In my book, A Dancer’s Dream, one of Stana’s favourite Christmas traditions is eating gingerbread angels, and drinking tea with jam. If you’d like to have a go at recreating this treat – for yourself, or to share with family and friends – here’s how:
This recipe is based on Felicity Cloake’s gingerbread biscuit recipe, which is a big favourite in our house.? If you don’t have an angel shaped biscuit-cutter, you could make snowflakes, stars, Christmas trees or any other festive shapes.
- Put 225g softened unsalted butter in a bowl, and beat with a wooden spoon
- Add 340g of soft brown sugar and beat again
- Add one beaten egg to the mixture. Continue to beat gently (don’t worry if it begins to curdle – just add in a little plain flour)
- Mix 340g plain flour, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, 2 tsp ground cinnamon, 3 tsp ground ginger and 2 tsp mixed spice in a separate bowl, and then add to the butter, sugar and egg mixture
- Stir until the mixture comes together in a smooth dough
- Spread out some clingfilm on your work surface, and put the gingerbread dough on top. Cover it with another piece of clingfilm, then roll flat with a rolling pin until the dough is about 3mm thick
- Transfer your dough onto a chopping board and pop it into the fridge for 30 minutes
- Heat your oven to 190 C and lightly grease your baking sheet(s)
- Take out the dough, remove the top layer of clingfilm and use an angel-shaped biscuit cutter to cut out your biscuits
- Arrange your biscuits carefully on the baking sheet, remembering to leave space between them, as they will spread when they are in the oven
- Bake for 10 minutes or until lightly browned, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool
I like to eat my gingerbread angels just as they are, but you can also decorate them with white icing if you prefer.
Russian tea with jam
To accompany your gingerbread angels, try this traditional Russian way of drinking tea. You can use any loose-leaf black tea you like, but I like this Russian Caravan blend from my local tea/coffee producers Atkinsons.
- Boil some water in your kettle. Put a small amount of hot water into the bottom of your teapot to warm it, then discard.
- Put some loose tea-leaves into the teapot – use 1 heaped teaspoon per cup, plus an extra spoonful ‘for the pot’.
- Add 2-3 tablespoons of berry jam to the pot – try strawberry, cherry, raspberry or blackcurrant.
- Leave the tea to brew for around 5 minutes, allowing the flavours to develop
- Using a tea-strainer, pour the tea into your cups. You can serve some jam in a little dish alongside your tea in case anyone would like to add another spoonful to their cup.
Drink and enjoy with a gingerbread angel on the side – perhaps while listening to the music of Tchiakovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, or leafing through your copy of A Dancer’s Dream?
(The picture below is from my own trip to St Petersburg a couple of years ago, when I was researching Spies in St Petersburg. Many Russian treats were sampled as part of the research process!)
Self Portrait in a Straw Hat by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun
My third book for Barrington Stoke’s super-readable Little Gems series is Elisabeth and the Box of Colours. Like the other two books I have written for Barrington Stoke, it is inspired by a real-life character from history – in this case, the French artist élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, who was born in Paris in 1755.
élisabeth loved drawing from a very early age: she described herself as having ‘an inborn passion for art’. She went away to a convent boarding school aged 6, and while there, she often found herself in trouble for drawing. In her memoirs, she wrote:
During that time I scrawled on everything at all seasons; my copy-books, and even my schoolmates’, I decorated with marginal drawings of heads, some full-face, others in profile; on the walls of the dormitory I drew faces and landscapes with coloured chalks. So it may easily be imagined how often I was condemned to bread and water. I made use of my leisure moments outdoors in tracing any figures on the ground that happened to come into my head.
Her father, Louis Vigée, was an artist and encouraged élisabeth’s love of drawing. Seeing a drawing she had made at the age of only seven or eight years old, he reportedly exclaimed: ‘You will be a painter, child, if ever there was one!’
