This is the true story of Li Cunxin, the sixth of seven sons from a rural family in north-east China.
It was the 1960s. China was under Chairman Mao’s rule.
The Li family, like many, was very poor.
There was never enough food. Every night, Cunxin’s mother would pray that none of her sons would starve to death.
The boys squeezed in a tiny room. Cunxin hated his brothers’ feet in his face. They also had to walk for hours to get to school, even in winter.
Were there happy days? Yes. When Cunxin’s father gave him a homemade kite, he tied ‘paper wishes’ to it and they flew it up into the sky.
After that, Cunxin’s father would sit with him and tell him stories. His favourite was the one about a frog living in the deep well. That story didn’t end well. The frog never jumped high enough to escape the dark well. It never got to see the world above. Though it kept trying . . .
One cold day, officials came to Cunxin’s classroom. To take some children to study ballet. Cunxin was selected, even though he had no idea what ballet was. He certainly didn’t harbour dreams of a ballet life, but he did want to escape that dreadful well.
Cunxin didn’t fit in at the Dance Academy. He was one of the worst students and he often cried himself to sleep.
It was two years before he finally made a friend, called The Bandit. Around that time, too, he met Teacher Xiao.
Teacher Xiao showed me the most beautiful leaps—graceful as a pheasant, powerful as a dragon. ‘Nothing is impossible!’ he urged, and he told me the story of the bow shooter, who had to practice over and over if he wanted to become the best in all of China.
Cunxin practised by a dim candlelight for years.
And one day, he was asked if he’d like to study ballet in America.
Cunxin, eighteen then, thought of the little frog from his father’s story. He remembered his dreams, his deep dreams to escape the well. He said yes.
If you Google ‘Li Cunxin,’ you’ll learn how far this frog has leapt. His autobiography, “Mao’s Last Dancer” is in its 52nd print run and has been made into an internationally acclaimed film. (Isn’t it wonderful he and his team thought of telling his story—the early part of his story, in children’s book format as well?)
The last part of this PB is about Cunxin and his parents. Did he manage to see them again? Remember, China back then was a country difficult to leave and to visit.
(If you enjoy stories like Cunxin's, you might enjoy my post on another picture book "Mao and Me" here.)
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Hey, I'm Claudine. Welcome!
Want to know what children's stories can inspire & lead to?
by Kate Hanney
Really enjoyed the honest voice of this narrator ~ a teenager let down by his mother and the foster care system, and almost-picked up through his involvement with a gang.