IT IS now more than 30 years and 20 books since Angelina Ballerina, wearing her trademark pink tutu and matching ballet slippers took her first dance steps on the road to international celebrity.

Katharine Holabird’s twinkle-toed mouse is an established favourite of young readers all over the world and her adventures have taken her first to the screen and now to the stage. Angelina Ballerina The Mousical, written by Miranda Lawson, is coming to The Haymarket this week as part of its lengthy nationwide tour. Katharine is full of praise for what Miranda has done.

“She has really brought Angelina to life,” she enthuses. “I like the fact that there are no masks and so we can see the performers’ faces. I love the way that Angelina keeps translating into new mediums such as the theatre.”

Angelina Ballerina is a prime example of writers making use of material from what is readily available. The inspiration for the character came from Tara, Katharine’s elder daughter, who showed a boundless enthusiasm for ballet at a very tender age.

“All she wanted was a pink tutu; she was so passionate about it that it was hilarious,” recalls Katharine. “She had this real passion for ballet and took it so seriously that it was utterly captivating. I’d been thinking of writing something for children and my husband introduced me to Helen Craig who had already published a number of illustrated books. We worked together on a couple of projects and then we started to think about developing a children’s character. We’re still working together thirty years later. Our relationship developed organically; one thing simply led to another.”

“We decided to make her a mouse because children think of pet mice as cute and small and cuddly.” continues Katharine. “Angelina expresses emotions very well and it’s useful for a dancer to have a tail, anyway. And from the start Helen drew Angelina with an impish joie de vivre that exactly fitted the character.”

In the way that fictional characters tend to be ageless, Angelina is still hovering between six and seven years old in her creator’s imagination, although her screen incarnation is a year or so older. How would Katharine sum up her personality?

“She’s a bit bossy,” says Katharine.”I’d call her impulsive, emotional and passionate. She has some very sterling qualities. She’s loyal and loving and works hard. Children identify with her because she’s constantly falling down, only to pick herself up and start all over again. She’s very positive.”

Angelina’s enthusiasms sometimes get the better of her, often landing her in scrapes from which she emerges a wiser and much happier mouse. Is there a moral tinge to her escapades?

“I can’t say that I’m consciously trying to preach a message – I’m not offering any life lessons,” replies Katharine. “I was a stay-at-home mother of three and so I was always observing my children and watching their behaviour. Their bodies may have been small but their passions were not. Early childhood is an exciting time but children of that age face incredible challenges. Life for them is one big learning curve and I try to reflect that in the books.”

Katharine, one of four sisters, grew up in an artistic family in Michigan where her literary leanings appear to have been encouraged.

“My father was an architect and my mother had been an actress. From an early age, I always had my nose in a book. I liked all the Oz stories – not just The Wizard of Oz – and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. I had a treasure trove of reading available to me and my grandmother read me Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I particularly loved the idea in these stories that animals could talk and you could have a conversation with them. Unlike Angelina, I went through my ballet phase very quickly and moved on to horses instead.”

Katharine had always nursed a desire to write, even if she took some time to achieve her goal.

“To be a writer was my dream but I came to it in a very interesting if roundabout way. I didn’t know how you became a writer and so I started as a freelance journalist instead. Since I have always been interested in young children, I couldn’t ask for anything more suitable than writing about them.”

Angelina’s screen adventures include other forms of dancing, as does the stage show. In The Mousical’s finale we see Angelina and her friends strut their stuff in routines embracing ballet, hip-hop, salsa and tap, showing how diverse dancing can be. Why did Katharine choose classical ballet as the world Angelina would inhabit - as opposed, say, to musical theatre or modern dance?

“Initially I think that it was because my daughters went to a little ballet school,” says Katharine. “I also believe that ballet is good for young children in that it teaches them poise and builds their self-confidence. It’s also about encouraging self-discipline. Angelina has to show up at a certain time and she has to be ready to give her all.”

After living for many years in London, Katharine has now settled in New York while illustrator Helen Craig is based in East Anglia. How has their working routine adjusted to the geographical distance between them?

“We talk on the ‘phone quite often,” Katharine reveals. “I have something percolating in my imagination at the moment and it’s good to discuss things with Helen and get her feedback. She’ll show me a mock-up at a very early stage and she is such a huge perfectionist that she’ll spend nine months working on an Angelina book. We totally trust each other: it is very much a partnership.”

As Katharine makes clear “I’m really writing about little girls” rather than dancing mice but few children’s authors would wish to exclude 50% of the population from their readership and Katharine is no exception. Step forward Marco and AJ, the hip-hop dancing mouselings who are part of Angelina’s gang on television and who now feature in Angelina Ballerina The Mousical. How do boys fit into Angelina’s world?

“I have a four-year-old grandson who is very much a little boy but when he was younger, he was fascinated by the relationship between Angelina and her Little Cousin Henry, who is always tagging along behind the girls. And of course there are male dancers who are very athletic and who have to be physically very strong to lift their partners. I’d say the target readership is mainly girls and is aged between three and eight years old. I feel very close to Angelina at this stage of her childhood and I just love creating situations for her and her friends and family. And if I’m enjoying the writing, I hope that the readers will feel the same.”

To be the model for a famous character in children’s fiction can be a mixed blessing. Such people often feel preserved in the aspic of their early childhood and not allowed to grow up. Katharine’s children seem to be making the most of it, however.

“My daughter, who’s now thirty, is quite comfortable with the fact that she inspired Angelina Ballerina, “reports Katharine. “She is a dress designer in Los Angeles and she still has all the Angelina qualities. As for my son, who is now 6’4”, he gave me the idea for Little Cousin Henry in the way he used to trip up his sisters. He tells me that the connection has been great for his social life. All the girls he meets have read the Angelina Ballerina books and when he tells them that he was the inspiration for Little Cousin Henry, they are completely hooked!”

By Al Senter

*Angelina Ballerina is playing at The Anvil from Fri 13 – Sun 15 June. Box Office: 01256 844244