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When I told a friend the premise of my latest book, Finding Yvonne, which is a look into the life of a teenage violinist, she said, “Oh, I love that you incorporate the arts into your books!”
The arts have been a big part of my own life since a young age. I’ve always been an avid reader, and I started writing my own stories when I was seven years old. That same year, I began taking tap-dancing lessons at the local community center and soon transferred to a performing-arts studio, where I spent several evenings a week and every Saturday morning tapping my heart out. When I was in fifth grade, my parents encouraged me to take up an instrument, and they didn’t balk when I gave up on the clarinet in ninth grade and joined the school dance team instead.
As a black kid in a very white town, I felt at once invisible and all too visible, and the arts allowed me to express myself in a way that few other outlets provided. Dancing onstage, or even on the court of my high school’s sweat-soaked gym during halftime, felt like magic: it allowed me to show my love for dance and to be seen for my talent, rather than being singled out because of my physical and cultural differences. Drawing readers into a story feels magical, too, and writing about teens who know that singular feeling of expressing yourself through art is a dream.
One of my favorite books growing up was a novel called Just like Jenny, by Sandy Asher, who was also a local author from my hometown. It was about a girl who loved ballet, and I read it over and over, even though I was a tapper and didn’t particularly like the couple of ballet classes I’d taken. I connected with the love of dance, but like all of the books I read back then, the characters were white.
My first novel, Pointe, is a “ballet book,” and though it’s about so much more than that, I’ll forever be proud that I was able to write about a black ballet dancer when we still desperately need that representation in the real world. Yvonne, from my third book, is a longtime violinist, and though she’s lost her passion for the instrument, she realizes how difficult it is to give up her relationship with music, which has served as a companion for many years.
I don’t write these stories to prove that black kids belong in the arts—I write to show that they’re already there. I’m grateful for books like Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, which is told from the perspective of Jade, a budding collage artist; and When the Black Girl Sings, by Bil Wright, about a girl who finds solace in song; and A La Carte, by Tanita S. Davis, which follows a young girl who dreams of being a chef (and, yes, I think the culinary arts count).
There are more, but the list of books about artistic black teens, especially written by black authors, is short. I hope to see more novels about various teens of color involved in creative pursuits; the arts provide confidence, a means of expression, and an escape from a world that’s not always easy to live in as part of a marginalized community.
Unlike Yvonne and her complicated relationship with the violin, I never lost my love for tap dancing. After eight years, I reluctantly stopped taking regular lessons when my schedule became too busy with school, the dance team, and a part-time job. Though I don’t get to dance as often as I’d like to now, I fall back into it easily as soon as I step into a studio, and my tap shoes have a permanent space on my shoe rack.
Dance filled me with a love of performing and gave me the confidence to put my talents front and center. I’m thankful to the arts for giving me the chance to be seen in exactly the way I want to, and I’m even more grateful to be able to write about that experience from the lens of teens who look like me.
Brandy Colbert is the author of Pointe, the Stonewall Award–winning Little & Lion and, most recently, Finding Yvonne.
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