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The story behind A Dancer’s Dream

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After being published last month, it’s been so lovely to see A Dancer’s Dream being read and enjoyed. Today I thought I’d share some of the story behind this book, which actually began its life as a short story with a different title — Casse-Noisette, or otherwise, ‘The Nutcracker’.

This story, which first appeared in the anthology Winter Magic, took inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s much-loved ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ which itself has a complex backstory. The ballet which we all know today was originally inspired by a story called ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ written by the German writer ETA Hoffman in 1816, which had subsequently been adapted by the French writer Alexandre Dumas in 1844 as ‘Histoire d’un casse-noisette’. A Russian doll-within-Russian-doll of inspirations, if you will!

The idea of writing about ‘The Nutcracker’ first came to me when I was asked to write a story for Abi Elphinstone’s anthology Winter Magic which was being published by Simon & Schuster. This new collection would bring together a host of wintery, festive stories, glittering with snowy and frosty magic. I knew at once that I wanted my story to be historical, and my first idea was that I might write about the frost-fairs that used to take place on the River Thames, back when winters were so cold that the whole river would freeze completely solid, and fairs would take place out on the ice. But when I mentioned this to the team at Simon & Schuster, they told me that another writer (the brilliant Emma Carroll) was already working on a frost-fair story! So it was back to the drawing board…

I began thinking about my favourite things about winter and Christmastime. There were lots of possibilities, but one tradition that I immediately thought of was going to the pantomime, the ballet, or the theatre, which we always did at Christmas when I was growing up. I especially loved ballet, so seeing ‘The Nutcracker’ was a particular festive treat – for me, the spellbinding story of Clara’s adventure on Christmas Eve, complete with its ballets of snowflakes and dancing sweets, really did seem to capture all the magic of this time of year.

I decided to find out a little more about the history of the ballet, and its origins. In particular, I began reading about the very first performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ which took place just before Christmas in 1892, in the famous Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia. Immediately, I became very interested – because there were some surprising things to discover. Considering it’s now one of the most famous and beloved ballets in the world, ‘The Nutcracker’ didn’t actually get off to a very promising start.

For one thing, Tchaikovsky wasn’t initially very keen on writing a ballet based on the Nutcracker story. It was the choreographer, Petipa, who was set on the choice of the subject matter, and who devised a synopsis. Reluctantly, Tchiakovksy set to work, but then tragedy struck when he heard the news of the death of his beloved sister, Sasha. ‘Today… I feel the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the “Sugarplum Fairy,”‘ Tchiakovsky wrote. In spite of his grief and sadness, he continued to work, perhaps even putting something of his lost sister into the character of Clara, and weaving in his own memories of childhood family Christmases.

Meanwhile, as rehearsals for the new ballet began, choreographer Petipa also experienced a tragedy when his 15-year-old daughter Evgenia died of cancer. Shortly afterwards he fell ill himself, forcing him to take leave for the rest of the season. His assistant Lev Ivanov had to step in and take charge of ‘The Nutcracker’ in his place.

Finally, when the ballet was at last performed for an audience including the Tsar of Russia, the reviews were mixed. ‘The Nutcracker’ was not immediately popular, and even got some negative responses from critics. Some of the dancers were criticised, others felt it was merely a ‘spectacle’ rather than a true ballet. It wasn’t until some years later that it grew in popularity, before eventually becoming the favourite Christmas ballet we know today.

One of the other things that caught my attention about this first staging of ‘The Nutcracker’ is that lots of the parts in the ballet were played by child dancers – including the lead roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, which were played by pupils from the Imperial Ballet School. Children performing in ballet productions was not new – Petipa had included children’s dances in almost all of his ballets. However, it was very unusual to cast young dancers in leading roles. Clara, the girl at the centre of the story was played by a young dancer called Stanislava Belinskaya, who was just 12 years old at the time.

I was immediately interested in Stanislava. She was the first to play this incredibly famous and important role – and yet we know little about her. After this moment in the spotlight, she seems to fade away from dance history. Interestingly, one of her friends and classmates who wasn’t chosen to dance in the first production of ‘The Nutcracker’ went on to become one of the most famous dancers of all the time – the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova.

Thinking about Stanislava (or ‘Stana’ as I decided to call her, which is the shortened form of her name) – and her classmate Anna – and what life might have been like for them at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg at the end of the 19th century – soon sparked my imagination. I wanted to explore some of my favourite things about The Nutcracker ballet – the magical dream sequences, the cosy scenes of a family celebrating together at Christmas-time – and weave them together with some of the real history, including Tchiakovsky’s story. I imagined a home and a family for Stana – including her own beloved sister who was unwell – as well as trying to conjur up how it might have felt for her as a young dancer to step out onto the grand stage and perform in such an important role.

The finished story was first published in Winter Magic and a little while later, the team at Simon & Schuster said they’d like to turn it into an illustrated book (following on from Abi Elphinstone’s story ‘The Snow Dragon’ which had already been transformed into a gorgeous illustrated story with artwork by Fiona Woodcock. I was especially thrilled to hear they’d asked one of my very favourite illustrators, Lizzy Stewart, to illustrate it.

It was amazing to see the story turned into the beautiful A Dancer’s Dream. Lizzy’s artwork perfectly brings to life snowy St Petersburg and the glittering Mariinsky Theatre. What a joy!

