8 Must-Read YA Ballet Books

Angel Cruz

Staff Writer

Angel Cruz is a professional enthusiast, living and writing in Toronto. She has been blogging about books since May 2011–her favourite genres are magic realism, contemporary fiction, and historical fiction. You can also find her at Women Write About Comics, reviewing front/backlist books and manga, as well as critically examining Asian representation in both Western and Asian media. Her copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker is paged through more often than is probably healthy. Ice cream, Broadway musicals, and Arashi are her lifeblood. Blog: Angel Cruz Writes Twitter: @angelcwrites

This round-up of YA ballet books is sponsored by Algonquin Young Readers.

Best friends Marine and Kate have trained since childhood at the Paris Opera Ballet School. Before the start of their final year, they begin to ask themselves how far they would go to be named the one who will join the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet. Would they cheat? Seduce the most talented boy in the school, dubbed the Demigod, for it? Would they risk death for it? Neither girl is sure. As selection day draws near, the competition—for the Prize, for the Demigod—becomes fiercer, and Marine and Kate realize they have everything to lose, including each other.

Like a lot of kids growing up, I was fascinated by ballet. I can’t remember the first time I saw a ballet performance on TV or in the movies, but I do remember the feeling of watching these dancers soar across the stage, dynamic and captivating their audiences with every movement.

But after the lights have dimmed and the theatres are empty, what does it actually mean to be a ballerina? What stories come to life in the halls of ballet schools and in dancers’ homes? What experiences influence and impact the dance?

The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren SumaThe Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma is often the first title I think of when asked for a ballet book, and it’s memorable for more than just the ties to dance. Nova Ren Suma takes readers into the dream of dancing, but she also asks them to walk alongside ghosts, those spirits of dreams lost to time and ambition and horror. It’s hard to describe the plot without spoiling the journey of the book, but I’ve yet to come across a novel about ballet that  tangles together terrifying scenes with gorgeous prose so beautifully.

Ballet is a demanding art and career, and most dancers start at a very early age. Pointe by Brandy Colbert is the story of one such dancer, whose life is changed by ballet and driven by it, even when she isn’t quite sure of what it means in her life. Theo is a black ballerina striving to succeed in a field that has historically not been welcoming of POC dancers, and her experiences in and out of the studio infuse the story with honesty and truth.

Aspiring ballerinas may also find lots to relate to and love in Bunheads by Sophie Flack, as protagonist Hannah Ward must decide between her dream of being a successful dancer with her company and the possibility of love outside the studio walls. The cover of Bunheads is as striking as the story itself, and its kaleidoscopic perspective reflects the different aspects of Hannah’s life.

But what happens when your dream of being a ballerina is derailed by an insidious and all-too-common societal expectation? How It Feels to Fly by Kathryn Holmes delves into the life of an aspiring ballet dancer dealing with the pressure of looking a certain way to be “successful,” and the toxic things she thinks she has to do to be “better.” Samantha’s story is unfortunately a familiar one, and as Holmes takes readers through her journey, you can’t help but hope that Sam will find a way through to being healthy and happy in her dream.

Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton cover imageFor readers looking for high-stakes drama in a ballet company, Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton is exactly what you need to pick up. Charaipotra and Clayton introduce you to three focused dancers who will do anything to become prima ballerina, and each chapter ramps up the complicated relationships until you’re on the edge of your couch wondering what’s going to happen next and who’ll be triumphant on the stage at the end of it all.

Various Positions by Martha Schabas is also set in a ballet company, though we follow just one character, Georgia, as she leaves for the Royal Ballet Company and a life of only dance. But what parts of herself will she lose along the way, and will that sacrifice be worth it? Schabas reveals the convoluted and sometimes dangerous connections formed within a ballet troupe through Georgia’s shy and unsure gaze.

But though ballet can sometimes be stereotyped as a very solitary dream, with few real connections, that’s not always the case. In Rose Sees Red, Cecil Castellucci tells the story of two ballerinas–one from Russia and the other from the United States–who meet one evening in the 1980s, and strike up a friendship over that night despite the near-impossibility of their encountering each other.

So Done by Paula ChasePaula Chase also explores friendship and family in her novel So Done, as friends Bean and Tai deal with a transition period entering their 8th grade year. Both are dancers, though their interest in ballet and hip-hop dance may draw them apart from each other just as much as changes in their living situations threaten to. But ballet–and dance in general–is all about connecting, and Bean and Tai may just find that their differences can hold them together still.