An Unlikely Ballerina

  • Interest Level: Kindergarten - Grade 4
  • Reading Level: Grade 3

Young Lily Marks loves to stand on her tiptoes. When her parents notice weakness in her legs, her doctor suggests dancing lessons to strengthen them. Lily falls in love with ballet—but can this fragile girl ever become a serious dancer? When the famous ballerina Anna Pavlova comes to town, Lily just has to meet her. Maybe Pavlova—small, delicate, and Jewish like Lily—holds the key to Lily’s future.

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Interest Level Kindergarten - Grade 4
Reading Level Grade 3
Genre Picture Books, Social Studies
Category Diverse Books: Physical Disability & Illness, Diversity
Copyright 2018
Publisher Lerner Publishing Group
Imprint Kar-Ben Publishing ®
Language English
Number of Pages 32
Publication Date 2018-08-01
Text Type Fiction
BISACS JUV033020, JUV031020
Dewey [E]
Graphics Full-color illustrations
Dimensions 9.25 x 11
Lexile 710
Features Author/Illustrator biography, Original artwork, and Reviewed

Author: Krystyna Poray Goddu

Krystyna Poray Goddu has been a writer and editor for more than thirty years; her books include Dollmakers and Their Stories: Women Who Changed the World of Play, and A Girl Called Vincent: A Biography of Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, both middle-grade nonfiction. Her writing for children has also appeared in American Girl magazine. She reviews and writes about children’s books for Publishers Weekly and The New York Times Book Review. In addition to her writing and editing experience, she has worked in school libraries and taught writing to middle-school students in independent schools in New York City. She holds a degree in comparative literature from Brown University.

Illustrator: Cosei Kawa

Cosei Kawa is an award-winning Japanese artist. His many accolades include the CCBC Choices best-of-the-year list, the Sydney Taylor Book Award Silver Medal, and the Turry's Picture Book Award.


AJL Newsletter

“This long-overdue picture book biography of Alicia Markova, née Lily Marks (1910–2004), is a pleasure to behold. In clear and concise prose, the author tells the story of a talented Jewish girl born in London, England who loved to dance, overcame adversity, and eventually became a world-class ballerina. Furthermore, in Jewish liturgy, we often recite the words, ‘L’dor vador’ (from generation to generation). Lily’s story exemplifies this ideal, for she admired another (Jewish) ballerina, Anna Pavlova. The two met at Pavlova’s home outside London. There, Pavlova encouraged Lily in the pursuit of her dream: ‘You could become a fine dancer… but your life will be hard work, and you must be prepared to give up many pleasures.’ And so it was. In the Afterward, we learn that Alicia had an illustrious career and always maintained her love for Judaism. The illustrations by Japanese artist, Cosei Kawa, are truly stunning. Apparently, he sketches and then combines elements using digital tools. We are attracted to the expressive faces, muted colors, and period costumes and settings. Children will be intrigued by the tiny confetti-like drawings scattered on every page. An Unlikely Ballerina is an inspiring biography showing that passion and determination can conquer a great deal.”—Association of Jewish Libraries

Publishers Weekly

“As a child, Lily Marks’s legs required straightening. Faced with the prospect of wearing uncomfortable and unsightly leg braces, Marks and her parents were intrigued by a doctor’s suggestion to instead try dancing lessons. As her legs gained strength, Marks’s natural talents emerged. Goddu (a PW reviewer) describes the young dancer’s admiration for Anna Pavlova, another Jewish ballerina of her time, who kindly invites Marks to perform for her and offers words of encouragement—words Marks never forgets en route to becoming ballerina Alicia Markova. Kawa’s art conjures the grace of a ballet performance, and Marks and other figures have an ethereal, nymphlike presence on the page. An afterword offers photographs of Marks in plain clothes at age 13 and in costume as an adult. A gentle portrayal of an artist undeterred by physical limitations. Ages 5–10. (Sept.)”—Publishers Weekly

Foreword Reviews

“The course of Lily’s future is forever altered when she is given a choice between wearing an iron brace or attending dance lessons to strengthen her weak legs and turned-out feet in this inspirational true story. Whimsically graceful artwork captures the magic of Alicia Markova’s transformation from a young girl who has trouble walking into an internationally acclaimed prima ballerina gracing stages from her backyard in London to New York and Tel Aviv.” – Foreword Reviews

New York Journal of Books

“a heroic tale with a true female hero.” – New York Journal of Books

Jewish Book Council

“This is a fascinating read about the dancer who would someday be known as Alicia Markova. Lily Marks loves to stand on her tiptoes, but her legs are weak and crooked. Could dancing lessons help strengthen them? To everyone’s surprise, Lily proves to have a natural talent for dancing, and becomes utterly devoted to practicing. The high point of her childhood is seeing international ballet star Anna Pavlova perform, and receiving an invitation to dance for her. Now there’s no turning back; Lily commits fully to becoming a ballerina.
An endnote tells readers that Pavlova had a Jewish parent, though she never publicly acknowledged her heritage; Lily’s parents were also Jewish.
Highly stylized illustrations complement the story beautifully. Note that the Jewish content is restricted to the note at the back of the book. Recommended for ages 4 to 8.” – Jewish Book Council

Kirkus Reviews

“An English girl embraces an unlikely but lifelong passion—dancing ballet. Lily Marks, born in London in 1910, did not walk properly as a child. Her parents took her to a doctor who prescribed leg braces. Lily’s unhappy face led him to suggest a very different therapy, ‘dancing lessons,’ and her parents agreed. Lily became a star pupil, singled out as very talented. She loved the classes and staged shows with her sisters. Private lessons followed. The turning point, however, came when her father took her to a performance by the legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. And Lily and Anna shared another similarity; both were Jewish. (Pavlova’s father, according to some sources, was Jewish.) Lily got to meet her heroine after the ballet performance and even danced for her. Pavlova encouraged her, and Lily knew at that moment that ‘she would devote her life to the ballet she loved.’ She danced with the Ballets Russes and other companies, and audiences responded with enthusiasm and love. An afterword explains that her professional name change to Alicia Markova came about because balletomanes loved Russian dancers. Goddu’s brief biography is filled with admiration for a ballet icon. Kawa’s stylized, jewel-toned illustrations are elegant and filled with scenes of old-world theaters, estates, and dress. Lovers of ballet will be enthralled by this coming-of-age of a 20th-century superstar. (afterword, photographs) (Picture book/biography. 4-7)” – Kirkus Reviews

Chicago Jewish Star

“This is a beautifully told, richly illustrated story.” – Chicago Jewish Star