cover image Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina

Tallchief: America's Prima Ballerina

Maria Tallchief. Viking Children's Books, $16.99 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-670-88756-9

Despite its subtitle, this picture-book biography focuses on the childhood and adolescence of Maria Tallchief, not on her groundbreaking career. The text itself is poetic, almost like a fairy tale in its scene-setting. Tallchief's father, an Osage, ""could spot a rattlesnake out of the corner of his eye... and shoot the snake from fifty yards away while still walking."" Her mother, of Scots-Irish descent, ""was small as a bird, and beautiful. My father loved to give her diamond rings."" Oil fields have made the Tallchiefs and the others on their Oklahoma reservation ""the wealthiest people on the face of the earth."" In metaphorical language, Tallchief and Wells (Mary on Horseback) describe young Betty Marie's twin passions for music and dance, and her mother's role in developing them. The language can be abstract (""The secret of music is that it is something like a house with many rooms""), but the story is gripping. The Tallchiefs move to Los Angeles so Betty Marie and her sister can receive better training--only to discover that everything their Oklahoma teacher has taught them is wrong. Later Betty Marie enrolls in a class given by the sister of Nijinsky (""He was like a god, and so she was the sister of a god""); at 17 she leaves for New York, to join the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, and there the book ends. Her fame is discussed only in Wells's foreword, and comments in the text such as ""I became a pioneer for American dance"" go unexplained. Kelley's (The Red Heels) softly focused paintings underscore the lyrical tone, enveloping the characters and settings in gauzy, dreamlike light and concentrating, provocatively, on stillness as opposed to movement. Ages 4-9. (Oct.)