Last week I shared Madame Saqui: Revolutionary Ropedancer, and this week you get to hear from the author, Lisa Robinson. The journey a story takes from idea to out-in-the-world is always interesting. I often think a manuscript teaches us something we need as we work through the story and get to know the character. Madam Saqui’s keep at it attitude just may have been contagious.
“One Step at a Time with Madame Saqui” by Lisa Robinson
This book began with a book: The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall, a history of the circus arts. One chapter mentions Madame Saqui, a remarkable ropedancer who lived during the French revolutionary era and became the darling of Paris, a favorite of Emperor Napoleon’s, and a survivor of many setbacks (one of which is relevant to the current times: a cholera epidemic that devastated the theater she owned). This brief mention sparked an idea for a picture book biography. Here was a woman who had performed daring feats—walking over the Seine and between the towers of Notre Dame—well before renowned men like Charles Blondin who walked over Niagara Falls and Philippe Petit who walked between the Twin Towers.
The first obstacle to telling her story was a lack of information. Online searches only revealed tiny tidbits about Saqui. Finally, I came across a biography, viewable online, written in 1905. Unfortunately, it was in French and I was unable to find anyone willing to translate it for me. So I gave up on the project.
But then came a stroke of luck that seemed engineered by a universe eager for this story to come to light. Melinda Pavlata, the owner/director of Moody Street Circus where my daughters and I practice circus arts (aerial silks, juggling, tight wire, and more) is fluent in French and has a PhD in Medieval French Literature. She was eager to learn more about Madame Saqui and willing to translate the biography for me. With that information, I was able to find corroborating information online —articles from the 1800s about Saqui. And the amazing illustrator for the book, Rebecca Green, unearthed a photo of a handbill for one of Madame Saqui’s performances.
Next came submissions . . . at that time I was searching for an agent with a contract offer for one of my fiction picture books, a completed YA novel, and the Madame Saqui manuscript. Alyssa Eisner Henkin, who loves historical fiction and picture book biographies, offered to represent my work. Alyssa knew that Anne Schwartz of Schwartz and Wade might be interested in the story, so she sent it to her (as well as some other editors). Anne called Alyssa to tell her that she had seen the submission; since she was on her way to vacation in Paris, she would make an offer for the manuscript on her return. I was thrilled to know that Anne would be visiting and imagining Madame Saqui ropedancing in the actual locations where she had performed so long ago.
Meanwhile, Madame Saqui had inspired me to learn to wirewalk; I purchased a low tight wire for my house and practiced every day. By the time the book launched in March 2020, I was comfortable enough to perform multiple steps on the wire, including walking backwards. I lined up several bookstore events that included a reading and a wirewalking demonstration. One of my aerial coaches, Molly Baechtold, designed a wonderful ostrich feather headdress to complete my Madame Saqui costume.
And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
Planned bookstore and festival events were canceled. I had to launch the book online. My family helped me film a short reading accompanied by a wirewalking demonstration. Kirsten Cappy of Curious City designed a story time activity kit that includes a DIY wire walking experience (from the safety of your living room floor) . . .click on the link and you can watch the video and try the activity.
I hope this story about overcoming adversity while holding onto a dream serves as inspiration and comfort during these troubled times.