Michigan native and author Jennifer Carson loves fantasy. Magic, knights, daring-do, and dragons. Especially dragons. Carson has written nearly a dozen fantasy books, and almost all of them feature a dragon somewhere. The one that doesn’t, Hapenny Magick, featured a dragon in the sequel.
So it makes perfect sense that a dragon is the lead character of Carson’s latest children’s work, Dragons Don’t Dance Ballet. But the title character’s struggle has a real-world basis.
Overcoming doubts in Dragons Don’t Dance Ballet
“My four boys and I were always pretty involved in theater, dancing, and singing. So we were all in a holiday show, and my parents had come up to spend Christmas with us,” Carson said.
After the show, Carson’s mother had some unkind words for one of Carson’s fellow dancers. “My mom said, ‘That girl had no business being up there on that stage.’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about? She’s the best adult ballet dancer in the troupe!’ I may have looked more like a ballet dancer, but she danced way better than me.”
The incident stuck with Carson, leading to her wanting to tell a story about someone overcoming doubts to prove they belong as a dancer. How to tell that story in a way that would be receptive to a young audience, as well as not offending her friend?
“Well, I can make them animal characters. Okay, well, what kind of animal characters would no one ever be able to say that kind of character would be able to dance ballet? And because I’m such a fantasy geek, I guess, the dragon just popped in my head and I ran with it,” she said.
How did dragons get their fire breath?
Carson’s love of fantasy runs all the way back to her childhood. She’d grown up reading “A Wrinkle in Time” and other fanciful stories, but it was a visit to a Michigan renaissance festival that really sparked her imagination.
Still, she’d never really considered being a writer — she primarily thought herself an artist. One day about 15 years ago, as her children were playing, Carson began drawing a dragon (of course). Her then-seven-year-old son asked a question that changed Carson’s life.
“He asked me how dragons got their fire breath. And I had no idea, I had no origin story to refer to, nothing. So, being the modern mom I was, I jumped on the internet— which was relatively early, then— and I didn’t see anything there, either.
Then, soon after, she got her answer — in the middle of the night. “It always seems like my best ideas come to me at like four o’clock in the morning,” Carson said. “I had this little dragon character talking to me, telling me how he got his fire breath, by eating some magical pepper.”
The kernel of an idea soon grew into her first book, To Find a Wonder, published in 2009. She has since written ten more books, often using fantasy as a metaphor for the idea of what makes a family and a community.
“I don’t necessarily shoot to have messages in my work, I just come up with a ‘four o’clock in the morning’ idea, and sometimes it writes itself in five minutes and sometimes it takes 15 years,” Carson said.
The basic idea behind Dragons Don’t Dance Ballet came together very quickly — Carson estimated the rough draft was written in less than an hour, with additional rewrites and edits done to polish the story after sharing it with her critique group. She said wants her young readers to take a message of hope away from the story.
“Really, it’s a book about perseverance and going after what you want, and not letting people tell you that you’re not good enough, or you’re not something enough to do it— which I’ve been fighting my whole life.”