New Spin: “Danse Macabre” and How to Make History Come Alive

by Wendy Lu
published in Reading

When you combine 19th century Parisian history, classical music and dancing skeletons, what do you get? Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, a spooky children’s picture book about how French composer Camille Saint-Saëns became inspired to create the orchestral piece “Danse Macabre,” or “dance of death,” after a visit to an underground cemetery.

Published in August 2013, Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre (Charlesbridge) is the eighth biography that author Anna Celenza has written about DanseMacabrewell-known musical works.

What makes Danse Macabre different, she says, is that Saint-Saëns originally started out by writing a song. When the words got in the way of his creativity, however, he scrapped the lyrics and developed a musical piece meant only for instruments instead.

“As a composer, this gave him more control of the music,” Celenza says. “And that’s what the story is all about. His quest for control, to write his music in such a way that the performers have no choice but to play it the way he wants them to.”

Getting the Timeline Right

For Celenza, who teaches music history and radio journalism at Georgetown University, music is a big part of her life. However, it wasn’t until she began studying musicology in graduate school and babysitting on the side that she got the idea to write children’s books.

“When parents learned about my music background, they often asked me to teach their children something about classical music,” Celenza says of her previous babysitting jobs. “I found that the best way to do this was to tell them the story behind a famous composition, and then play a recording of the music as they fell asleep.”

But Celenza soon discovered there were no children’s books about classical music pieces, only biographies of their composers. So in 2000, she came out with her first children’s book, The Farewell Symphony, and since then she’s written several stories about various compositions, from Beethoven’s “Heroic Symphony” to Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite.”

Before beginning a new project, Celenza first chooses a musical piece she particularly enjoys listening to – such as “Danse Macabre” – and then explores the history behind that piece. Using primary sources like letters, diaries and even descriptions of eyewitness accounts, Celenza was able to recreate the story behind Saint-Saëns’s “Danse Macabre” and write believable but creative character dialogue.

“Actually, the research I do for my children’s books is similar to the research I do for scholarly articles and books – I just know that when I am writing, I am writing for a different audience of readers,” she says.

It’s especially important to consider the audience when picking an appropriate musical piece to write about, as not all compositions make for ideal kid lit. Some examples include incomplete pieces like Mozart’s “Requiem” or songs with more somber histories such as Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique,” in which the composer overdoses on opium and stalks an actress – “not the best fodder for a children’s book,” Celenza jokes, “unless I’m looking to get on a list of banned books!”

The greatest difficulty about writing a historical children’s book is balancing between fact and imagination, Celenza says. On one hand, a biography needs to stick with the correct timeline of events. At the same time, lively characters are easier for readers to connect with and enjoy. That’s where the illustrations come in.

A Bone to Pick With

As she does with every book, Celenza sent JoAnn Kitchel, the illustrator of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre, several photos of the Paris catacombs and 19th century Parisian interiors so she could get a feel for the setting. Additionally, Kitchel researched Parisian attire of the 1800s and referred to pictures of the addresses that Celenza used in the story. Before drawing anything, however, Kitchel studied the text carefully.

“With any book that I illustrate, I always start out by reading and re-reading the manuscript, thinking about page breaks and how I want the main characters to feel,” says Kitchel, who serves as the children’s program director at a village library in Mont Vernon, N.H.

Even after she started illustrating, the importance of sticking with the original facts remained a top priority. In a couple of her earlier designs, Kitchel had drawn Saint-Saëns holding a candlestick in a catacomb as per the manuscript. But in reality, the composer was supposed to be holding a lantern!

“That particular spread contained many, many bones, and I had spent a couple of days illustrating it,” Kitchel says. “Oh, how I wanted the word ‘lantern’ to be replaced with ‘candle’!”

For the sake of historical accuracy, Kitchel ended up redoing those illustrations, and admits that the error led her to create even better art than before.

Despite the many little skeleton bones, Danse Macabre turned out to be Kitchel’s favorite book that she’s illustrated so far.

Kitchel, who calls herself a “whimsical painter,” says she’d originally worried about trying to make each bone turn out perfectly. Instead, she was able to easily picture the skeletons dancing on the page and drew them with great fun – all while listening to a recording of Danse Macabre in her studio to stay in the mood.

“The skeletons had personalities, and they seemed to paint themselves,” Kitchel says. “The live people were pretty fun to get to know too.”

Celenza says she is constantly inspired by the imagery in Kitchel’s illustrations.

“When writing the books, I always have images in mind as one scene moves to the next, but they are nothing compared to what JoAnn creates,” Celenza says. “She really brings the characters to life.”

Synergistic Storytelling

Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre isn’t the first children’s book that Celenza and Kitchel have collaborated on. In fact, they worked together on seven of Celenza’s picture biographies.

Although publishers traditionally separate the author and illustrator during the creative process, Kitchel says she and Celenza were lucky enough to be able to talk to one another during their first collaboration, The Farewell Symphony. Being able to bounce ideas off of each other and listen to what Celenza has in mind while writing her stories has made their books even better, she says.

“I want to make her stories come alive for her, as well as the children that will be reading them,” Kitchel says.

Both Kitchel and Celenza agree that the music of “Danse Macabre” helped to set the spooky tone of the book. Words are often inadequate at expressing the emotion and flow of the music, Celenza says. But as a musicologist-writer, that’s exactly what she strives to accomplish.

“I listen carefully to the rhythm of the music, and I try to capture it every now and then in the rhythm of my storytelling,” Celenza says. “I also work hard to find active, descriptive verbs that capture the mood and movement of the music.”

Though it takes a tremendous amount of research and creativity to create these biographies, Celenza says it’s worth it when they see young readers become inspired by the characters in the stories as well as the music.

“Getting fan mail from kids and parents is such a thrill – especially when I learn that a child started taking piano or violin lessons after reading a story like Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,” Celenza says.


diymfa_annacelenzaAuthor Bio:Anna Celenza is a professor of music at Georgetown University as well as the author and editor of several scholarly books, including the forthcoming Music as Cultural Mission: Explorations of Jesuit Practices in Italy and North America (2014), and eight children’s books. She has also served as a writer/commentator for National Public Radio’s Performance Today. Her work has been featured on nationally syndicated radio and TV programs, including the BBC’s “Music Matters” and “Proms Broadcasts,” and C-Span’s “Book-TV.” For more about her work, visit






DIYMFA_JoAnnKitchelIllustrator Bio: JoAnn Kitchel has been drawing since she was a little girl and has never really grown up.  She began her career as an illustrator nearly 20 years ago and has illustrated many books for children.  JoAnn taught art in the West Indies as a volunteer in the Peace Corps where she met her husband, who is also an illustrator.  Today, they live in the beautiful village of Mont Vernon, N.H., with their children Lily and Jackson.





Wendy-BioPicDIY MFA Columnist Bio: Wendy Lu is the print co-editor for The Durham VOICE and the managing editor of UNC’s Blue & White magazine. She is also a former publishing intern at Sleepy Hollow Books and a NaNoWriMo 2008 winner. Her work has appeared in The Daily Tar HeelRaleigh Public Record and Chapel Hill Magazine’s The WEEKLY. Learn more about Wendy’s work at

Every month or two, DIY MFA’s Wendy Lu will be hosting “New Spin,” a column that covers everything that falls within alternative storytelling: literary mash-ups, books that put a new spin on classic stories, and “meta-books” that use new media, graphic illustrations, and interaction between words/design for an enhanced reader experience.

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