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Monday, March 29, 2010

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: Robin Preiss Glasser, Ballet Dancer and Award-Winning Children's Book Illustrator

Robin Preiss Glasser has had two successful careers, the first as a ballet dancer and the second as an award-winning children’s book illustrator.  With more than three dozen books to her credit, Robin is best known as the illustrator of Fancy Nancy, the “more is always better” heroine of the New York Times best-selling series with author Jane O’Connor.   Whom You Know highly recommends all of the Fancy Nancy books which you will find in the Petite Peachy column.

Robin studied ballet at Balanchine’s The School of American Ballet and was asked to join the scholarship program at the American Ballet Theatre school (now known as the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School) while finishing high school at the Professional Children’s School in New York City. Upon graduation, Robin danced abroad for a year, returning to the States when Benjamin Harkarvy invited her to join the Pennsylvania Ballet.  Throughout the 11 years Robin performed and toured as a dancer, she continued to study drawing, a talent at which she excelled from an early age.  Like a professional athlete, a ballet dancer’s career is rarely long-lasting.  When a back injury forced Robin to quit, she took her stacks of sketchbooks -- filled over the years while the dance company was not in rehearsal or touring -- to Parsons The New School for Design in New York.  Hoping for admission at the ripe old age of 30, Robin was offered a full scholarship, and she proudly received her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in 1990. 

It is the years Robin spent studying dance that infused her illustration style with movement and joy.  Drawing the body in motion came very naturally to Robin and the exaggerated movement and expression a dancer needs to tell a story without words has also been a lesson that translated well to Robin’s second career.  Her first publishing job was to imitate the style of Ray Cruz, who could no longer continue drawing Judith Viorst’s beloved Alexander character in the wildly successful children’s book series.  Robin went on to do two more books with Ms. Viorst: You’re Officially a Grown-Up, and Super Completely and Totally the Messiest

She received an ALA Notable Book Award for You Can’t Take a Balloon into The Metropolitan Museum, followed by two more books in this series created with her sister, author Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman. These wordless books display Robin’s signature humor and clever ability for controlling chaos on the page as the reader follows two parallel stories – that of a runaway balloon flying around a city and the mirrored images of real paintings and sculpture that the balloon’s owner is viewing inside a museum.  The “Met book” has been sold in the museum’s book store for almost a dozen years and children continue to explore New York using the book as a guide, following the journey of the runaway balloon!  

It was that first balloon book that brought Robin to the attention of the former vice president’s wife, Lynne Cheney, as she was searching for an illustrator for what was to become her first children’s book.  America, A Patriotic Primer, published in May 2002, stayed on the New York Times Best Seller List for six months. A second book by the team, A is for Abigail, followed in 2003 to critical success and another long run on the New York Times Best Seller List.  Robin illustrated a third book with Mrs. Cheney, Our 50 States, and together these three titles sold more than 1 million copies.   

Robin has always created characters based on people in her life, and her next book Daddy’s Girl, by beloved radio star Garrison Keillor, is no exception.  The sweet, Manhattan-savvy little girl in the four story-songs that make up this picture book is based on her curly-headed nephew Alex, who willingly posed for the many photographs on which Robin could model the little girl. 

Robin received the manuscript for Fancy Nancy back in 2002, but was already committed to the trilogy of history books with Lynne Chenney.  Luckily Margaret Anastas, Robin’s brilliant editor at HarperCollins, and author Jane O’Connor, agreed to wait for Robin’s schedule to free up.  While it took Robin two years to research and draw all the intricate illustrations in Our 50 States, creatingFancy Nancy was a snap.  In fact, the iconic image of Nancy on the cover of the first book in the series was Robin’s very first drawing of the fancy girl, which Robin created as a simple character study when the manuscript was first sent over.  Robin used as her inspiration her now-grown niece, a Vassar graduate, who, as the dedication of the first book explains, “herself wore rhinestones to Pre-K.”  

Fancy Nancy stayed on the New York Times Best Seller List for 99 weeks -- to be joined by Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy, Fancy Nancy: Bonjour Butterfly, Fancy Nancy: Explorer Extraordinaire, and Fancy Nancy: Splendiferous Christmas –  all together 206 weeks on the prestigious best seller list.  The first Fancy Nancy has been translated into 18 languages, including Hungarian and Hebrew.  More than 20 Fancy Nancy titles are in print with over 10 million copies sold.  Soon after the first book came out, the Fancy Nancy ™ brand was picked up by a major licensing company, United Media.  Within three years’ time, more than 30 licensees have signed on including dolls, toys, accessories, bed linens, clothes, party goods and toiletries.  The dolls alone range in size from a giant 29” Madame Alexander cloth doll to the 4” sculpted plastic Nancy doll that Jakks Pacific created to go along with her very own bedroom set and ballet studio.    
The Fancy Nancy creators have also signed with Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in Hollywood to explore Nancy’s entrĂ©e into other media and an announcement of a deal is in the offing.   

