Two artists collaborating on a picture book is hardly news, but in the case of Firebird, which Putnam is publishing this month, the creative team is slightly unusual: it consists of an illustrator and a ballerina. Like Ballerina Swan (Holiday House, 2012), which was written by ballerina Allegra Kent and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully, Firebird, by American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers, draws on a ballerina’s real-life early struggles to tell a story of inspiration and encouragement. For Copeland, those struggles centered on her race, a childhood of poverty, and her late discovery of the art form.
Myers and Copeland were brought together, as is most often the case, by an editor, but their collaboration was hardly typical of the standard picture-book process. First of all, it was Myers who suggested doing a book with Copeland to his good friend Stacey Barney, senior editor at Putnam. Barney and Myers enjoy monthly teas together and during one of them in 2012, the illustrator mentioned his admiration for Copeland. Though Myers and Barney had never worked together, “we had been trying to find a project,” Barney said. It turned out that both were aware of Copeland, who had been drawing media attention as one of the few African-American classical ballerinas in the American ballet world. She is only the second African-American soloist in ABT’s 75-year history and the first in more than two decades.
“I admired the barriers Misty was breaking in dance,” said Barney, “As an African-American woman myself, I found her personal story remarkable—coming to ballet so late, as a 13-year-old, and working so hard even as she was constantly being told she was the wrong race and size for ballet. And suddenly, out of the blue Chris asked me if I’d ever heard of her. He took out his sketch pad and began drawing black-and-white sketches of ballerinas in mid-leap. In those early sketches I began to see what the book could be.”
“There are a handful of artists who are changing their respective fields, rewriting the rules,” explained Myers. “I try to keep up with artists like that, especially ones like Misty who also are thinking about larger social issues.”
Coincidentally, Copeland’s public relations manager, Gilda Squire, had been publicity director at HarperCollins when Barney was an editor at the publisher’s Amistad imprint. Barney and Squire quickly arranged a meeting between Copeland and Myers. “When they met, it was kismet,” Barney recalled. “They immediately had a great rapport.”
“It was fate,” agreed Copeland. “How lucky am I to be able to work with an award-winning illustrator with many books under his belt on my first children’s book?”
Also at that initial meeting was Putnam publisher Jennifer Besser, to whom Barney had presented the idea. A ballet lover who was familiar with Copeland as well, Besser “thought it was a fabulous idea,” Barney recalled, so support for the book was strong from the start.
Figuring out what kind of picture book should be created was a process in itself. “We talked about how to tell her story,” said Barney, “and homed in on the theme of confidence—the fragility of confidence and what happens to it when you are constantly being told you can’t do something.”
“It was an evolution of ideas,” explained Copeland, “between Chris and myself. Chris felt very strongly about representing my relationships with the various young girls and women who I mentor and the women who’ve mentored me, especially African-American ballerinas who came before me, such as Raven Wilkinson, who danced with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s. We knew that we could have something very special, to show the growing relationship and mentorship between a young aspiring ballerina and a more experienced ballerina.”
A Cast of Collaborators and Contributors
Dedicated to Wilkinson, and featuring sparse, poetic text, Firebird is a dialogue between two such African-American dancers. Subtitled “Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird,” the book includes a closing letter from Copeland to her readers, noting the challenges she faced as a child and explaining: “This book is bringing my existence, and nonexistence as a young girl, to life, showing other girls and boys that they’re not alone. They too can find their voice, their wings, their missing piece. My hopes are that people will feel empowered to be whatever they want to be... with hard work and dedication, despite what you look like or struggle with.”
Minimal as the text is, the writing of it was a careful and thoughtful collaboration, “in every sense of the word,” noted Copeland. Although Myers is credited only as the illustrator, she refers to him as her co-author. “It is my first children’s book, but this arena is Chris’s world so I trusted his insight and expertise. Ballet had not been a big part of Chris’s life, yet he immersed himself in it, coming to several of my performances, working to understand some of the basic positions and how to best represent them visually, and spending time with my mentor, Raven Wilkinson, and me. Overall, Chris and I learned a lot from and about one another.”
They were also careful not to rush through any phase of the project. “We wanted a book that would show that this completely came from our souls,” Copeland said. “I don’t think any book is something you can get in one take, much like dancing. I tend to prefer the nurturing process, working at something until you get it as right as it can be. I think that when you work on something over time the end result shows your thoughtfulness, passion and the effort you’ve put into it.”
Both Copeland and Myers credit Barney as a third “partner-in brilliance,” as Copeland put it. “Stacey really helped to make sure that what we were putting on the page communicated what we wanted it to,” said Myers.
Another important contributor to the book was Wilkinson, whom Copeland considers her mentor. “She was a trailblazer during her career in the 1950s,” Copeland noted. Talking with Wilkinson was crucial for Myers as well, as he shaped his vision of the artwork. The first time he saw Copeland dance (“a revelation”), he was fortunate enough to be sitting next to Wilkinson. “She explained to me the precision, the hard work and the subtlety of the movement as only a former ballerina could. The experience made these links for me of history, of craft and the uniqueness of being a black woman in Misty or Raven’s position.”
As Myers grew engrossed in learning about ballet, his artwork was forming simultaneously with the text. “The entire time we worked on the text, I was sketching, and building the world of the book, visiting the ballet, taking photos backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House, where Misty dances,” he explained. Reference photos of Misty dancing were essential for him, both to get the ballet positions correct—“which I think is almost as hard for an artist as it might be for a dancer!” he said—“and to be faithful to the specificity of Misty’s dance.” Copeland “fact-checked” all the illustrations to ensure the ballet positions were technically correct, and Myers adjusted according to her comments.
The final illustrations are rich and bold in color and energy. For his medium, Myers combined paintings with collage, a signature look in some of his earlier books, like Harlem (Scholastic, 1997), written by his late father, Walter Dean Myers. “I missed the medium,” Myers mused. “It seemed particularly suited to this project because it allowed me such diverse palettes, and echoed the different kinds of materials found in traditional ballet, from the wood and pâpier-maché of the sets to the diverse fabrics that make up the costumes.”
Putnam’s art director Cecilia Yung and designer Annie Ericsson worked closely with Myers as he proceeded. “They both did such a great job crafting the book, taking it from a wonderful story and a stack of pictures to a full-fledged production,” he said. “I often think of books as small stages across which we mount our plays, fill them with characters and costumes. Annie and Cecilia made the book a grand stage, the kind one is eager to fill.” Copeland was deeply moved to see their project in production. “When I saw the initial pages laid out in rough draft at Stacey’s office it literally brought me to tears,” she recalled.
The publication of Firebird is especially meaningful for Copeland, as mentoring children is her passion. She has worked with a variety of charitable organizations and was inducted into the Boys & Girls National Hall of Fame in 2012. She is also active in Project Plié, a partnership between ABT and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America which sends ABT-certified dance teachers to introduce ballet to children in underserved communities. (Copeland herself was first exposed to ballet at the Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif., where she grew up.)
While Firebird is Copeland’s first children’s book, she has also told her story in her recent memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, written with Charisse Jones (Simon & Schuster, Feb.). Firebird, however, is the fulfillment of one of her dreams. “It just feels like a natural fit for me to offer a book that speaks directly to kids,” she said. “Dancing the role of the Firebird is so personal to me because it was my first time in a leading role, and she’s so full of life, inspiration and passion. That’s what I want kids to feel when they read this book and look at the beautiful images.”