Archive of ‘writing’ category
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
In 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
To celebrate the publication of Villains in Venice, I thought I’d share some recommendations of other children’s books set in the city. Reading other works of fiction set in a particular place is one of my favourite ways to research the settings for my books – so whether you’re planning a trip to Venice and want the perfect reading material to take along, or simply plan to travel there in your imagination, here are a few suggestions:
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
In modern-day Venice, brothers Prosper and Boniface are on the run. There’s a detective on their tail, and they’re hiding among the canals and alleyways of the city. Soon they are taken in by a gang of street children and their leader, the mysterious Thief Lord, and find shelter in an old, abandoned cinema.But that’s just the beginning of an extrordinary adventure involving a beautiful merry-go-round with magical powers… This enchanting Venetian fantasy is perfect for readers looking for a story of mystery and magic.
Unveiling Venus by Sophia Bennett
In the sequel to Following Ophelia, a historical YA novel inspired by the Pre-Raphealite painters, we rejoin heroine Mary, formerly a maid, now reinvented as glamorous artist’s model Persephone Lavelle. Setting out from Victorian London to Venice with her friend Kitty, she hopes to escape scandal and gossip. But when she encounters a mysterious masked young man on the Grand Canal, there’s trouble in store… Complete with bohemian artists, Venetian masked balls, and of course, plenty of romance, this is a delightful young adult novel, which will transport you back in time to 19th century Venice.
The Undrowned Child by Michelle Lovric
Author Michelle Lovric has written several books set in Venice, but I’d especially recommend this unusual critically-acclaimed fantasy, which takes place in the same period as Villains in Venice. This is the story of Teo, a young girl who has always longed to visit Venice. But when she finally gets her wish, all kinds of strange things begin to happen to her. Teo is quickly subsumed into a remarkable secret world of ghosts, talking statues, librarians that turn into cats, mermaids that run underground printing presses… and terrible danger. With the help of a Venetian boy, Renzo, and a mysterious book entitled The Key to the Secret City, she soon discovers that she alone has the power to save the floating city from the sinister ‘Traitor’.
Stravagaza: City of Masks by Mary Hoffman
The first book in Mary Hoffman’s Stravaganza series introduces us to Lucien – a teenage boy who is dealing with a serious illness. Lucien’s life takes an unexpected turn when an old Italian notebook transports him from his sick-bed to Belezza – a city rather like the Venice of the 16th Century. There he meets Arianna, a girl dressed as a boy who is risking everything in the hope of being chosen as one of the Duchessa’s ‘mandoliers’ and learns that he has become a stravagante – a kind of time traveller. He is soon immersed in the intriguing world of Belezza, becoming a mandolier himself and even saving the Duchessa from an assassination attempt. But what will be the consequences of his remarkable adventures for his life back home? Whilst it isn’t set in Venice itself but an ‘alternate’ version, this engaging fantasy story is full of fascinating detail inspired by the city’s real history.
The Mask of Aribella by Anna Hoghton
In this charming magical adventure for young readers, Aribella is the daughter of a lace-maker, growing up on the island of Burano in the Venice lagoon. But Aribella has a deadly and dangerous secret – when she gets angry, sparks shoot from her fingertips! She knows she mustn’t let anyone know about her strange magical powers, yet when dark spectres rise from the lagoon, her abilities save her life. Soon, she has been discovered by the Cannovaci – a society of masked, magical warriors, who have sworn to protect Venice against the dark spirits that menace the city.
Finally, of course, I have to mention Villains in Venice itself!
Set in 1912, the third book in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series follows intrepid young secret agents Sophie Taylor and Lil Rose to Venice on a new mission for the British Secret Service Bureau. But there are villains lurking amongst the city’s piazzas, canals and crumbling palaces, and in the shadows an old enemy lies in wait…
What are your favourite children’s books set in Venice? I’d love to hear any other suggestions in the comments!
If you enjoyed this list then do also check out my other Taylor & Rose inspired booklists:
When I first started writing the Sinclair’s Mysteries, while I loved the idea of Edwardian girl detectives, I had a feeling that it was unlikely that my heroines Sophie and Lil had many real-life counterparts. Although I’d come across works of fiction like Revelations of a Lady Detective, and The Female Detective published in the mid-19th century I suspected that real lady detectives at this time had in fact been few and far between. And although many new opportunities were opening up for women in the early 20th century, I couldn’t somehow imagine that there were really many young women who had the opportunity to work as professional detectives as Sophie and Lil do in my stories – never mind setting up their own detective agency. However…
Reader, I was entirely wrong.
