Girl of the Year 2014: Isabelle

Author: Laurence Yep
Illustrator: Anna Kmet


Isabelle Palmer has just gotten in the Anna Hart School of the Arts. Her older sister Jade, a very gifted dancer, has been in it since kindergarten, but it took until fourth grade for Isabelle to make it--in part because she got a little extra consideration due to her sister. Isabelle has wanted to attend the school as long as she can remember, but now that she's there she wonders if she's as good as she thought she was. The ballet moves are just exactly too much beyond her level. But her best friend Louisa and her teacher Ms. Hawken encourage her to keep trying (classmate Renata is less kind). Ms. Hawken suggests a good luck charm to calm Isabelle's nerves--not that she really believes in them, but the routine of having the same something every time might distract Isabelle just enough to let her focus. Isabelle asks her mother, a restorer of old garments at the Smithsonian, for help. Her mother suggests Isabelle design her own costume for the upcoming recital. Remembering an inspiring afternoon at a pond, she sketches out plans for a flowered sash. 

Isabelle works on the costume over the weekend, taking time for a family outing where her father showcases a song about her mother also inspired by the pond (he's a drummer in a for-fun band; his real job is an administrator at a pediatric hospital). Isabelle just knows her sash will fix her dancing. When she practices with it at home, the moves come easily to her. Never mind that Jade--who's been acting sort of withdrawn lately--thinks it's too long. And that Ms. Hawken warns her to watch out for the end of the shawl. Sure enough, she trips over it and embarrass herself in front her class, much to Renata's delight. Humiliated, she runs out into the hall. Jade catches up to her, and tries to reassure her that while some parts of dance are hard, Isabelle's really good at others. She suggests visualization. With the confidence boost, Isabelle heads back to class. That night, she alters the shawl to make it more appropriate for dancing

Soon it's time for the recital. Isabelle and Jade end up helping Louisa when her costume tears, thanks to the sewing kit they carry with them (shouldn't there be a costume director with stuff like that?). Isabelle is surprised to note how much she enjoys sewing compared to rehearsing. But there's not much time to reflect on that as the show's about to start. Isabelle notices a famous Anna Hart graduate headed for the audience, Jackie Sanchez. She visualizes to focus, and the dance comes together. Her muscles know what to do, and it's almost like she's just watching herself dance. She and Renata even sort of make up. Well, at least Renata doesn't hate Isabelle anymore.

And back at home, the cast list for the upcoming Anna Hart production of The Nutcracker comes out. Jade is Clara, and both Isabelle and Louisa are in the cast, too! Isabelle is thrilled that she'll be dancing with her sister and her friend, but she can't help worrying. If she was such a jumble of nerves with the simple recital, how much of a wreck will she be for The Nutcracker?

Real Girls, Real Stories

Reagan W. of Texas attends a ballet boarding school and writes about the challenges and opportunities of living away from home and pursuing her passion. Joia and Marlo G. are part of a circus, performing as a clown and an acrobat, respectively. Emily B. feels like she breathes music--she enjoys lots of activities, but playing the piano is her passion. She's even played at the White House.


Dedicated to "my niece, Fanny, who went with me to The Nutcracker, and to my wife, Joanne, who took me to the Lincoln Center." Special thanks to Kristy Callaway, executive director of the Arts Schools Network; Shannon Gallagher, owner of and instructor at Premier Dance Academy, LLC, Madison, WI; and Angela Corosanite, founder and CEO of String Theory Schools.

Isabelle looks so much like the wife of my husband's best friend.

Louisa's older brother joined the Army six months ago and is still in basic? His family says he doesn't keep in touch well. Aside from the fact that he should have finished basic several weeks ago, if he's still in basic, he's probably using any free time he has to iron his uniform, shine his shoes, take a shower, or, if he's really lucky, sleep.

Isabelle's parents say she's always been dancing, even before she was born. I guess my younger daughter will be a dancer, then--I felt her moving when I was ten weeks along, and she was even turning side to side during labor contractions. She rolled over when she was only three days old, and she moves constantly in her sleep. And when she's awake.

For fun, Isabelle sometimes wears pink hair extensions.

Joia and Marlo remind of a friend of mine, who actually had a position as a tutor in a traveling circus. She teaches at a regular school now, but she had a lot of fun making sure the young performers and the children of performers kept up with their studies. Her mom would sometimes fly out to meet her in new cities.

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