For A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT, I wanted to tell the story of an actual historical event through the eyes of a young African-American girl, so I knew I wanted my story to be in first-person. There were certainly many books I used for research about Janet Collins’s performances with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, but once it came time to shape the actual event into a story, there were several mentor texts that helped me to achieve the emotional resonance I wanted for today’s reader. In writing this story, I realized that so much of the emotional resonance we feel comes from specific details in the text that ground us and connect our real-life world to the world of the main character. Four books served to mentor me in developing specific aspects of this story.
Showing the emotional connection of the main character´s relationships
connects the contemporary reader to the past through imagining his or her own relationships in that context.
“Mama’s hands are warm and soft. When she put her Sunday dress into the satchel, I held my breath. Tried hard not to cry.”
2. When I Was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
Sensory details pull the contemporary reader into the story’s physical
“When I was young in the mountains, Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine. Only his lips were clean, and he used them to kiss the top of my head.”
(I also love how this example uses sensory details to reveal something about the characters’ relationships as well.)
3. When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan
Voice gives the contemporary reader a sense of time and place. In historical fiction, one aspect of voice is vocabulary and phrasing that reflects the time period.
“As Viola sang the high part and Marian sang the low, their harmony blended like a silk braid… Church folk started whispering and followed with out-and-out talking about Marian’s remarkable gift.”
4. Willie and the All-Stars by Floyd Cooper
Physical details work like blocking cues in a script to allow the reader to
“stage” himself as the main character within the story.
“A trip to the store quickly became a series of stolen bases from the curb to the lamppost to the fire hydrant to the mailbox until he slid – SAFE!—at home without breaking an egg.”
(My editor sent me an early copy of Willie and the All-Stars as I was revising A Dance Like Starlight. At that point, my story was all emotion and tension as it related to my main character’s dream of becoming a ballerina. The reader had no idea what her surroundings were. Floyd’s story served to mentor me toward providing physical details on which to hang my main characters aspirations.)
Kristy Dempsey grew up in South Carolina and now works as a teacher-librarian in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, a bustling city of 5 million people. She is the author of Me with You (Philomel), Mini Racer (Bloomsbury), Surfer Chick (Abrams) and A Dance Like Starlight (Philomel), a JLG selection, ALA Notable Book, Bank Street Best of 2015, CCBC 2015 Choice, and the winner of the 2015 Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text. Four more picture books will publish in 2016, including Superhero Instruction Manual (Knopf, May 2016), a guidebook for the youngest aspiring heroes.