Thursday, June 6, 2019

An Alphabet of Learning, Movement, and Fun!


Time to play and have some fun, 
trying new things one by one.
Are you ready? Are you set? 
Let's explore the alphabet!

As a lover of both writing and movement, I am always looking for children's books that truly integrate the two. The new picture book From A to Z with Energy by Connie Bergstein Dow and Gareth Llewhellin does exactly that, introducing young children to the alphabet while teaching them about the importance of movement and encouraging them to make movement part of their regular routine.

Image courtesy of Free Spirit Publishing

As the book goes through each letter of the alphabet, a group of children experiment with movements ranging from climbing, wading, and hiking to dribbling, kicking, and passing. Interspersed between all the movements are some equally important lessons on healthy living in general.

L is for a healthy lunch
that gives you fuel to grow.
M is for your muscles, 
from your head to your big toe.

As you can tell from the images above, the illustrations by Gareth Llewhellin only add to the exuberance emanating from this book. What a diverse and friendly bunch of children included on each and every page! From camping trips to sled rides to baseball games, the settings that Gareth created only highlight the point that movements can be done everywhere!

It might come as no surprise that the mastermind behind this book, author Connie Bergstein Dow, is both a writer and a mover herself. After receiving an MFA in dance from the University of Michigan, Connie danced professionally in both the United States and South America, and she has also been a dance educator for many years. She has written two books on integrating movement into early childhood classrooms and has published poetry in Highlights High Five and Highlights Hello magazines. From A to Z with Energy is her debut picture book, and what a perfect fit for her background!

Something that sets this book apart from many others is that it includes a six-page guide at the back explaining the physical and social-emotional benefits of movement and providing parents, teachers, and caregivers with a variety of movement activities to supplement those mentioned in the book. Half of the movement activities use prompts from the book, and half can be used alongside the book or independently. All of the activities are designed to use movement to explore the letters of the alphabet.

Now that I know more about Connie, the inspiration for this unique book and guide makes a whole lot of sense! Learn more about Connie, her books, and her ideas at her website, Moving Is Learning!

Connie leading a movement activity during a
recent school visit for A to Z with Energy.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Giveaway: Dear Ballerina by Monica Wellington!

I'm hosting a giveaway for the new picture book Dear Ballerina, written and illustrated by the generous and talented Monica Wellington and published by Holiday House. But that's not all! Monica's daughter Lydia Wellington is a member of the New York City Ballet, and the winner of the giveaway will also receive a signed pair of Lydia's pointe shoes -- perfect for a special ballet-themed story time! Leave a comment at the end of this post by 11:59 PM EST on Saturday, June 8, 2019, to enter. Please leave contact information if I won't otherwise know how to reach you. 


My two girls are growing up so quickly, and I've been thinking a lot about mentors and role models lately. The girls are both in middle school, and I'm always hoping that new, inspiring people will enter their lives to encourage them and support them in pursuing their still-developing interests and talents. Dear Ballerina struck a chord with me, as I see it playing a similar role of inspiring and encouraging children -- in this case, young girls who are fond of ballet.

The book starts as a simple letter that a little ballerina might write to an older ballerina who had trained at the same dance studio. You can see the opening spread below, along with some of Monica's earlier sketches of the spread.


The text continues from the perspective of the little girl, as she explains how much she loves to dance, how she is preparing for a performance, and how she dreams of following in the older ballerina's footsteps. It is clear from the writing and pictures throughout the book that the young dancer truly idolizes the older ballerina.


When Monica's daughter Lydia was studying ballet as a child, she also used to write letters to ballerinas she admired. Today, the tables are turned, and Lydia frequently receives letters from ballerinas who admire her. In fact, Monica said that's what sparked the idea for this book!

Dear Ballerina ends with a short reply from the older ballerina to the young ballerina, encouraging her to follow her dreams and enjoy every moment of it. At the New York City Ballet, there's a tradition for the professional dancers to send their used pointe shoes to the children who send them letters. It's not unheard of for a professional ballerina to go through 100 or more pairs of pointe shoes a season, so giving away shoes -- as Lydia and the other dancers do -- seems like a great way to reduce waste and make many young dancers giddy with excitement. Below are a few of the letters Lydia has received lately, both asking for and thanking her for her point shoes!


