Book Talk with Abrams and ALA librarians 6/26/2010, Washington, DC.
My Friend Maya Loves to Dance
By Cheryl Willis Hudson
Copyright 2010 by Cheryl Willis Hudson. All rights reserved.
Good afternoon. My name is Cheryl Willis Hudson and I am delighted to be here with you today to talk about my book, My Friend Maya Loves to Dance. It is brilliantly illustrated by Eric Velasquez, edited by Howard Reeves, designed by Melissa Arnst and published by Abrams Books for Young Readers. Thank you for allowing me to share some of my thoughts and memories with you.
The publication of My Friend Maya Loves to Dance brings me almost full circle in my publishing career. It was forty years ago that I experienced and made my first attempts and experienced my first rejections by children’s book publishers. I submitted my first manuscript in 1970. My first poems for children were published in 1976. During that time there were only a handful of successfully published writers and illustrators of color. And my first real book was not published until 1987 some 17 years after the start. The state of publishing has changed quite a bit during this time.
Now in 2010, I hope that My Friend Maya Loves to Dance is a book that exemplifies and reflects the best of all that I’ve learned during these pass forty years.
My Friend Maya Loves to Dance is a story about an ordinary little girl who has an extraordinary friend. Dance—or specifically wanting to be a dancer, and loving everything about it, is the obvious theme of the book. After all, what little girl doesn’t dream of being a beautiful ballerina?
The narrator begins to tell the story:
My friend Maya loves to dance.
Wherever there is music
Maya takes a stance.
She points her toes,
Then away she goes.
Dancing is fun.
The story is loosely based on a personal childhood experience. About 12 years ago on a visit to my hometown, I found a picture book in my mother’s house that I had completely forgotten about. But when I discovered it, I remembered that this book was a most treasured possession by my 8-year-old self. It was called A Child’s Book of Ballet. I loved that book! It was filled with pictures of little girls and boys studying dance and performing in a recital at the end. It reminded me that when I was a little girl I had dreams of being a dancer.
As an 8-9 year old, I took dance lessons with about 20 other little Negro girls at the Colored Y in Portsmouth, VA. A lady named Ms. Johnson was our teacher and someone else whose name I can’t recall also played a rickety old upright piano for us during our practice classes. The dance studio was a small space a in a worn out old building. The floors were cold and not so pleasant but we all dreamed of and lived for the annual spring recital where we could wear our tutus and beautiful costumes under soft and colorful theatrical lights. Alas, I loved to dance and had big dreams of being a ballerina, but I was not an especially graceful child. My dancing debut was one of a “rag doll” who didn’t have to be graceful at all. My mom had enrolled me in the class so I could learn to be graceful but needless to say, my dance career ended at about age ten not long after the spring recital. (smile)
(This photo was from a family Christmas card dated 1954.)
Nevertheless, the magic of the possibility stayed with me over my elementary and junior high school years and I fondly recalled those childhood dreams twenty-odd years later when I enrolled my own 5-year old daughter in similar Saturday morning classes at Maria Priadka’s School of Dance in New Jersey. Unlike my performance (held in the cafeteria-auditorium of Mt. Hermon Elementary School) Katura’s spring recital was on a big stage and looked almost like a professional Broadway production!
Part of my vision for My Friend Maya Loves to Dance was to be able to capture the magic of those innocent childhood dreams for hundreds of little black girls like myself who during the 1950s and 60s may have perhaps seen a photo of prima ballerina Maria Tallchief (who was Native American) but who had never seen an African American ballet dancer. Like the pictures in my favorite book, all the children, all the ballerinas were White.
Nevertheless, year after year, we still dreamed of joining the ranks of professional dancer and we sold tickets to the spring extravaganza and made our parents and our teachers proud of our perseverance, discipline, style and grace.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I want you to know something about the background of how I came to write this book. But also how it expanded into a story about friendship and a story about diversity and stretching boundaries. I started public school in the 1954, the year of the pivotal Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka Kansas. And I attended segregated schools for twelve years until the late 1960s when I graduated from an all-black high school. During that time, I would never have thought of writing a book like this. Nor could I have conceived of having or talking about a friendship like the one that Maya and Morgan share.
I must really thank illustrator Eric Velasquez for his thoughtful reinterpretation of my initial vision for this book. The paintings for this book are truly beautiful. Eric has made Maya’s story so real and so believable partly by using the talents of local children from a community dance studio as models for the paintings. Everything about Maya is full of the joy of “Dance”—all kinds of dance. Maya is totally absorbed in the music and the motion…Dance is a part of her entire being!
The narrator continues…
My friend Maya loves to tap
To jazz, blues and rap.
She dances in the hall…
In church and at the mall.
When she’s dancing
Maya has a ball!
As a children’s book creator, it’s marvelous to see my childhood “self” represented in this book—there are pages after pages of African American children who never were a part of the books I grew up with in the segregated south. There are boys and there are girls dancing together. And there’s lots of history infused into the images of this book—backdrops showing authentic musicians and lifestyles and African American culture, but very importantly, this is still a book centered around the experiences of a contemporary child—not only an African American child but any American child. I’m so happy to see that books spotlighting children of color are much more plentiful in 2010 than in 1956 or 1957 but there are still not enough to show the range of diversity in this country. But more than providing the gorgeous paintings of African American children, Eric Velazquez stretched the boundaries of the story by suggesting through his paintings that the narrator was somehow different from Maya.
