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Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

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SWAN: THE LIFE AND DANCE OF ANNA PAVLOVA
Written by Laurel Snyder
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
(Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

Swan The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova book cover

Starred review – School Library Journal

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova is a breathtakingly lovely book that combines a lyrical narrative and dramatic illustrations to give young children not only insight into the life of Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), but the courage to fulfill one’s dreams despite the odds.

As a child, Anna and her mother struggled economically. In order to make ends meet they took in other people’s laundry. The book’s front end papers depict a forlorn Anna, staring out the window on a cold Russian city, her apartment practically barren but for the line of drying clothes.

One night, however, Anna’s mother takes her to the ballet which proved to be a transformative event for the young girl. Despite her social background and physical challenges, she was determined to enter the Imperial Ballet School, practicing at home while helping her mother with the laundry:

Now Anna cannot sleep …

She can only sway,

         dip, and spin ….

Two years later Anna was finally accepted. And, after years of hard work, she danced her first solo, the lead role of the Swan in Michael Fokine’s The Dying Swan. Snyder writes that Anna

                             “… sprouts white wings, a swan.

She weaves the notes, the very air

                                            into a story…

                   Anna is a bird in flight,

   A whim of wind and water.

Quiet feathers in a big loud world.

Anna is the swan.”

Morstad captures this defining moment in a graceful spread filled with movement: the swirling feathers of the swan emerging from Anna’s back while lovely flowers tumble about her.

Even though Anna achieved worldwide fame, she never forgot how ballet changed her life. She freely shared her dance with people who might never have had the opportunity to see a ballet.

One night, she caught a cold she could not shake and her condition grew increasingly worse. She never recovered. Against a darkened stage, Snyder writes

“Every bird must fold its wings.

Every feather falls at last, and settles.”

Morstad’s stylistic, mixed media (ink, gouache, graphite, pencil) illustrations perfectly capture Snyder’s dramatic and poetic narrative of one woman’s determination to fulfill her dream and capture her life and dance

End materials include a short biography and a bibliography.

I highly recommend Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova not just for children who love dance and theater, but for all children to see the inspirational life of someone who refused to give up her dream despite physical and economic and class challenges. And who when succeeded gave back. That this nonfiction picture book can be coupled with a variety of extension activities incorporating social justice, creative writing, biography, history of ballet, dance, movement and art goes without saying.

Visit Laurel Snyder to learn more about her award winning books and read her very cool Bewilder blog. Learn all about illustrator Julie Morstad and her art here.

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro
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