The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Valerie Bolling and Review of Let's Dance
I write because I want all children to feel at home in a book.
I want them to smile, laugh, think, and question.
Most of all, I want them to celebrate the diverse world in which we live.
~ Valerie Bolling
Valerie Bolling has been an educator for over 25 years and a writer since age 4. She is a graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College and currently works as an Instructional Coach. In addition to writing picture books, Valerie writes a Monthly Memo for teachers that she publishes on Twitter, Her nieces inspired her to write picture books. Her desire is for children of all backgrounds to see themselves in her stories and feel valued and heard. Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, theater, and dancing.
Her debut picture book, Let’s Dance! publishes March 3, 2020.
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
VALERIE: I usually write in my office. When my husband and I moved almost three years ago, I knew that I wanted my own office in our new home – and that the main purpose of that office would be for hunkering down and writing! Sometimes I write at the kitchen or dining room tables or sit in a chair in the family room with my feet outstretched on an ottoman, but, most often, you will find me writing at my desk.
I try to preserve a block of time (4 – 6 hours) on Sunday for writing, and I write most evenings from 9 or 10 p.m. – 12 or 1 a.m. Since I work full-time, and have commitments each day after work, I don’t usually sit down to write until late at night during the week. I also want to clarify that when I say “write,” I’m not only writing or revising a story, I could be emailing queries, reviewing conference notes, catching up on Facebook posts in the various writing groups I’m in, updating my website, or responding to interview questions … such as I’m doing now.
I have written all my life, but I started writing picture books in Dec. 2016. My nieces were visiting us, and I thought of an idea for a story in which each girl was the protagonist. After their visit, I wrote those stories. At that point, I decided that I wanted to write other stories and investigate the possibility of having them published. That was one of my goals for 2017.
Currently, I only write picture books. Though the characters and stories are different, they have a common theme. They celebrate diversity; they, hopefully, evoke feelings and connections for readers; and they display a playfulness with language/words.
Sounds like a busy, though productive, schedule. What is something no one (or few) knows about you? Are you asking me to share a secret, Maria? If you're willing . . .
People who have met me in recent years may not know that I used to perform in plays. In college, I played Evillene in The Wiz, which was such a fun role. There are a couple of other interesting facts connected to this play.
First, I was vying for this part with another young woman who was extremely talented. In fact, I expected her to get the role. When the cast list was posted, and I saw that I’d gotten the part, I was so happy – I probably danced (which I actually had to do in my role, by the way.) Anyway, a friend said to me, “You know who was up against you for the role?” I responded, “Yeah, Liz.” My friend said, “Liz Pryor. Her father played The Wiz in the movie!” I couldn’t believe it. By the way, Liz is now an author and esteemed professor at an elite college. (*Smile*)
The other interesting fact is that the lion was played by Christopher Golden who is a New York Times bestselling author. My name is in the Acknowledgements section of Thief of Hearts, the second Jenna Blake novel he wrote, which is set at a fictional version of Tufts! Chris said the people he listed here were those he “remembered especially fondly” and “who were open and kind and made [him] feel welcome in their presence.” It means so much to me to be thought of this way because this is what I want children to learn from my books: to be open and kind and to make others feel welcome. (Wow, that's so cool.)
I also performed in community theater in my 20s and 30s. Something that makes me a bit sad is that my husband has never seen me perform in a play because I had stopped by the time we met. A number of my former students have seen me onstage, however, because they and their families came to support my shows. In a way, presenting my book to students is a bit like performing … but without a script. That same excitement and nervousness arises within me.
I'd love to see you at a reading! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I grew up in an extended family with my great-grandparents, grandmother, three great-aunts, and my mother. Everyone played a special role with me. My grandmother taught me how to write, and my great-aunt, Lucille, was the one who read to me. The stories I remember her reading the most – and that I loved – were Frog and Toad, Curious George, Amelia Bedelia, and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. As I grew older and began to read on my own, I loved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Pippi Longstocking, and Betsy, Tacy, and Tib books as well as books by Beverly Clearly and Judy Blume.
What a great family environment. You were very lucky. Where did the idea for Let’s Dance! come from?
Whenever music is played, most children start to dance. Babies who can barely walk will sway and/or raise their hands. Whenever music is played, my nieces dance. When they were two and four, they even danced while brushing their teeth. Now at ages five and seven, they still love to dance! They definitely provided inspiration for this book.
My goal with this book was to show children from all walks – or dances – of life. I wanted to showcase dance in a way that celebrates diversity – and that leaves no doubt that dancing is indeed for everyone!
