By Bree Bender
Cynsations is excited to welcome Valerie Bolling, author of the picture book Let’s Dance!, illustrated by Maine Diaz (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020) as well as the forthcoming Together We Ride (Chronicle, 2022) and its sequel Together We Swim (Chronicle, 2023). Let’s Dance! depicts various dances from around the world featuring an inclusive cast of illustrated characters. It was praised by the School Library Journal as, “A fun and lively title.” Welcome, Valerie!
What was the inspiration behind your book Let’s Dance!?
Turn on music, and folks move and groove. Even babies who can barely walk will sway and/or raise their hands. I have videos of my nieces dancing, at ages 2 and 4, while brushing their teeth. These are the images that inspired me to write Let’s Dance!
I wanted to write a book showcasing dance as an activity we can all enjoy together, regardless of our background – no matter who we are. The first sentence of my pitch for Let’s Dance! was “Dancing is a universal language, even though we all have different ‘accents.’” Maine Diaz’s brilliant illustrations highlight the joy of dance as well as its diversity and inclusiveness.
Are there any educational or additional resources for Let’s Dance!?
If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?
You can be an author. You should be an author.
If someone had uttered those words to me, perhaps I would’ve become a published author sooner. Maybe it would’ve been my sole career.
As a child, I never thought about a career as an author. I never thought about that as a possibility for myself. I loved reading, but I didn’t see myself in books. I also didn’t read books written by people who looked like me. All of the books I read either featured animals or white people as main characters.
In addition to reading, I loved writing. My elementary school media specialist, Mrs. Terrell, awarded my stories with first place badges. When describing my creative writing, my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Allen, wrote: “Valerie has exceptional flair in this area.”
Despite these positive affirmations and praise for my writing, I don’t recall anyone ever saying I could be an author. Even if they had, I’m not sure if I would’ve believed it or known what that would entail.
What’s important to note is the difference between being an author and a writer. Writing has been interwoven throughout my life. I wrote my own wedding vows; I buy blank cards, so that I can pen my own messages; I send annual letters instead of holiday cards.
Even though I wasn’t an author until recently, I’ve always been a writer, and that’s more meaningful. Even if I’d never become a published author, I’d still be a writer.
I’m grateful to have finally earned the title of “author,” and, in my new role, have made the following commitment. I will do my best to make sure I convey a message to children that they, too, can become authors and illustrators – and that it can be their life’s work and passion.
What are you working on next?
Currently, I’m working on a nonfiction project. I’m excited about the challenge because I’ve only written fiction, both rhyme and prose, thus far. This story is very personal to me – I suppose most stories are – but this is special for a different reason.
When I decided about a year ago that I wanted to foray into nonfiction, I spoke to my We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) mentor, Kelly Starling Lyons. I shared that I wanted to write about someone the world should know more about but who wasn’t necessarily a celebrity. Kelly made a perfect suggestion for me. Like me, this person is an advocate for children and an author/activist who cares deeply about children.
I’ve been keeping a file of notes from webinars and other sources about what to consider when writing nonfiction. I’ve also been reading stacks of picture book biographies. I was ready to delve into researching my subject, during the December 2020 holiday season, and I knew exactly where to start.
A close friend had given me a book written by my chosen subject when we both completed our graduate school programs. Thus, my first step was to re-read that book.
When I grabbed the book off of my shelf, I read the beautiful inscription my friend had written. It was extremely touching and soul-inspiring. I decided to reach out to him, even though we hadn’t communicated in almost three decades. When I looked for him online, I found him. Sadly, I discovered that he had passed away six months earlier. Victor led a life similar to the subject of my book – a life of service to young people. If this book is published, I will dedicate it to him.
What’s been the biggest surprise about the author’s life/publishing/marketing
There are two big surprises. First, how much I love this writing life. Second, how much work and commitment this writing life requires.
Writing inspires me. During this pandemic, it has been a balm, offering me solace, joy, and a way to occupy time that I can’t spend with others.
A little over a year ago, shortly before Let’s Dance! was published, I had said that if I wanted to stop writing, I could. I would have one book published and could put my author career on hold until I retired. That was truly how I felt at the time. However, within the past year, writing has woven itself inextricably into my life, and even if I wanted to unravel from it, I couldn’t.
Writing is not only about the act of writing – whether it be brainstorming, researching, drafting or revising – writing is also about marketing and networking. As much as I love writing and revising my next book, I also spend time writing blog posts, interacting on social media, doing events (storytimes, panels, author presentations), and attending meetings – whether critique groups, webinars, conferences, committees, or anything else that might present itself.
An inordinate amount of time and commitment is required to be successful as a writer; fortunately, I enjoy all aspects of the writing life…and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?
What I’ve enjoyed most about being an author are the various ways in which I can connect with people. I love connecting with young readers, and I also appreciate the friendships I’ve made within the writing community.
My writing partner, Lindsey Aduskevich, is a treasure; we communicate daily. She’s my cheerleader and critiquer (we met at our regional conference in May 2019). I have two fabulous critique groups (one I’ve been with since May 2019 and the other I just joined in December 2020) that provide helpful feedback on my writing. My mentor (who I mentioned earlier and with whom I’ve been working since January 2020), Kelly Starling Lyons, is tremendous, and a month after signing with my agent extraordinaire, James McGowan (in June 2020), I ended up with two two-book deals!
My memberships in a number of groups are a way for me to become further immersed in the writing community. I’m a member of three co-marketing groups – Kid Lit in Color, Soaring 20s Picture Books, and PB Crew 22 which offer constant support. My regional Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in New England is an active group with social meetings every Monday – Monday Mingles – and I’m co-chair of our Equity and Inclusion Team. I’m also an active participant in Black Creators in Kid Lit and the 12 X 12 Picture Book Challenge, including a founding member of 12 X 12’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee.
The writing community is welcoming on Twitter and in numerous groups on Facebook. I’ve met many bloggers who’ve reviewed Let’s Dance! and who’ve interviewed me.
Some may think of writing as a solitary effort, but it is not. Perhaps the act of writing is done independently, but there’s an entire community of people who contribute to an author’s success, and I’m blessed to have so many supporters, some of whom I know I’m still to meet.
Valerie Bolling is a long-time educator and the author of LET’S DANCE! (Boyds Mills & Kane, March 2020). She serves as the co-chair of the NESCBWI Equity and Inclusion Team and is a member of SCBWI, the Authors Guild, NCTE, and ILA. She is also a 2020 WNDB Mentee and a member of Kid Lit in Color, Black Creators in Kid Lit, Soaring 20s PBs, PB Crew 22, 12X12 Picture Book Challenge, and two picture book critique groups. She is represented by James McGowan of BookEnds Literary Agency. She has two books scheduled for release in 2022 and two more slated for 2023!
Bree Bender is a life-long Oregonian who holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the Oregon Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators 2020 Scholarship prize for the Middle Grade and Young Adult novel category. When she’s not writing, you can find her on Instagram @BreeBenderWrites or on Twitter @BreeRBender.