Don't forget to leave a comment on this post, and you could win a copy of Dear Ballerina and receive a pair of Lydia's pointe shoes as well. Also check out this interview with Monica about My Ballet Journal -- a charming journal and coloring book she also created with inspiration from her daughter Lydia. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Raven Wilkinson: A True Inspiration

Misty Copeland, the first female black principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, has been in the news and mentioned on social media again and again over the past few years. She's also become quite well known in the world of children's literature. For young readers, she's been featured in You Should Meet Misty CopelandWhen I Grow Up: Misty Copelandand A Girl Named Misty: The True Story of Misty CopelandMisty is obviously a role model for many young girls and has even written a picture book of her own -- Firebird -- that uses her story to inspire girls everywhere to reach for their dreams. But who inspired Misty Copeland?


The answer is someone you may or may not have heard of -- someone featured in the picture book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, written by Leda Schubert and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. I feel very privileged to have learned about Ms. Wilkinson's powerful story through this book, which is full of details and sometimes sobering illustrations that really help the reader settle into the story's historical time and setting.

"When I was twenty-three years old, I watched a documentary called Ballets Russes. This was the day my life and my purpose changed," Misty Copeland writes in the foreword of the book. "I discovered a black ballerina named Raven Wilkinson, and it was in her that I saw myself and what was possible." Misty was already a professional ballerina when she learned about Ms. Wilkinson, and now is honored to call her both a mentor and a friend.

Trailblazer begins with a young and passionate Raven seeing the famous Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo perform when she was just five years old. It then takes readers through Raven's childhood and difficult journey to become the first black ballerina to dance with the very same company. After Raven first auditioned for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, a friend told her that she wouldn't be able to join because she was black. That didn't stop Raven, who auditioned again, and again, until the director asked her to join the company in 1955, when she was just 20 years old.

As the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured the country, Raven faced many challenges. The Ku Klux Klan was active, it was illegal in some states for black dancers to perform alongside white dancers, and men even rushed the stage once during a performance to object to Raven's presence.

One of the last straws for Raven was when she was told by a ballet mistress that she would never be able to dance the lead role in Swan Lake because she was black. She left the Ballet Russe in 1963, though she did later dance and act with other groups in Europe and the United States, and she led the way for many black ballet dancers who came after her. She was a trailblazer!

The book ends with an intersection of Raven's life with that of Misty Copeland. In 2015, Misty Copeland became the first black ballerina in a prominent American ballet company to dance the lead role in Swan Lake, and Raven Wilkinson was there to celebrate with her!


Thanks to publisher little bee books for a review copy of Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, which was released in 2018.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

An Interview with Author Michelle Meadows

All ballerinas are brave to get up on stage and share their talents with an audience. But one ballerina in particular--Janet Collins--had to be braver than most. A black girl born in New Orleans in 1917, Janet had to overcome extraordinary racial prejudice to be given the opportunity to even dance on a stage at all. According to the author's note in the back of the new picture book Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins, Janet was once told she couldn't join a dance company unless she painted her skin white!    

I'm thrilled to have the author of this new book, Michelle Meadows, on my blog today to share her inspiration and process for writing this story. I've followed Michelle's career since my two daughters were in preschool, and I love the infectious rhyme in her books, including Pilot Pups, Piggies in the Kitchen, Super Bugs, and more. Brave Ballerina is Michelle's first nonfiction book for kids.


Congratulations on such a beautiful book! You write about this a little bit in the author’s note at the back of the book, but what inspired you to write about Janet Collins?

I was taking a wonderful ballet class when I started researching black ballerinas. I also was so excited when Misty Copeland was named the first black female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. When I started looking into history, I learned that Janet Collins was the first black principal dancer with the Metropolitan Opera House. This was news to me, and I thought a picture book would be a great way to educate others about her inspiring story and her passion for dance.

Did your own experiences with dance affect any aspect of writing this book?

Definitely! I took ballet as a child and have always loved it. Taking ballet as an adult brought back some nice childhood memories. Doing the movements and dancing to music helped me with the language and rhythm of the text.

Before I move on to my next question, I have to share this adorable photo of you as a little girl, with your brother Marcus, after one of your ballet recitals. A great throwback shot!


