An Interview With Katharine Holabird, Author of 'Angelina Ballerina'
For the past 28 years, Angelina Ballerina has been dancing her way into our hearts and inspiring young ballerinas across the world. Author Katharine Holabird says she dreamed up her classic character, a little mouse who wants more than anything to become a ballerina, as her children were twirling around her in their tutus.
TakePart spoke with Katharine about her award-winning children's series and how she unexpectedly turned Angelina Ballerina into a household name.
TakePart: What do you think makes children identify with Angelina?
Katharine: Children identify with her because she’s very recognizable to them. She has such big emotions; she gets in little scrapes and difficulties she has to figure out how to get out of; she has to apologize; she has to deal with the adult world and all these issues about will she ever be able to dance like a real ballerina. I think children have these big aspirations and dreams, but that doesn’t mean they have to be a prima ballerina. They have to experience their own dreams and live them out. I hope it’s inspiring to children that way.
TakePart: Did your children inspire some of the Angelina Ballerina series?
Katharine: I got a call six to nine months after I wrote Angelina Ballerina, and they told me I needed to write another one... I have two daughters and a son. I just watched and listened to my children. They were so funny. They had these little dramas going on all the time about their ballet classes. It was so important, these tiny little ballet classes in north London. They always had some desperate dramas happening because someone had gotten the sniffles or forgot their steps. All those little stories were based on real life. The children really do live these things very deeply.
TakePart: Were you a dancer?
Katharine: My sisters and I, we loved to dress up and dance. My mother was an actress, she loved to dress up with us and play music, and we all could dance around the house. Those were some of my happiest memories of childhood.
TakePart: Did you always love writing?
Katharine: I did, I wrote a lot and read. I read read read all the time, stories about animals and brave children, Charlotte's Web, all of that. By the time I got to Bennington College, I knew I wanted to write. I studied literature and honestly couldn’t figure out how I was going to get anything published.
A year after college, I worked for the college literary magazine and then I had a chance to go to Italy. I met my husband, Michael, there. That was a real turning point. We stayed in Italy for three years, and I got a job working for a film magazine. One thing my husband said to me that I’ve never forgotten was, "You can't be a writer if you're not prepared to really work hard and rewrite everything, lots of times. If you can't do that, it's better you don't become a writer." I do rewrite a lot, and I’ve always been happy to change things and take another look at them because it's important to write the very best story you possibly can.
TakePart: What kind of stories did you like to tell or write as a kid?
Katharine: We were all crazy about dancing and ballet; so we used to make up stories about that. A little later on, I guess when I was seven or eight and older, we were all crazy about horses; so everything suddenly became about horses. I would tell stories about a brave horse. I was always mad about animals; so a dog story, a horse story or something that had happened to my cat. Something funny to entertain everybody. I was a bit of an entertainer. I did not tell stories about mice in those days.
TakePart: How did the Angelina character become a mouse?
Katharine: Helen Craig and I met in about 1979, when I had been in London for about five years. She was very talented and trying to sell illustrations of little mice. She was having a lot of difficulty getting her stuff published, and my husband was in publishing. When he met her, he started publishing her work. Michael and Helen came to me and said they wanted to do a story book. My husband knew I had all these ideas. They said if you have an idea write it down, and we’ll see if we can do something with it. So I went home and sat down in the kitchen with literally these little daughters dancing around me in their tutus and wrote Angelina Ballerina and gave it to Helen.
She was so clever and marvelous with mice; so we kept the main character as a mouse. Her mice have so much character. Their tails tell a story, and you know how Angelina is feeling because her tail is way up or way down, her whiskers go up and down, she’s so elated or she’s so droopy. It's really marvelous how much emotion she can convey. Her eyes too. Helen is just such a dedicated artist.
TakePart: How long do you take to write a story?
Katharine: Nowadays, probably about a month from start to finish. The books are about 900 words. That doesn’t seem like very much, and it's not, but every word counts. It's challenging, kind of like writing poetry. And there has to be drama in it. When I go and talk to children at schools about writing and books, I say when your writing you have to think about making life difficult for your character. If Angelina just gets up in the morning and has a wonderful day and goes to bed, that’s not a story, is it? You have to think of something that happens to her that really challenges her. So we can see how brave and fearless and feisty she is, and how she overcomes these terrible problems.
TakePart: How did your kids react to you writing books as they got older?
Katharine: They’ve always known that they were part of this whole story of Angelina. I think they're very proud of it and very delighted. My son, who would seem to be the least likely to care about Angelina, is actually thrilled. He's now a very good-looking, tall young man, and he says, "Mom I have to thank you. If I really want to impress a girl, I say 'do you know Angelina?' ” Usually they light up and say "yes," and he says, "well I’m actually Henry."
TakePart: What kind of lessons do you hope to teach in your books?
Katharine: You don’t want to be too obvious with lessons because storybooks are there to be enjoyed. I think children return to them because they love the emotional journey, and they love the richness of the illustrations. There are little lessons that you can't go through life without learning, and Angelina has lots to learn. That’s very much the case with growing up for everybody. I try to be fairly subtle about it. There are a lot of themes that are universal about jealousy, about friendship, about learning to share, learning how to follow your dreams and how to get along with other little mouselings.
TakePart: What would you say to other writers who want to write children’s books?
Katharine: I think I was extremely lucky. I have a very nice letter from a young writer who asked me just that. It’s a combination of luck; you have to find a character that you can really believe in and a character that has that universal appeal. If you look at the classic children’s characters, that’s what there is, a universal appeal. There’s something that really touches a cord with everybody.... Get that emotional arc that’s really packed in with emotions and humor. I always try and make it funny. Another key, you’re writing not just for the child, but for the parent who has to read this over and over and over again. So you want to give something to them too, something they can smile and go, "Oh, yes I recognize that" about. You’re writing on two levels. You’re writing to the child, and you’re writing to the parent.
TakePart: Did you ever imagine Angelina Ballerina would be the phenomenon it is today?
Katharine: In my wildest imaginings I did not. It has been a privilege and honor and a joy, and I feel deeply moved that Angelina has continued dancing and delighting everyone for so long. It's kind of a miracle. It’s so wonderful to have this outreach to young children, and for Angelina to be on stage in New York is just incredible.
From DreamWorks Pictures and Reliance Entertainment, in association with Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, comes the drama 'The Help.' Participant Media is TakePart's parent company.