The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Kaija Langley
Kaija Langley was born and raised in Northern N.J. and now lives in Cambridge, MA with her Beloved. She received her bachelor’s from Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland and an MFA in Fiction from St. Mary’s College of California and spends her time writing novels and picture books, raising money for causes that make the world a better place, and enjoying adventures with her Beloved.
An only child and social introvert, she was raised on a healthy diet of library books, Broadway plays and musicals, and sweltering summers on the family farm in North Carolina.
Her picture book debut, When Langston Dances, is about a little Black boy’s first day of ballet (Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, September 7, 2021). Little boys deserve to see themselves represented in dance, too. It’s also a universal story about courage, perseverance, and triumph that everyone can enjoy.
Welcome Kaija, it’s nice to meet you.
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?)
I’ve always been drawn to words. I started talking, walking, and reading early, with lots of encouragement from my mother who was an elementary school teacher. It certainly helped that she was a voracious reader and I was an only child, so we would often get our respective books and find a corner of the house and read together.
One of the things I loved to do was read the Highlights magazines when I went to the dentist or doctor’s office. It was there that I discovered poetry written by other young readers who had submitted their poems for publication. I’d go home and write my own poems, always rhyming of course, and once I even shared a poem with my first grade class. The feedback was positive overall, but what I remember most was a classmate who insisted that I’d copied the poem from a book. That was the spark that told me how powerful words were on a page and I’ve been writing (mostly) ever since.
From poems I graduated to short stories and then in high school I even wrote an incredibly awful novella that I shared with my track teammates. I didn’t attempt to write a full-length adult novel until I was well out of college and nearing my 25th birthday. Two adult novels, several dozens of short stories, and one MFA later, I was burned out. I wasn’t making any progress on the agent or publishing front, so I took an unexpected ten year hiatus from writing. It was a co-worker and my spouse who prompted me to return to writing because, quite honestly, I was miserable without my creative outlet.
In 2016, I started a new story that I thought was an adult novel about a young woman who was thinking (in retrospect) about the summer she was 12 years old. It was a pivotal point in the character’s life, yet a number of life synchronicities convinced me that it wasn’t an adult story after all. It was a MG novel. I’ve learned after all these years that the character dictates the story, whether it’s for adults or young readers. And I’m happy to write the story the characters want to tell.
I love that sentiment and your flexibility. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
When I returned to writing after my hiatus, I said I was doing it for myself. I wouldn’t make publication, or even getting an agent, the “goal” because that didn’t go the way I’d hoped earlier in my life. So I wrote the first MG novel and I had fun with it!
As a reward for completing that first draft, I did something completely out of character for me. I’m innately practical, but I’d made the mistake of going with my spouse to get an ink refill for a Monteblanc pen that was a gift from a former job. For those who don’t know, these are not cheap writing instruments. Yet, I loved the specialty editions and one in particular caught my eye: the Le Petit Prince Pen, in celebration of the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. I said then if I ever sold a book, I would use the pen to sign copies.
Nice! Now you're going to need lots of ink! Where did the idea for When Langston Dances come from? What was it like to see Langston holding the book?
A few years ago while visiting my Godson, Langston, I learned that he loved dance. All forms really, but he’d taken a particular liking to ballet. When his mother shared a photo of him with his ballet class, the only boy in a sea of girls, the story idea sparked. The questions wouldn’t stop. What must it be like to be the only boy in a class full of girls? How supported does he feel in dance class, at home, in his community? Why aren’t there more books about boys and ballet, especially little Black boys?
A few weeks later, my spouse and I were visiting Jacob’s Pillow, an internationally renowned summer dance festival in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. We both love dance and it’s one of our favorite summer activities. Watching these incredibly athletic men flourish on the stage, and thinking again about Langston, the idea for the book caught fire. I literally starting writing the opening lines in between performances.
My hope is that When Langston Dances helps to challenge the gender stereotype for boys who choose ballet. And it helps the adults in their lives realize that athletically inclined boys have more than just sports as an outlet. Every child has first experiences. And those experiences have the potential to shape a child’s future.
I hope so too! How many drafts, or revisions, did When Langston Dances take? What was the hardest part of writing this book?
There were no less than a dozen drafts and I had several readers along the way to push the story further. Early drafts were in rhyme. I submitted it to the Lee & Low New Voices Award for consideration and received an encouraging rejection letter. Later drafts included a much longer story with more dance terms and ballet history, even a subplot of a friend who moves away and returns for Langston’s dance recital.
Ultimately, after more than eight months and three additional drafts following that path, I felt I’d moved too far from my original intention which was to write a very simple and emotionally powerful story about a little boy who chooses ballet over basketball and his first day of ballet class.
You've created a very important and poignant story. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or what was favorite book as a child?