All of your previous books have been in rhyme, but I was somehow expecting this one to be in prose. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen too many picture book biographies out there in rhyme. But I love your approach! Did you ever consider writing this one in prose, or did it come to you in rhyme from the start?

I love rhyme! I really love the music of language, and rhyme is so much fun to write. I often start out in rhyme. For this book, I actually started out in prose and it wasn’t working. When I switched to rhyme, things clicked into place. It felt natural and true to the subject matter. 

This book covers a lot of time, from Janet Collin’s early childhood to her rise as a prima ballerina, yet you cover this span of time in very few words. How did you go about deciding what to include in the book and what to leave out?

As I researched Janet’s life, I thought a lot about the events in her life that helped shape her as a dancer, the events that were most interesting to me personally, and the events that I thought would be appealing to kids. I was particularly interested in the fact that during times of racial segregation, some ballet schools would not admit black dancers. Doors were closed because of discrimination. I wanted to show children the various obstacles Janet faced and how she still kept dancing…

One of my favorite things about Brave Ballerina is the “This is the” phrase that is repeated frequently throughout the book as each new concept is introduced. How did you come up with this approach?


In addition to taking ballet while working on Brave Ballerina, I was volunteering to help kids with reading at a local Boys & Girls Club. I was spending a lot of time with children in first and second grade. I thought about how I would tell them this story about a girl who swayed with the palm trees in her yard as a child. “This is the girl who danced in the breeze…” popped into my head, and I let things roll from there.



I find the illustrations by Ebony Glen to be very expressive and endearing, especially in terms of the facial expressions for Janet Collins. What was your reaction when you saw the illustrations for the first time? 


Joy! Gratitude! More joy! I love everything about Ebony’s illustrations. They are more beautiful than I could have imagined.  

As Brave Ballerina has been on bookshelves for a few weeks now, have you heard anything about the early response from readers? I can imagine the book is already inspiring many young children!

I have heard from parents and teachers who are very enthusiastic about the book. I recently posted a teacher’s guide for the book on my website. I also had the opportunity to share the book with students at the Dance Theatre of Harlem school, and they were excited. My husband and I watched the students dance in a show, and it was really special to think that it all started with Janet Collins! 


Are there any projects in the works right now that you are able to share with us?

Yes, Ebony and I are working on another picture book with Holt/Macmillan--a picture book biography of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Ebony again, especially on a book about such an amazing gymnast. I would do a backflip about it if I could! 

I am sure lots of little girls and boys will soon be doing backflips for you! Thanks so much for letting us know about your upcoming book and for sharing some of the backstory for Brave Ballerina! 

Visit Michelle and learn more about her picture books at www.michellemeadows.com.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Two Treats -- No Tricks -- for Halloween!

The signs of Halloween have been hard to miss. Decorations on doorsteps. Thriving Halloween pop-up shops. Costume parades at many preschools and elementary schools this week. Tonight was finally the night for many of us to hover behind our doors, waiting for the bell to ring so we could be charmed by all those darling costumes and all those little voices reciting "Trick or Treat!"


Well, here are two treats of a different kind, delivered straight to your computer screens this Halloween evening...or perhaps a day or so later by the time some of you read this.

The first treat is a short, playful poem I wrote to capture the spirit of Halloween, at least from the perspective of young children, many of whom are all about dressing up and trick or treating with friends...


Ghosts and goblins. 
Wicked witches.
Frankensteins with
Monster stiches.

Friends with frightful
Faces meet…

Knock. Knock. 
Who’s there? 

Trick or treat!


The second treat is the new picture book Monster Boogie by Laurie Berkner and Ben Clanton. In addition to being an author, Laurie is a singer and songwriter with many a catchy tune for young children under her belt. Monster Boogie is actually one of her songs turned into a book!


The big purple monster you see on the cover of the book does the "monster boogie" and the "monster wiggle" with a young brother-and-sister duo all "round the room." As you'll see from the following YouTube video of Laurie singing the song for a group of children in monster masks, it is very infectious! This book is perfect for getting kids moving -- at home, during story time at the library, or in a dance class. And don't forget to play the song after reading the book to really get the kids moving around your room! 



Happy Halloween!
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