My story takes particular inspiration from élisabeth’s childhood, including her close relationship with her father. I have made a few changes to élisabeth’s real story: in my version, Louis dies when élisabeth is away at school, whereas in real life, he died around a year after she left school, when she was 12 years old. However, just like in my story, her sadness and grief affected her very deeply, leaving her unable to draw for a while. ‘So heartbroken was I that it was long before I felt able to take to my crayons again’ she wrote later. But after a little time, she returned to making art, as a way to help herself cope with her ‘sad thoughts’.
With help and encouragement from her father’s friends, élisabeth continued to pursue a career as an artist. She set up her own studio by the age of 15, by which time she was painting portraits professionally. Although she was young and had no formal training, she quickly became very successful. She painted many of the most important people in Paris, and even became one of the very few female members of the French Royal Academy.
In 1778, she was invited to the Palace of Versailles to paint Queen Marie Antoinette. She soon became one of the queen’s favourite painters, as well as her friend. In total, she painted over 30 portraits of the queen, including many of the images of her that are the most familiar and recognisable to us today. Among these were an image of Marie Antoinette in a straw hat and a plain white muslin dress (1783) – which has become probably the most famous image of the French queen. At the time, the portrait was considered highly controversial because of the informal, simple style in which the queen was dressed: she was criticised for appearing in a public portait ‘wearing a chambermaid’s dust cloth’ and even accused of mocking the dignity of the French throne.
Another of élisabeth’s most famous paintings of the queen was Marie Antoinette and Her Children (1787) which showed the queen at home at the Palace of Versailles surrounded by her children. The painting was intended to help improve the queen’s image, by making her seem more relatable to ordinary people, and show her in a sympathetic light.
But in spite of such efforts, just two years later, Queen Marie Antoinette and the rest of the royal family were arrested during the French Revolution. élisabeth and her daughter Julie escaped from Paris, and travelled around Europe, living in Italy, Russia and Germany. élisabeth continued to work as a portrait artist, painting many of Europe’s most important people, as well as painting landscapes and history scenes. Today, her work can be found in art galleries and museums all over the world.
Towards the end of her life, élisabeth returned to France, and when she was in her 80s she published her memoirs (Souveniers). It was the intriguing and vivid recollections from her childhood that are included in the first part of these memoirs which helped to inform my story, Elisabeth and the Box of Colours. Here’s a little more about my version of élisabeth’s story, which has been gorgeously illustrated by Rebecca Cobb.
Elisabeth loves to paint, just like her papa. She spends hours making her own pictures of everything she sees – and the more colourful, the better!
But when she goes away to school, she finds herself in a world of grey: grey buildings, grey uniforms, grey rooms. She misses Papa and all the colours of home. And one winter morning, she gets some terrible news that makes her days darker than ever before. Will Elisabeth be able to find the colour and joy in her life again?
‘A small, elegant triumph’ – The Times, Children’s Book of the Week
‘Beautifully told in spare, resonant words… A transporting little tale’ – The Guardian
?‘Absolutely gorgeous. Pure, wondrous joy … What an inspiring gem of a book’ – author Liz Hyder
?A ‘modern-day Madeline… offering hope and encouragment’ – The Times, Ten Brilliant New Children’s Books to Enjoy on World Book Day
Buy it now from Waterstones, Bookshop.org.uk or Amazon
Find out more about the real stories that helped to inspire my other books for the Little Gems series – Rose’s Dress of Dreams and Sophie Takes to the Sky
Check out my list of more brilliant children’s books about art and artists
I’m delighted to share the news that the fourth and final Taylor & Rose Secret Agents book has now been announced! NIGHTFALL IN NEW YORK illustrated by?Karl James Mountford will be published on 8th July 2021.
This will be the eighth full length book about Sophie and Lil and it’s strange to think that it’s almost time to bring their adventures to an end. But I feel like this is the right time to bid them a fond farewell – and what better place to end the series than New York City?
I think I say this every single time but I really think this absolutely stunning cover is my favourite yet. Considering I was still writing the first draft of the book when Karl was working on it, I’m amazed by how brilliantly he’s managed to create a perfect cover for Sophie and Lil’s last adventure together…
I know lots of readers are eagerly waiting for this final book, and you can pre-order your copy now from Waterstones. Stay tuned to find out more about Nightfall in New York soon!
