Author Archives: susanjsteward

Performing Arts Kidlit Lexicon

Today, I’ve been thinking about types of characters in performing arts books.  There’s no question–the same kind of people show up in these stories, don’t they?  There’s the kid who always gets the lead (and knows it), the diamond-in-the-rough star nobody expected, the retired-artist mentor who might just coach our hero into being the practiced performer he or she dreams of being (if only the hero will WORK), and so on.

As I created this blog, I realized we may need a dictionary of sorts–a lexicon for performing arts kid stories.  It may take a while, but here are a few terms I’ve come up with so far:

The Reluctant–The character who is performing against his or her will.  Either a child who never wanted to dance/act/whatever in the first place, or a child who wanted to, but changes his or her mind before long and can’t get out of it.  In many series books, this is the main character–a “regular kid” protagonist–who eagerly enters the world of film or commercials, then quickly grows bored or miserable with it.  This child will try to find a way out of the performing world in the end.

The Natural–Your basic prodigy.  A character the author implies was born to dance/act/whatever because of some innate talent or qualities he or she possesses.  This child has either been performing the art practically since birth, or picks it up at an astonishing rate when he or she begins training.  In addition, this character may think of little else–her or she is a devoted slave to performance.  Even pleasing an audience is far less important than creating great art for art’s sake.

The Beauty–If nature was extraordinarily kind to a character, he or she may be at the top of the performing ladder partially thanks to his or her face or physique.  This type of character is often described as having unusually large, startlingly-colored eyes, the perfect shape or size body, and some other physical quality that makes him/her stand out.  Being a Beauty is a little different than being a Natural because it has more to do with attractiveness than talent.  This type of character will often be given the lead roles simply for prettiness.  May or may not be untalented or a bit of a dim bulb.

You know, Jerry, I would love to. Except how can I when she is just so late on her cues?

The Brat–This is the character you love to hate, the Nellie Oleson of the performing world.  This kid is a success, and it’s gone straight to his or her head in the worst possible way.  This character wields power, throws tantrums, and is completely two-faced, so the public never knows.  His or her parents aren’t helping matters, and usually neither is whoever is supposed to be in charge.  Jason Hervey’s child actor character in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is my favorite movie Brat ever.

The Stage Parent–The parent of the performing child who will do anything and everything to see his or her child succeed.  Could be because the child wants it, or could be in spite of the child really not wanting it.  This person talks behind the other children’s and parents’ backs, cozies up to the director or producers, and generally makes a jerk of him or herself.  The stage parent’s desire for fame/fortune through his or her child supersedes common sense and logic at times.  He or she will do anything to get his or her little star ahead.

Naturally, quality writing goes well beyond types, creating characters who are real, developed people with flaws and good points alike.  Nevertheless, if you’ve ever hung out at a dance studio or children’s theater auditions, you know, don’t you?  These people are out there!

So, can you think of some other performing kidlit types I’ve left out?  I’d love to add some more!

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Spotlight On: The Painted Garden (aka Movie Shoes)

It’s a bleary day for me, as I was up far too late living the glamorous life of an “extra” on a TV show filming here.  More or less, I showed up, was dressed by professionals in clothing much more frumpy than my own, then waited and waited until I was used in a scene, where I stood near a computer workstation and pretended to fill out a form.  I was playing a nerd who works in a sort of lab, and since in real life, I am a nerd who works in a sort of lab, it was a pretty easy job.  Also, I can fill the heck out of some forms, you guys.

It was a lot of fun, a cool reason to get out of the house for a while, and I also got more experience on an actual bigger-budget set.  In addition, in about six weeks I’ll have the ability to look at the finished product and know I had a small, small (we’re talking microscopic, here) part in helping it come together.

This seems like a great time to segue into talking about another book, and today it’s Noel Streatfeild’s The Painted Garden.  This book is also known as Movie Shoes in the US, but I’ve never liked that title.  I mean, I get the whole “shoes” thing for linking Streatfeild’s books, but I’m not really sure what a “movie shoe” is, unless it’s something like that hideous grandma number I wore last night (and that was more of a “TV shoe,” technically).  So I’m going to call this book The Painted Garden.

This is only creepy if you don’t realize they’re making a movie.

The story is about three British siblings, the Winter children, who take a extended family vacation of sorts to the US, where the black-sheep-middle-child, Jane, lands the starring role of Mary in a film of The Secret Garden.  Do I need to tell you how much 10 year old me would be frothing at the mouth at that fantastic premise?  Kids, all you have to do is go to Hollywood and BAM!  You’re discovered and you’re playing the lead. Yeah, baby!

In usual Streatfeild style, the other children in the family are also interested in developing their careers in the arts–the oldest girl, Rachel, is a dancer, while the youngest child, Tim, is a talented pianist.  It’s worth noting that this book is one of the three Streatfeild novels in which the Fossil sisters from Ballet Shoes appear.  An older Posy Fossil helps Rachel find a dance teacher and cheers her up when she’s not cast in a film, while Pauline Fossil, now a glamorous young movie star, confesses that she despises working in the movies and longs for the day when she can return to the legitimate theater (please say this with the appropriate nose-in-air tone) and play cool roles like Lady MacBeth.  Fun!  When the Fossils hear about the Winter children’s struggles with funding their artsy ventures, they laugh in sympathy.  “Oh, Garnie, isn’t she like us!” says Pauline.  Streatfeild apparently doesn’t mind calling attention to the fact that she repeats the same themes and characters over and over in her novels, but that’s okay–we don’t mind, either.

Meanwhile, young Tim finds himself a gig on a popular weekly radio hour, because hey–it’s the 50s or something, and people were still doing such things.  He spends his time on the air playing piano and trading jokes with the show’s Emcee, and even though Tim’s only 8 or 9, no matter–he’s a prodigy with a British accent and the Americans can’t get enough.

Maurice’s mother tells everyone he’s “too clever to live.” If only.

However, while it could be said that both Rachel and  her brother Tim are Naturals, Jane is decidedly not, and this is really her story.  She’s never acted before and she’s soon in hot water with the film people.  They’ve cast a completely inexperienced unknown child as their lead, yet they somehow can’t understand why she’s so good at some scenes and bad at others.  The grumpy-spoiled-Mary scenes early on come easily to Jane, but the Mary-turns-nice scenes later in the filming do not.  Jane is, on the whole, an unhappy person, given to thinking negative thoughts about life not being fair, etc. (and quite honestly, her uber-talented-and-flaunting-it siblings aren’t helping).  Even so, anyone would find it hard to be nice when acting with Maurice Tuesday, the spoiled Brat playing Colin.  He’s egotistical and two-faced but maddeningly talented, both a Beauty and Natural on film.  His dreadful mother is clearly the creator of this monster; Mrs. Tuesday is an indulgent Stage Parent who brags about Maurice and rails at the director when her boy’s every demand isn’t met.  “She thinks Maurice is perfect and never stops talking about him, and I’m so ashamed because she’s English,” says Mrs. Winter.  Representing your country well in foreign lands is a big theme in this book.

Eventually, Jane learns what film-making is all about (waiting around, wearing clothing you’d never pick out yourself, apparently) and how boring and unglamorous it can be.  However, from the friendly soft-spoken boy who plays Dickon and his sweet down-homey family, she does learn a bit of acting Craft, sort of a Magic If idea.  By imagining hard, she manages to tame (or at least tolerate) the monster Maurice.  Being an animal trainer is Jane’s real dream, so in this way, she’s clearly a Reluctant in this story–she didn’t enjoy being a film star enough to ever want to try and act again, unless it was in some sort of movie with a gazillion animals.  And even though the film turned out well with Jane in the part, it’s clear in everyone’s mind that show business is not for her.

In the very end, the family prepares to return to England with a wiser, more mature Jane getting a tiny bit more respect from her brother and sister.  The Painted Garden will always be one of my favorite Streatfeild books, despite its being rather dated, because of the culture clash of UK vs. US, and the odd and interesting Old Hollywood content.  I also have a huge soft spot for our heroine Jane, a girl who knows she’s a difficult person, but Just. Can’t. Stop.  Each time I read this book, I sympathize with her and I’m glad she gets her moment to shine.

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The Big Picture: Shine

Twinkle, twinkle, little star.

Once upon a time, I was a kid and easily impressed by heroes.  I’m going to guess this was at least partly due to the style of illustration that was in vogue at the time.  Poster artists like the great Drew Struzan depicted their protagonists in striking poses, with a flattering light shining just so.  Quite often, the hero was surrounded by other faces–friends and companions–with perhaps the scowling antagonist in the distance.

Check out Struzan’s website portfolio and you’ll see what I mean.  If you’re a child of the 70s and 80s, like me, you’ll have grown up with some of these posters, possibly hanging on your bedroom wall.  Younger people will know Struzan’s work from the fantastic Harry Potter posters and the Star Wars prequels.  His subjects are people at their very best, even in the middle of a battle–an idealization of the human spirit, if you will.

My TV Guide scrapbook. Family Ties goes to England? For 2 hours? Sign me up!

As a kid, I lived for this stuff.  I owned many a movie poster, but I also snatched up gorgeously illustrated books (even if the story wasn’t so great), and even kept a scrapbook of clippings from the TV Guide.  I suppose, because of this, I grew up thinking that the best thing in life was to be the hero of a story.  I liked to think of myself as the protagonist of my own adventure, bound to overcome the obstacles and win in the end.  I’d stand under that imaginary glow (while it highlighted my hair and did wonders for my complexion), staring off into the middle distance–or maybe looking directly at the camera in a knowing, charming way–surrounded by other people whose slightly smaller head size indicated they were not quite as important as me.

John Williams was writing the score, of course.

If this was you, too, then welcome to my clubhouse!  If it wasn’t, blame Lucas and Spielberg for creating and warping a little geek like me.

Earlier today, I was sitting around at work, when a co-worker asked this question–“If you could go back to one summer of your life and relive it–which one would you pick, and why?”  (Yes, this is the kind of thing we talk about at work.  I feel very lucky to have a job where the downtime can be filled with Deep Thoughts and funny internet cat videos).  Each of us told of a summer we’d choose and all the stories were different–different ages, different locations, different activities.  But at the same time, each story had the same things in common.  I was part of a group or team.  I felt free and powerful.  It was awesome.

It’s a heady thing to belong and feel wanted.  Combine that with your first taste of freedom and the power that goes with it, and there you go–the Best Summer Ever.

These are the things I think about when I write for kids.  The child in me always wanted to stand in the Struzan-esque spotlight and shine.  The kids I knew then and the kids I know now understand this, deep inside them.  I’ll wager very few people grow up thinking I really want to be a sidekick.  You want to be the hero.  The Main Role.  And when you get to a certain age and start seeing from new perspectives, you realize that every person is his or her own hero (even the bad guys).  Everyone’s head is always biggest where he or she stands.

So today, I’ve been thinking about what I’ll call Shine.  This has less to do with Shirley Temple’s “sparkle” or the “X” or “It Factor” you hear thrown around the performing world and more to do with putting your humanity on display–letting your living-ness (and vulnerability) come across in a very clear way.  Audiences, with the possible exception of vampire and zombie fans, love a person who’s really alive.

So very much shine and so very little shirt.

Think about an actor like Robert Downey, Jr.  Charisma?  In spades.  But it’s more than that.  There’s something in the eyes.  How does he make them so gosh darn shiny?  Are there drops for that?

Kids hit a certain age and they notice this.  When they draw living beings, they start adding that little speck of white in a pupil–the catchlight in the eye.  Everyone knows this gives your sketch of the puppy–or Wolverine–that extra oomph. Sure, the catchlight says a lot of things–I’m round, I’m wet, there’s a light shining on me from thattaway.  But mostly it says I’m alive.  Kids figure this out without being told.  They know indicating shine makes the picture real.

Kids want to feel important–that they belong and they are wanted.  They want to feel the power of knowing that what they do really matters.  And at a certain age, the sudden realization of freedom to chose their actions–to choose right or wrong, this way or that way, or which team to join–feels like the most powerful living they’ve ever done.

This is why I write middle grade novels–to capture that first E.T./Goonies everybody-grab-your-bikes moment that happens around age 10 to 12.  Soundtrack’s playing, spotlight’s on. It’s going to be an adventure and we have to win.  But first, turn toward the camera.  Pause, reflect.


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The Big Picture: Competition

Poor Winifred, in your mustardy-brown frock. This is so not gonna go your way, kid.

Competition. Kind of an ugly word, especially to a kid like my sweet oldest daughter, age 12, who would love to live in a world where “everybody wins.” As a parent, I admire the heck out of her desire for everyone to be happy and everything to be equal all the time, but of course I worry–it’s a competitive world, right? Again and again, you’ll be expected to show you’re the best for the job, that you should win the grant, that you can be the supervisor, that you are the one who is meant to have that . . . whatever it is. I sure don’t want my daughter to be left in the dust, Every Single Time.

She’s not a particularly sporty kid, though she likes to be active, but then neither are my husband and I. We’ve encouraged her interest in the arts because that’s what we know. Even there, competition for dance roles or parts in a play hasn’t really been a big part of her life, by choice. The pressure of auditions, of performing on cue, showing off a skill, of (*gasp*) “beating” someone else, or being beaten by them . . . if you asked her, she’d tell you “it’s not my favorite thing.” Ever the diplomat.

She’s mostly interested in drawing, in fact–animation and such. Which is great, but still–competition huddles there in the back of my mind. Won’t she be expected at some time to show she’s “the best”–candidate for art school, person for this scholarship or this internship or this project?

Part of my fascination for children’s books about the performing arts is that they allow a kid reader to view competition and to vicariously participate in it. The story will often have some sort of important audition, maybe for a lead role, such as dancing Clara in The Nutcracker. Your protagonist will obviously long for this role, but often–they won’t get it. How do they deal with the disappointment? How do they prepare for the next time around? What was it that held them back in the first place–and what will they do to change that?

If you’ve read enough Streatfeild, you’ll know that many of her characters even had a special name for their audition routine–“m’audition.”  The kids at The Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training went on so many try-outs, the words “my audition routine” got shortened as part of the school slang.  It wasn’t long before they’d performed “m’audition” so many times, they could do it in their sleep.  Madame made sure those kids were pros!

Did you enjoy competition as a child? Did you shun it, like my daughter? If you didn’t care for competition, were you okay with reading about it? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this–and if you have a favorite book memory of an audition or competition, be sure to mention it. Mine is probably Rachel’s film audition in Noel Streatfeild’s Dancing Shoes, but more on that on another day.

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Part of the Program: Setting

The handy thing about performances AS settings is that The Big Show is a really great way to bring the community–all your characters–together and watch them interact in a fun chapter (or three).  Nerves, pressure, a chance of public humiliation–what’s not to love?

But this post is more about settings in general for books about performing.  The nice thing about performance stories is that they can happen anywhere.  Recitals, concerts, art displays, some kind of theater–just about every place has these.  (If yours doesn’t, please don’t tell me–*sniff*).

Even if you’re writing a story about being in a movie or commercial, that can take place in a small town, too–and they often seem to.  The old Hollywood-Comes-To-Somethingburg story is like plotline #57, isn’t it?  Everyone gets starstruck and the protagonist seethes when the enemy is given a part in the production, but then everything goes haywire and the protagonist has to save the day. “You! Kid with no experience whatsoever! We don’t care if you have any talent–we need you to SAVE THIS FILM!”  I love those stories.

Have you ever thought about the performance books you’ve read and how many of them take place in the big city vs. a smaller town?  If you write, are you ever tempted to set a story in a “small town suburb of a big city,” like all those series books where it seemed like the characters took a train into the city whenever it was convenient for the plot?