Morgan, the unnamed narrator of the story, has a voice and a shared vision with Maya, her friend. It’s obvious that she has shared some experiences with Maya. Morgan says quite definitively that “dancing is magic for Maya and for me!” Morgan is an extraordinary friend. But who is she really? Who is this narrator? Why don’t we see her dance? If, she is sitting, as Morgan does in the last illustration of the book, how can the joy she expresses in her friend’s love of dance be so infectious? What is going through Morgan’s mind as she tells this story? How can she so generously share Maya’s story and how does Maya’s story relate to Morgan’s own experience? What is Morgan’s gift?
The answers are in the reading and re-reading of the words and the pictures of My Friend Maya Loves to Dance. It’s so important to me that a truly effective and successful picture book is not always a literal re-telling of word—that the visual imagery adds and reveals layers of sub-stories and allows for expansion of the imagination and the greater gifts that a child’s reading of the story can bring to it.
When I do book talks and readings, I’m always fascinated to see how children respond to the reading and the pictures and how they put their own spins on the stories that they hear. Initially, the audience of a recent reading at a bookstore in Montclair NJ did not have any African American children in it. The children were quite young and total absorbed in my reading. (Some had come directly from an earlier dance class with their parents and still had on their tutus.) Sometimes the children identify with Maya—other times the children identify with Morgan and her gifts. Sometime they notice Morgan’s differentness or disability and sometimes they do not. But ultimately they recognize the real theme of the book, friendship. That is something I’m so pleased to see that is so different from my experiences as a child over fifty some years ago.
As the narrator so aptly puts it:
My friend Maya loves to dream
Of recitals and soft lights
And performing for a queen.
Maya dances strong and free
With joy all can see.
Dancing is magic
For her and for me.
Author’s Notes, Cheryl Willis Hudson 5/25/08
My Friend Maya Loves to Dance
When I wrote My Friend Maya Loves to Dance, I was thinking about the thousands and thousands of little girls all over America between the ages of 5 and 12 who anxiously waited for Saturday morning dance classes at their local dance studios. In these dance studios, possibly located on the 2nd floor at the top of a flight of rickety stairs, was a room lined with full-length mirrors and horizontal barres. Inside, there was an upright, out-of-tune piano and outside of the main room single clothes hooks were positioned at child’s height along the walls on which to hang coats and wraps and outside street clothes and shoes. There was also a place to neatly position your dancer’s carrying case, the “official”, round hat-box shaped plastic container with the fancy writing and the line drawing of a graceful 9 year-old girl dressed in her leotards or tutu and soft ballet slippers. The glass case in the hall also held samples of dancer’s gear: leg warmers, black leotards, tights, pink ballet slippers, white Studio Tee-shirts and tiny porcelain figurines and trophies of male and female dancers.
The hard wood floors inside, more often than not, were not highly polished but instead scuffed from years of wear, limited budgets and the weight of hundreds of pairs of tapping feet that filled the room for tap classes after the ballet classes were over. The walls of the outside waiting room were lined with color photographs of little girls with hair pulled back tightly in little ponytails or buns, with just a hint of lipstick and make-up on their faces, smiling brightly in brightly colored costumes sewn from tulle, lace, and feathers for the pictures taken just before the annual spring dance extravaganza.
For a few little girls with obvious talent, the dance lessons went on for years and the star performers graduated to pointe classes where real ballet steps were skillfully and carefully taught. For others like myself, one or two years of modern dance or tap lessons was the limit and the spring extravaganza became the highlight of our childhood dreams to be bathed in the theatrical light of a professional dance career. Still, my favorite and treasured children’s book (I think the title was A Child’s Book of Ballet) contained picture of Anna Pavlova and Swan Lake along with correct postures of 1st ,2nd , 3rd , 4th, and 5th positions. The only decorative pictures placed on the wall of my bedroom were framed silhouettes of ballet dancers purchased from Woolworth’s Department Store.
Nevertheless, the magic of the possibility of becoming a dancer stayed with me over my elementary, and junior high school years and I fondly recalled those dreams twenty-odd years later when I enrolled my own 5 year-old daughter in similar Saturday morning classes in Maria P’s Dance Studio in New Jersey.
Part of my vision for My Friend Maya Loves to Dance was to be able to capture the magic of those innocent childhood dreams today for hundreds of little black girls like myself who during the 1950s and 60s never saw African American ballet dancers but who still dreamed of being in their ranks and who year after year sold tickets to the spring extravaganza and made their parents and teachers proud of their perseverance, discipline, style, and grace.
Wouldn’t it be nice today for all the young African American want-to-be ballerinas to see themselves in a book for young dancers? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have those images in a book for another generation of dancers to cherish? Now there are professional dance classes offered by the Dance Theater of Harlem, and Alvin Ailey and Philadanco as well as many other regional dance companies and local dance studios for young people. I’m hopeful that children who attend those classes and their retro moms will appreciate the love and warm memories that went into the creation of this book.