In my research for the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, I’ve discovered that there were many women engaged in detective work both in London and further afield in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. In fact, one of the first lady detectives Kate Warne got a job at the famous Chicago agency Pinkerton’s as early as 1856. By 1894, Henry Slater (head of one of London’s largest detective agencies) was advertising Slater’s Women Detectives and at around the same time, Moser’s Ladies Detective Agency was set up by his rival, the ex-Scotland Yard inspector Maurice Moser. Meanwhile, Kate Easton was one of the first lady detectives to set up her own agency in London, which she established in 1905, declaring: ‘Blackmail, divorce, evidence, robbery, I undertake it all; I have touched everything except murder.’
Meanwhile, although women could not officially work for the police in the UK, Scotland Yard had been quietly hiring lady detectives to help with their cases as early as 1899. And across the pond in the USA, Isabella Goodwin was hired as New York’s first woman police detective in the 1900s, investigating burglars and swindlers; whilst Frances Benzecry worked as a detective for the medical societies of Brooklyn and Manhattan to expose fake medical pracitioners.
Anyone who has read the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents will be interested to hear that another place women detectives could often be found in the 1900s was in London’s department stores! Stores like my own (fictional) Sinclair’s would frequently hire women to help prevent shoplifting, as women detectives were better able to blend in with the customers. When it opened in 1909, Selfridges hired a detective named Matilda Mitchell as the head up its very own ‘secret service’. She and her staff helped to catch thieves and frustrate the efforts of gangs like the ‘Forty Elephants’ who would sweep into the shop and cause a rumpus, while others quickly stuffed furs and expensive trinkets into outfits fitted with pockets especially for the purpose.
I recently read a fascinating new book The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective by Susannah Stapleton which explores the intriguing story of one of these early lady detectives, Maud West, in more detail. I was especially interested to discover that Maud had a surprising number of things in common with Sophie and Lil!
Maud reportedly set up her own detective agency in 1905: she had a number of both male and female detectives working for her, and an office in Bloomsbury. She had a particular eye for publicity, placing advertisements in the press (‘Maud West, Lady Detective. Are you worried? If so, consult me! Private enquiries and delicate matters undertaken anywhere with secrecy and ability’) but also writing colourful newspaper stories about her cases, seeking out publicity stunts, and circulating pictures of herself in various disguises.
According to her own accounts, her detective work involved everything from unmasking blackmailers to foiling jewel thieves to infiltrating dangerous gangs. She frequently used disguises, changing her appearance with wigs and make-up, and often dressed as a man, occupying rooms in a hotel as a ‘titled Englishman’ and following her suspects ‘into their clubs, playing baccarat beside them at the Monte Carlo Casino. She would reportedly disguise herself as ‘a shabby old scrubwoman’ at 5pm before being at the Ritz elegantly dressed for dinner by 7pm. She even claimed to have been involved in catching foreign spies, and just like Sophie and Lil, apparently worked for the British intelligence services during the First World War.
Something else that I was particularly intrigued to discover about Maud is that just like Sophie she appears to have started her career as a shop assistant – possibly even working in millinery – and that just like Lil she may have spent some time on the stage.
Later, her two daughters also came to work for her as detectives. One newspaper reported that her daughter Vera (described as ‘a pretty fair-haired girl of 17’ when she first started working for Maud) was such a clever young detective that she was dubbed ‘Miss Sherlock Holmes’.
It seems that my idea of Edwardian girl detectives was not so very far-fetched after all!
Check out my other ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts exploring the historical background of the Sinclair’s Mysteries and Taylor & Rose Secret Agents
Following on from my list of children’s books set in Paris, I wanted to put together a new list to celebrate Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Spies in St Petersburg!
There are obviously lots of children’s and young adult books set elsewhere in Russia, or that are inspired by Russian folk tales. However, these five all have scenes that are set specifically in and around St Petersburg (or Leningrad) itself.