Robin lives in Irvine, California, with husband, attorney Robert Berman, two teens, Sasha and Benjamin, and dog Boo.  She is a frequent visitor to New York City, staying in her parents’ Upper West Side apartment across the street from the apartment building she drew for Garrison Keillor’s Daddy’s Girl. We are so pleased to present Robin Preiss Glasser as our latest Mover and Shaker!

Peachy Deegan interviewed Robin Preiss Glasser for Whom You Know.

Peachy Deegan: What did you like to draw as a child?
Robin Preiss Glasser: When I was a child, my whole family was always doing craft projects or decorating cookies or visiting museums, so doing "art"  was like eating or breathing to me.  When we'd go to Amagansett in the summers, my mom would bring plaster for sandcasting. I sewed felt doll clothes for my troll dolls.   I drew all the time and especially liked making paper dolls for my sisters.  I even have the first children's book I illustrated -- I was probably 9 or 10 years old..

Do you still dance in any capacity?
I'm afraid the characters I illustrate have to "dance" for me.  I ended my dance career when I was spending more time injured than performing. 

What kind of art do you enjoy doing in leisure time  now?
have no leisure time!  I'm getting out 11 books a year now, as well as working on all the licensing for Fancy Nancy,  I have two teenagers,  a husband, and a very needy dog….need I say more?

Do you have any plans to work with your sister again, and is she related to the shoes?
My sister Jacqueline has a new book coming out next year from Simon & Schuster, illustrated by the wonderful illustrator who did the book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Ron Barrett. And I’m tied up with Fancy Nancy products and contracts through 2013.   She's not related to "the shoes"...although we all love them!

Which book have you enjoyed illustrating the most and why?
Truly, whatever book I'm working on at the moment is my favorite.  I love my work!

What was it like to work with Lynne Cheney? (We are super patriotic!)
Absolutely amazing.  Because I was a professional ballet dancer from the age of 16, I always felt that I didn’t have a proper education. I credit the seven years creating three heavily-researched history books with Lynne Cheney as my college education. She was incredible to work with and allowed me to be collaborative, which isn’t always the case with authors. She has a great sense of humor and she is one of the smartest women I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. It was a joy in every way.

When are we going to see Fancy Nancy do ballet?  Fancy Nancy Dancing rhymes...
 Jane O’Connor is the author of the series and all ideas in all of the stories start with her, but I’m sure that drama queen Nancy has something theatrical in her future.
There have, however, been some actual Fancy Nancy ballets -- my Pennsylvania Ballet friend, the talented Mary LeGere, choreographed a Bonjour, Butterfly ballet on her Raleigh Dance Theatre and revised it for the Metropolitan Ballet Company outside Philadelphia, and the Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet of Ohio is bringing their production to Symphony  Space here in New York City in May.

Peachy would love to meet Fancy Nancy in a book all about fun things to do in Manhattan.  What book ideas do you have upcoming?
Nancy lives in suburban America somewhere. I always think New Jersey, Jane always thinks Ohio.  A trip to New York would be lots of fun for Nancy and I’m sure she’s begging her parents all the time to go there.

What or who has had the most influence on your pursuit of excellence?
Both my parents supported my dreams of becoming a ballet dancer and encouraged me in every way possible through my career transition.  Everyone in my family works hard at being the best they can be and doing the best job they can -- whether in school, at work, or at play (our Scrabble games are pretty intense!).

What are you proudest of and why?
Having been able to make a living in the arts my whole life feels like a real accomplishment.

What would you like to do professionally that you have not yet had the opportunity to do?
If the question were of opportunity, then I would say: working on a live action film of Fancy Nancy or a musical would be great fun!  But if you want to know what I wish I had the talent for,  it would be that I would have loved to be a Broadway musical star! 

