Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson

Written by: Leda Schubert

Illustrated by: Theodore Taylor III

For Ages: 6-9 years

Language: English

Topics Covered: Trailblazer, POC-Centric Narratives, Historical Figures, Acceptance, Courage, Perseverance.

Summary: This book follows the story of Raven Wilkinson, the first black ballerina to tour with a major American touring troupe.  Raven became fascinated with ballet when she was young, and was gifted lessons at the age of 9.  While attending Columbia University, Raven auditioned several times for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and finally was accepted on her third attempt in 1955.  This company toured for several months at a time by bus.  Raven began touring shortly after the Brown v. the Board of Education ruling that desegregated schools in 1954, and met some resistance from those who felt performance stages should not feature events with both black and white dancers sharing the stage.  In some states, it was even illegal.  In these places, Raven would sometimes lighten her skin with makeup before going onstage.  Raven was courageous and persevered, never denying who she was even when it came to getting kicked out of a hotel or having people rush the stage in Alabama.  During that same tour, Raven and the other dancers were in the hotel dining room when she noticed Klan robes in a booth.  She chose not to perform that evening and instead stayed in her hotel watching a cross burning in the night.  In 1962, Raven left Ballet Russe and joined a convent for 7 months until she was offered a spot in the Dutch National Ballet in Holland.  Raven lived there for 7 years and even danced for Queen Juliana of the Netherlands!  When Raven returned to the USA, she danced until she was 50 with the New York City Opera in 1985, and acted until 2011 when the opera closed.  In 2015, Misty Copeland became the first African American principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater.  Raven was at Misty’s performance of playing both Odette and Odile in Swan Lake, even joined her onstage at the end of the performance!

This book is a fantastic story of a little-known American hero.  It covers our country’s racism during this time in an age-appropriate manner, and shows that it can be overcome with determination without compromising personal values.  This book is important for students learning about our country’s history, as well as any aspiring dancer!

Reflection Questions:

  • Dancing made Raven happier than anything else.  What makes you happier than anything else?
  • How do you think Raven felt when people judged her on her skin color?
  • Sometimes courage is needed to do something scary or new.  When is a time that you showed courage?

Continuing the Conversation:

  • There isn’t always easy access or representation in some lines of work.  What is something that you might like to do, but don’t see someone that looks like you doing it?  Science, dance, teaching, anybody can do anything!  Research some famous figures doing a job that interests you, and find the diversity within.
  • Brainstorm as a class ways you can make everyone feel included and valued in your classroom.  Every person is both the same and different than other people, but every individual is important.  Make sure when newcomers join your class, they know it is a safe space that values everyone’s interests and personal identities.

About the Author & the Illustrator:

leda schubertLeda Schubert was the school library consultant for the Vermont Department of Education, and she has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She is the author of Monsieur Marceau, Feeding the Sheep, Ballet of the Elephants, and other books.

 

theodore taylor IIITheodore Taylor III is an illustrator living in Richmond, VA with his wife Sarah and son Theo. He works as a front-end web developer by day and illustrates children’s books by night. He studied Communication Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University where he honed his skills in drawing, design and photography. His work is inspired by his love for music, comics, animation, video games, street art and more. He is also a self-proclaimed pizza connoisseur. In 2014 he received the Coretta Scott King John Steptoe New Talent Award for his work in When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop. The book also won the Texas Bluebonnet Award. He also recently illustrated three books for Shaquille O’Neal and Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson. You can contact him via email at trtaylor3@gmail.com!

 

 

 

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