The idea of a memoir written by a 19-year-old may raise eyebrows, but the life story of ballerina Michaela DePrince is, by any standard, extraordinary. This October Knopf will release Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina, a YA memoir co-authored by Michaela and her mother, Elaine DePrince, tracing Michaela’s journey from a life of war and poverty in Africa to renown as a classical ballerina. While the book’s subtitle gives the story a magical aura, the dancer is firm in her assertion that “people think my life is a fairy tale, but it’s far from it.” She and her mother wrote the book to chronicle the hard work, perseverance, dedication and family support that it takes to pursue a dream.
Born Mabinty Bangura to poor but loving parents in civil-war-torn Sierra Leone in 1995, Michaela experienced a few years of affectionate and happy family life, in spite of being afflicted with vitiligo, a skin condition that causes the loss of pigments, resulting in a proliferation of white spots on her body. She was called the girl with “the spots of a leopard,” and shunned by fellow villagers. Her parents knew that her only salvation would be education. By the time she was four, she could speak, read and write in four African languages, plus Arabic—and was condemned for that, as well: “only a devil child can read so young,” as her uncle used to say. After both of her parents died—her father killed by rebels and her mother shortly after of starvation—her uncle deposited her in an orphanage, where she became known as Number 27 of the 27 children there, the least-favored orphan.
Her fate turned brighter when Elaine and Charles DePrince adopted her in 1999, along with Number 26, with whom she shared a first name and a deep friendship. The two Mabintys, renamed Michaela and Mia, became part of the DePrince family in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Michaela soon began to pursue her dream of becoming a ballerina. That dream had begun back in the orphanage, when a page from an old magazine had literally blown into Michaela’s face. She saw a white woman dressed in pink, on her toes, one arm stretched overhead. She immediately fell in love with the image, and carried the page around in her underwear. It was the first thing she showed Elaine upon meeting her, and Elaine was the one who explained this was a ballerina. Many years later, Michaela would learn that the picture (which was accidentally left behind when the DePrinces were leaving Africa) was the May 1979 cover of Dance magazine, featuring Magali Messac, then a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet.
The DePrinces supported and encouraged Michaela’s dancing and by the time she was 10, she was winning scholarships and competitions. She drew the attention of documentary filmmaker Bess Kargman, who invited her to be one of six young dancers in her 2011 film, First Position. The film brought Michaela instant fame: “I couldn’t even go to Starbucks without girls wanting autographs and asking to be photographed with me,” she recalled. Invitations from the media poured in. Initially uncomfortable with the attention, she eventually came to understand that, as she writes in Taking Flight, “I had always wanted to be a role model to little girls and an activist for change. Here was my opportunity, staring me in the face.”
Elaine, meanwhile, had been collecting stories from Michaela’s life, thinking some might make for appealing picture books. She sent a 700-word manuscript, about the photo that originally inspired Michaela to a life of dance, to several agents, including Adriana Dominguez of Full Circle Literary. Dominguez liked the manuscript, but saw an even greater potential in Michaela’s larger story. She asked Elaine if she was willing to write the complete story. “I wanted to see if she could do it, and most importantly, if she wanted to. Elaine and Michael surprised me, as they have many times since,” said Dominguez, “by sending me even more than I had hoped for!”
Elaine was the author of a 1997 nonfiction book, Cry Bloody Murder: A Tale of Tainted Blood (Random House), about the blood products tainted with HIV that had killed her two hemophiliac sons, and Dominguez had confidence that she could produce a compelling book. When Elaine brought in the dramatically expanded manuscript, written for a teenage audience, Dominguez knew she had something special. “I thought, ‘How lucky am I?’ ” she said. “Elaine is a writer, and a mother with an extraordinary daughter. I knew this was a book made to happen.”