What honors and awards have you received in your profession?
My first book with my sister Jacqueline, You Can't Take a Balloon into The Metroplitan Museum, was named an ALA Notable Book.  In 2007, Jane and I won a “Cuffie” for Best Sequel for Fancy Nancy and the Posh Puppy. I’ve been named a finalist as “Illustrator of the Year” for the third year in a row in the Children’s Choice Book Awards (You can vote for me at and editors also named  Fancy Nancy: Bonjour Butterfly #1 in their Top 10 Picture Books of 2008. And the Fancy Nancy series has been #1 on various bestsellers lists for children’s books,  spending 209 weeks and counting on the New York Times Best Seller List.

What is your favorite place to be in Manhattan?
At a Broadway show.

What is your favorite shop in Manhattan?
Bloomingdale's, because when I was a little girl living in Poughkeepsie, my mother would take my sisters and me into the city. We’d go to the Metropolitan Museum, have a hotdog from a cart outside, then go to Bloomingdale's to see the designer rooms, before heading next door to Alexander’s to do our real and affordable shopping.  So Bloomingdale's today is still my favorite store…maybe because of the nostalgia, or maybe because now I can afford to do my real shopping there!

What is your favorite drink?
My latest favorite is something I recently had on tour in San Francisco in a French restaurant, called a French Tart. The ingredients were lemonade, peach liquor, vodka and lots of ice.  Refreshing, tart and sweet, plus it made me smile when I ordered it.

 What is your favorite restaurant in Manhattan?
 I have two. “Balthazar” in SoHo and “Orsay,” another French bistro, this one on The Upper East Side.

What is your favorite Manhattan book?
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg, about a sister and brother who run away from home and hide out inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art.

If you could have anything in Manhattan named after you what would it be and why?
At Lincoln Center, I would like them to call the fountain the “Robin Fountain.”

What has been your best Manhattan athletic experience?
When I was at American Ballet Theater in the apprentice program, our group was able to do the background parts in the company’s performances on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. It was completely thrilling and memorable to have been on the stage with the great dancers of the day, such as Rudolph Nureyev.  In a rehearsal one day  I was in his way and he not only pushed me over, but then called me a lot of really scary sounding words in Russian and I’ll never forget it, nor was I ever in his way again!

What is your favorite thing to do in Manhattan that you can do nowhere else?
That would be to take the ferry to Ellis Island to visit my grandfather’s name on the wall of immigrants who passed through there on the way to starting a new life here in this country. If he hadn’t survived that trip, and hadn’t met my grandmother in New Jersey, and had my mother, who somehow met my father who came to America from Nazi Germany by way of freedom in the Philippines, I wouldn’t be here today! That sort of random happenstance and fate always gives me pause.  

What has been your best Manhattan art or music experience?
It would be impossible to narrow down as I remember seeing Margot Fonteyn dance “Romeo and Juliet,” Martha Graham at the height of her company, Judith Jamison in “Cry,” Suzanne Farrell at New York City Ballet, Leonard Bernstein at the Philharmonic, Pavarotti at the opera house, the original production of “Hair,” and so many other memorable performances over the years. I try to see a show every time I visit Manhattan, as I now live in California.

What do you think is most underrated and overrated here?
Those who don’t live in New York think that it’s not safe and worry about the crime. I love walking around the city at night and have never felt afraid. So the crime is overrated.
As for underrated, I’d say it’s the musical talent in the subways and the street performers. There are so many talented people here working and waiting to be discovered that you never know if your waitress will be the next Broadway star!

Other than Movers and Shakers of course, what is your favorite Whom You Know column and what do you like about it?
 My favorite Whom You Know item is not a column, but the photograph of "The Deegan Girls Out In Manhattan in the 1940s."  I am one of four sisters myself, and I absolutely love that picture, of the gorgeous women, hair all done up, big smiles, and large bottles of alcohol in hand!

What else should Whom You Know readers know about you?
When I left dancing, I couldn'timagine another career could ever make me happy.  Leaving the dance world was like jumping into the void.  But I was lucky -- I had another passion, drawing, and I am thankful I was able to make a show of it. As an illustrator, I wouldn’t even have known to dreamabout where Fancy Nancy has been able to take me.  To be working with upwards of 30 licensees who are putting the images I’ve drawn on their merchandise—from bedding to apparel, to every kind of toy, doll and game, to the item that always cracks me up,  Hanes' “Fancy Nancy Clancy panties.”  So I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've been given and feel rather like a phoenix, not a Robin....

How would you like to be contacted by Whom You Know readers?
 I'm working hard on getting my website up; it is still  a work-in-progress but we have lots of fun things planned.  The address

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