A good picture book is like a complicated dance between words and pictures in which each must be in step and working towards the same artistic outcome. If either clement is dancing to a different tune, the narrative strength will be diminished and the story will limp along. In The Peasant Prince: The True Story of Mao s Last Dancer (Penguin, $29.95 hb, 40 pp, 9780670070541), author and illustrator combine in an exquisite pas de deux. Li Cunxin, international ballet dancer turned successful Melbourne stockbroker and best-selling author, has now added a children's picture book to his impressive CV.
Reading The Peasant Prince is both a humbling and inspirational experience. The book begins when Li was living in poverty in a village in provincial China during the bleak reign of Mao Zedong. It tells the incredible story of this young boy's determination to succeed at the Beijing Dance Academy, despite his loneliness and the anguish of being separated from his beloved family. Award-winning illustrator Anne Spudvilas has created emotive illustrations which strikingly complement Li 's eloquent and somewhat formal writing style. She uses Chinese brush-paintings in drab greys to depict Li 's life in the village and his teenage years at the dance school, and then introduces oil on canvas in warm colours to create sumptuous illustrations which cleverly reflect Li's changed fortunes. With its beautiful design, emotionally charged illustrations, carefully structured text and strong message about the power of story, love and persistence, this modem-day fairy tale is a special reading experience.