I think you definitely succeeded! What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for Let’s Dance!?
The most rewarding part has to be seeing the finished product, right? Seeing the actual book, knowing it’s real. Receiving the F & G made the book seem real because it was the first time I actually saw and felt the pages. Though I had seen a digital copy, holding that advance copy in my hands and turning the pages was a different, more fulfilling experience.
What is your favorite spread in Let’s Dance!?
Text © Valerie Bolling, 2020. Image © Maine Diaz, 2020.
It’s hard to pick a favorite spread because Maine did such an awesome job illustrating this book. Her drawings exude energy and make the book dance! That said, the kuku illustrations are close to my heart. I took African dance classes in college and afterward at Connecticut Ballet. The detail that Maine put into this spread – the hands beating the djembe, the intricate braids adorned with beads, the delicately detailed clothing – it’s all so incredibly beautiful and vibrant.
I agree with you. Maine packed so much life and detail into every spread, the book is simply gorgeous. What's something you want your readers to know about or gain from Let’s Dance!?
I want readers to realize that, as I said earlier, dancing is for everyone. More importantly, I want anyone who reads this book to know that not only are people connected through dance, but we’re also connected simply because we’re human. Regardless of how we dance or how we look, we are worthy and valuable members of society.
It's great that you explored the diversity of dance and humanity in such a lively and concise manner. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
My passion – and the joy and energy that writing ignites in me – is what inspires me. What also propels me forward is the message that my books convey: making all children feel seen and heard and valued. I want to do my part to promote a world of equity and inclusion, of peace and joy.
What was the most challenging part of writing the pitch for Let’s Dance!?
Writing a pitch is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. The words must fit together, convey what the book is about, and fit within certain confines (280 words for Twitter). Sometimes a pitch has to go through about as many revisions as a story!
I wrote the pitch for Let’s Dance! so long ago that I honestly don’t remember what the most challenging part was – probably making it succinct and snappy. I do recall that I was pleased when I came up with the phrasing for my first line: “Dancing is a universal language, even though we all have different “accents.”
That's a great first line! How many drafts, or revisions, did you do? Did you have to make any revisions after Maine Diaz finished the illustrations?
I don’t know how many revisions I made to Let’s Dance!, but I wrote my first draft in May 2017 and continued to revise until January 2018 when I started querying the manuscript. The only revision I made to the manuscript after submitting it was deleting two stanzas (two spreads) to fit within the 32-page format. At my editor’s request, I also wrote back matter: two-sentence descriptions for each dance. The illustrations did not require me to make further revisions.
I really love the back matter on the dances. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
My newest picture book is non-fiction. This is my first book in this genre, so I’m “studying” by reading articles and listening to videos about non-fiction and reading mentor texts (narrative non-fiction picture books). I don’t want to share details, at this point, but I’ll say that it’s about an amazing person. I’m confident people will want to hear her story, so I have to make sure the book is as amazing as she is, so it’ll be published. I’m also in the midst of continuing to revise several stories.
I'll definitely keep my eyes open for your next books. Is there anything about writing or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you are glad you hadn’t known at the time?
I thought I would just write some books and see if I could get one published. I did not realize how much work and time goes into this process from beginning to publication. I also didn’t know that I’d be so involved in promoting my book. It’s probably better that I didn’t know all of this because perhaps I would have said, “It would be nice, but maybe I’ll wait until I retire and have more time.” If I had done that, I wouldn’t be able to rejoice now in the publication of Let’s Dance! and share it with you and your readers, Maria!
Currently, I feel as if I’m working a second full-time job or am in a full-time course of study. Since the fall, I have been committed to writing daily. Fortunately, I enjoy it. The moment I no longer enjoy it, I will stop. It’s freeing to know I don’t have to do this; I do it because it energizes me, and I revel in it, all of it. Well … I don’t enjoy the rejection, but I accept it as part of the process. When the time is right, I hope to have another book acquired for publication.
Thank you for your candor. Assuming you have a critique group or partners, what have you learned from your critique buddies over the years? Or from your journey so far?
Originally, I had a group of friends I refer to as my critique angels who read and offered feedback on my writing. Since joining my wonderful critique group last May, I have relied upon the critique angels less, only sending them a manuscript when I feel it’s at the final draft stage or close to being there.
