|Golden Kite Award-Winning Author Kristy Dempsey|
I contacted Kristy to find out more...
Lee: Hi Kristy, congratulations!
Kristy: Thanks, Lee! I am still gobsmacked and moved to tears every time I think about it.
Lee: Please tell us about your book.
Kristy: A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT is the historical fiction story of a young African-American girl who dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. She faces barriers each day because of the color of her skin and she doesn’t even know if she should dare to dream or if becoming a prima ballerina is just a wish that could never come true. When she hears that Janet Collins, the first African-American ballerina to dance with a major ballet company, will perform with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, her mother sacrifices to take her to see the performance. Janet Collins was actually the first African-American ballerina to perform under contract at the Met. The event was highly publicized in advance and the audience was not segregated. There were published anecdotes from those who witnessed Collins’s performance and though the little girl whose story I have written is not based on any one person, her response echoes the thrill, the satisfaction and the wonder of those who did witness Janet Collins’s electric performance and this historic barrier-breaking accomplishment.
Lee: How did the story take shape to be from the young girl’s perspective?
Kristy: As a child, I went to a concert during which I was moved to tears by the singer’s performance. I remember wondering what it must feel like to be able to affect the emotions of your audience in that way. As I read about Janet Collins’s performance, I realized that the story I wanted to tell was about the child in the audience who, for the very first time, sees that her own dream could be possible. For me, the most interesting angle of this story was this child watching the stage with wonder and hope, and beginning to believe that she might be able to accomplish her own dreams as well.
Lee: You’ve packed so much emotion into the words! One spread in particular gets me every time I read it, when the main character is watching Janet Collins on stage,
“In my heart I’m the one leapingTalk to us about how to capture emotion.
across that stage,
raising myself high on those shoulders,
to the arms below.
It’s like Miss Collins is dancing for me,
only for me,
showing me who I can be.
All my hoping
wells up and spills over,
dripping all my dreams onto my Sunday dress."
Kristy: For me, the heart of all story is the emotion. There are an infinite number of story ideas, characters, settings, and plots, but the emotion is what makes each universal and relatable. Our cultures, our backgrounds, the barriers we have faced surely vary and those inform the story as well. But emotion can draw the reader into an empathetic understanding of something they’ve never experienced. I have never experienced the racism that my main character experienced. Or the barriers that Janet Collins had to overcome. So at the outset, I knew that there were cultural aspects of this story that I must carefully communicate. But at the heart of this story was a little dreamer watching her dream become a possibility. I had experienced the hope and wonder that was the result of being moved to tears by an incredible performance. I knew what that felt like and I could put it into words. So, while I worked very hard to give my reader an understanding of the historical context in which this story takes place, I also wanted my reader to connect to the desire this little girl has as a dreamer. I used my own dreams and feelings as an entryway into describing the emotion of my main character.
1. Make it personal. Brainstorm ways to describe your own emotions from a similar situation and make a list of the descriptive phrases.
2. Research the context to strengthen the backdrop of your story. I thought of each scene in this story much like the scenery in a play. The small details that I hint at in the text –where they lived, what their home looked like, how much it cost to purchase tickets to the performance, etc – support the emotion in the story by providing a passage for the reader into that time period. It deepens the reader’s understanding of how tender the main character’s hope might have felt.
3. Use action to show emotion. In the excerpt above, the main character is crying and she describes it as if her tears are the culmination of her hope welling up and spilling over. There are other examples in the story of this same type of description. Fidgeting shows excitement, turning away shows embarrassment, twirling beneath moonlight shows contentment. Allow the reader to perceive your characters’ emotion through their actions. It’s the classic tip of SHOW, don’t TELL!
Lee: Speaking of emotion, what did it feel like when you saw Floyd Cooper’s illustrations for your words for the first time?
Kristy: I was a puddle. Of course, any writer would have been grateful for and overwhelmed by Floyd’s masterful depiction of her words. But a specific set of circumstances contributed to what I felt in that moment. First, when I originally wrote this story, one of my critique partners, Anne Marie Pace, read it and said, “I’d love to see Floyd Cooper illustrate this.” That dream felt too big to hold in my heart at the time, but it took root. I’ve always been mesmerized by Floyd’s art and couldn’t even begin to imagine what stars would have to align for that to be a possibility. Then, I went through a series of significant revisions where I lost hope and wondered if this manuscript would ever be viable. And finally, once the manuscript was acquired by Philomel, AND they actually had asked Floyd to illustrate it, AND he actually had agreed, it still took another 6 years for the book to be worked into his schedule and to be published. So as I opened up that package with the F&Gs, it was after 10 years of my own dreaming to see this book come to fruition. Floyd’s art was definitely worth the wait. To be honest, I sobbed! I was a perfect picture of “all my hoping wells up and spills over, dripping all my dreams . . .” onto the floor in front of me.
Lee: Awww! That's heart-warming! In addition to being celebrated and receiving your Golden Kite Award, you’ll also be on faculty at the upcoming 2015 SCBWI Summer Conference. You’ll be giving a Saturday afternoon breakout workshop on HOW TO NOT HAVE A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN WHILE WAITING. Can you give us a sneak peek?
Kristy: Well, it’s a workshop born out of my personal experience. I really believe that to be successful at this career you have to learn to wait well while nurturing and controlling the inner chaos that drives your creativity. Waiting for responses from agents and editors, waiting for the publication machine to turn its slow-moving wheels, waiting for illustrators’ schedules to align, waiting for your own ideas to gel into something worth pursuing . . . it’s enough to make anyone with a creative drive feel a little insane at times. My workshop will be part inspiration/pep talk and part practical activities on living and maintaining the creative life.
Lee: How long have you been a member of SCBWI, and how has it contributed to your career journey?
Kristy: This is my 10th year of membership in the SCBWI. I live in Brazil where there are very few SCBWI members and SCBWI has provided me with a diverse worldwide community of colleagues who encourage, critique, educate and hold me up! I began writing A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT about the same time I joined SCBWI and then went through revision and a journey to publication that follows those same 10 years of my membership in SCBWI. Being honored with the Golden Kite Award for this book feels like a culmination of the knowledge, community and experience I gained as a member of the SCBWI.
Lee: What three things are you most looking forward to about the conference?
Kristy: This will be my first national SCBWI conference! I am most looking forward to:
1. meeting writer and illustrator friends I have only known online,
2. hearing Mem Fox (one of my writing and teaching heroes) speak alongside her editor Allyn Johnston,
3. and soaking up the creative energy! I work full-time as a school librarian in Brazil and most of my access to other creative professionals is online, so I am especially looking forward to this in-person chance to mix with a diverse group of industry professionals.
You can join Kristy and all the other amazing faculty at the 2015 SCBWI Summer Conference. Details and registration information here.
And to find out more about Kristy, visit her website here.
Would you like a chance to win a copy of "A Dance Like Starlight?" Then leave a comment, and in one week we'll randomly choose a winner. Good luck!
Illustrate and Write On,