Two ballet dancers in separate homes wake to a new morning, kick-start their days, and head for the door. Each has a ballet lesson. Each works hard and loves her craft. One, readers eventually learn, is to perform in a big show that evening. The other, a young girl named Emma, attends the show and watches with wide eyes and great admiration. At the show’s close, she meets the professional dancer and even gets a hug. “Someday,” Emma tells the ballerina, “I will dance onstage---just like you!"
This is the new story from acclaimed author-illustrator Barbara McClintock -- Emma and Julia Love Ballet, an affectionate, joyous tribute to the art form, rendered in McClintock’s elegant, radiant watercolors and gouache. I took some time from McClintock’s busy schedule---she’s hard at work now on a handful of new picture books---to ask her about the research behind this story, sore muscles and all.
Can you talk about the genesis of this story? You mention legendary dancer Judith Jamison in a closing note in the book. Was she a particular inspiration?
My older sister, Kathleen, was the inspiration for Emma and Julia Love Ballet. She was, and still is, elegant, protective, cat-loving, and awesome. And she loved dance. To be specific, Kathleen was passionate about ballet, took ballet classes, and worked hard. She dreamed of being a ballet dancer. Kathleen didn't become a professional dancer, but she still loves ballet. I was a tomboy. Even though snakes were more interesting to me than tutus, my sister's love of ballet inspired me to believe in myself as an artist.
When my sister was in college near Minneapolis, she took me to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. This was the first professional dance performance I'd ever seen. I was hesitant and had no idea what to expect. The magnificent Judith Jamison was the featured dance soloist. She dominated the stage, creating shapes and patterns. Judith performed the solo dance -- Cry, a 15-minute homage to black women, choreographed by Alvin Ailey for his mother and for Judith. Judith expressed grief, loss, redemption, and joy as eloquently as any novelist. I loved dance from that moment on. I'd wanted to make a book honoring my sister and her love of dance for a long time. And that profound first introduction to dance has left a fascination with Judith Jamison and her artistry.
You also sketched classes at the Connecticut Concert Ballet. Can you talk about that -- and some of your other research for the book?
Once I sent rough dummy sketches to my editor Dianne Hess at Scholastic, it was time to dive into doing research.
A friend who is a reading specialist at a local elementary school let me photograph her daughter's room, which I used as the basis for Emma's room. It was a world of a thousand Barbies and oceans of pink! I drove around my neighborhood, taking photos of houses to use in the background of the scene in Emma and Julia where Emma is being driven to class. I half expected someone to come tearing out of a house, waiving a baseball bat and yelling at the crazy lady taking photos out of her car window. This is one of many occupational hazards in the illustration business.
There's a lot of information about professional dancers and ballet companies out there. Thanks to online information and YouTube, it's easy to access performances, interviews, and behind-the-scenes stuff. But there's a limited amount online about children's dance that was significant to what I was looking for. I needed to take photos and sketch at a dance studio for children. The Connecticut Concert Ballet Studio welcomed me. I am indebted to them for allowing me to sketch and take photos. I learned that little ballerinas love to eat. They love to read. And they love frilly costumes!
Is it true you also took ballet lessons, all in the name of research?
In order to really get inside the whole ballet thing, I took classes myself. Briefly. It was a lot of fun, but OMG was I sore and stiff the mornings after class!
I was the only person in the room who hadn't taken ballet lessons as a child. I really think you have to study something as complex as ballet from an early age to do all the things my middle-aged classmates were able to do with such grace and poise. It's like their muscles were embedded with the memory of movements and gestures and timing from childhood. They were gorgeous! And then there was me, the lumbering, wheezing one in the corner. And that spinning thing dancers do? I have a whole new respect for the concept of maintaining balance and not falling over or passing out from dizziness. I learned a lot. I have a new appreciation for dance. And I also know that I'm not giving up my day job to become a dancer.
Can you talk about deciding to structure the book in the way you did, where the reader doesn't realize till midway through that Julia is actually in the performance?
I enjoy thinking about parallel worlds. What’s someone else doing at the same time I'm doing something? I think I've been permanently affected by Mary Norton's The Borrowers, one of my favorite books when I was growing up. Another of my favorite books is Karla Kuskin's The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, illustrated by the wonderful Marc Simont. We see a group of people shaving, bathing, pulling on socks, skirts and suspenders -- all the intimate little things all people do every day to prepare to leave their homes. I loved the connection I felt with these God-like, immensely talented people as mere mortals. That book was a huge inspiration for Emma and Julia Love Ballet.
I'm an insomniac, which on the surface sounds like a bad thing. But being awake in the middle of the night is actually one of my most creative times. During one of my middle of the night ruminations, I thought about a typical day in my sister's life when she was little, which was all about her ballet classes. I thought about Judith Jamison and wondered about what her life must have been like around the time of the performance my sister took me to see. I knew my sister must have steeped herself in stories about how hard ballet dancers work to hone their craft. I wondered if Kathleen might have imagined herself as a real, adult ballet dancer when she was in class at Miss Chanel's Dance Studio down the road from our house. It was deeply interesting to me going back and forth, thinking of my little girl/ballet-obsessed sister and the professional Judith Jamison. I realized the way forward with this idea was to make a book showing a day in the lives of a little girl taking ballet class and a professional dancer.
With Judith Jamison in mind, I thought of Julia as African American. I was surprised and dismayed to discover there are almost no African American principal female ballet dancers in the history of major American dance companies. The American Ballet Theater recently promoted Misty Copeland as a principle dancer, the first African American female principal in that company's 75 year history.
I wanted the story to open up slowly by building on the simple, basic things Julia and Emma have in common with each other. Not until we're deep into the story do we discover that Julia is this powerhouse principal dancer. She's a star, but she gets up in the morning, eats breakfast, and goes to work. She shares with all of us the most basic things of being human. If I'd started out identifying her as a star, I think it would have instantly put her in a different context and we would have had to work backwards to see her basic humanity. Certainly, that device would have worked, too. But I liked the quiet simplicity of getting to know Julia by her daily routine, so by the time we discover her level of professionalism, we feel she's one of us. I think it's perhaps easier to dream of greatness if we understand and witness the humanity of those we admire.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.