As the mother of a just-seven-year-old boy, who counted herself as a Famous Five addict in the early eighties, I must admit to having little or no in depth knowledge of Angelina Ballerina.
Of course I’ve seen the charming picture books, written by Katherine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig, and have caught fleeting glimpses of its spin off TV incarnation(s) during Fred’s latest search for a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle telethon, but I had no idea there were a whopping 23 books in the series, which began in 1983.
Not wanting to fuel gender stereotypes, but speaking from my own experience, I think my soon-to-be three-year-old daughter will soon be offering to put me straight when it comes to the life and times of Mouseland’s most famous inhabitant and her penchant for pirouettes.
And what better way to introduce her to Angelina and the rest of the Mouseland gang than Seven Stories’ latest exhibition, Twists and Tails, which has taken over the National Centre for Children’s Books’ newly-converted Storylab space on level six.
From Katherine’s first idea scribbles and Helen’s exquisite first illustrations to their character’s present day position as an international favourite among picture book fans, the display, (which is the first to make use of the extensive archive donated by the creative pair in 2012/2013) tells the whole story.
Not only that but young visitors are also loving the opportunity to dress up and do some bar work in front of a beautifully dressed mirror, which also makes up part of the long-running exhibition.
“They seem to be loving it,” says Seven Stories collection director, Sarah Lawrence. “The dressing up and dancing is going down really well and we are doing Angelina Ballerina storytime too. The books are absolutely beautiful and the sessions are giving people the chance to listen to the stories and enjoy the pictures again.
“Helen’s approach to illustrating is very exciting,” she continues.
“She will draw and redraw things several times. She is so dedicated to every detail of the sets and the characters and manages to humanise all the little mice so beautifully... I don’t know how she does it.”
As well as celebrating the books which have already been enjoyed by millions the world over, the exhibition is also giving visitors a taste of what is to come, courtesy of an illustration from the (as yet unpublished) latest book in the series, Angelina’s Big City Ballet, which follows Angelina and her family arriving in the Big Cheese (aka New York).
It represents the latest donation to the collection from Helen, who gave Seven Stories everything she had in her Angelina portfolio in 2013, aside from seven illustrations she has given to her grandchildren.
Kris McKie, Seven Stories archivist said, “Angelina Ballerina is one of our largest and most comprehensive Collections, it has been great to explore Mouseland through the curation process.”
The exhibition, which runs until April next year focuses on three key areas: the process behind the creation of the books; Angelina’s journey - both in the stories and reality as she went from picture book character to global brand; and Mouseland itself.
“When we are given a collection, a lot of work has to be done here before we can start displaying it,” explains Sarah. “Everything has to be logged and looked at and then of course we have to work out the best way to show it at Seven Stories so that visitors can get the most out of it.
“It was three or four years ago when Katherine and Helen came here to do an event. We started talking to them about what they were doing with their archives and they both expressed an interested in seeing them here. Their partnership is unusual in that it has been going for more than 30 years and they have produced the whole series together. It’s a wonderful collection to have here.”
Although Sarah agrees that the younger visitors to Twists and Tails have been predominantly little girls, she says the exhibition itself has a much wider audience.
“I know they are quite girly stories, but there is a wider interest in the archive and the exhibition in terms of how the books and the series have been created,” she says.
“We have the very first texts which Katherine wrote. She and Helen never set out to write a series. You can tell that from the first book which is a complete story in itself, but I think they quickly realised that people would want to see more from Angelina.”
Not that she was called that in Katherine’s original story ideas. Nor was she a mouse.
Fans of the tutu-sporting Angelina may be surprised to learn that when the author first started writing what would become the best-selling stories, she was actually writing about a little girl called Primrose.
“But then Helen started envisaging her as a mouse with a mouse family and Katherine loved the idea,” explains Sarah. “Then it all went on from there.”
From suggested page turn marks from Helen to storyboards of the illustrations for the books, visitors can trace the origins and development of the popular picture books to the present day.
“As well as being lovely for fans of the books, that’s all really interesting for anyone studying children’s literature or creative writing... or anyone thinking that writing a children’s picture book is easy,” says Sarah.
“The archive we have shows just how much work and meticulous detail goes into every book.”
And of course that all the hard work was more than worth it.
* Twists and Tails will be displayed at Seven Stories, National Centre for Children’s Books until April 2015. Author Katherine Holabird will be visiting Seven Stories for a reading and book signing event on September 28 from 1.30pm. The author will also be taking part in another event on September 29, which will see her in conversation with Dr Pam Knights from Durham University’s literature department. For more information, visit www.sevenstories.org.uk