I also have a fabulous writing partner, Lindsey Aduskevich, who I met in a picture book critique group at the NESCBWI conference last May. Lindsey reached out to me shortly thereafter, asking if I would give her feedback on a story and offered to do the same for me. We continued to share our writing with each other, and now we communicate every day, several times a day. No matter the thought, question, or idea, we email or call – and we both have super-quick response times! Lindsey is an integral part of my writing process because she promptly provides valuable, spot-on feedback that I’m able to implement immediately … and then I ask her for feedback on the revision!
Another person who has been absolutely invaluable to me is Lorraine Danza, a middle grade writer. At the beginning, when I knew nothing about the industry, she provided so much helpful information to me, telling me about conferences and workshops, and offering feedback on my stories. She’s the one who actually found my critique group for me!
One of the best things about being a writer is the warm, supportive writing community. So many people have been helpful and supportive, and I have appreciated them immensely, especially these authors: Michael Belanger, Marianne McShane, Ramin Ganeshram, Lizzy Rockwell, and Meira Rosenberg. Most recently, I have joined two groups of authors with debuts this year, 2020 Diverse Debuts and 20/20 Vision Picture Books. I’m grateful for membership in these groups where I’m supported and my book is promoted.
What is your favorite animal? Why?
Are you an animal lover, Maria? As for me, I love giraffes. They are tall, beautiful, and elegant. I also like elephants. I guess I like the “big” ones.
How'd you guess? I adore most animals. Thank you, Valerie, for stopping by to share about yourself and your debut picture book.
Thank you so much, Maria, for inviting me to stop by! I love sharing information about Let’s Dance!, and I hope your readers enjoyed reading my responses … and that they’ll dance!
Thanks again for taking the time to interview me!
Be sure to stop back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Let's Dance!
To find out more about Valerie Bolling, or get in touch with her:
If you are in the area:
Join Valerie Bolling for the launch of Let's Dance!
Saturday, March 7, 2020
Harry Bennett Library 115 Vine Road Stamford, CT 06905
And check out Valerie's 3/3/20 interview on Susana Leonard Hill's Tuesday Debut post.
Review of Let's Dance
Now, that we've got you curious about Valerie's debut, here's a review of this delightful book. It released yesterday, so let's hope it gets some feet tapping and jiving in celebration.
Author: Valerie Bolling
Illustrator: Maine Diaz
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press (2020)
Music, styles of dance, and fun
This rhythmic showcase of dances from all over the world features children of diverse backgrounds and abilities tapping, spinning, and boogying away! Tap, twirl, twist, spin! With musical, rhyming text, author Valerie Bolling shines a spotlight on dances from across the globe, while energetic art from Maine Diaz shows off all the moves and the diverse people who do them. From the cha cha of Cuba to the stepping of Ireland, kids will want to leap, dip, and zip along with the dances on the page!
What I like about this book:
With the deceptively simple use of 12 couplets, consisting of two-word (sometimes three-word) rhymes, Valerie and Maine have created a lively exploration of the diversity of dances and their dancers from around the world. The bright, explosive double-page illustrations perfectly match the energy of the text.
Text © Valerie Bolling, 2020. Image © Maine Diaz, 2020.
The dancers represent multiple nationalities (including a ballet dancer in a hijab), abilities (I love the wheelchair boogie dancer), and genders. In each spread, Maine surrounded the dancers with plants and items unique to the dance (fans, instruments, special shoes, or lasso rope) or culture of the country (fishing and clothing). It is a fun read aloud and a beautiful celebration of dance.
The final spread is sheer genius. It is so humorous and unpredictable (look for Maine's hint in the opening end pages). It's really so perfect to end the book with . . . spoilers. You're going to have to read the book yourself.
In our interview above, Valerie mentioned the two pages of gorgeous, celebratory back matter that gives a little information on each of the dances. I am so glad she did this because I knew nothing about Kathak or Kuku dances. Doesn't this just make you want to start dancing?
Text © Valerie Bolling, 2020. Image © Maine Diaz, 2020.
This is a great book to introduce movement, action, and a touch of culture to kids. The youngest ones will be enthralled by the happy twists & leaps of the kids and the older readers might be encouraged to make up their own dance, try a new style of dance, or research a bit more about these dances. Overall, this is a wonderful ode to dance.
- what is your favorite dance move? Have you ever made up a dance?
- learn about a dance you're not familiar with - like the Haka (New Zealand), Zaouli mask dance (Ivory Coast), or Samba (Brazil). Perform it for your family, friends, or class, or
- for these or other dances (like the Tango (Argentina), Kabuki (Japan), or Dragon Dance (China)), try to describe some of the motions in a few rhyming words? Or draw pictures of the dance.
- here's a coloring sheet for Let's Dance!