by Laurence Yep. About 120 pages each. Ages 8 to 12.
Every year, American Girl introduces a new modern-day character. You might have read about Nicki, who loves riding horses, budding archaeologist Jess, boogie-boarding Kailey and gymnast McKenna, to name a few.
This year’s character is Isabelle. She loves to dance. If you share that passion, you probably don’t need another reason to read the three books. But local kids who have no great interest in ballet might be intrigued by something else: For the first time, an American Girl character makes her home in Washington.
Author Laurence Yep helped choose the nation’s capital from a short list of cities American Girl editors were considering.
“My wife and I had been to Washington quite a bit,” said Yep, who lives in Pacific Grove, California. Yep has written dozens of children’s books, but he also writes plays. One was staged at the Kennedy Center several years ago.
“It just seemed like a natural fit,” he said of the location. “The D.C. area has so many possibilities with the museums and the artistic scenes.”
The books include places that are real and those that came from Yep’s imagination.
“Isabelle,” the first book in the series, introduces readers to 10-year-old Isabelle Palmer. She attends the Anna Hart School for the Arts along with her older sister, Jade. The school is not real, nor is it based on one school, Yep said. “But we did our homework checking on performing arts schools in the Washington area,” he said.
Yep also sprinkled the pages with local details.
Isabelle’s family lives in Georgetown and often hops on Metro buses. (The Isabelle doll comes with a pass similar to a SmarTrip card.) Her mom works at the Smithsonian Institution. A family outing to see the water lilies at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Northeast Washington inspires a ballet costume that is central to the story.
“I think kids like having some touch with their lives, but they like you to spin off on things,” he said.
Isabelle’s stories seem like a stretch from Yep’s own life, growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood in the 1950s. But he said that some of the highlights from his elementary school days were performances that he and fellow Boys Club members put on.
“There were some times when things went wrong,” he said. “You just had to get through it.”
Isabelle has to face her own fears that things could go wrong in the school’s Autumn Festival and later in a professional production of “The Nutcracker.”
Yep isn’t a newcomer to the world of dance. He credits his wife of 40 years, author Joanne Ryder, for sparking his interest after taking him many years ago to Lincoln Center, home of the New York City Ballet.
“I was really intrigued by ballet,” Yep said. “I’ve been following it off and on ever since.”
Yep went on to write several books about ballet dancers, beginning with “Ribbons,” the story of a Chinese American girl who dreams of becoming a professional ballerina.
Isabelle, Yep’s latest dancer, doubts that she’s good enough to make a career out of ballet. But she discovers other talents while attending Anna Hart School for the Arts. The self-described outsider from the first book soon realizes she has a gift for helping her classmates. “Isabelle is the one who holds the group together,” Yep said.