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Five questions for Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintockEach of author/illustrator Barbara McClintock’s picture books provides a glimpse into a jewel-box of a world, from bustling early-twentieth-century Paris (Adèle & Simon; Farrar, 4–7 years) to a cozy 1970s mouse-house (Where’s Mommy?, written by Beverly Donofrio; Schwartz & Wade, 4–7 years). Her latest, Emma and Julia Love Ballet (Scholastic, 4–7 years), does the same for the vibrant world of ballet, giving readers a look at the daily routines of two dancers: one a student just starting out, the other a professional in her prime. A dancer myself, I jumped at the chance to talk to Barbara about how she translates movement to the page.

1. How did you decide on this day-in-the-life, compare-and-contrast format for showcasing a dancer’s reality?

BM: I blame two of my favorite books for putting the idea in my head: The Borrowers by Mary Norton and The Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, illustrated by Marc Simont. The parallel world of The Borrowers fascinated me as a child. And I fell in love — hard! — with the behind-the-scenes showering, sock-pulling-on, hair-combing, and beard-trimming preparations of orchestral musicians before their evening performance in The Philharmonic Gets Dressed.

My older sister Kathleen lived, breathed, ate, and slept ballet when she was little, and I’d wanted to make a book honoring her for a long time. She took me to my first professional dance performance, which proved to have a profound influence on my creative life. Her passion for dance inspired me to believe in myself as an artist.

2. Many of your books are set in bygone eras, with richly evoked historical settings full of texture and detail. How does your process differ when you’re portraying a contemporary setting rather than recreating a historical one?

BM: I tend to use slightly bolder, brushlike line work, little or no crosshatching, and brighter colors when working with a contemporary setting. Modern surfaces are shinier, glossier, brighter, harder. Metal and glass predominate. I find it’s easier to depict those hard, shiny surfaces with gradated watercolor washes. Textural ink crosshatching seems appropriate for older stone, wood, and plaster surfaces.

Modern forms call for fluid lines, less encumbered by lots of line work. There’s detail in contemporary buildings and clothing, but forms are more nuanced, freer, with open patterns and simplified shapes compared to historical structures and fashion.

Shapes of contemporary things that move — cars, airplanes, trains — are smooth and somewhat egg-shaped, reflecting aerodynamic design considerations. Carriages, carts, and buggies are boxy, with lots of angles, which makes for different compositional elements in pictures.

mcclintock_emma and julia love ballet23. The format of Emma and Julia Love Ballet is almost graphic novel–like, with the illustrations changing sizes and shapes to accelerate the pacing. How do you know what size illustration to use when?

BM: The size and shape of the illustrations is all about creating a sense of time, movement, emotion, and place.

Vignettes isolate characters to form a sense of intimacy between the reader and the character, like a spotlighted actor on stage. There can be a powerful emotional component to vignettes. Toward the end of the book as Emma prepares to go to the ballet performance, we see her in her fancy coat, with no background, nothing else in the image. Her facial expression alone tells us this is an important time for her. Anything else in the scene would impede the immediacy of her excitement.

Vignettes can also signify rapid movement and the passage of time. Several small vignettes on a page require only short amounts of time to look at. This visual device works well to depict Emma and Julia stretching, jumping, and spinning. Viewing several small images in quick succession can be like looking at a flip-book that gives the impression of fast, fluid motion.

Broad, dramatic scenes create a sense of mood and establish place; and fuller, detailed pictures slow the reader down at significant moments by creating an environment that invites investigation. That lingering pause can give majesty to a scene or narrative concept.

At the very end of the book, I wanted to go back to a vignette approach. We see Emma and Julia connected by their shared love of ballet. I wanted Emma and Julia to dominate and fill up the entire page with no external stuff to clutter up their emotional connection. This is their story, and they tell us absolutely and directly how they feel about ballet and each other.

4. You observed the Connecticut Concert Ballet as models for the illustrations, and took some ballet classes yourself for research. How did your perspective — or your illustrations — change after these experiences?

BM: I have a much better idea of just how hard a plié in fifth position is on your inner thighs!

Watching people in motion is a much different experience than simply studying photographs. Semi-realistic drawing has so much to do with gesture, and the best way to understand how an arm or leg really moves through space is to observe someone in the act of moving. As I draw the sweep of an arm, I get inside that motion. I’m not entirely sure how to express this, but I feel the movement in my head as a physical motion and visualize where that arm is going, then translate that motion as well as I can in a two-dimensional way on paper.

Ballet has its own regimented structure of movement. I just dipped into the surface of knowledge of ballet training, but hopefully enough to give some authenticity to the way the dancers in my book move.

Barbara loves ballet

Barbara in the ballet studio

5. The book is dedicated in part to the wonderful Judith Jamison, dancer and Artistic Director Emerita of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Is there a particular role of Ms. Jamison’s that resonates most with you?

BM: In the early 1970s my sister took me to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Minneapolis. Judith Jamison was the featured soloist. This was the first professional dance performance I’d ever seen. I had no idea what to expect, and was almost afraid to go. Any hesitation vanished the moment Judith stepped on stage. She dominated space and time, creating vivid shapes and patterns.

Judith performed Cry, a sixteen-minute solo homage to black women, choreographed by Alvin Ailey for his mother with Judith in mind. Judith expressed grief, depression, loss, redemption, and joy as eloquently as any novelist. I loved dance from that evening on.

Judith’s presence, authority, and grace inspired me in my work. I admired her, and looked up to Judith as a role model — a woman who was in command of her talent and a force almost bigger than life.

From the January 2016 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderful interview! I loved learning about Barbara’s creative process for her illustrations. It’s like a mini illustration-appreciation primer right here. Can’t wait to see this book.

  2. Leeann Zouras says:

    How wonderful to see how one art form affects another. As a dance lover and a writer, I look forward to this book. Thanks for the Q. and A.

  3. I heard that Bob Shea also did a lot of ballet studio research for his “Dance! Dance! Underpants!”

  4. What a great interview! I’m fascinated to hear how the different sizes of illustrations work in cinematic ways, and the differences in depicting contemporary and historical scenes. Good questions and good answers! And Barbara, how cute are you in your ballet outfit???

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