“More than anything else in the world, Angelina loved dancing,” Katherine Hollabberd wrote on the front page of her 1983 classic illustrated book, Angelina Ballerina. “She was dancing all the time and dancing all over the place, often so busy dancing that she forgot other things she was supposed to do.”
“It’s such a adorable character,” says Hollabard of the little white mouse in a pink tutu. “She is feisty and has a lot of feelings. She is 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 designer father. Later, when she was a freelance writer living in London, she had two young daughters who also loved to dance.
“This seemed to me to be a great story about young girls and how empowering dance and music can be,” says Hollabard.
At the time, she was working at her husband’s publishing company – writing copy and giving interviews – when he introduced her to painter Helen Craig.
“Then they decided later that it would be great to do a picture book with Helen,” Hollabard says. “And I was there.”
“It was a lucky break,” says Craig, for both of them.
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 a television series, as well as theater and ballet.
Angelina’s Hollabard was originally written as a little girl, but Craig has already had some success portraying books with mice – like Mouse House ABC – So they decided that Angelina should be a mouse.
“He’s very lucky in a way,” Craig says. “Because you often hear little girls saying ‘OK, I’m Angelina…’ and because they’re mice, it’s not fixed in any country or anything. It’s kind of global.” And while Angelina is a little white rat, her parents are brown rats, and her ballet school classmates are also rats of different colours.
Mice are also fun to illustrate.
“They have small hands and a tail that expresses feelings,” says Craig. “They have whiskers that express movement. So you have it all in one package. You can really go to town.”
Kids will notice if the drawings don’t make sense
Angelina Ballerina Set in the village of Chipping Cheddar – all thatched cottages and winding roads – a look from the 1940s east of England, where Craig grew up.
“I lived in a very small village in Essex,” she says. “In a small hut with no running water… you had to pump it from the pond. And no electricity. So it was very simple.”
But it’s not as simple as her illustrations of Angelina’s world.
“I laid out the blueprint for Angelina’s country house,” says Craig. “So that I can move around and always do it right, because kids are very sharp.” The house – and the town and ballet studio – are incredibly detailed. The porcelain has patterns, the butter is melting on the counter, the sink is full of dishes. Mrs. Thimble’s shop in the village sells dresses, potatoes, cut glass and sweets. It’s where Angelina goes to buy balloons for her birthday. It is a fully realized shot of village life.
“I think Helen’s drawings created such a magical world for Angelina,” says Hollabard. “It’s so fun to look at…there’s always something great.”
“I have a lot of respect for kids who look at these books,” Craig says. “I love the cartoons to understand them.”
For one book in the series, Angelina on stageCraig says she spent a lot of time consulting her father, who was a stage designer. “I used to go into the rough and say, ‘Look, does this work? Does this pulley work?'”
But one thing Craig never wants to make clear again? Bicycles.
In one story, Holabird decided that Angelina should get a bike for her birthday. The last full page spread was the whole village going out and cycling with Angelina. And Helen said to me, ‘Please don’t write a story about bikes again. “
“It’s very hard to draw,” Craig says. “It drove me crazy.”
Each book took about a year to create
Unlike some pairs of authors and illustrators, Kathryn Hollabard and Helen Craig have worked closely together over the years. Hollabard says she will first spend several weeks writing the story. Then I called Craig to discuss. Since they were both living in London at the time, they would sometimes go on field trips together looking for scenes – like a story where Angelina goes to a dance festival on a boat.
“There is actually a sandalwood museum in London,” says Hollabard. “We went and looked at the sandals.”
Once the story was created, Holabird would turn it over to Craig for the storyboard. Craig was making rough miniature drawings to bring back to Holabird.
“And then back and forth between us until I get to the point where we all agree that what I have in mind is roughly right,” says Craig.
It says the final product will take a full year.
“I’m going to do a rough sketch on very thin paper and put another sheet on top of it and work on it more and more until I get exactly what I want,” she says. “I’ll put it on the lightbox, and work with a very thin pen. Then I start working with the watercolor. A little bit of this, a little bit of that until it gets to where I want it to be,” “That’s why it takes so long.”
That’s why too – though Angelina Ballerina The books are still being published – Craig no longer illustrates them. Although their collaboration on the series has ended, Holabird and Craig remain friends. She now lives in the United States, but visits her whenever she is in England.
“We have tea and we have a little chat. And I look at what she’s doing in her studio,” says Holabird.
Angelina embodies the design of the little dancers
Kathryn Hollabberd and Helen Craig are happy that Angelina has turned around, jumped, and stood the test of time.
You probably remember, when we released the first book…everyone told us ‘Okay, that’s the end of the story,’ says Craig! Because at the end of the story, Angelina is fully grown, a big platform for a crowded audience of mice.
“I became the famous ballerina Mademoiselle Angelina,” wrote Hollabard. “And fans from all over the world came to enjoy her beautiful dance.”
But that – of course – was not the end.
“We said it worked,” Craig explains. “So now we can have all these difficult things happen to her along the way.”
And indeed, Angelina continues to experience jealousy and disappointment. Some days she just doesn’t feel well and can’t dance. You will stumble and stumble, but it always comes back again.
“I think young children have this amazing design,” Hollabard says. “[They] Really very passionate and have a lot of love and have great trips to do all of them. And Angelina embodies that.”
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