Book Review and Author Interview: Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas by Colette Sewall

Please Note: I received an electronic review copy of Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas and was monetarily compensated in exchange for composing and hosting an interview with the author and reviewing the book in question. This compensation in no way affected my opinions.

Title Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas
Author Colette Sewall
Pages 204 Pages
Target Audience Middle Grade
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Fantasy
Publication Date August 4th 2020 by Owl Hollow Press
Find It On GoodreadsAmazonChaptersThe Book DepositoryBarnes & NobleIndieBound

When eleven-year-old Kiki MacAdoo and her talented older sister go to Mount Faylinn Dance Conservatory for the summer, they ignore the brochure’s mysterious warning that “ballets come alive” in the nearby forest.But after her sister disappears, it’s up to Kiki to brave the woods and save her sister from the ghost sylphs that dance young girls to their deaths. As Kiki unlocks the mysteries of Mount Faylinn, the ballet of the ghost sylphs, Giselle, simultaneously unfolds, and Kiki is swept away in the adventure of a lifetime.

1. Hi, Colette! Thank you so much for joining me on Pop! Goes The Reader today. First, I’d love to learn a little more about you! Did you always know you wanted to be a published author? What books and/or authors do you feel have inspired or influenced your life or your writing in a positive way?

Hi, Jen! Thanks so much for having me! I am a former dancer/studio owner from New York and taught ballet, tap, and jazz to children for over thirty years. Along with dance, I’ve always enjoyed painting and writing, but I didn’t start writing seriously until after I retired.

Through the years, so many books have inspired me along the way. One in particular was Little Women. I loved the fact that a woman wrote it over 150 years ago, and since Louisa May Alcott’s great-grandparents were my four times great-grandparents, that book has always held a personal meaning for me. I loved the coming-of-age theme and the relationship between the sisters. I also loved how determined the character Jo was and how she refused to fit into the mold of what was expected of women back then.

2. Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas is a middle grade story that offers a fascinating combination of realistic, contemporary issues and imaginative fantasy elements. What are some of your favourite things about writing for this age group and what were some of your greatest challenges?

I love writing for middle graders because those transitional years are still such a magical time in life. During those middle grade years, they are starting to leave childhood behind for adolescence, yet their fragile innocence still lingers. As far as challenges go with writing for that age, I try to remain aware of any issues or scenes that may be too frightening for them. I love writing spooky stories, but I don’t want to give them nightmares!

3. The majority of Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas is set at the Conservatory of Mount Faylinn, a dance academy where both Kiki and her older sister, Alison, are receiving instruction in ballet. Your descriptions of dance and the specific positions Kiki does are detailed and make it easy to understand and visualize the character’s movement. Are you (or were you) a dancer or did you have to do extensive research to express Kiki’s passion for dance as you did? Was it difficult to capture the movement and artistry of dance using the written word?

Since I am a retired dancer, I didn’t have to research that part! My problem was incorporating more detail than was necessary. I had to work on trimming back some parts to make it more accessible for non-dancers.

4. When writing I think it can be tempting to create an idealized protagonist who lacks any real imperfections in an attempt to create a character who’s easy for readers to love. That said, one of the things I loved most about Kiki is that she isn’t perfect. She wears glasses and her poor vision is often an obstacle she has to overcome. In addition to this, despite attending a prestigious dance academy, Kiki isn’t inherently talented and is placed in the most basic classes with dancers far younger and less experienced than herself. She has to work hard and practice to improve, and struggles with feelings of humiliation and jealousy when others surpass her in ability. Why was it important for you to describe Kiki as you did and what are some of your favourite things about her?

I am extremely farsighted and have worn thick glasses ever since first grade. Growing up, I was the only one out of all my friends with poor vision. When I got older, I was able to wear contact lenses, but those early years were difficult for me whenever I participated in physical activities like dancing or swimming. I used to take them off — even though I could barely see anything! A number of years ago when I was teaching dance, I had a sweet little student who wore glasses whose lenses were so scratched, I always wondered how he could even see through them. Every time he practiced his turns, his glasses would fly off his face across the studio!

As far as Kiki’s lack of inherent dance ability, I made the conscious decision to make things harder for her than her sister. In life, we all have different levels of natural abilities, which can sometimes cause jealousy. I think it is an important lesson to learn that if we enjoy doing something, we should keep at it and not give up — even if it seems like an insurmountable struggle at first. Often the ones who work the hardest surpass those who are naturally gifted.

5. While exploring the dense acres of forest that surround the Conservatory, Kiki encounters a number of fascinating creatures including fairies, bad-mannered squirrels, and spirits who lure broken-hearted ballerinas to their deaths. Were there any particular cultural touchstones, myths or legends you consulted or that inspired the world-building in Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas?

The ballerina ghosts in my book are based on an actual ballet called Giselle. The story centers on ghost-sylphs who were jilted on their wedding day and died from broken hearts. Doomed to grieve through eternity, these ballerina ghosts hold a vengeance against all men, and every night at midnight, they rise from their graves and dance in their bridal gowns until dawn.

Giselle has always been one of my favorite ballets, so when I decided to write a children’s book, I brainstormed ways to make it work for middle grade. Of course, I had to embellish it by adding a lot of additional creepy stuff to the original story.

6. Kiki’s new friend, Oliver, teaches Kiki a great deal about the woods that border the Conservatory, including that you need to leave a gift for the faeries that dwell there in order to remain in their good graces and avoid bad luck. Kiki decides to leave chocolate chip cookies, which hold a special meaning to her as they remind her of fond moments shared with her deceased mother. If you were going to leave a gift for the fairies, what would you choose and why?