The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Gelrev Ongbico
Deep in the snowy woods, Feo lives in a wooden house, with her mother – a ‘wolf-wilder’ who helps to re-wild the wolves that foolish men have tried to tame. Feo has grown up amongst the wolves, and could howl before she could talk. But when the Russian Army appear and kidnap her mother, Feo’s life is turned upside down. Now she must travel through the harsh winter landscape to St Petersburg to try and rescue her mother, teaming up with some unexpected new friends she meets along the way. This is an enchanting story from Katherine Rundell, with wonderfully atmospheric illustrations from Gelrev Ongbico.
Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire
In this reimagining of the classic story of The Prince and the Pauper set in Tsarist Russia, Elena lives in the impoverished Russian countryside. Her future is bleak, until the night that a grand steam train stops unexpectedly at her village’s abandoned station. Aboard is Ekaterina, a girl who looks just like Elena, although in every other way she couldn’t be more different. Soon the two girls have switched places and Elena is on her way to St Petersburg – beginning an extrordinary adventure that also features a Fabergé Egg, the mythical Firebird, a prince in disguise, and the famous Baba Yaga herself.
Rendezvous in Russia by Lauren St John
In this instalment of Lauren St John’s engaging Laura Marlin series, young detective Laura, her faithful husky Skye and her friend Tariq have left behind their Cornish home for another adventure abroad. This time they’re joining a film crew in the faraway city of St Petersburg. But once on the set of ‘The Artistocratic Thief’, a new movie about an art heist, they find themselves mixed up in a real-life mystery.
The Raven’s Children by Yulia Yakoleva, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp
Set in 1938, during the time of Stalin’s purges, this is the intriguing story of 7-year-old Shura. He leads a normal life in Leningrad, going to school, playing with his friends, and fighting with his big sister. But then his Mama, Papa and baby brother Bobka suddenly disappear without trace. The neighbours are saying they were enemies of Stalin, who have been taken away by the mysterious ‘Raven’. Desperate to reunite his family, Shura sets out to hunt down the ‘Raven’ – but there are strange adventures ahead.
The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable
On a school trip to St Petersburg, Sophie and her friends get aboard the wrong train. They are rescued by the beautiful and mysterious Princess Anna Volkonskaya, who takes them to her winter palace and mesmerises them with stories of lost diamonds and a tragic past. But as night falls and wolves prowl, Sophie discovers that secrets – and dangers – are lying in wait for her in the crumbling palace …
Finally of course I have to mention Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Spies in St Petersburg! In the second in the Taylor & Rose Secret Agents series, it’s 1911 and Sophie is missing in action after an explosive Secret Service Bureau mission in Paris. Lil decides to take matters into her own hands, setting out to track her down in misty and mysterious St Petersburg. But can they uncover the identity of their true enemy – and can they trust anyone, even the Bureau itself?
If you have a favourite children’s book set in St Petersburg I’d love to hear about it – leave me a comment below!
If you enjoyed this list then do check out my other Taylor & Rose inspired booklists:
To celebrate the publication of Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris, I wanted to share a few more children’s books with a Parisian setting. If you’re planning a trip to the City of Lights – or simply want to imagine yourself there, here are some recommended reads:
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
As a baby, Sophie was discoveed floating in a cello case after a shipwreck on the English Channel. She finds a home in London with her eccentric guardian Charles – but when a child welfare agency threaten to send her to an orphanage instead, the two of them set off to Paris on a quest to find her lost mother. From an attic window, Sophie soon begins exploring the rooftops of Paris with a boy called Matteo and his friends, who have adventures above the busy city streets. Can they help Sophie find her mother before she is caught and sent back to London? This enchanting children’s story is absolutely charming – a deserving winner of the Blue Peter Book Award.
Paris Up Up and Away by Helene Druvert
The Eiffel Tower decides to cut loose and fly over the night-time rooftops of Paris in this gorgeous and whimsical illustrated book. Through a series of delicate paper-cuts, Helene Druvert captures all the sights of the city, from the Seine to the Opera to Notre Dame. There’s something about this book which perfectly evokes the feeling of Paris, making it a really lovely introduction to the city for younger children.
Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
One of my favourite young adult romances, this is the tale of American girl Anna, who is not at all happy about being shipped off to boarding school in Paris by her parents. But when she meets the charismatic Étienne St Clair, and everything changes. This is a truly delightful love story that will make you fall in love with both Paris and Étienne along with Anna, and will leave you yearning to stroll around the city streets.
Blade and Bone by Catherine Johnson
I’m a huge fan of Catherine Johnson’s historical fiction for children and young adults, and her two books featuring young surgeon Ezra McAdam (the first is Sawbones) are some of my absolute favourites. In this story, Ezra must hasten to Paris to rescue his friend Loveday and her charge Mahmoud, who have been caught up in the Revolution. On his journey, Ezra travels through the battlefields of Northern France, putting his surgical skills to work – but when he finally arrives in Paris, he realises that finding Loveday and Mahmoud will not be easy…
The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner
Another gripping novel for young adults which is set during the French Revolution, this is an enthralling fantasy with an intriguing cast of characters. Yann is a boy with amazing magical abilities: a brief meeting with Sido, a lonely, shy young heiress will change his life forever. After crossing the sinister Count Kalliovski, Grand Master of a secret society, he finds himself in danger, and must escape to London. But before long he returns to Paris to find out Kalliovski’s darkest deeds – and save Sido from the guillotine…
In Paris With You by Clementine Beauvais
Inspired by Pushkin’s novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, this verse novel is definitely one for older young adult readers. A chance meeting aboard the Paris Metro reunites Tatiana and Eugene 10 years after their summer when they were 14 and 17, stirring up all kinds of emotions. What really happened that summer? Could they ever be together after everything that has passed? Beautifully translated from French by Sam Taylor, this is a wonderful, nostalgic and wistful Parisian love story.
Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans
‘In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines…’ No list of children’s books set in Paris would be complete without the classic Madeline series of picture books, which are now over 80 years old. Full of charm, the glorious illustrations perfectly evoke a delightfully old-fashioned Paris.
Liberty’s Fire by Lydia Syson
Amongst the tummult of Paris in 1871, 16-year-old Zephyrine is lured by the ideals of the city’s new government, and the prospect of freedom, hope and equality. Young musician Anatole is soon swept up with her – but his friends are not too sure. Opera-singer Marie and photographer Jules are uncertain about what life under the Paris Commune will mean for them. Soon all four must the reality – and dangers – of life during a revolution. In this historical novel for young adults, Lydia Syson paints a vivid picture of the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune.
William and the Missing Masterpiece by Helen Hancocks
William the detective cat sets out to Paris — ‘the city of art and cheese’ — to solve the mystery of a stolen painting in this delightful picture book. The quirky and colourful artwork is perfect for this hilarious riff on the classic detective tale, featuring mysterious clues, a sinister villain, lots of silly cheese-based puns, and a dramatic final reveal. But as well as being a fun story for children and adults to enjoy together, it’s also a lovely portrait of Paris — complete with art galleries, noisy traffic, stylish fashions and long lunches.
Piglettes by Clementine Beauvais
This is my second pick from the brilliant French author Clementine Beauvais, and it’s not even really set in Paris, but I couldn’t resist including it as I adored this book. After being voted the three ugliest girls in school by their classmates, the three ‘Piglettes’ – Mireille, Astrid and Hakima – climb aboard their bikes and set off on a summer roadtrip to Paris, with fame and adventure in store. Witty, irreverent and joyful, it’s an absolute treat.
Although my list of ten is complete, I want to finish by mentioning some books of my own! Rose’s Dress of Dreams, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst, is my story inspired by Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s dress-maker who is often considered to be the world’s first fashion designer. Young Rose dreams of sewing stunning dresses for the women of Paris, but when a chance encounter with royalty changes her life, Rose must draw on all her skills to create the most breathtaking dress of them all…
And finally, there’s Taylor & Rose Secret Agents: Peril in Paris
which sees young detectives Sophie and Lil setting out on a mission amongst the boulevards and grand hotels of Paris in 1911. But danger lurks beneatht the bright lights of the city – and intrigue and murder lie in store. As aeroplanes soar in the skies overhead, our heroines will need to put all their spy skills to the test to face the peril that awaits them…
Do you have a favourite children’s book set in Paris? Let me know in the comments below…!
Edit: if you enjoyed this list then do also check out my other Taylor & Rose inspired booklists: