TOE SHOE MOUSE
After taking refuge in a grand old theater, a resourceful and endearing little mouse falls in love with dance, wins the heart of a ballerina -- and at last finds a welcoming home!
WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK
I first got the idea for this book when I was visiting Paris. Since I love ballet, I decided to visit the theater that houses the Paris Opera Ballet, Le Palais Garnier. I plunked down a few euros for a self-guided tour, and walked around ogling all the wildly sumptuous beauty of the place. You may already know of this theater since it’s the setting for The Phantom of the Opera– watch out for falling chandeliers!
In addition to its famed chandelier, the theater also has a domed ceiling painted by Chagall, and an eye-confounding trompe l’oeil curtain masking the stage. I was entranced! Like Tendu, the little mouse in my story, I thought, “I’d like to stay here!”
One way to stay in a place, at least in one’s imagination, is to write about it. So the first drafts of my story were set very specifically in Le Palais Garnier, with mentions of the Chagall ceiling and the trompe l’oeil curtain I’d loved. But my editor Grace Maccarone pointed out that it might be difficult to secure rights to reproduce the art. She suggested that I set the story in an unnamed, unspecified theater, and that would have the added advantage of allowing an illustrator to more freely imagine it.
At first I wasn't sure. Le Palais Garnier had been my inspiration! But as I started to rework the text to conform to Grace’s suggestion, I realized that it actually helped the book. And that was because picture books have to tell a story with so little text; every word and image contribute significantly. And in this case, editing out the specific details about Le Palais Garnier took the emphasis away from the theater itself and put it more squarely on the heart of the story, the friendship between the mouse and the ballerina and their shared loved of dance.
Another place where Grace had an idea that expanded upon mine was the choice of illustrator. I wanted an illustrator who was conversant with ballet, who could render the ballerina’s tendu with a turned-out foot, and the arabesque with a turned-out leg. It always jars me when I see illustrations of ballet dancers in which the positions are inexact since ballet is such an exact art, and I assumed Grace would agree with me since she herself is a longtime student of ballet. But though Grace did agree to look for a ballet-savvy illustrator, she pointed out that the book wouldn’t work without an endearing portrait of a mouse. So she wanted to look for an illustrator who was skilled at rendering animals with charm. And luckily for me, she found Jennifer A. Bell, who excelled at all the challenges she was given – the sumptuousness of the theater, the sweet charm of the mouse, and the beauty of ballet.
Jennifer even got the details of the costume shop right. Though she and I never communicated directly before the book came out, the spread she did of the costume shop looked much like a costume shop I had once visited, at New York City Ballet. To read more about that, check out my blog post Authors & Illustrators: The Mystery of Collaboration.
EXAMPLES OF EDITS
When I first got the idea for the story, I wrote this in my writer's notebook:
Mouse who lives in Opera Garnier. Nests in toe shoe against lambswool. Uses tulle/tutus as nesting materials. Loves Chagall sky and music. Fooled by Trompe l'oeil curtain.
I will not go into the disturbing details of how it is I arrived at the ballet. Suffice it to say that it involved a cat with glittering teeth and cruel claws, and a chase through the Paris sewers. Fortunately for me, the sewers run directly under the Opera Garnier.
Interesting that the first lines of the story survived almost intact! Only the specifics of the Paris setting were edited out.
This text, edited in galleys, shows specific details of the Paris theater that were edited out. In this case, the arched Chagall painting on the ceiling, and the chandelier that hangs there.