A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey


A Dance Like Starlight:  One Ballerina’s Dream

by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

This book has not left my office since I first brought it home. It’s especially nice to have around when I’m struggling with an idea, a sentence, a story.

I love the elegant language, the poignant art, and the beautiful way the two come together to create this picture book masterpiece. Most importantly, I love that this book makes me feel.

It gives me a sense of hope. It pushes me to try harder. It reminds me to dream.

In A Dance Like Starlight, a young, African American girl from the 1950’s era longs to be a ballerina. She swoops in and takes hold of the reader from the opening two-page spread.

adancelikestarlight.opening spread

Stars hardly shine in the New York City sky, / with the factories spilling out / pillars of smoke / and streetlights spreading / bright halos round their pin-top faces. / It makes it hard to find a star, / even harder to make a wish, / the one wish that / if I could just breathe it out loud / to the first star of night, / I might be able to believe it true.

Today, I am honored to have Kristy Dempsey, author of A Dance Like Starlight, join us at Picture Book Builders.

Kristy, what was the initial spark for this book?

I read a two-line anecdote in a newspaper article about the wife of a Pullman porter going to see Janet Collins dance at the Metropolitan Opera. Those two-lines moved me into further research and I found out that Janet Collin’s performance was widely publicized in advance. And I began to imagine who might have been there to see her dance. But the real initial spark for this story happened when I was 7 or 8 years old and I went to a concert and dreamed of becoming a singer. I used that feeling, that emotion to connect to the desire this little girl has to dance.

What sort of research was involved in creating this fictionalized account of an actual event?

I read newspaper articles published about Janet Collins. I read reviews of the opera, in which she received more accolades for her short performance than the singers! I contacted the archivist at the Met to ask questions about the old Met building and the process of Janet’s hiring. I wanted the details of the time period to be accurate even though the little girl telling the story is fictional.

This book is a wonderful example of voice. Do you have any advice you can share about effectively establishing voice in a picture book? 

Brainstorm a list of descriptive words or phrases you want to include in your story before you begin. For this story, I thought about the setting and the visual aspects that I could describe. Then I thought about how a young girl might describe them. And I began making a list: “pintop faces”, “faded mirror”, etc. I didn’t use all the phrases, of course, but it put me into the head of my narrator.

Congratulations on winning the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for A Dance Like Starlight. Please tell us what it was like when you received The Call.

This was such a shock! I walked in the door from work and my husband played a phone message for me from Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser, asking me to call them. When I reached them, they began telling me about the Golden Kite award and I started to cry! In between tears, I told them how much SCBWI has meant to me over the past ten years and thanked them for starting this association that has connected me to other writers while I’ve lived out of the country. In many ways, SCBWI has been my lifeline. I am still just so humbled and honored to be recognized by this esteemed organization.

I imagine you must have felt a little like this:


What’s your favorite picture book no one else seems to have heard of?

I adore Phileas’s Fortune by Agnes de Lestrade, published by Magination Press. It’s about words and the weight they carry, but it’s such a super joyful story. I am bouyed each time I read it.

Who is your hero?

My mama, who gives and gives and gives of herself, and in the process has given up some of her own dreams. I dedicated A Dance Like Starlight to her: “To my mama, who dreamed every dream I ever had right along with me.”

What’s your morning elixir?

Coffee with milk, no sugar. 2 cups.

How much change is in the bottom of your purse?

$1.47 in US pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. And R$3.28 in Brazilian money.

What’s next for you?

I have two picture books coming out in 2016 that I am over the moon about: Superhero Instruction Manual (Knopf), illustrated by Mark Fearing, and A Hop is Up (Bloomsbury), illustrated by Lori Richmond.

Thank you so much for visiting Picture Book Builders, Kristy. We can’t wait for 2016!


Tammi Sauer

Tammi Sauer, a former teacher and library media specialist, is a full-time children's book author who presents at schools and conferences across the country. She has more than 30 published picture books and has many others on the way. Her books have received awards, earned starred reviews, made lists, been made into musicals, and been translated into many different languages. Most importantly, kids really like her books! To learn more about Tammi and her books, please visit tammisauer.com and follow her on Twitter at @SauerTammi.


  1. THANK YOU, Tammi, for bringing this interview to PBB. The first time I read this book, I had to hug it to my heart. Kristy, anybody who reads (savors) A Dance Like Starlight will see that you did, indeed, grow up to sing.

  2. What a beautiful book! Thanks for sharing this interview with Kristy, Tammi.

  3. I adore this book too! It reminds me that it is okay to use long sentences and lyrical language in picture books.

  4. Kathy Mazurowski

    This book just went on my list! Thank you.

  5. Wonderful interview! Looking forward to reading the book.

  6. Great to delve into the process and germination of the story!

  7. Great post, terrific interview, can’t wait to read this book! Thank you, Tammi and Kristy!

  8. The book is a gem, and this interview made me feel good, Tammi & Kristy. I just saw a 60 Minutes piece on Misty Copeland and this picture book was the first thing I thought of while it aired.

  9. What a gorgeous, gorgeous opening, Kristy. Love that you used your childhood singing dreams as inspiration. Congratulations on the success of this book — which happily is available on Amazon Italy and is now in my shopping cart! 🙂

  10. It is a lovely book indeed, and the perfect blend of lyrical voice and lyrical imagery!

    Congrats on the award, Kristy, and thanks for the great interview, Tammi!

  11. I haven’t read this book yet, but will difinitely check it out. Thanks.

  12. Thanks for the interview with Kristy, Tammi. Have saved for future reference and inspiration.

  13. Wonderful interview. Thanks, Tammi, and congratulations, Kristy! The book looks gorgeous–I’ve got it on my library list.

  14. I have to check out A Dance Like Starlight soon!

  15. Loved the idea of brainstorming for voice. Fantastic interview!

  16. I adore this book (and this author!) too! I read the manuscript back in the early days and knew then that it was extra special. I read it to my kids when I brought it home and couldn’t get through it without choking up. It just gets me, ya know? 😉

    I love your advice about establishing voice, Kristy. I’m going to try that!

  17. This is one that I am going to hunt for. Enjoyed “listening” to your conversation with Kristy.

  18. Great interview! I love hearing about the background of books. Going on the to read list!

  19. Wonderful interview AND book! 🙂

  20. I checked out this marvelous book from my library, and after reading it, went out and bought it to add to my picture book collection. What a true treasure.

  21. Congratulations, Kristy! What a wonderful honor and it’s an honor to know you.

  22. Great interview! The language you shared is beautiful. I can’t wait to read the entire book. I have it on hold at my library. Yay!

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