Whoopi Goldberg steps into a new role next week, when Disney’s Jump at the Sun imprint publishes the debut novel in her first chapter-book series, Sugar Plum Ballerinas. Written with Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Maryn Roos, the series introduces six girls from diverse backgrounds who attend a ballet school in Harlem. A reluctant dancer with a ballet-crazy mother steals the spotlight in the inaugural tale, Plum Fantastic, which lands with a combined hardcover and paperback first printing of 100,000 copies.
“A ballerina is something I’ve always wanted to be,” says Goldberg of her inspiration for the series. “I started imagining that girls today may not see ballet as the be-all and end-all, with all that is going on in their lives, but that their mothers might want them to get into the culture of ballet. Happily, the young ballerinas in the series make the most of the situation. “They realize that they’re all in it together and form a bond, even though they are vastly different,” explains the author. “They muddle through and find themselves happy, even if they are in a place where they didn’t expect to be happy.”
When Goldberg, who published Whoopi’s Big Book of Manners with Hyperion in 2006, proposed the series, editor Arianne Lewin liked the idea immediately. She describes the novels as “wonderfully inclusive stories about little girls being little girls. They’re gentle and warm and funny.”
Six Sugar Plum Ballerina novels are under contract, though Lewin notes that “the series is open-ended.” The second installment, Toeshoe Trouble, is due in May 2009 and the third will follow in winter 2010.
The author of numerous books for children, Underwood became Goldberg’s collaborator on the series through her association with Disney-Hyperion. “Soon after we signed up two of Deborah’s picture books a few years ago, she told me she was interested in writing middle-grade and chapter books,” Lewin recalls. “And when we started working on Sugar Plum Ballerinas, she seemed like a natural fit.” The first of Underwood’s picture books, Granny Gomez & Jigsaw, illustrated by Scott Magoon, will be released in fall 2009.
“We talk and talk and talk and bat around ideas, and that helps me work the stories out in my head,” says Goldberg about her collaborative process with Underwood. Goldberg adds that the series’ characters are inspired by individuals she knows well. “Their personalities come from my daughter and her kids—actually from my entire family, people I am very close to,” she says. “And the characters have the names of people I love—friends or other actors. It makes it special to put something of them into these characters.”
Publicity for Sugar Plum Ballerinas will start up October 21, Plum Fantastic’s pub date, when Goldberg will mention the book on The View and each audience member will receive a copy. Two days later, she’ll tout the book on Good Morning America and Live with Regis and Kelly.
And how important a part does humor—the cornerstone of Goldberg’s career—play in the series? “I think it is less about humor than having readers put these books down and say, ‘Hey, that could be me. That’s a lot like what is happening in my life,’ ” she responds. “Letting them see themselves in these characters and helping them find a way to make life work for them—that’s the best thing I can deliver. And if this stuff makes them laugh, well, that is always great too.”
Sugar Plum Ballerinas: Plum Fantastic by Whoopi Goldberg with Deborah Underwood, illus. by Maryn Roos. Disney-Jump at the Sun, $10.99, paper $4.99 ISBN 978-1-4231-1173-3; -7868-5260-4