After being published last month, it’s been so lovely to see A Dancer’s Dream being read and enjoyed. Today I thought I’d share some of the story behind this book, which actually began its life as a short story with a different title — Casse-Noisette, or otherwise, ‘The Nutcracker’.
This story, which first appeared in the anthology Winter Magic, took inspiration from Tchaikovsky’s much-loved ballet ‘The Nutcracker’ which itself has a complex backstory. The ballet which we all know today was originally inspired by a story called ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’ written by the German writer ETA Hoffman in 1816, which had subsequently been adapted by the French writer Alexandre Dumas in 1844 as ‘Histoire d’un casse-noisette’. A Russian doll-within-Russian-doll of inspirations, if you will!
The idea of writing about ‘The Nutcracker’ first came to me when I was asked to write a story for Abi Elphinstone’s anthology Winter Magic?which was being published by Simon & Schuster. This new collection would bring together a host of wintery, festive stories, glittering with snowy and frosty magic. I knew at once that I wanted my story to be historical, and my first idea was that I might write about the frost-fairs that used to take place on the River Thames, back when winters were so cold that the whole river would freeze completely solid, and fairs would take place out on the ice. But when I mentioned this to the team at Simon & Schuster, they told me that another writer (the brilliant Emma Carroll) was already working on a frost-fair story! So it was back to the drawing board…
I began thinking about my favourite things about winter and Christmastime. There were lots of possibilities, but one tradition that I immediately thought of was going to the pantomime, the ballet, or the theatre, which we always did at Christmas when I was growing up. I especially loved ballet, so seeing ‘The Nutcracker’ was a particular festive treat – for me, the spellbinding story of Clara’s adventure on Christmas Eve, complete with its ballets of snowflakes and dancing sweets, really did seem to capture all the magic of this time of year.
I decided to find out a little more about the history of the ballet, and its origins. In particular, I began reading about the very first performance of ‘The Nutcracker’ which took place just before Christmas in 1892, in the famous Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia. Immediately, I became very interested – because there were some surprising things to discover. Considering it’s now one of the most famous and beloved ballets in the world, ‘The Nutcracker’ didn’t actually get off to a very promising start.
For one thing, Tchaikovsky wasn’t initially very keen on writing a ballet based on the Nutcracker story. It was the choreographer, Petipa, who was set on the choice of the subject matter, and who devised a synopsis. Reluctantly, Tchiakovksy set to work, but then tragedy struck when he heard the news of the death of his beloved sister, Sasha. ‘Today… I feel the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the “Sugarplum Fairy,”‘ Tchiakovsky wrote. In spite of his grief and sadness, he continued to work, perhaps even putting something of his lost sister into the character of Clara, and weaving in his own memories of childhood family Christmases.
Konstantin Ivanov’s original sketch for the set of The Nutcracker
Meanwhile, as rehearsals for the new ballet began, choreographer Petipa also experienced a tragedy when his 15-year-old daughter Evgenia died of cancer. Shortly afterwards he fell ill himself, forcing him to take leave for the rest of the season. His assistant had to step in and take charge of ‘The Nutcracker’ in his place.
Finally, when the ballet was at last performed for an audience including the Tsar of Russia, the reviews were mixed. ‘The Nutcracker’ was not immediately popular, and even got some negative responses from critics. Some of the dancers were criticised, others felt it was merely a ‘spectacle’ rather than a true ballet. It wasn’t until some years later that it grew in popularity, before eventually becoming the favourite Christmas ballet we know today.
Lydia Rubtsova, Stanislava Belinskaya and Vassily Stukolkin in the original production of The Nutcracker
One of the other things that caught my attention about this first staging of ‘The Nutcracker’ is that lots of the parts in the ballet were played by child dancers – including the lead roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, which were played by pupils from the Imperial Ballet School. Children performing in ballet productions was not new – Petipa had included children’s dances in almost all of his ballets. However, it was very unusual to cast young dancers in leading roles. Clara, the girl at the centre of the story was played by a young dancer called Stanislava Belinskaya, who was just 12 years old at the time.
