a friend told her that she wouldn't be able to join because she was black. That didn't stop Raven, who auditioned again, and again, until the director asked her to join the company in 1955, when she was just 20 years old.

As the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured the country, Raven faced many challenges. The Ku Klux Klan was active, it was illegal in some states for black dancers to perform alongside white dancers, and men even rushed the stage once during a performance to object to Raven's presence.

One of the last straws for Raven was when she was told by a ballet mistress that she would never be able to dance the lead role in Swan Lake because she was black. She left the Ballet Russe in 1963, though she did later dance and act with other groups in Europe and the United States, and she led the way for many black ballet dancers who came after her. She was a trailblazer!

The book ends with an intersection of Raven's life with that of Misty Copeland. In 2015, Misty Copeland became the first black ballerina in a prominent American ballet company to dance the lead role in Swan Lake, and Raven Wilkinson was there to celebrate with her!


Thanks to publisher little bee books for a review copy of Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, which was released in 2018.

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