Angelina Ballerina vs Billy Elliot and the working-class narrative
I have just read Angelina Ballerina for the first time and it was transformative. Its sweet, delicate illustrations are adorable and I can see exactly why she has captivated little ballerinas for the last thirty years. I would have loved it as a little girl reader myself. I had to get a second-hand edition because it seems she's having a rebrand and relaunch for her thirtieth birthday soon.
Isn't it gorgeous? The narrative is very simple, and I was struck by its redemption story. Angelina is frankly a tearaway nightmare, all she can think about is dance. She is so naughty, she even messes up Mrs Hodgepdge's pansies! (My goodness!)
We joked at home that they should write an 'Angelina studies for her GCSEs' or 'Angelina becomes an entrepreneur', but then in these times of diversity and inclusion buzzing around publishing, it did make me take a look at myself. Why do I love this book? Why do I love the idea?
Ballet is nice. Ballet is sweet. It's neat and tidy and very middle-class. It's easy to build into a pink, sparkly brand, and market to so many existing little ballerinas who obviously read because they are nice girls whose nice parents take them to nice ballet classes and also surely the library, weekly.
Do I think that because I, like so many of my peers in children's publishing, am a white, middle-class, university-educated woman?
Let's take another look at the Angelina Ballerina narrative. She is a whirlwind of misdirected energy - does she have some kind of ADHD?
Her parents then decide to put her in ballet class, and Miss Lilly says she has talent, if she works hard, she can make it. Then, Angelina does work hard and becomes a famous ballerina.
What if this was a book about Billy Elliot, not Angelina? But what if Billy's boxing teacher had not left him alone to punch the bag properly, but stayed and given him time and attention. What if Billy had worked hard at boxing instead of ballet, and become a famous boxer?
Would we publish that book?
Boxing is not neat and tidy. Boxing is not pink and pretty and 'nice'. Boxing is not so easily marketable to all those nice little girls whose middle-class parents take them to the library and to ballet classes. But is it any less of a valid life goal? Angelina and Billy dance their way up from their more humble backgrounds. Boxers fight their way out, and it is big entertainment business. We hear about the lack of opportunity for young boys in this country. Like Angelina, a lot of boys who get themselves in trouble also have misdirected energy and a lack of focus. Boxing gyms are a huge part of their communities, build discipline and give people an opportunity in fitness, or entertainment. Sometimes great wealth and fame.
Why don't we publish those books? Are there readers who are not attracted by the nice, middle-class, pink, safe, pretty ballet books who think they don't want to read, but actually just want to read about boxers instead? Television and film create and promote these narratives to huge success - look at WWE wrestling. Why are we not publishing these books for children? They're not to my personal taste, but isn't that the problem?
And, actually, how 'nice' is ballet? I don't like boxing because fighting seems brutal and painful. But don't we also publish books on bullying mean girls and eating disorders in dance schools? And don't many dance careers end in brutal, horrific injuries too...?
This is why editorial diversity is SO important. We all need to do better.