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The word “ballerina” might conjure thoughts of sparkling tutus and airy music, but it turns out that these graceful dancers mix really well with Halloween.
Case in point: Ballet West’s “Dracula” is running now through Oct. 30. The production is all gothic beauty, from a stage lit with haunting reds and grays to a phantom coach drawn by horse skeletons. Tickets start at $15 and can be bought online at bit.ly/2ZdBd3M. Masks are required.
But for little spook-seekers (“Dracula” is recommended for ages 8 and up), there’s local children’s author Kristyn Crow’s “Zombelina” books.
Crow’s titular character is a young zombie girl who loves to dance. She “moonwalks with mummies,” “boogies with bats” and “glides like a ghost.”
And in the first book, called simply “Zombelina,” she enrolls in a ballet class for real girls. Her adventures then continue in “Zombelina Dances The Nutcracker” and “Zombelina: School Days.”
Though these picture books feature classic Halloween monsters, there’s nothing scary or gory about them. Crow’s clever rhymes include lessons about trying new things and being kind, while Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Molly Idle brings each story (un)alive with cute, colorful pictures.
Crow recently spoke with The Salt Lake Tribune about what inspired the “Zombelina” books and the challenges of writing for children.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into writing children’s books?
When I was about five years old, I told my parents that I wanted to be an author. They were a little bit taken aback because we didn’t know any writers and we had no writers in the family. So they wondered where I got that idea from. And to be honest, I’m not really sure. I just loved reading. I saw children’s books on the shelves and I thought, “I want to make those.” I would take pieces of paper and fold them in half and staple them. My dad would collect them and put them in his suitcase, and it just became a known thing in our family that my goal was to write books for kids.
How can you tell if your stories are landing with kids?
I have a critique group that I work with and we bounce things off each other. Sometimes your brain thinks something is working or something is humorous, and it really isn’t. But a lot of it is just guessing and hoping and being around kids and seeing what they like and listening to how they talk to each other. Because often, we don’t know until the book comes out how it’s going to be received by young audiences.
What inspired the “Zombelina” books?
“Zombelina” came about because my youngest daughter got a part in a student film as a zombie. I thought a cute little girl with pigtails who’s a zombie would be a funny picture book character. I also thought kids were ready for a zombie character because they love “The Corpse Bride” and “Frankenweenie” and other movies with undead characters.
When I started working on this character, she wasn’t a ballerina. Initially, she was just a little zombie girl, and the book’s title was “My Creepy Family.” It was about this little zombie girl whose family was kind of an Addams Family-esque group, and she was complaining about how strange her family was. But then, as I was trying to think of what the character’s name would be, I came up with “Zombelina” and I thought, “Well, that sounds like a ballerina. Wouldn’t that be funny if she was a ballerina?”
The “Zombelina” books include themes such as being a friend and having fun. Did you plan on writing about those themes, or did they emerge as you worked on the stories?
I think that as you’re creating a story for kids, you hope that there will be some positive messages in the book. You have to be careful that it doesn’t come across as too didactic, but you definitely want some good, positive messages in there. So as I was putting the text together, I was hoping that friendship and family and those kinds of themes could come through. But I also tried to weave them into the story so that they didn’t seem like obvious lessons for kids. You never want a picture book to be a lesson. You want it to be entertaining and just happen to have a lesson.
Illustrator Molly Idle brought her Caldecott Honor-winning talents to the “Zombelina” books. How did you connect with her?
Molly is amazing. My editor and I discussed potential illustrators for “Zombelina,” which is interesting in and of itself because typically, a picture book writer does not get to choose the illustrator. For most of my books, I’ve had almost zero say in who the illustrator will be. But with “Zombelina,” I was asked for my thoughts. My editor actually found Molly and knew that she had done some animation work. We loved her. Her sample art had a lot of curves and rounded shapes and swirls that lent itself to dancing. And her characters were just so adorable and charming. So my editor asked her and she accepted the project. We were just thrilled. I’m so grateful that she is the illustrator for these books.
The “Zombelina” books take traditional Halloween monsters such as zombies, witches and vampires and adapt them into cute, fun characters. How did you make sure nothing was too scary for young kids?
I think humor is the real key with that. You can get away with a lot if you can make it humorous. For example, Zombelina’s mother is a witch and she’s “nitpicky” because she’s picking the nits out of the cat’s fur.
Zombelina also has a little brother with vampire teeth. We were originally going to show him eating an eyeball, but we thought, “Oh, that’s a bit much.” So in the final illustration, he’s eating worms. You’re always bouncing these things off the editor and the illustrator and trying to ask, “Do you think this is too much? Maybe let’s back off on this or let’s make this funnier.”
Do you have plans for any more “Zombelina” books?
I certainly hope so. We’ve had some interest in optioning the book. But I’m kind of waiting to see what the interest is and what may come of it.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m always working on new projects. I’ve got a really funny character that I can’t talk about at this point, but it’s kind of zany in a SpongeBob-esque way and isn’t associated with any particular holiday or season. But I’m hoping kids will find it irresistible.
What advice would you give to aspiring children’s book authors?
I highly recommend that aspiring writers attend writing conferences. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators have conferences every year in different parts of the country. In Utah, there is the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference, which is held every June. It’s fantastic. They bring in editors and agents from big publishing houses, and writers have the opportunity to pitch their work to editors. They also teach you some techniques. A lot of people think that they can write a picture book because it seems simple. But there’s a lot of technique involved in writing, especially for illustrations that don’t exist yet. And you really can’t learn those techniques unless you are taught by the experts. So these conferences are a must. They can be a little pricey, but they’re worth every penny. I really don’t think I would be published today if it weren’t for these conferences.
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