Definitely chocolate chip cookies also! I am addicted to them and bake them once a week. Like Kiki’s mom, my mother used to make them when I was young, and the scent of them in the oven always transports me back to those wonderful memories.

7. One thing I appreciated about Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas is Kiki and Alison’s awareness of and responsibility about their personal safety. For example, when they first arrive at the Conservatory, they’re met by a man at the train station who explains he’s been sent to drive them to the dance academy. Rather than take his word for it, Alison insists on calling the Conservatory to verify the man’s identity and his employment there before getting in his car. This and similar passages teaches children it’s okay (and even encouraged!) to ask questions when they’re unsure of something, a message I think is particularly important for girls, who are taught from an early age it’s more important to be polite and accommodating than it is to be assertive and trust their instincts. Why was it important to you to include these scenes in the novel and do you have any other helpful advice for young readers?

I think it is so important for children to ask questions and not take anyone at face value. I wanted to emphasize that they should never go anywhere with someone they do not know without first checking. Also, if someone or something makes them uncomfortable, they should never feel they must remain quiet. Children have every right to speak up and ask for help from someone they do know.

8. For me, Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas centres around healing in the wake of loss and the special love and support between Kiki and her older sister, Alison. What do you hope readers will take away from your work?

Yes, you are right; the themes of healing and sibling love do run throughout my story. I wanted young readers to know that even though sisters and brothers may argue, family bonds are usually unbreakable. Most of the time, it is those siblings you can count on in the end. In addition, I hope that readers always hold onto their self-esteem and never give another person the power to steal their dreams away. Those hopes and dreams come from a place deep within your heart, and you should never stop believing in them.

“The forest holds its own rules. Nothing acts the way it should. If you go to the other side, you may come back changed – if you come back at all.”

Eleven-year-old Kiki MacAdoo is excited (and a little nervous) to spend three weeks at the Conservatory of Mount Faylinn, a prestigious ballet academy, with her accomplished sixteen-year-old sister, Alison. After all, Alison got her first pair of pointe shoes when she was twelve, and Kiki hopes that with some extra instruction and improvement, she’ll soon earn a pair of pointe shoes of her very own. As Kiki prepares for their trip, however, it quickly becomes clear that there’s more to the Conservatory than initially meets the eye. From a cryptic warning – “Be aware: Ballets come to life at the Conservatory of Mount Faylinn” – to rumours that a magical forest surrounds the property, Kiki will learn more than how to master a triple pirouette as she, along with her new friend, Oliver, discover the secrets of the Conservatory. But when one of those secrets threatens her sister, Kiki will have to use all of her hope, heart and daring to save Alison from the danger the lurks within the forest and within all of us.

There’s a great deal to love about Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas, beginning with the novel’s bespectacled, eponymous protagonist. It’s clear that Kiki is still processing the loss of her mother, who died prior to the events of this novel, but this never prevents her from caring deeply about those in her life. This is particularly evident in the relationship between Kiki and her older sister, Alison. Alison has done her best to look after Kiki following the death of their mother, but it’s clear this care and concern is mutual. Kiki is particularly worried about Alison’s relationship with Dylan, a boy who monopolizes Alison’s attention and treats her poorly, ignoring her calls and texts and being generally unsupportive. While the malevolent spirits outside the Conservatory whisper to Kiki that “A family’s love isn’t enough – theirs is a love of obligation. Only the romantic love of your true soulmate makes life worth living.”, it’s ultimately the love and sisterly bond the two share that helps Kiki save Alison’s life.

As an individual Kiki is equally compelling. She doesn’t have the same natural ability in dance as her sister and is eventually placed in the most basic classes at the Conservatory with girls younger and less experienced than herself. Kiki struggles to master many of the positions and movements being taught, and as a result feels left out and envious of those who improve at a faster rate and who appear more comfortable and confident. Despite this, Kiki never stops pushing herself and is determined to work hard to correct her mistakes and earn the pointe shoes she dreams of one day obtaining. Moments like these remind readers that you needn’t be perfect at something to enjoy doing it, and that with hard work and practice one can continue to learn and grow.

The world of Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas offers a variety of elements that should appeal to a a broad spectrum of readers. In the novel, Colette Sewall combines contemporary issues like grief and coming-of-age with the fantastical, as Kiki and Oliver discover everything from magical fairies to a mischievous squirrel in the mysterious forest that surrounds the Conservatory. Readers interested in a few scares will also find a lot to love here, as the author is unafraid to delve into what goes bump in the night, as Kiki escapes an open grave and confronts the terrifying ghost sylphs that haunt the graveyard outside the dance academy and hang rotting, black ballet slippers from the Tree of Decayed Dreams. Readers who have a passion for dance will find a friend in Kiki, though those unfamiliar with the pastime will not feel left out or confused. My only wish is that the novel could have been longer or separated into a duology, to allow the author more space to explore these and other aspects of the story in greater detail and at a more leisurely pace.

With Halloween on the horizon, Kiki MacAdoo and the Graveyard Ballerinas would make the perfect choice for middle grade readers eager to get into the spirit of the season. I would happily follow the inquisitive, resilient and caring Kiki MacAdoo on another adventure in the future!

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Hi! I’m Jen! I’m a thirty-something introvert who loves nothing more than the cozy comfort of home and snuggling my two rescue cats, Pepper and Pancakes. I also enjoy running, jigsaw puzzles, baking and everything Disney. Few things bring me more joy than helping a reader find the right book for them!