I was immediately interested in Stanislava. She was the first to play this incredibly famous and important role – and yet we know little about her. After this moment in the spotlight, she seems to fade away from dance history. Interestingly, one of her friends and classmates who?wasn’t chosen to dance in the first production of ‘The Nutcracker’ went on to become one of the most famous dancers of all the time – the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova.
Thinking about Stanislava (or ‘Stana’ as I decided to call her, which is the shortened form of her name) – and her classmate Anna – and what life might have been like for them at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg at the end of the 19th century – soon sparked my imagination. I wanted to explore some of my favourite things about The Nutcracker ballet – the magical dream sequences, the cosy scenes of a family celebrating together at Christmas-time – and weave them together with some of the real history, including Tchiakovsky’s story. I imagined a home and a family for Stana – including her own beloved sister who was unwell – as well as trying to conjur up how it might have felt for her as a young dancer to step out onto the grand stage and perform in such an important role.
The finished story was first published in Winter Magic and a little while later, the team at Simon & Schuster said they’d like to turn it into an illustrated book (following on from Abi Elphinstone’s?story ‘The Snow Dragon’ which had already been transformed into a gorgeous illustrated story with artwork by Fiona Woodcock. I was especially thrilled to hear they’d asked one of my very favourite illustrators, Lizzy Stewart, to illustrate it.
It was amazing to see the story turned into the beautiful A Dancer’s Dream. Lizzy’s artwork perfectly brings to life snowy St Petersburg and the glittering Mariinsky Theatre. What a joy!
Check out my Pinterest board? if you’d like to see some more images that helped to inspire this story
Or if you like ballet stories, check out my list of ballet-inspired children’s books over on Bookshop.org
In snow- covered St. Petersberg, young dancer Stana’s dreams have finally come true – she has been chosen to play the lead role in Tchaikovsky’s new ballet, The Nutcracker. But with all eyes on her, can Stana overcome her nerves and dance like she’s never danced before…?
Illustrated by Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize winner, Lizzy Stewart, this sumptuous and magical retelling of The Nutcracker will transport you on a journey far beyond the page.
Buy it now from Waterstones | The Hive | Amazon
Here in England we’ve just entered a second lockdown, with all non-essential shops (including bookshops) closed. But in the approach to Christmas, it’s more important than ever that we keep supporting our wonderful bookshops, if we want to keep them on our high streets!
If you’re in need of lockdown reading material – or if you have Christmas presents to buy – then make sure you check out Waterstones.com (with local shops offering a click and collect service, as well as delivery by post) or your local independent bookshops, most of which will offer books for delivery or collection. (Not sure if you have any independent bookshops locally? Check this list to find your nearest).
You can also now buy books via the brand new uk.bookshop.org which is a socially-conscious alternative to Amazon. It’s a good way to buy books online while helping to support independent bookshops – there are discounts, and books are sent directly to your door, but 10% from every sale goes to independent bookshops.
Even better if you buy directly from an indie’s page they’ll get 30% from the sale – and with bookshops closed for browsing, it’s a wonderful way to find book recommendations. Check out Storytellers Inc, Roundtable Books, Sevenoaks Bookshop or Tales on Moon Lane for some lovely examples. You can also visit my page, where you can find links to all my books.
If you’d like to do more to support independent bookshops (and pick up some very special Christmas treats!) you should also check out #SignForOurBookshops, a new campaign to help bookshops during November.
Instigated by the brilliant Holly Bourne, lots of authors and illustrators are offering signed and personalised bookplates if you buy from a local bookshop. Lizzy Stewart and I are pleased to be offering signed bookplates for copies of our new book A Dancer’s Dream – get yours if you order the book from any of these bookshops (first come, first served!)
(If any other bookshops would like some signed bookplates please do contact me and let me know!)