For books about show business, London, New York, and LA are favorite settings, of course.  (Do you know The Teddy Bear Habit?  It’s the only reason I knew the word “beatnik” as a kid–but that’s a story for another time . . .)  But I love a book that takes place Elsewhere, too.  It frankly makes me feel like I’ve had the fun of traveling someplace totally new–as well as hearing a good story.

By the way, the pictures included with this post are of a TV show filming (Equipment! Trucks!) and background auditions for an ABC Family movie.  I’m lucky to live in a weird little city where there are all kinds of chances to perform.

More on settings on another day.  Meanwhile, stars are everywhere, so I hope wherever you are, you shine.

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Spotlight On: Ballet Shoes

Is this the ultimate performing arts novel for kids? Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild is a marvelous story, but believe it or not–it’s not the first Streatfeild book I ever read. In fact, it’s not even my favorite. (Gasp! I know–more on that in another post.)

But no doubt about it, though–this story is a winner. Three girls, adopted into the same family, grow up attending a theater school in London, developing their individual personalities and talents on-stage and off, and all the while trying to scrimp and save and find the funds for . . . well, everything. There’s a lot of hand-me-down clothing and Nanny telling everyone to “save the penny and walk” and rushing to auditions and–basically, it’s been charming generations since it was published.

There’s something for everyone in this story, and that’s why it’s a great place to start. Pauline, the oldest, is a Beauty–and let’s face it, in the theater world and film world, looks matter. With Talent and Drive, Pauline is destined to learn her Craft (which happens to be acting) and go on to be a Leading Lady in a big way. Petrova, the middle child, is what would’ve been called a “tomboy” until recently (I’m sure there’s a better way to say this now!). Dark-haired and not much to look at, Petrova would rather take apart an engine than dance any day. She dreams of flying airplanes–an unusual wish for a girl at that time, and maybe even now. If I had to give her a label, I’d call Petrova the Reluctant. I’m going to need some new terms, so this will be my name for the kids in performing books who are performing against their will, more or less, or soon find performing is not for them. Posy, the youngest child, is a red-headed, curly topped Natural. She seems to have been born to dance ballet and has Focus like nobody’s business. In fact, Streatfeild as good as says she’s not fit for anything else. Way to enforce that brainless dancer stereotype, Ballet Shoes!

There is so much to be said about this book that it could nearly have a blog of its own, but what I like best about it is the realistic day-in and day-out of the theater world that it shows. From training to auditions to understudies and first nights, the reader really gets it all (if from a slightly old-fashioned perspective). The children are interesting, realistic and likeable (they are nice, but they’re no angels). In typical Streatfeild fashion, they each discover early on what they feel they are meant to do, and by the end, they’ve each found a way to do it. Having a sort of destiny was a comforting idea to me, as a child reader. I liked to think there were kids out there who already knew what they wanted to be and were working at being it, even at age 10-12.

What are your thoughts on or memories of Ballet Shoes? I’d love to hear them!

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All the world’s a stage . . .

Children’s books and stories about the performing arts.  This blog will be a crossroads, of sorts.  I’ve always loved books about kids on stage, in commercials, in film, in dance recitals and so on.  I’ve always sought out those sorts of books to read, and it’s just the sort of stuff I love to write.

But after ten years of learning to write for kids and a lifetime of reading their books, I’ve also come to realize that “the big show” is a part of so many stories–not just those about kids in the arts.  Many, many children’s books involve elements of a “performance” at their climax, with the child protagonist put on the spot, all eyes turned his or her way–a do-or-die moment where training and talent and luck will pay off, if only he or she can come through under pressure.

Sometimes performance is just doing the right thing when the spotlight (literal or figurative) is on you, isn’t it? In a way, that covers almost all stories.

In a way, it might seem like . . . all the world’s a stage?

I’m fascinated with what a child reader can gain from these books, especially a child today, when so much emphasis is put on wanting to be “famous,” without even a clear idea of what the fame might be for.

So is this first post a bloggy dress rehearsal?  I prefer to think of it as the first day of practice, when you show up and get handed a script–and then sit in a circle and hear everyone’s name and what part they’re playing. A little excitement, a little surprise.  I love that day–don’t you?

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