This delightful and diverse series of books for younger readers is simply lovely. We loved reading the series and were thrilled to pose a set of questions to both the author, Swapna Reddy and illustrator, Binny Talib.
There is so much in the media about the importance of all children being able to see themselves in books. Ballet Bunnies features a multi-ethnic cast of characters and boy ballet dancers as well. How conscious were you both to ensure this?
Swapna: Diversity in books is very important to me. As a British-Indian child in the 1980’s there weren’t many with characters that reflected my background. And when I eventually found a story where I could see myself, I would cling on to these books and read them until the pages fell off the spine. It has taken me a long while to realise that in not reading characters that reflected me as a child, I was made to feel like an outsider in my own world. But everyone’s story is important and I want children of colour to be included in the worlds I create.
In writing this series, I wanted the cast to be diverse, but not just for diversity’s sake. My lens on multiculturalism is focused on the treasures that bubble up from the mixing of our cultures like the humour, the innovation and the perspectives. I want my stories to not only provide a mirror for readers of colour, but also a window through which others can see and learn.
Binny: I was absolutely delighted to work with Swapna and the team on this multi-ethnic series. I think children need to see life reflected in books, characters they can relate to or learn from and be inspired by. It’s essential to me that my illustrations reflect our wonderful diverse world. Growing up in Sydney, Australia you experience a melting pot of global identities which is reflected in society. Every child should be able to see part of themselves in picture books. Swapna does a superb job in the story creating an inclusive, diverse environment that all children can relate to.
Millie immediately has friendship issues with Amber and I know many young readers will empathise with this situation. What message would you give to a young child facing a friendship challenge as Millie does?
Swapna: Friendships are tricky at any age. Over the series Millie and Amber have their ups and downs, and when times are fraught, it’s really important that Millie has other friends to turn to in Samira, her mum and the Ballet Bunnies. When you are faced with a challenging friendship it’s so essential that you have others to turn to.
I love that Millie does not give up on Amber. We find out through the series some of the reasons why Amber is mean to Millie. And as with most situations with bullies, it’s no surprise Amber’s problems with Millie are not about Millie at all, but more to do with Amber’s own insecurities.
Millie and Amber’s love for ballet is what eventually brings them together so my message would be, build bridges based on your similarities rather than dwell on your differences.
Binny: As a mother of two I have seen my son and daughter both experience friendship challenges. Navigating friendships is an essential life skill, Swapna does a beautiful job in showing how even when there are challenges, we can find common ground.
Usually when a child is mean there is a reason for it, and that’s one of my favourite lessons in the books. My message would be to always be kind, brave and understanding. Have a range of friends, so you always have a shoulder to lean on.
The illustrations are stunning, and the use of colour is perfectly tuned in to ballet. How closely did you work together to get them so perfect?
Swapna: With every book I work on, my relationship with the illustrator is completely different! I was so pleased to find out that Binny was illustrating Ballet Bunnies as her book, Origami Heart, is one of my favourites.
Team OUP would send me storylines and I would write the stories based on those. I worked closely with the editorial team and got to see the illustrations when proofs came in. I was always so thrilled with Binny’s work. It was as though she seemed to pluck the images straight from my head without me asking. I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better pairing on this series.
Binny: Thank you! So kind! This was really a dream job for me, my daughter is a ballet dancer and I have been immersed in the ballet world for many years as a result. There is nothing more divine than all the young ballet dancers enjoying the bliss of their costumes for a performance, with misty eye parents admiring them. This is where I drew my inspiration for the colour palette and outfits, I worked with Swapna and the wonderful design team at OUP to ensure they reflected the story correctly. When illustrating for this age I like to keep the illustrations bold and simple, balancing aesthetically appealing, yet still show the emotions of the characters.
Who had the brilliant idea to add sparkle and glitter to the front covers?
Binny: The clever genius design team at OUP.
Millie suffers from nerves throughout the series- have either of you suffered from nerves before? How did you deal with them?
Swapna: Always! Millie and I are so similar in this way. I am very lucky to have my very own Ballet Bunnies in the form of my husband, my son and my dog, who give me lots of advice and help me feel a lot calmer before a big event. My dog is a very good listener in particular.
Binny: Yes! Absolutely. I get quite nervous before any book readings to large audiences, or any public speaking jobs. My advice is practice, practice, practice. Ask your family to listen and watch and give you feedback on your performance.
What messages would you like readers to take away from Ballet Bunnies?
Swapna: First and foremost, I really hope readers enjoy the series as much as I have loved writing the books. I already miss the characters so much!
If a reader were to take away a message, I would hope it would be that it’s OK to find things frustrating, upsetting or sad, and that talking through problems and persevering is the best way to overcome any obstacle.
Binny: Always be brave to try something new and persevere. Don’t be overwhelmed when you are having friendship troubles, it’s part of life and you will find a way through with empathy and a kind heart. Its ok to make mistakes, learn from them and always celebrate you wins no matter how small!
What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and illustrators out there?
Swapna: I get asked this a lot and I always say the same thing – READ!
Read lots and lots of books. Figure out what you love in your favourite stories, and what you don’t like in others, and that will help you find your own voice. All the greatest writers I know started out as readers first.
Binny: Once again I would say practice, practice as much as you can. Be true to your own style. Draw inspiration from life and what you see every day.