By Kathy Chouteau
The Richmond Public Library’s Bookmobile really can give wings to a child’s dreams. The fascinating story of how the mobile library sparked a Richmond resident’s brilliant career as a ballerina is featured in a new children’s book by publisher Harper Collins.
Geared toward ages 4-8, “Ready to Fly, How Sylvia Townsend Became the Bookmobile Ballerina” is co-authored by Marina Bay resident Lea Lyon, a longtime book illustrator, and A. LaFaye.
Lyon’s inspiration for the story came from a tip from her neighbor, Mary Ann. Mary Ann had been to her local senior center in Richmond and had taken up a tap dancing lesson from a woman named Sylvia Townsend. Afterward, Mary Ann gave Townsend a ride home, and along the way, Townsend shared an interesting story about how she learned to dance.
Inspired by the story, Lyon set up a meeting with Townsend and interviewed her over the course of a few hours, resulting in this new book. Townsend shared her experience of growing up as an African American child in 1950s in Richmond. She had dreamed of becoming a ballerina ever since seeing the ballet Swan Lake on TV, but ballet classes were too expensive for her large family, and by all appearances they seemed solely for white girls.
Townsend, however, was determined to dance. And when the Richmond Public Library’s Bookmobile rolled into her neighborhood, she was able to pursue her passion for ballet through books, Lyon says. She learned dance positions through reading and eventually taught her neighborhood friends how to dance as well.
The group of dancers went on to perform in a school talent show, where an audience member suggested to Townsend that she audition for Madam Sawicka, a Russian-born ballerina who ran a ballet school in Berkeley. Per Lyon, Townsend was told that “all Madam Sawicka cares about is talent and the desire to dance.”
Townsend earned a scholarship to Madam Sawicka’s Sawicka School of Ballet and eventually became a ballerina, founded her own dance company and opened her own school—the Art of Ballet School of Dance—on Marina Way in Richmond. (While it was operating for more than 40 years, the dance school is currently temporarily closed, per Lyon). Many of Townsend’s students went on to successful dance careers.
For the remainder of Madam Sawicka’s life, she and Townsend spoke every morning and shared a cup of tea over the phone, said Lyon. Townsend is now age 76.
Asked what writing the book has meant to her, Lyon said, “It was such as delight, such an exciting project. Because it was true, it made me realize that I write better with true stories. And when I first heard the story I got introduced to Sylvia Townsend and interviewed her for a few hours and she was such a storyteller and I fell in love with her whole history.”
According to Lyon, “Ready to Fly” is available at local bookstores such as Copperfield’s Books, Book Passage, Barnes & Noble and Books, Inc. It’s also currently on order for local libraries. Look for Lyon to speak as part of a ballet-themed event at the Richmond Public Library at an upcoming date TBD.
Next up for Lyon is a nonfiction book for middle and high school age children at the suggestion of her friend, Betty Reid Soskin. It’s about the Double V campaign, recounting the story of African Americans’ fight for democracy both overseas and on the home front during World War II.