I didn't love, love, love this book, but I found it interesting and inspiring. Three stars. I felt much of it read as a young adult book. I in fact stopped my reading to go and check if it was directed toward kids. What do I find? I see that there are two editions, this one, which is for adults, and another one just for kids: Mao's Last Dancer Young Readers' Edition! I have looked into how they differ and have discovered that the children's has less details and less historical facts.
The author writes in a straightforward manner. The presentation is dispassionate, and he never dwells upon suffering. Family circumstances during the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Famine are related. Communism under Mao, Madame Mao, the Gang of Four and the transfer of power to Deng Xiaoping are briefly recounted, particularly in relation to how the political changes affected Chinese ballet. Events are simply stated, and then the next point is related. An emphasis is placed on positive experiences, be it the flying of kites, New Year's celebrations or family members support and encouragement. I like books that point out what is good even when much is bad, but this book goes a step further. It quite simply feels as if it is written for children, particularly for potential young dancers, to encourage them, to give them a hero in whose footsteps they can follow. A separate book devoid of the historical facts really is not necessary. Please note that according to the book description above this book, not the kids book, has won the Kids Own Australian Literature Award in KOALA).
Teacher Xiao's guiding advice comparing dance to a mango was beautiful and inspiring. Chinese fairy tales too! Yes, he did get help from the American President and his wife and other devoted friends, but don't think success was easy. It wasn't at all!. Chance and then LOTS of hard work and physical pain lie behind what Li Cunxin has achieved. He is now the Artistic Director of Queensland Ballet in Brisbane. I admire what Li Cunxin has accomplished. His determination and hard work makes him a viable role model for young adults, and really, for adults too.
If this book is to be judged as a book for young adults, than I would give it four stars. In that it is classified here as an adult book, and in that I didn't know it was written for young adults when I picked it up, I am judging it on its merits for adults, and thus I give it three. It is wrong to simply remove historical facts and in this manner reclassify a book. It is not just content but also tone that determines classification. Others think the simplicity of the writing is just Li Cunxin's style. I liked the book. I very much admire what he has accomplished, but my stars are for the book, not the person.