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*Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao's Last Dancer* by Li Cunxin, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas
Dancing to Freedom: The True Story of Mao's Last Dancer
by Li Cunxin, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas
Ages 4-8 40 pages Walker Books July 2008 Hardcover    
Some time ago, in a remote village in northern China, a small peasant boy lived with his parents and six brothers in a tiny brick houseÖ
So begins the story Dancing to Freedom, a tale that is sure to delight the whole family. It charts the journey of a young boy named Li, who wishes to leave his tiny village and make a name for himself.

From its first sentence introducing a family of seven sons, Dancing to Freedom reads like a fairy tale but remains firmly grounded in reality. As a child, Li is inspired by the story of a frog who longs to leave the well he was born into. Like the frog, Li desires to see what lies beyond the village that is his home. When he is chosen to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, Li embarks on an adventure that eventually leads him to America and the realization of his dreams. Along the way, he makes new friends and learns that goals can only be achieved through hard work and patience. Throughout the book, Li never forgets the value of family or the lessons his parents have taught him, and in the end his persistence and faithfulness are rewarded on a magical night as he dances in The Nutcracker.

Dancing to Freedoms lovingly rendered illustrations by Australian painter Anne Spudvilas evoke a beautiful yet simple China as seen through a childís eyes. The artful nature of the narrative, intertwining Liís own story with a tale told to him by his father, provides the perfect counterpoint for these graceful images.

Children will easily relate to Li, a boy with big dreams who nevertheless must work hard to overcome obstacles in his path. Li is not the best dancer at the Beijing Dance Academy and only becomes so by practicing diligently. The hopeful messages of hard work and persistence paying off in the end, as well as of overcoming loneliness and separation, make Dancing to Freedom an excellent book to share with children who are struggling in school, whether academically or socially.

Parents will appreciate Li Cunxinís story of courage and dedication in the face of overwhelming odds. While children will engage with Li on a more emotional level, parents may have a greater understanding of the obstacles in Liís way as he seeks to become a famous dancer and see the world outside of insular China under Mao Zedongís government.

Dancing to Freedom is made all the more poignant by the fact that it is a true story, told simply and unassumingly by the man who lived it. The book concludes with a real life happy ending in a triumphant and heartwarming scene that will appeal to readers of all ages.

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  Laura Heinrichs/2008 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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