With My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams, Ava Holloway, who quickly attained fame with her ballet poses at the Lee Monument, illustrates her “summer of activism” as she works for justice during the pandemic.
What happens when the world forces you to become an activist at age 14? This has been the story for countless American kids in recent years, and so it is for Richmond’s Ava Holloway, the ballerina behind the Lee Monument photos that captivated the nation.
Images of Holloway have been shared across the world, and even made its way into the headers of national media. On Zoom, Holloway’s mother, Amanda Lynch, sat in front of a map of the world covered with dot stickers, each marking a place where her daughter’s photos had been shared online. There were dots everywhere — Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America, too.
Since Holloway’s ballet photo shoot in front of the Lee Monument went viral, the 14 year old straight-A student has taken on a new role: activist. Over the past month, she’s had an onslaught of interviews, created a scholarship with Brown Girls Do Ballet, and worked with her mom to publish a children’s book called My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams. It seems like things are happening fast — and they are — but as Holloway and Lynch have proven, anything is possible.
It all started with the photos. Ballet photo shoots are a hobby of Holloway’s, even at highly populated events like Pride. As the Lee Monument continues to become a space of reclamation and celebration, artists have taken to its surface as a new canvas; to Holloway, it seemed like a natural location for a shoot.
In addition to local photographer Marcus Ingram, who had arranged to take pictures of Holloway and her friend Kennedy George, at least ten other photographers surrounded the girls on the first day they brought their tutus to the Lee Monument. By the end of their nearly four hours of posing, the photos had already gone viral. Reese Witherspoon and Misty Copeland retweeted it. The interview requests came flooding in.
“When we were first having the interviews, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, is this ever going to stop?’” Holloway said. “Now I’m used to them! After the first interview, Kennedy and I worked on our answers. We learned to not say everything we think.”
Being interviewed by journalists is no easy task at 14 years old. But blessed with extroversion, Holloway doesn’t seem to mind. “I’ll talk to anyone,” she said.
This comes in handy, because she’s also been recruited to help out with her school’s weekly racism discussions on Zoom. Lynch is proud. “If last month had not happened, I don’t know that these conversations would have taken off in the way they have. I’m proud to see that Ava and Kennedy have been the faces at the forefront of this conversation in terms of youth activism,” she said.
Meanwhile, in the midst of interviews, Holloway and Lynch got to work on a children’s book inspired by the event.
My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams was a long time in the making. Lynch — a mindfulness educator and author of several books on the subject, including The Mindfulness Room — wanted to collaborate with Holloway on her next book.
“[My mom] kept telling me we were going to write a book, and I was thinking… I don’t write,” said Holloway. “She’s a scientist!” Lynch added.
Despite her aversion to writing, Holloway agreed to participate in a brainstorming activity. The two began collecting positive affirmations like “You are a good friend” and “You are safe” — comforting words to any child; but they hadn’t found the right format to publish them.
Then the photo shoot happened. Everything started to make sense. The book’s title came from the caption Holloway added to one of her Instagram posts of the photos: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
Lynch sent the manuscript to her long-time collaborator, illustrator Bonnie Lemaire, on June 22. Lemaire, who usually completes books in one to three months, had three weeks for this one. The 32 pages of hand-sketched, digitally-painted illustrations took just over a week to finish.
“I’ve only done that twice, as far as a really quick turnaround,” said Lemaire, who has illustrated hundreds of children’s books.
Lemaire lives about an hour north of Toronto, Ontario, far away from most of what’s happening in the States. “I’m actually sitting out on the deck [right now], and there’s a little chicken laying beside me,” she said, laughing at the rural-ness of it all.
“[Lemaire’s] experiences are just different,” Lynch said. “She’s been able to engage in conversations with people about what’s going on here. During Canada Day, she had a long conversation about what was happening. That’s not something I imagined that we would ever talk about.”
“It took some research on her part to get it right, to be what our vision was,” Lynch continued. “With the first character that she drew, I said, ‘I need her hair to be a little more like this, I need her skin tone to be a little more like this…’ but she knocked it out of the park. She asked for pictures, so I sent her some pictures of Holloway and downtown. She just went from there. She knows that representation is really important to me.”
“It’s such a positive message,” Lemaire said. “Even in Canada, we need to hear that, right?”
Lemaire was happy to make revisions. “I don’t do a lot of realistic illustrations, so I listened closely to what [Lynch] wanted.”
Lynch pointed out that very few children’s books feature kids of color. “There are more bears in children’s books, and talking animals, than there are Black faces, so it’s really important for me for my kids — and I don’t just mean my children, but also my students — to see themselves in all of the characters,” Lynch said. “Ava sees Black ballerinas all the time. My son is a dancer, Kennedy’s older sister is a dancer. It’s never been foreign for them to see Black dancers, but that’s a very unique experience. I think for most people, it’s not that way.”
To illustrators worried about how to properly represent a range of skin tones, Lemaire says, “It’s not that you tread lightly, you just want to make sure it’s the right imagery. There are no rules if you’re doing what the author wants, if you’re feeling good about it.”
Her illustrations, which sweep across the page in luminous pastels, feel immensely loving. “I really wanted the character to look cute, and I wanted little girls to really resonate with that character,” said Lemaire.
Lynch has already sold more than 400 copies of My Ancestors’ Wildest Dreams through pre-orders on her website. The profits will go to a number of different charities, including Holloway’s scholarship, which provides dancers aged 6-16 with dance classes, pointe shoes, and leotards.
“One thing that was important to us was offering scholarships for other students, because dance is extremely expensive,” said Lynch. “It’s been a real sacrifice for us as a family.”
If young dancers can get past the financial hurdle, Holloway’s experience teaches us that it’s worth it to follow your passions — even when the odds are stacked against you.
Despite being one of few non-white dancers at the Central Virginia Dance Company, Holloway said, “I’ve been going there for 11 years, so everyone knows everyone. If you don’t see someone that looks like you, you still have a support system behind you at all times. Our biggest thing is definitely respect.”
She can’t wait to return to dance class — and, for that matter, school. “I hope we can go back to school at least one day of the week. I’ll take that over online,” said Holloway.
As for Lynch, mindfulness comes in many forms these days.
“When we first started, I had a schedule that I wrote every day for Ava,” she said. “Every single day!” Holloway echoed.
“Now it’s like a free-for-all. Let’s just order GrubHub,” Lynch continued. “But that’s being mindful, too — it’s giving yourself grace where you are.”
After the overwhelming response to their photos, a fundraiser has been organized to support the academic and artistic pursuits of Holloway and Kennedy George. If you’re interested in purchasing My Ancestor’s Wildest Dreams, pre-orders are available here.
Top Photo by Julia Rendleman