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40 years after she took the stage, 'Angelina Ballerina' is still dancing

Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing

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

"She's this marvelous character," says Holabird of the little white mouse in a pink tutu. "She's feisty and she has a lot of emotion. She's a real little girl."

Holabird — like a lot of children — loved to dance as a kid. 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 set-designer father. Later, when she was a freelance writer living in London, she had two young daughters who also loved to dance.

"It just seemed to me this was a wonderful story about little girls and how empowering dance and music can be," says Holabird.

At the time, she was working for her husband's publishing company — writing copy and doing interviews — when he introduced her to illustrator Helen Craig.

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

"It was a lucky break," says Craig, for both of them.

Angelina was a human ballerina — at first

Today, there are more than 25 Angelina Ballerina books — Holabird and Craig's creation has been adapted into a television series, as well as for the stage, and the ballet.

Holabird had originally written Angelina as a little girl, but Craig had already had some success illustrating books with mice — like The Mouse House ABC — so they decided Angelina should be a mouse.

Angelina Ballerina
/ Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Angelina Ballerina

"It's very fortunate 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 sort of universal." And, while Angelina is a little white mouse, her parents are brown mice, and her ballet school classmates are also different-colored mice.

Mice are also fun to illustrate.

"They've got little hands, they've got a tail which expresses emotion," says Craig. "They've got whiskers which express motion. So you've got everything in one package. You can really go to town."

Kids will notice if the drawings don't make sense

Angelina Ballerina is set in 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 cottage without any running water ... you had to pump it from the pond. And no electricity. So it was very simple."

What's not simple, though, are her illustrations of Angelina's world.

"I made a plan of Angelina's cottage," Craig says. "So that I could move around and always get it right, because children are very sharp." The house — and the town, and the ballet studio — are incredibly detailed. The china has patterns, the butter melts on the table, the sink is full of dishes. Mrs. Thimble's store in the village sells dresses, potatoes, cut glass and sweets. It's where Angelina goes to buy balloons on her birthday. It's a fully-realized snapshot of village life.

"I think Helen's illustrations have created such a magical world for Angelina," says Holabird. "They're extremely fun to look at ... there's always something fascinating."

/ Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing

"I have great respect for the children who are looking at these books," says Craig. "I like the drawings to make sense."

For one book in the series, Angelina On Stage, Craig says she spent a lot of time consulting her father, who was a stage designer. "I used to go in with the roughs and say, 'Look, does this work? Is this pulley working?'"

But one thing Craig never wants to illustrate 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 coming out and riding bicycles with Angelina. "And Helen said to me, 'Please don't ever write a story about bicycles again.'"

"They're very hard things to draw," says Craig. "Drive me mad."

Each book took about a year to create

Unlike some author and illustrator pairs, Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig worked closely over the years. Holabird says she would first spend several weeks writing the story. Then she'd called Craig to discuss. Since they were both living in London at the time, they would occasionally go on field trips together to research scenes — like for a story where Angelina is getting to a dance festival on a barge.

"There is actually a barge museum in London," says Holabird. "We went and looked at barges."

Once the story was created, Holabird would turn it over to Craig for storyboarding. Craig would do rough thumbnail sketches to take back to Holabird.

"And then it's backwards and forwards between us until I get to the point where we all agree that what I've roughly got in mind is right," says Craig.

She says the final product would take an entire year.

"I will do a rough drawing on very thin paper and put another sheet over and I work these up more and more until I get it to exactly what I want," she says. "I'll put it on the light box, work with a very fine pen. Then I start working with watercolor. A bit of this, a bit of that until it gets to where I want it to be," she says. "That's why it takes so long."

That's also why — even though Angelina Ballerina books are still being published — Craig no longer illustrates them. Though their collaboration on the series is over, Holabird and Craig remain friends. Holabird now lives in the United States, but she visits whenever she's in England.

"We have tea and we have a little chat. And I look at what she's doing in her studio," says Holabird.

/ Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing

Angelina embodies the determination of young dancers

Both Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig are delighted that Angelina has twirled, leapt and stood the test of time.

"Perhaps you remember," says Craig, "when we did the very first book... everybody said to us 'Oh well, that's the end of it!'" Because at the end of the story, Angelina is all grown up, performing on a big stage to a crowded audience of mice.

"She became the famous ballerina Mademoiselle Angelina," Holabird writes. "And fans came from far and wide to enjoy her lovely dancing."

But that — of course — was not the end.

"We've made the statement that she succeeds," explains Craig. "So now we can have all these difficult things happening to her on the way."

And indeed, Angelina goes on to experience jealousy and disappointment. Some days she doesn't feel well and can't dance. She'll trip and she'll stumble, but she always get back up again.

"I think little children do have that incredible determination," says Holabird. "[They] really are very passionate and have great loves and have great journeys to take, all of them. And Angelina embodies that."

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Samantha Balaban
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.