Wednesday 16 July 2014

Tiny Ballerina

If it were possible, Culturebaby would eat, sleep, play and attend nursery in a tutu. Since beginning ballet lessons a few months ago she has completely fallen in love. Her heart belongs to her ballet slippers and full participation is mandatory. I've cooked a roast in a tutu, Culturetot is expected to perform her own solo 'dance' across the floor at our weekly lessons and even Daddy features in the daily routine of So Long Farewell, in which our very own Gretel must be carried upstairs at the coda. 

With our tiny ballerina in mind, I've been scouring the shelves for quality picture books on the topic. I was  delighted to discover that the inspirational author and illustrator of the Katie series of art books, James Mayhew, has created Ella Bella, a lovable little ballerina who is drawn into a series of famous ballets by an enchanted musical box. Culturebaby immediately related to the little heroine, who loves her ballet lessons so much that she ultimately becomes part of the dance, aiding the characters in their quest for their happy ever after. We have two of the books in the series, and I suspect we may have to invest in the others as Culturebaby regularly opens the front covers and wistfully (or craftily) identifies the images of the books in the series that she does not yet own. The series is beautifully illustrated using techniques reminiscent of screen-printed books from the 40s and 50s, giving it a vintage flavour; and James Mayhew's knowledge of music and fascination with theatrical design, which he has studied, ensure the quality and value of these books.

Culturebaby was lucky to receive, from James, his stunning take on Cinderella based on Sergei Prokofiev's ballet. Appropriately Ella Bella loses a ballet shoe on her journey to her lesson and is invited to select a new pair from a beautiful trunk. The tale of Cinderella then becomes the theme of her ballet class, where the children dance to Prokofiev's creation. After class and alone on the stage Ella opens the musical box and, as she dances, the fairies of the four seasons whirl around her, accompanied by and the fairy godmother herself. Ella provides a pair of dancing slippers for Cinderella from Madame Rosa's chest and accompanies her to the ball. As midnight strikes and Cinderella dashes from the palace leaving her shoe behind, Ella helps guide the prince to his true love.

In another title we happily stumbled across recently, Ella is introduced to Tchaikovsky's famous classical ballet Swan Lake, and again she is drawn into the enchantment. She finds herself amongst a flight of beautiful swans where she helps Odette, the swan princess, to break a sorcerer's curse that morphs her daily into a swan - keeping her from her true love. It seems that they have almost succeeded in uniting the lovers when the sorcerer arrives to the ball with his ravishing daughter Odile, dressed as a black swan and masquerading as Odette. Foolishly the prince is deceived, promises his love to Odile, and Odette flees. Culturebaby finds this section all rather nerve-wracking, so happily the author has opted for a more joyful ending amongst the plethora of possible options this ballet has featured over the years. I fear a dying swan may be rather too tragic for a toddler. She has plenty of time to explore the darker elements of this tale in future years or indeed dream of playing the prized dual roles of Odile and Odette which are traditionally performed by the same prima ballerina. Appropriately, we are told, the original idea for Swan Lake grew out of a children's ballet called The Lake of Swans, which Tchaikovsky wrote for his niece and nephew to perform at home. It was later turned into a 4 act ballet for the famous Russian Bolshoi and gained huge success only after his death. No pressure Cultureuncle...

Just like Mayhew's Katie series, another favourite in our household, these books are a wonderful, accessible, introduction to the stories of the famous ballets; allowing little ones to believe that they too can leap into the dance and become part of the magic. We've developed a lovely bedtime routine with these tales, which has really captured Culturebaby's imagination. Whilst we read the stories and as the musical box begins to play in the books, we listen to the real music of the ballet in the background. Once we finish the book we then snuggle up and view a couple of clips of famous companies performing scenes from the ballet using You Tube. I've been amazed at how well, once she knows the story, Culturebaby is able to concentrate on, and discuss, these. Watching her enthusiasm is frankly good for my soul. She dances all day, and she can't tear herself away from her ballet lessons; peering round the curtain to observe the 'big girl' class as long as she is allowed. I've heard that there is a shortened annual production by the ENB entitled My First Ballet designed for young children that will shortly be announcing next spring's season. What a wonderful idea. I can't wait to take her.

“Swan Lake is hundreds of years old and Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, go back to ancient times – to the magic of China and the very oldest Greek stories. This is the magic that I was part of, with The Royal Ballet. Night after night I was transformed in my dressing room from an ordinary person into a princess who would experience good and evil. My world on stage inside the magic of these wonderful stories was not too different from the world of Ella Bella ballerina you can read about here. James Mayhew, through the eyes of a child, reveals the exciting sense of possibility that children see and understand – and sadly grown-ups lose. These books can inspire all those children who dream of entering this world. They certainly take them into a magical realm. And who knows, like me, they might stay in there for years.”

Disclaimer: We were sent Ella Bella Ballerina and Cinderella for review purposes. All views are as always our own. We love these books.


  1. This is just why I wish sometimes I'd had a girl. I loved my ballet lessons, and didn't finish until I went to 6th form and had to give up to go to boarding school. It really is a magical world, and combining the books and music is a great idea.

    Thanks for linking the post up #MusicExploration

    1. Thanks for asking us - it's a great initiative. Really wish I'd done more ballet as a child. The classes are an absolute joy.

  2. Like the idea of these books, and I love the way you're exploiting them further. As an older child I played in orchestras, and it was amazing how much more interesting classical music was once you'd heard it picked apart and explained and the story pointed out. And ballet is such a good way to get kids into music, so visual! And of course, a great thing in itself. She rambles on. Must look out for the special ballet performances too!

    1. Thank you. I have to say, the books are even good for reminding us adults of the stories. Do you have any good recommendations for books bringing other classical pieces to life?

  3. Glad to find this post while searching for a music box. Will add these books to our Christmas shopping list! Do check out Lets All Dance, too, for child friendly and short ballet performances. My two year old and I recently saw their version of The Nutcracker, hence the ballet themed gift searching.


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