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Diversity in Dance: Emily Joof's "Ballet with Heart"

I am honored and excited to have Emily Joof with us on the blog this week, discussing one of her many picture books "Ballet with Heart".

Emily is an African-diaspora mum with a great love for storytelling. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria to a Gambian Father and Malian-French mother and has lived in Nigeria, Belgium, France, Gambia, the UK and Sweden.

Emily is deeply inspired by her childhood as a third culture kid and her own children. She writes stories that reflect the world that she and millions of children across the globe grow up in, where difference is the norm. She blogs and is very active in the discussion around representation in children's literature in Sweden.

Emily works for community organizations, NGOs and International Organizations as an Education Technical Advisor. A role that centres on inclusion and contributes in advancing and improving children’s’ rights in countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. She has managed and delivered programmes targeting children, at-risk youth and marginalised communities for more than 15 years.

Emily is also currently a Postgraduate researcher (PhD candidate) at Lancaster university in the UK. The focus of her research being on the potential that Children’s Literature can have on fostering inclusions in preschools.

Emily, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here on the Picture Book Therapy Thursday blogs. You've published six picture books so far and all of them are so beautifully done. Today we are going to chat about "Ballet with Heart."

What inspired you to write "Ballet With Heart'?

When I turned 30 I had a daughter,

A beautiful remarkable daughter,

She was so much like me and yet nothing like me.

She was quiet, observant, and cautious

I am loud, extrovert, spontaneous.

She loved structure; and would arrange her foods in patterns.

She sorted her toys by colours.

She loved building and creating.

Every time my husband lifted an IKEA box to fix she would be right by his side with her screw driver and other tools.

When I met my husband I used my stiletto heels to hammer in nails, just to explain how much I wasn’t interested in such things.

But once I had this wonderful being in my lap,

I decided I would learn everything she was interested in learning.

I nurtured her love for the colour blue

I sat with Lego blocks for hours without being able to create anything while she meticulously built towers.

She received a bunch of dolls and make believe toys but that was never her thing.

She is 7 now and she has still never sat by herself engrossed in make believe play.

And that’s perfectly ok.

My daughter was cheered on by friends, teachers , everyone for breaking gender stereotypes, for doing things that ‘girls didn’t normally do’

My son was born and he was another surprise.

He loved to dance, to twirl, to smile.

He was gentle and soft spoken.

He stayed by my side, holding my hand most of the time.

He never jumped on the sofa or wrote on the walls,

He plays with the Barbies and Marvel action heroes, the Paw Patrols and creates scenarios of his own.

He loves to cook me fancy meals in his play kitchen and just yesterday helped me make a fancy salad.

Unlike my daughter he is not celebrated for doing things ‘boys don’t normally do’. Instead, I see the concern in people’s eyes.

I field away ignorant commentary at the rainbows on his clothes or his favourite colour being yellow and red. I have to defend my son from the world for loving to twirl, for dancing on his toes, for wearing all colours of the rainbow. It is even more evident as his sister is often right by his side doing the same activity without a single eye brow raised.

I allow him to be himself, without the outside worlds judgement.

The gender bias between the two kids became even more evident when both started dancing ballet. It is one of the few activities they both LOVE.

To have a brown daughter doing ballet – what a feat!

To have a brown son- silence… raised eyebrows…crooked smiles.

While the comments haven’t affected him, he has noticed that there are so few boys in dance in the books we read. When he was three he asked me, pointing at the pages of a picture book, “but mama, where is me?”

Being a storyteller I decided to address that, and Ballet with Heart was born.

I am well aware of the gender stereotypes that exist and the prejudice that reproduce them. But in my house each child of mine is a little human with their own interests, personality and temperament. That and only that is what determines how I parent them.

Emily, that was so beautifully written it brought tears to my eyes. What an empathetic and loving mother you are and what a poignant reason for writing this book.

What was the process like from inspiration to publication?

This book is heavily inspired from my children, the real Ella and Louis and their incredible ballet class at the International School in Stockholm. I watched them dance for a few years before the idea of the book was born. But once I had that story in my head, things moved pretty fast. I self-published this book so I had full control on the story, the images, the photos and interviews. It was really fun to put together an a-typical book, to include everything I felt a child would love to see rather than remain bound to what a standard picture book needed to look like.

I really wanted children to ‘meet’ real ballet dancers and was luck enough to have Adji Cissokho, Gina Tse and Clyde Emmanuel Archer all agree to write a little something that we included in the book to inspire young dancers.

Adji Cissoko is Principal Ballerina from LINES Ballet.

Gina Tse from the Royal Swedish Ballet & Stockholm International Ballet School.

Clyde Emmanuel Archer from Behar ́s L-E-V Dance Company.

I love that you were able to include real life inspiration and dancers! Do you have a scene in the book that was your favorite to write or see illustrated?

I don’t have a favourite scene, but there a few moments in the story where Ella (the big sister) is filled with doubt and questions herself. Her little brother is always right there to prop her back up offer reassurance. I love the bond between siblings, and younger sibling are too often represented as needing to be supported. So, it brought me great joy to write those scenes of quiet confidence from Louis side and also Ella’s journey --not to perfection but to enjoying and persevering in ballet class.

Age doesn’t determine certain character traits; I believe each and every child is unique and has so much to offer the world.

Why is this book important for kids to have on their shelves?

Ballet with Heart opens up the world of ballet to all little readers. One where they will see children of all body types, ability, different ethnicities, and gender, enjoying dance.

The sibling who are the main characters in the books have different approaches to their new dance class, one is thrilled and eager while the other is cautious and shy. They both face their challenges and finally enjoy performing at the Christmas show with their class and I feel it is important to offer both experiences. There is beauty in taking your time to feel comfortable in whatever you do. And there is also something wonderful about finding your passion and knowing that is what you love.

It is important for children to be inspired, to have mirrors that reflect them in books and that is what Ballet with Heart offers.

How can parents, teachers, or counselors use your books to engage in deeper conversations with kids?

The characters and contexts in my books offer a safe space and relatable situations for children and carers to have conversations which explore the child’s understanding. Each of my books has inclusion as a core theme, this can be a simple starting point. I encourage carers to read aloud and then ask basic questions to the child about how the character might have felt / what would the child have done in a similar situation/ how would they have liked their friends to react etc etc. At times thoughts are developed through discussion which offers the perfect space for learning .

I also write a blog piece about each of my books to further explore the themes that are covered, like in Ballet with Heart we can discuss the arts, gender stereotypes, ableism and much more.

I love that phrase "offer a safe space and relatable situations" for having conversations. That's so important in our children's literature.

Do you have any advice for authors who want to write about tough topics?

I would suggest finding a child’s voice and perspective. Every topic no matter how challenging can be brought to a level where the child can find meaning and comfort.

Emily, thank you again for joining us. Your thoughtful construction of this book and beautifully written responses to my questions have been such a joy to share! I can only imagine the precedent you are setting for your children and the bonds you share.

Where can we find you to keep up with your work?

You can find my writing on my website

And thse are my social media handles: Instagram , Twitter, Facebook at Mbife Books.

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