In “Bunheads,” a young girl named Misty attends her very first ballet class, where she is introduced to the classic ballet “Coppélia” and learns footwork like pas de bourrées. She’s also inspired by her friends to keep trying — on the night of the big performance, a friend checks in on an excited but noticeably nervous Misty right before the curtain lifts.
The new children’s book by ballet star Misty Copeland is filled with direct nods to real people in her life who have encouraged her talent over the years, but also the more universal ways that dance friends become sources of inspiration for one other.
“It’s really to bring a more authentic and positive experience to how young people experience dance,” Copeland told the PBS NewsHour.
Copeland, who is the first female Black principal dancer at American Ballet Theater in the company’s 75-year history, has been vocal about the need to create spaces for dancers of color, who haven’t always been welcomed. Through her perseverance and success, Copeland has challenged the expectations of the predominantly white ballet world around what a dancer looks like and where they come from. As she set out to do with her 2014 debut children’s book “Firebird,” and now her latest story, Copeland wants to break the barriers for children of all backgrounds to be able to enjoy dance.
“I think there are so many negative tropes associated with ballet in film and in the media that make people think, ‘Why would I want to put my child in something, whether if they’re a dancer of color, if there’s not going to be a future for them beyond just entering ballet at 3 years old — why would I want to invest in that?’” she said.
Copeland’s own story began with her first ballet class at age 13, later than is typical for most dancers. The book’s title is a term of endearment for the dancers “that are just so passionate about it, they just can’t take off those buns off their heads when they get home after training,” she said.
“I always felt like it was a rite of passage, and I loved the fact that I was called a ‘bunhead.’”
In “Bunheads,” young Misty gets encouragement from the instructor Miss Bradley — a real-life inspiration for Copeland — and help from a fellow young dancer Cat.
With each page, Misty’s initially unsure steps grow more confident, the precision that goes into executing a move like the soutenu captured by illustrator Setor Fiadzigbey, whose warm colors reflect the environment inside the studio.
“The characters are real people in my life, and it’s a diverse group of dancers that find a commonality in the ballet studio, that come from all different walks of life,” she said, and who support one another when they get on stage.