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 Glenn 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.