‘Angelina Ballerina’ keeps author on her toes

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
May 10, 2002

When she was a little girl growing up on the North Side of Chicago, children’s book author Katharine Holabird imagined herself as a beautiful, graceful ballerina whose jumps were as light as a feather.

“I was a theatrical, melodramatic child,” says Holabird, phoning from Los Angeles. “I was also a tubby little 4-year-old waltzing around the house who thought I was this beautiful archetype–a ballerina. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t move like these graceful ballerinas who had trained for years. I love how little girls have those adorable little bodies that try to do all these exquisite moves. I think it’s brilliant.”

Therein lies the beauty of Angelina Ballerina, the children’s book series she launched 20 years ago. The title character is a tiny girl mouse who has plenty of attitude to go with her pink tutu. The popular series of books has spawned a line of related goods, including dolls, videos and an animated series that airs at 9:30 a.m. Sundays on WTTW-Channel 11. Holabird’s next book will be out in June.

Of course, a mouse is an unusual choice for a girl icon. Except for a few exceptions (Mickey and Minnie spring to mind), mice aren’t exactly revered. Why didn’t she opt for a puppy or a tiger cub–or any other cuddly animal–to become her ballerina?

“A little mouse is very athletic,” Holabird insists. “I also like how her tail is so theatrical. But yes, I know what you mean about real mice. I love all animals, but you do have to deal with them in the real world. [My illustrator] Helen Craig lives in a 300-year-old cottage like Angelina’s in the middle of the countryside. She had an infestation of mice in her place and she ended up putting humane mousetraps in the cottage and then releasing the captured ones in the countryside.

“I actually see Angelina as a little girl in a mouse suit, more than as a mouse. That’s why I drew her body to look like a real child’s. She’s very athletic, but not graceful. I think that’s part of her charm.”

Holabird, 54, has lived in England since 1974, but her roots are still in Chicago. Her great-grandfather co-founded the Chicago architecture firm Holabird and Root. She has been in town the past couple days to celebrate her father’s 82nd birthday on Thursday and visit her alma mater, Francis W. Parker School.

“I attended Francis Parker from kindergarten through high school, as did my sisters and father, and had a great time there,” she says. “I come from a long line of architects in my family. But it was never something that I felt I was supposed to do.”

Instead, she studied literature at Vermont’s Bennington College, worked as a literary editor and became a nursery school teacher in England before creating “Angelina Ballerina” with artist Craig.

“Angelina is very much a product of my childhood and my continuing fascination with growing up,” says Holabird. “After the birth of my children, particularly my daughters, I was struck by the drama of their lives. Children’s’ emotions are so huge because they haven’t learned to repress anything yet.”

Given Hollywood’s propensity for adapting popular books to the big screen, it’s not such big a stretch to imagine that “Angelina Ballerina” one day will grace the big screen. An animated film would be great, but if an actress had to portray the little girl mouse, Holabird has her pick: her 25-year-old daughter, Tara.

“Tara may be a little too old for the role, but she’s the only one I think could do it justice,” Holabird says, laughing. “And I’m not just saying that because I’m her mother. Well, maybe I am! I think the book also book lends itself to a ballet interpretation. That would be really fun to see.”

Though she doesn’t indulge in ballet anymore, Holabird says she still dances.

“I think we all need to keep dancing in life,” she says. “You’re able to let go a little bit in an expressive, fun way.”

Comments (1)

  1. Cristina says:

    A few years back, we had mice in our house (when I lived with my mom and dad). I think we ended up with a total of 3 or 4 dead mice in the traps set in the kitchen and basement. It was rather nasty to go through our pantry and find little mouse turds all the way to the top. The strangest place we found a mouse turd was on the piano keys in the living room. But mouse traps are very effective. We found that a bit of peanut butter spread on the trap worked well. YUCK! Maybe you should get a cat…

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