In her new picture book, Baller Ina, author and artist Liz Casal shows us, with a charming rhyming protagonist, how to model progressive values in a regressive society while staying true to your heart’s desire and rocking a pink tutu! I was initially surprised by the request to review the book, as I generally write about much deeper issues than picture books (even if ballet-inspired). However, approximately two minutes into our conversation I realized that a conversation with Ms. Casal would touch on numerous topics, including a reconciliatory approach to ballet, gender equity in the arts, book bans, and issues of representation in both dance and sports.

Liz Casal - Photo by Chris Goodhue

Liz Casal – Photo by Chris Goodhue

Ms. Casal began as an art intern at a major publisher in NYC days after graduating from Emerson College with a BFA in writing, literature, and publishing. After rising to senior designer and after 6 years in-house, she became an independent designer and illustrator working out of her Brooklyn studio (also known as her kitchen table). In 2018 she moved back to her hometown, Miami, where she lives with her two children, her husband, and Boo the dog.

First, the book review. Baller Ina is simply wonderful. The poem, created organically when Ms. Casal’s oldest daughter was a tot, is rhythmic and engaging. The storyline, about a girl who loves both ballet and basketball, is empowering. The world is beautifully rendered, with characters that are simultaneously believable and elevated. The dance and basketball scenes are well-researched and all of the dance positions are correctly depicted. The message that you can excel in more than one vocation is refreshing. Finally, Ina’s friends represent a kaleidoscope of identities; a male presenting dancer with pink hair, Black and Brown dancers, tall dancers, short dancers, rounder dancers, and Ina, a ballerina who also excels at basketball. Children will love it and adults can feel good about the images and messages, both explicit and implicit.

Ms. Casal rediscovered the poem in her Google Docs during the pandemic. She took a risk and shared it with several people who encouraged her to turn it into a picture book.

I worked in publishing for about 15 years, mostly in children’s publishing. I’ve worked on a lot of picture books, and have illustrated middle grade, teen, and romance novels. I had always wanted to make my own picture book, but I really wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. Once we got into COVID lockdown, I got really bored, so I started looking through my old Google Docs. And I’m like, let me just see if there’s something here that I can work on, for myself, just for fun. I came across the Baller Ina poem, and thought, you know what? This is super cute! I shared it with a couple of colleagues that I had worked with. One of those colleagues became my agent, Elizabeth Bewley. I started working with her, and she was like, let’s pitch it! It took a while, but one person out of, you know, the twenty or so we sent it to liked it, and now it’s a real book!

Ms. Casal lives in Florida, a state that is currently undergoing a cultural tidal wave in terms of LGBTQIA rights and representation, book bans, teaching bans, and basic human rights. The inclusivity of Ina’s world is so apparent, so beautiful, that I had to ask how living in Florida affects Ms. Casal’s writing and worldview.

Baller Ina Book Cover - Courtesy of Knopf Books For Young Readers / Random House Children’s Books

Baller Ina Book Cover – Courtesy of Knopf Books For Young Readers / Random House Children’s Books

I was wondering if you were going to bring that up! Yes, I live in Florida. I grew up here. I went to college in Boston, and then I lived in New York for 11 years. I came back to Florida in 2018 when my daughter was two and a half to be close to family. Since then it’s been surreal.

My family came here from Cuba in the 1960s–and I am proud to be part of the Cuban exile community. Everything my grandparents did was for their children, for me, for my siblings and cousins, that we might write our own stories in a country that promised freedom above all else. And the way I’ve interpreted freedom as an American is that we can be who we want to be and do what we want to do, fearlessly. My family fled Castro’s oppressive dictatorship–state control, book bans, the imprisonment of artists and dissident voices–to America, which was far from great in the 1960s, but held promise. The stories that scared me as a child are being played out right here–state control of private affairs, book bans, protest bans, the vilification of entire communities. We have a political movement seeking to limit access to knowledge and exposure to others because that’s the only way they can win. But I believe this story will end differently because people are smarter than that. America is still just a rough draft. And we have to keep working. 

Ms. Casal is a passionate speaker and believes deeply in accessibility; to both education and opportunity. She builds upon her own life experiences with her storytelling, her messaging, and her actions.

Interior page from Baller Ina by Liz Casal - Courtesy of Knopf Books For Young Readers / Random House Children’s Books

Interior page from Baller Ina by Liz Casal – Courtesy of Knopf Books For Young Readers / Random House Children’s Books

The message is true for anyone, anywhere, doing anything: You don’t have to fit in to find success. You can do things your way, in your style, in a tutu if you want to. That’s the sort of simple message I’m trying to get across.

I grew up in a conservative environment as a Catholic school girl. Even as an A-student, I was always in trouble for something–mostly the length of my skirt. I took ballet for most of my childhood–where I was relentlessly body shamed for being too big and not good enough. Sports never felt like an option because “some things are for boys, and others are for girls.”  I had been reduced to a skirt for so long that I got lost. Things changed when I started listening to my inner voice. Turns out I do like to dance, just not with a scary lady yelling at me about my body. I may not be an athlete, but I love to play. What I am good at is, I think, drawing, writing stories, conveying messages, and being a parent. I am lucky that those things also make me happy. In Catholic school we used to write these letters of encouragement called “palancas.” This book is a sort of self-love palanca to little Liz and kids like her–find yourself, find your loves, and take off! 

The importance of inclusivity is personal to Ms. Casal. She has seen people leave Florida because they did not feel safe expressing their identity. She has met people who have moved from New York, Chicago, or California, drawn in by housing, by jobs and by family, and found that the reality of life is not what they had imagined. She has seen the impact of the draconian laws about books that the government has imposed upon the school system. So, while she didn’t set out to write a controversial children’s book, she is not against this line of conversation.

Interior page from Baller Ina by Liz Casal - Courtesy of Knopf Books For Young Readers / Random House Children’s Books

Interior page from Baller Ina by Liz Casal – Courtesy of Knopf Books For Young Readers / Random House Children’s Books

I’m very glad you asked. We need to talk about what freedom really looks like if we want a brighter future.  It’s going to take a lot of teamwork to get there. Luckily, we do have some great players from our beautiful communities–educators, librarians, present parents, and best of all, awesome kids. The bullies can sit this one out on the bench.

The book deals with issues beyond representation. Bullying is ever-present in childhood and it has been no different for Ms. Casal’s daughters. One quit soccer after being bullied by a child who was himself being bullied by his parent. Showing a different response was important to her storytelling and message.

In this book, I wanted to show a child being completely unfazed by bullying, because that’s another thing, right? Kids, no matter what they are doing, get bullied. They are going to get haters, especially when going out there and doing something different and being good at it. There will always be people that are going to say, you’re not supposed to be here, this isn’t your space, this is my space. I wanted to show Ina just bounce back from that instantly. “Oh? Wait until you see me fly!”

Ms. Casal has a unique and passionate voice. If there are children in your life, run, do not walk, to your computer or local bookstore to buy this charming book. My final question to the author was the inevitable, what is next? There were a few answers! The first is a fun little video for kids to play along with using the Baller Ina art. Next up will be a little stretch and warm-up video using some of the art from the beginning of the book.

There is another book in the works about roller skating; trying, falling down, putting on a band aid, and trying again. I can’t wait!

For more information and to purchase Ms. Casal’s book, Baller Ina, please click HERE.

For more information about Knopf Books for Young Readers, please visit their website.

Written by Nancy Dobbs Owen for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Interior page from Baller Ina Written and Illustrated by Liz Casal – Courtesy of Knopf Books For Young Readers / Random House Children’s Books