 

Check out my Pinterest board  if you’d like to see some more images that helped to inspire this story

Or if you like ballet stories, check out my list of ballet-inspired children’s books over on Bookshop.org

 

dreamIn snow- covered St. Petersberg, young dancer Stana’s dreams have finally come true – she has been chosen to play the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s new ballet, The Nutcracker. But with all eyes on her, can Stana overcome her nerves and dance like she’s never danced before…?

Illustrated by Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize winner, Lizzy Stewart, this sumptuous and magical retelling of The Nutcracker will transport you on a journey far beyond the page.

Buy it now from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon

 

The Book of Hopes

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I’m so delighted to be one of the authors and illustrators included in this wonderful collection – The Book of Hopes, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books and available free to download from the National Literacy Trust. Containing stories, poems and illustrations to make you feel hopeful and joyful, it’s the brainchild of amazing author Katherine Rundell, and includes an incredible line-up of contributors.

My contribution ‘The Green Road’ is inspired by the walk I do every morning, which never fails to make me feel more hopeful.

Find out more and download the book here

Access some resources for schools to support The Book of Hopes

Celebrating Make More Noise

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This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which enabled some women over the age of 30 to vote for the first time – and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later. There are all kinds of celebrations going on to commemorate the centenary, including lots of wonderful books being published that celebrate the achievements of girls and women.

I’m very proud to have a story in Make More Noise, a new anthology of short stories featuring inspirational girls and women to celebrate the centenary, and hopefully help encourage the next generation to keep on making their voices heard! Published by Nosy Crow, £1 from the sale of every book will be donated to Camfed, an international charity which tackles poverty and inequality by supporting women’s education in the developing world.

The anthology features stories by lots of amazing writers like Kiran Milwood Hargrave, Patrice Lawrence, Emma Carroll and Sally Nicholls. It’s very wide-ranging: some stories are historical, others contemporary; there’s fantasy, adventure and even a ghost story; so there really is something for everyone!

My story, ‘Tea and Jam’ is set in 1911, and follows Eveline, a 13-year-old ‘maid-of-all-work’. The story was actually inspired by a tea-set in the Museum of London’s collection, featuring the ‘angel of freedom’ logo designed by suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst:

Photograph of white tea-pot, cup, saucer and plate, all with green and purple WSPU logo

Tea-set from the Museum of London collection

Given that I’d taken the idea for my story from the Museum’s collection it seemed very appropriate that I was there this weekend to celebrate Make More Noise, as part of their special Votes for Women weekend!

Visitors to the Museum could take part in all kinds of activities inspired by the centenary – from banner-making, to trying out suffragette board game Pank-a-Squith, to joining in a rousing march and rally.

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Our activities included creative writing inspired by objects from the museum collection, badge-making and of course, dressing up in for some Edwardian-style suffragette portrait photographs.

Lots of people came along, and it was lovely to meet so many enthusiastic readers and noise-makers… we were even joined by some top suffragettes!

With actors dressed as Sylvia Pankhurst and Christina Broom

Me and Tom Bonnick, the editor of Make More Noise with suffragettes Sylvia Pankhurst, Christina Broom and friend at the Museum of London

Make More Noise was also chosen as Alex O’Connell’s Children’s Book of the the Week in The Times! You can read the review here.

Find out more about Make More Noise on the Nosy Crow website.

Buy it now from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon

Add it on Goodreads

A new look for Winter Magic

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Winter Magic – the anthology of frosty magical tales curated by Abi Elphinstone – is out in paperback today, with a gorgeous new cover by illustrator Melissa Castrillon

It’s lovely to see the book out in paperback just in time for enjoying on wintery afternoons – and of course, to go in lots of Christmas stockings!

The new cover is beautiful and it’s fun spotting all the details from the various stories in Melissa’s gorgeous illustration – including the little Nutcracker from my story Casse-Noisette set in 1890s St Petersburg told from the point of view of a young dancer in the very first production of ‘The Nutcracker’.

Find out more about Winter Magic

Buy your copy of the new paperback edition from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon

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Announcing Make More Noise!

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As if the publication of The Midnight Peacock wasn’t enough, there’s more excitement in store this week! Yesterday publisher Nosy Crow announced an anthology of 10 new short stories by contemporary female writers called Make More Noise! New stories in honour of the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrageand I’m delighted that I’m going to have a story included.

I’m joining an awesome line-up of writers, including Emma Carroll, Kiran Millwood Hargrave (winner of the 2017 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize), Catherine Johnson, Ally Kennen, Patrice Lawrence (winner of the 2017 YA Book Prize), M.G. Leonard (winner of the 2017 Branford Boase Award), Sally Nicholls, Ella Risbridger and Eva Wiseman.

Make More Noise! is coming out in February 2018. Each story will celebrate strong female characters, with subjects ranging from the ’43 Group to modern ghost stories. A donation of £1 from the sale of each copy will be given to Camfed, an international charity which tackles poverty and inequality by supporting women’s education in the developing world.  The book will be published in time for the centenary anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which was given Royal Assent on 6th February 1918, extending the franchise to women for the first time.

I love being part of anthologies – Winter Magic and Mystery & Mayhem have been a huge amount of fun – and this is a very special one, about a subject that’s very close to my heart. I’m thrilled to be part of such a fabulous line-up, and am really looking forward to working with Nosy Crow – and especially to seeing what all the other writers come up with. Watch this space for more news on Make More Noise and check out the announcement on the Nosy Crow website here.

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