Author-illustrator Emily Arnold McCully has been a fan of Allegra Kent since, as a college student sitting in nosebleed seats, she first saw the famed ballerina perform with the New York City Ballet in 1959. But the creator of Mirette on the High Wire, which received the 1993 Caldecott Medal, never dreamed that her life would become intertwined with that of Kent more than 50 years later. “When my editor sent me the manuscript for Ballerina Swan (Holiday House), and I saw her name on it, I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ It was incredible,” says McCully.
For her part, Kent has been a fan of McCully’s since first sight as well. Kent told Show Daily that two years ago she saw several of McCully’s illustrations displayed on a sideboard in the office of Grace Maccarone, her Holiday House editor. She had no idea at the time that McCully, whose picture books she was familiar with, having read them to her two granddaughters, had painted the watercolors she admired. Kent was so taken with the artwork, she recalls, that she exclaimed, “I wish this person could be my illustrator!”
Now, Kent says, she feels like the “luckiest person in the world to have had McCully illustrate my book.” Kent, who is renowned for having been a creative muse of the legendary choreographer George Balanchine, became McCully’s creative muse as the illustrator worked on art to accompany Kent’s tale about a swan that wants to dance at the ballet but has to first overcome obstacles, such as, Kent explains, that with her “strange feet,” she would have to “work on her turnout.”
As she created a “dummy” picture book for Kent’s approval, McCully recalls “constantly” thinking about Kent’s possible reactions to the artwork. “Would she like it, would she be happy with it? It’s different when it’s your own text,” says McCully. The illustrator says she was especially concerned about “getting the poses right,” including the “not perfection” of students. “Making the swan assume the poses that are described was especially challenging but fun,” says McCully, who conducted her research by examining photos of actual students taking classes at the New York City Ballet. McCully notes that she learned so much about ballet during the process, she can now imagine herself dancing, even though she has no training.
In the end, Kent approved the illustrations, with only a few suggestions regarding the poses, and the two finally met for coffee. “Developing a friendship with her is such an extraordinary experience,” says McCully of Kent, relating that the two share a common philosophy that they’ve brought to their work, including Ballerina Swan: in order to achieve grace, one has to work hard and not give in to failure.