By Amaris Castillo
On the Line: My Story of Becoming the First African American Rockette begins with unbridled joy. A young Jennifer Jones is depicted in a pink leotard with tiny white dots. A smile stretches across her face.
Jennifer was nine years old when she fell in love with dance. During ballet, she felt free. And in jazz, she felt bold.
“On my first day of dance class, I discovered a new way to express my feelings, using every part of my body,” she narrates in the book. “I stretched my arms high above my head to let the world know: I’m here!”
Jennifer would grow up to break barriers as the first African American Radio City Music Hall Rockette. Out on Oct. 31, On the Line is an empowering picture book autobiography about the dancer and performer’s journey and perseverance to follow her passion with the support of her family, and especially her mother. The book was co-written by Jones and Lissette Norman, author of Plátanos Go With Everything and Until Someone Listens, and illustrated by Robert Paul Jr.
On the Line brings readers into a painful memory during which Jennifer was discriminated against as a young girl. Her mother, who is white, defended her. And her father, who is Black, brought home a piece of linoleum for Jennifer to dance on. The book has a first-person narration that makes difficult emotions relatable to young readers and illuminating to adults. The story later jumps to Jennifer at age 19 when she auditioned for The Rockettes.
The rest is history.
Ahead of the book’s release, co-author Lissette Norman spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about what it was like to work on this story with Jennifer Jones, express painful subjects for a young audience, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on On the Line. How do you feel about it being out soon?
I’m excited. I know Jennifer is excited and the illustrator, Robert, is excited. We’re looking forward to it. It seemed like it took a long time, but now it’s here. It’s coming up on us soon, so it’s just really exciting. I’m happy for Jennifer. She gets to tell her story. And I’m happy, also, to be a part of this project.
This book is about Jennifer Jones, the first African American Rockette. How did you land this co-author opportunity?
Her agent is also my agent – the wonderful Johanna Castillo. She connected us. She knew that they wanted to tell this story, and my agent let her (Jennifer) know about me and my writing. She introduced us and we started talking, [and] just bouncing ideas around – and she was like, ‘Yeah, I want to work with you.’ So that’s basically how it happened: through my agent. She definitely connected us on this project… It’s such an important story to tell. It’s timely, especially with everything going on in the world today. And I wanted to definitely be a part of it.
On the Line begins with great joy – at first glance you see this young Black girl who discovers the joy in moving her body and dancing. Tell us what it was like to capture that initial joy Jennifer felt?
We had really wonderful exchanges on the phone. It was a lot of back-and-forth, and trying to decide how we want to frame the whole story. I thought it would be great to begin with the joy and this little girl who is incredibly shy and discovering dance, and [how] moving her body gave her a sense of freedom. I wanted to find a way to capture that. I tried to do that in the best way possible and, of course, with both of our input. We came up with what we came up with. But definitely we wanted to start with the joy of that discovery – of finding something that you love, and how that frees you and gives you courage.
This is not your first picture book about a real person. Can you speak on the importance of writing other BIPOC stories not just about Dominicans, and what it does for you?
First of all, I love collaborations. I love working with other people, other artists. Writing is such a solitary thing, and so I really enjoy working with other creative people to begin with. And then I just find stories that touch me… If my agent brings me an idea and I’m moved by it, I definitely want to be a part of it. In this case, it was such an important story and I knew that I wanted to help her (Jennifer) bring this story out into the world. I felt like I had something to offer, as well.
There’s so many stories that need to be told. There are so many unsung heroes. And there’s so many more that I would love to do, and plan on doing. It won’t always be just my stories. It won’t always be just Dominican stories. I’m down to tell stories that need to be told. Children will be inspired by Jennifer’s story. It’s a beautiful, amazing story.
How was the process of co-authoring this book and your previous book, Until Someone Listens, different from writing Plátanos Go With Everything?
One, it’s the collaboration. And it’s always a different experience. Until Someone Listens and On the Line are two different stories. With Until Someone Listens, there was an issue of communicating with Estela’s mother while she was in Mexico. It was a lot easier to communicate with Jennifer (for On the Line).
I don’t think there was a huge difference. I tried my best to listen, because that’s a big part of it. A lot of time is spent just hearing the story, asking a lot of questions, reading a lot about Jennifer, in this case, and her story. And then helping her frame it and tell it in a way that is authentic, and truthful, and true to who she is and what her story is about. I spent a lot of time back and forth with her, sharing the writing, and seeing what she wanted. There was just so much to tell. In a picture book, there’s not a lot of real estate, as they say. You had to find what parts of her life we wanted to include. It’s (On the Line) longer than the typical 32 pages, so they gave us the space to tell as much as possible.
What was the process like working with Jennifer?
It was a pleasure to work with her. It was a lot of fun. She’s an incredible person – just so kind, sweet, talented. She was open to ideas, and I was open to hearing. I just really wanted to capture the story that she wanted to tell, and that required a lot of listening. I didn’t want to make it feel like an interview, so we just had a lot of conversations about different parts of her life. And of course, I read about her. In trying to frame the story, I asked her specific questions. But she also told me, ‘I want to talk about this,’ so that helped. It begins with a conversation.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but I do want to touch on the early prejudice Jennifer experienced in her life, and how that shaped her. What was it like to try to express that on the page for the young reader?
You see what’s happening now with all the book banning – people don’t want to talk about the real issues that children experience. They see it. They understand it. And then we also underestimate them. They’re sharp. They know more than others give them credit for.
Sometimes it’s hard to take a difficult subject… We wanted to do it in a way that they can understand it, and they can empathize, and they can learn and see what her experience was like as a child. Those moments were traumatizing for her. But in the same way, we end the book in a hopeful way. So even in spite of that, she succeeded and did perform on a grand stage.
This story touches on just the importance of the early confidence and encouragement from one’s parents, because Jennifer carried that with her. She had her mom’s voice telling her that she could do it, and she did it. How does one get picked up to write these kinds of stories – like how you did with On the Line or Until Someone Listens – about an experience that’s not your own?
My understanding is that anyone can write about any public figure. Anybody can do this. I lucked out and had the good fortune that I worked directly with the people that I am collaborating with, and writing with them.
You can write to the person you’re interested in writing about, and invite them to do a collaboration. That would be a great idea. If there’s a person you’d love to write about, you can just write to them. You’d be surprised. Some people will say yes. You can write to them and invite them to work on a book project together, and they may say yes. You can write to their agent or somehow try to get in touch with them. There’s no straight line to this. You can try different things. That would be my suggestion. In the case of both these projects, it just so happened that my agent connected us because she’s just that wonderful. But you can also initiate it.
What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
Aside from learning everything she went through and how she navigated through it, hopefully they’ll start thinking about and be inspired by what they love to do. And hopefully they discover where they belong, while doing something that they love. In this case, her mother nurtured her talent. Even the parents, I hope, will recognize talent in their children and the things that they really love to do, and nurture that. Maybe they’ll give it up at some point, but maybe that’s their life’s work and the thing that gives them that sense of freedom and their confidence.
Especially when it comes to the arts, and I’m speaking mostly in my generation: Parents saw it, I think, as a hobby and didn’t always nurture it. My mother didn’t identify it. She saw my writing as a hobby. Parents can learn, as well, how to nurture a child. It doesn't hurt to just encourage them. I hope parents and children are inspired by this story, and that it encourages dialogue about what they love to do.
Visit our Bookshop to purchase a copy of On the Line: My Story of Becoming the First African American Rockette.
About the Author:
Lissette Norman is the author of My Feet Are Laughing and Plátanos Go With Everything. She is also co-author of the books, On the Line: My Story of Becoming the First African American Rockette (w/ Jennifer Jones) and Until Someone Listens (w/ Estela Juarez). Lissette was awarded the New York Foundation for the Arts – 2018 Artist Fellowship in Fiction, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Grant, and the Hedgebrook and Martha’s Vineyard writer’s residencies. She was also an Author-in-Residence for the BookUpNYC program through the National Book Foundation. Lissette received her BA in English at SUNY-Binghamton and currently lives in New York City.
Amaris Castillo is an award-winning journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Aster(ix) Journal, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms Be Like… (part of the Dominican Writers Association’s #DWACuenticos chapbook series), and most recently Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology and Sana, Sana: Latinx Pain and Radical Visions for Healing and Justice. Her short story, “El Don,” was a prize finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival. She is a proud member of Latinx in Publishing’s Writers Mentorship Class of 2023 and lives in Florida with her family and dog, Brooklyn.