Dominguez sold the memoir (and a Step into Reading companion, Ballerina Dreams) at auction, on the basis of Elaine’s proposal and partial manuscript, with Erin Clarke at Knopf making the winning bid. “I had never seen First Position,” Clarke recalled, “but I read the proposal and watched it that same night. I knew instantly that I wanted the book for Random House. Michaela’s story is so amazing. Plus, at Knopf we need a certain level of literary quality, and this was definitely the whole package.” And there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project in-house, Clarke said, “especially as Elaine was already a Random House author.” Happily, Random House was Elaine’s top choice, too: “I felt this book belonged here,” she said.
For her part, Michaela was not particularly eager to write a memoir. “I laughed when my mom suggested it! She knew how I had agonized over all the essays I had to write in high school, so I thought she was crazy to expect me to write a book. But she promised I wouldn’t have to do the quality writing, just provide the information. That’s why I like to say that I provided the lumps of clay and Mom turned them into a beautiful vase.” She also realized that writing the book would be a way to inspire hope in all the people who had been writing to her since seeing First Position.
She had been keeping journals since she came to the United States and gave her mother permission to read them. “Of course, I first ripped out all the pages where I grumped about my parents. I didn’t want Mom to know how ungrateful I felt sometimes.”
In addition to Michaela’s journals, Elaine had her own notes, which she’d started taking soon after adopting Michaela. “Michaela and I have actually been collaborating since we adopted her,” she explained. “We just didn’t know we were collaborating on a book.” When Michaela arrived from Sierra Leone, Elaine recalled, “she had lots of fears and bad memories.” Whenever these became particularly potent, Elaine would sit the little girl down in the kitchen with chocolate milk and cookies. “She would talk, and I would write it all down in a notebook. She felt like she was being interviewed, and she liked that. At the time we had eight children, so it was also special time with Mom.” In addition to the bad memories, Elaine pointed out that Michaela had a lot of good ones of her original parents, which Elaine carefully recorded, and depicted with warmth and sensitivity in the book.
Elaine organized the various writings, then began polishing them and sending them to Michaela, who by then was living in Amsterdam, dancing with the Dutch National Ballet. The pair relied heavily on modern technology—Skype, Viber and email—to shape and refine the book: “If this were 1914 instead of 2014, we couldn’t have done it,” Elaine admitted.
Some of the material from Michaela’s life in Africa was especially difficult to talk about, such as the horrific brutality she witnessed on a daily basis. “Sometimes I had to say to Mom, ‘I’m only going to tell you this once,’ ” Michaela confessed. The dancer was also concerned about including what she refers to as “awful things I did, especially when I was 13” – things like drinking alcohol-and-power-drink mixes to relax her muscles and all-tea diets to keep her weight down. “Mom said, ‘A lot of kids have done what you’ve done. You wouldn’t want them to think that you were some kind of saint, would you? Then they couldn’t relate to you.’ I gave it a lot of thought and realized that including the bad stuff made me more human.”
She has no secrets from Elaine, she said. “My mom taught middle school and high school. And I’m the eighth of 11 kids; I guess she really knows what teens are like. I think she’s a mind reader, too. When I was growing up, all she had to do was look at me and she’d know if I was lying or not.”
Elaine’s major challenge was finding an authentic teen voice for telling Michaela’s story. “I had written adult nonfiction, but I wanted to be sure this book sounded like Michaela.” Her experience raising teenagers (she still has four at home), and her reading of the YA novels that float constantly around her home, helped. “When she got that voice,” Clarke confirmed, “she really got it.”
The book has been acquired by publishers in nine other countries, including Japan, Portugal, Brazil, and, of course, Holland. “It been an amazing experience to witness the enthusiasm about this story carry over into so many different cultures,” said Dominguez. “This is a story the entire world wants to read, and I’m very proud of Michaela and Elaine for having the courage to tell it.”
When Taking Flight is released in October, Michaela will be on tour in China with the Dutch National Ballet. If she can take a few days off to promote it, she will – but not if she thinks it might affect her dancing. “I’m cast in a lot of roles this year,” she said, “and after all, the book is about making it as a professional ballet dancer. If I take time off and jeopardize my career, then there would be no point to the book.”
Taking Flight by Michaela DePrince and Elaine DePrince. Knopf, $16.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-385-75511-5