‘Angelina Ballerina’ is still dancing, even after 40 years on stage: NPR

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

Angelina Ballerina, written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

“More than anything else in the world, Angelina loved to dance,” writes Katharine Holabird on the front page of her classic 1983 picture book, Angelina Ballerina. “She was dancing all the time and she was dancing everywhere, and often she was so busy dancing that she forgot about the other things she was supposed to be doing.”

“He’s a wonderful character,” Holabird says of the little white mouse in the pink tutu. “She’s fiery and she has a lot of emotion. She’s a real little girl.”

Holabird – like many children – loved to dance as a child. She grew up in Chicago with three sisters, and they spent hours dressing up and dancing around the house in ballet costumes, made by her stage designer father. Later, while a freelance writer living in London, she had two young daughters who also loved to dance.

“I thought it was a wonderful story about little girls and how uplifting dance and music can be,” Holabird said.

At the time, she was working for her husband’s publishing house – writing texts and doing interviews – when he introduced her to illustrator Helen Craig.

“And then later on they decided it would be awesome to do a picture book with Helen,” says Holabird. “And I was there.”

“It was a lucky break,” says Craig, for both.

Angelina was a human ballerina – in the beginning

Today there are more than 25 Angelina Ballerina books – Holabird and Craig’s creation has been adapted into television series, as well as stage and ballet.

Holabird originally wrote Angelina as a little girl, but Craig had previously had success illustrating books with mice – like ABC of the Mouse House – so they decided that Angelina should be a mouse.

Angelina Ballerina

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions


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Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

“It’s very lucky in a way,” says Craig. “Because you often hear little girls say, ‘Well, I’m Angelina…’ and because they’re mice, it’s not fixed in any country or anything. It’s kind of universal. ” And, while Angelina is a little white mouse, her parents are brown mice and her ballet school classmates are different colored mice as well.

Mice are also fun to illustrate.

“They have small hands, they have a tail that expresses emotion,” says Craig. “They have mustaches that express movement. So you have everything in one package. You can really go to town.”

Children will notice if the drawings don’t make sense

Angelina Ballerina is located in the village of Chipping Cheddar – all thatched cottages and winding roads – a 1940s look at the East of England, where Craig grew up.

“I lived in a very small village in Essex,” she says. “In a small chalet with no running water…you had to pump water from the pond. And no electricity. So it was very simple.”

What isn’t straightforward, however, are his illustrations of Angelina’s world.

“I made a plan of Angelina’s cottage,” Craig said. “So that I can move around and still get it right, because the kids are very lively.” The house – and the town, and the ballet studio – are incredibly detailed. The porcelain has patterns, the butter melts on the table, the sink is full of dishes. Mrs Thimble’s shop in the village sells dresses, potatoes, cut glass and sweets. This is where Angelina goes to buy balloons for her birthday. It is a fully realized snapshot of village life.

“I think Helen’s illustrations created such a magical world for Angelina,” says Holabird. “They’re extremely fun to watch…there’s always something fascinating about them.”

Angelina Ballerina, written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

Angelina Ballerina, written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

“I have a lot of respect for the kids who watch these books,” says Craig. “I like the designs to have meaning.”

For a book in the series, Angelina on stage, Craig says she spent a lot of time consulting with her father, who was a set designer. “I used to go with the bullies and say, ‘Look, does that work? Does this pulley work? “”

But one thing Craig never wants to illustrate again? Bikes.

In one story, Holabird decided that Angelina should buy a bike for her birthday. The last full-page spread was the whole village going out and biking with Angelina. “And Helen was like, ‘Please don’t ever write history about bikes again.'”

“These are very difficult things to draw,” says Craig. “Makes me crazy.”

Each book took about a year to create

Unlike some author and illustrator pairs, Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig have worked closely together over the years. Holabird says she would first spend several weeks writing the story. Then she’d called Craig to discuss it. Since they were both living in London at the time, they would sometimes go on field trips together to scout for scenes – such as a story where Angelina goes to a dance festival on a houseboat.

“There’s actually a houseboat museum in London,” says Holabird. “We went to see the houseboats.”

Angelina Ballerina, written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

Angelina Ballerina, written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

Once the story was created, Holabird gave it to Craig to storyboard. Craig was doing rough thumbnail sketches to take back to Holabird.

“And then it’s a back and forth between us until we get to the point where we all agree that what I have pretty much in mind is right,” says Craig.

She says the final product would take an entire year.

“I’m going to make a rough sketch on very thin paper and put another sheet on top of it and work them more and more until I get exactly what I want,” she says. “I’ll put it on the softbox, work with a very fine pen. Then I start working with watercolor. A little of this, a little of that until it gets where I want let it be,” she said. “That’s why it’s taking so long.”

This is also why – even if Angelina Ballerina books are still being published – Craig no longer illustrates them. Although their collaboration on the series has ended, Holabird and Craig remain friends. Holabird now lives in the United States, but she visits whenever she is in England.

“We have tea and a little chat. And I watch what she does in her studio,” says Holabird.

Angelina Ballerina, written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

Angelina Ballerina, written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig

Simon & Schuster Children’s Editions

Angelina embodies the determination of young dancers

Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig are thrilled that Angelina twirled, bounced and stood the test of time.

“Maybe you remember,” Craig says, “when we did the very first book…everyone was like, ‘Well, that’s the end!'” Because at the end of story, Angelina grew up performing on a big stage in front of a crowd of mice.

“She became the famous ballerina Miss Angelina,” writes Holabird. “And fans came from far and wide to enjoy her beautiful dancing.”

But that was of course not the end.

“We said she was successful,” says Craig. “So now we can have all these tough things happening to him along the way.”

And indeed, Angelina continues to experience jealousy and disappointment. Some days she doesn’t feel well and can’t dance. She will stumble and stumble, but she will always get up.

“I think little kids have this incredible determination,” says Holabird. “[They] are really very passionate and have great loves and have great journeys to make, all of them. And Angelina embodies that.”

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