The Year I Danced with the Nutcracker

Kate/ February 19, 2014/ blog

Hey, how are you? How’s it going? It’s been way too long. I hope you’ve been well and happy.

It must have seemed that I dropped off the face of the earth. For a little while, I kinda did. 2013 was a whirlwind that left me quite dizzy and grinny. I swear, I was really, really busy. Like, didn’t-leave-my-drafting-table-all-year busy. Please don’t take it personally.

Busy with what?

Well, it was just about this time last year that I received a request for proposal from a Philadelphia-based design firm called Night Kitchen Interactive. Would I be interested in bidding on an illustration project for a children’s book app for a cultural organization? What? Really? Well heck yeah! So began my correspondence with the lovely magic creators at Night Kitchen. The project: an interactive Nutcracker app.

During the bidding process, Night Kitchen expressed that they also needed a children’s writer to adapt the story for the app. I bid for both, producing both writing and illustration samples. After what seemed like the longest wait ever, I got the good news from project director Stacey Mann that both jobs were mine. Squee! I would later find out just how many talented writers and illustrators—agented ones, even—had been my competition. It was an honor and a thrill, and I was eager to get started. But who was the client? The Philadelphia Art Alliance? The Pennsylvania Ballet?


The San Francisco Ballet. (I know, right?!)

And oh yes, this will require travel, said Stacey, and would I be down for that?

Come on now. Of course I would be. When? April. 

The ballet would want to see something for the meeting. Night Kitchen had sent me a sampling of San Francisco Ballet’s promotional brochures and a rough story outline for their Nutcracker. This innovative company’s holiday performance is very unique to San Francisco, drawing upon historical references to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, aka the World’s Fair, for sets, costumes, and storytelling. Historically speaking, San Francisco pretty much owns the Nutcracker here in the states, having been the first to perform it in its entirety in 1944. Indeed, San Francisco is the oldest professional ballet company in America. Didn’t know that, did you? It’s ok, I didn’t either.

During our meeting, the air was electric with enthusiastic energy, creativity, and just so many ideas. Gosh I love brainstorms. Bam! Here’s an idea! Bam! Another! Bam! It’s a good thing Stacey and Matthew were there to gently but firmly shut the windows, lest we all drown. In the end, Charles McNeal, Director of Education and our head chief for the Nutcracker project was pleased, and so was I. This was going to be such fun work. A lot of work, but the good kind.

After some sightseeing, swing dancing, tree hugging, and friend hugging, I returned to Philadelphia with a well full of joy.

And so I began to draw, to write, and to learn. I learned things like:

– How do you draw a ballet dancer? In perfect form. There is no way to cheat this, even with child dancers.

– What is perfect form? Perfect ballet form is difficult to draw. Especially ballet hands, legs and feet.

– What are ballet hands? Imagine that each dancer is ever-so-carefully plucking an invisible, freshly-laid quail egg from a cloud using thumb and middle fingers.

– What about the legs and feet? Oi. Listen. Forget everything you learned in figure drawing class, because a dancer’s body structure defies all rules of anatomy. It starts getting weird in the hips. When you attempt to draw your first dancer from photo reference, your brain will stop you—No, no, no. That can’t be right. How can her knees bend this way and that way at the same time? How long a neck can a person really have? That child’s posture is so much prettier than mine. It all feels wrong.

Tip: If you need a surefire jumpstart into a fitness plan, try drawing perfect ballet bodies for 8-14 hours a day, every day for 200 days straight. Not only will you come to know the location of every fat cell on your body, but you’ll also learn about all the aches and pains one can create by sitting in a chair for thousands of hours a year, drawing. You may consider switching careers altogether.

I learned all this and much more. How to best use a stylus, how to create natural looking Photoshop brushes, how to set up files and design for an iPad screen, how children’s books for the iPad differ from print books, how to reach out for support, how to outsource for best results, when to bring in an editor, when to stop, stretch, and eat and why that’s all very important, and what it’s like to be truly supported and cared for by an amazing partner in life. You’ll know he really means it when he proposes after he’s lived through a project like this with you.

Then, just in time for Thanksgiving weekend, the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker Interactive Storybook App was revealed:

Illustrations and words by Kate Garchinsky

Ta-dah! And yes, it is still available in the App Store

There wasn’t room for a dedication or thank you within the app, so I want to do that here.

Thank you to Night Kitchen Interactive and the San Francisco Ballet for choosing me to bring the Nutcracker to the fingertips of children. I am truly honored to have worked with you on this project.

Extra special thanks to my hands-on project helpers and supporters:
Brian Carpenter, pillar of emotional and mental support, soundboard, procurer of meals and wine, pet care and dog entertainer, birdfeeder filler, break inforcer, twooo wuv
Harold Underdown, editor, creative advisor, validator, attitude adjustor
Michele Melcher, illustrator and inker extraordinaire, workload and spirit lifter, bulge humor
Brian Krümm, illustration support, special effects
Scott Derby, color assistant and positive vibes
Katrina Martin, intuitive healer, energy purger, spirit cheerleader

Dedicated to my colorful, creative family without whom I would never have been able to capture the spirit of Christmas. xo

Kate Garchinsky - Nutcracker

Now What?

Whew. Let me catch my breath, and then I’ll get into the thing about passenger pigeons. No, not carrier pigeons, these are passenger pigeons. They’ve been extinct for a hundred years. Exactly 100. Working on some words and pictures about it.


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About Kate

Kate Garchinsky illustrates and writes children’s books and educational media in her studio in the woodlands near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her debut picture book, The Secret Life of the Red Fox, written by acclaimed wildlife author, Laurence Pringle, received a starred review from School Library Journal. Kate Garchinsky received a grant from the Eckelberry Fellowship at the Academy of Natural Sciences, where she has been researching and illustrating extinction stories about North American birds such as the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet. Prior to creating children’s books, Kate designed lots of fun things like toys, birdbaths and trail maps. She lives with her husband Brian, Julia and Spencer the cats, and her one-eyed beagle, Maggie May. Kate recently signed on to illustrate two more “Secret Life” narrative non-fiction picture books with Boyds Mills Press—The Secret Life the Little Brown Bat (2018) and The Secret Life of the Skunk (2019). While drawing foxes and bats, Kate also began work on Belle’s Journey, a middle-grade non-fiction chapter book by ornithologist and osprey expert, Rob Bierregaard (Charlesbridge 2018). Get to know more about Kate Garchinsky at (aka