I loved anything by Judy Blume. And all the Nancy Drew mystery series. I don’t recall picture books much because I was an early reader and I must have skipped to chapter books. One thing I do remember very viscerally, is the first time I read a book that had characters who looked like me on the cover and on the page.
I was a pre-teen and a family friend gifted me my first YA novel written by a Black author, featuring a Black family: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. That was a true turning point in my evolution as a reader and writer, seeing young characters who looked like me, and families who looked like mine, on the page. I take great pride in being able to carry that torch forward for young readers today and in the future.
When you first saw Keith Mallett’s illustrations was there anything that surprised you? [I really love how he framed each image in a colored circle or oval – that is so effective & unusual.] What is your favorite spread in the book?
Early on, Denene (my editor at Denene Millner Books) and I talked by phone about the type of feel we wanted for the book. We agreed that contemporary and realistic artwork would best complement the story. I loved the illustrations that Keith Mallet did for Take a Picture of Me, James VanderZee by Andrea Loney and was thrilled to learn that Keith had signed on for the project.
The truth is Keith and I never discussed the project. I never told him about the inspiration for the book, nor was I able to offer him any “direction” because Denene felt strongly that we each bring our own artistic visions to the project. I did provide one single illustrator’s note: that the last three pages would show Langston aging as a dancer (from 6 to 12 to 16).
Text © Kaija Langley, 2021. Image © Keith Mallett, 2021.
When I saw the early artwork almost seven months later I was blown away. Even without us discussing the project, Keith captured the fabulousness and fierceness of Langston on the page perfectly. I love how he captured the facial expressions of the characters and all the small details that might be easy to overlook upon first glance. One such example is the page when Langston is practicing in his room in front of a mirror. Along the edges of the mirror are photos of other dancers and of him and his Mom.
As for my favorite spread, it’s the very last spread. The one bit of direction I was able to offer Keith is, in my opinion, the most magical. It makes me smile every time I see it.
I won't show the final spread, but I agree with you that it is amazing, joyful, and powerful. What's something you want your readers to know about or gain from When Langston Dances?
Male ballet dancers aren’t new. They’ve been around for more than a century and they’re still performing on stages across the globe. All dancers put in years of effort and discipline to dance professionally and they require cheerleaders and champions along the way.
In Langston’s case, his Mom is his biggest champion, but not his only cheerleader. Ms. Marie, the dance teacher, is in his corner, as are other people in the neighborhood.
I think it’s so important for readers to see that his Mom is supportive of both his interest in sports AND dance. And it starts when she takes him to see the Alvin Ailey performance. I believe exposure, as well as acceptance, are pivotal for Langston and young readers.
I especially loved that you not only showed his effort, but the numerous champions 'in his corner.' How are you staying creative these days? What are you doing to “prime the well”?
I just completed my first YA novel. That took all of the pandemic to write. Lots of starts and stops. The early days of remote working/living was incredibly hard for me to create. It also impacted my ability to focus and read, which is instrumental to my writing process.
I think everyone learned a bit about themselves during this pandemic. And congrats on the novel! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
This summer I sold my first MG novel. It’s still early yet, and not many details to share, but I’m very excited to feel like at fifty years old my writing career is finally taking shape!
YEAH! We will definitely need to keep our eyes open for your novel. If you have a critique group(s) and writing partner(s), what have you learned from them over the years? Or from your writing journey so far?
I do have a critique group that is both instrumental for accountability and support. We’re all at different stages in our writing careers and we all met through Grub Street, an amazing local creative writing center in Boston. We started as small group of local women of color and nicknamed ourselves Women of Words, about eight months before the shut down and we’ve now branched out to members in MD and CA. Zoom has certainly been helpful in that regard.
We workshop entire manuscripts during our meetings, which is crucial for understanding the full story arc. Unfortunately, in most writing classes (independent or MFA), a reader only gets a slice of a story at a time making feedback less effective. We also chat all the time on WhatsApp, send along contests and opportunities for writing retreats, celebrate our wins (especially the small ones), and help each other through the “I hate this story, I suck as a writer, why’d I write this again?” moments that we all experience.
Support is SO necessary for all writers and illustrators. Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with at the moment? Why?
I’m a fan of most any animal that has feathers or four legs and fur. But right now I’m over the moon about lemurs. In fact, as I write there’s a plush gray and white Ring-tailed lemur toy keeping me company. We’ve named him Lucky. While visiting family in North Carolina earlier in the summer, we discovered the Duke Lemur Center. Due to COVID, we weren’t able to actually visit, but a kind staff person opened the gift shop to us and we learned a great deal about these endangered animals who call Madagascar home. As we departed, we were lucky enough to spot a pair of Red Ruffed lemurs enjoying lunch along the perimeter of their enclosed habitat.
Thank you Kaija for stopping by to share about yourself and your debut picture book.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on When Langston Dances.
To find out more about Kaija Langley, or get in touch with her: