Dancing in the Wings

Written By: Debbie Allen

Illustrated by: Kadir Nelson

Before Reading

Explore Illustrations and Text:

Peruse the cover and illustrations throughout the book before beginning your read-through. Let your child bring to your attention any aspects of the book that intrigues him/her by asking, “What do you notice when you look at the pictures?” Ask further questions about possible predictions your child might have about the story by asking:

What do you think this story will be about?

What do you think it means to be “dancing in the wings”?

{Flip to a certain page} What do you think is happening in this picture?

Sassy has always loved to dance. What is something that you have always loved to do? How does it make you feel?

You can also ask, “Do you like to dance? What is your favorite kind of music to dance to? Do you have a favorite type of dance like ballet or hip hop? Why do you like that type of dance?”


Tell your child that this story is an autobiography about Debbie Allen, the famous dancer and choreographer, and ask if s/he knows what that means. Let your child know that an autobiography is a type of story where an author writes about his/her own life. You can give the example that if your child were to write a book about his/her own experiences, that would be an autobiography.

As You Read

Teasing and Name-calling

Be aware that there is some teasing and name-calling in this story that you might want to address. When you come across these parts, use this opportunity to discuss teasing and why it is hurtful and inappropriate. Sassy gets teased because she is the tallest student in her dance class and she has large feet. Establish a connection between the main character and your child by asking, “Have you ever been teased because you were different? Do you know someone who has? What did you do in that situation? What does Sassy do when she is teased? Why is teasing unacceptable?” In doing so, you can get your child more invested in the story and make it a more relatable and meaningful.

Vocabulary Building:

While reading, new words may surface that your child isn’t familiar with so encourage him/her to stop and discover what these words mean using the other words and illustrations surrounding them. This will help to build your child’s vocabulary as well as get him/her comfortable with asking questions about what they are reading. A few examples of new words in Dancing in the Wings include:




After Reading

Summarize and Interpret:  

Ask these questions to get your child thinking about the story as a whole and how it ties together:

What was your favorite part? Why?

Why did people tease Sassy? What did she do when they teased her?

Why did Sassy have to dance in the wings?

Who was Mr. Debato and how did Sassy try to impress him? What happened?

Did you like the end of the story? Why or why not?

Debbie Allen would not have become the incredibly successful artist that she is today if it hadn’t been for her drive and determination, as well as her ability to ignore the hurtful criticism of others. Ask your child, “What would have happened if Sassy had listened to the people who teased her about her feet and her height? Do you think Sassy did the right thing by sticking to it and ignoring what others said? Why? If something like this happens to you, what do you think you should do?”

Activity: Paperdoll Ballerinas

Adapted from The Crafty Crow


Supplies: Fine art white paper (like watercolor or pastel paper), scissors, glue, paint, crayons or markers, two coordinating colors of crepe paper, and this ballerina template

  1. Trace the template once on one end of the paper along the width of the paper. Then accordion fold the rest of the paper. Be sure to match up the paper at the elbows.
  2. Cut around the figure through all of the paper, while leaving a portion of paper attached at the elbows.
  3. Unfold the dolls once you are through cutting. If you would like to alternate between a boy and a girl ballet dancer, simply cut off the bump on the top of every other doll that is meant to be the hair bun. Then use your markers or paint to add faces and hair to the dolls.
  4. Now you can add their outfits. Again, depending on the gender of your dancers, you can decorate them different ways. For the girls that will be wearing tutus, be sure to color coordinate their outfits with the crepe paper that you have chosen.
  5. Scrunch up one side of the crepe paper to create the cinched waist of the tutu. Then cut pieces of to create each individual tutu.
  6. Glue the tutus onto the female ballerinas and your dolls will be complete. Simple pick a place to hang them up and enjoy them!