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Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

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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Firebird by Misty Copeland

FIREBIRD
Written by Misty Copeland
Illustrated by Christopher Myers
(G. P. Putnam’s Sons; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

Firebird won the 2015 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, received the 2015 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award New Writer Honor, and was an NPR Best Book of 2014.

 

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In Firebird; American Ballet Theater ballerina, Misty Copeland, shows a young girl how to dance like the firebird. Copeland, author of Life in Motion, has written a spare but powerful picture book about a young African American girl who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. Daunted by the process, the young girl compares her ” gray as rain” self to the “swift as sunlight” Copeland, believing that she could never be as good as her idol. Realizing that the girl lacks confidence and is overwhelmed by what lays ahead, Copeland offers encouragement and support in a lyrical conversation between mentor and protégé:

“darling child, don’t you know

you’re just where I started …

your beginning’s just begun …”

Copeland assures the young girl that, despite the challenges and hard work (“…I  had a thousand leaps and falls …”), her ability will grow. One day someone will need her support:

“then they will look to you in wonder

and say …

the space between you and me is longer than forever

and I will show them that forever is not so far away”

Lovely ballet similes and metaphors are woven into a narrative as powerful, yet as graceful as the dancer’s art:

“ …Like me you’ll grow steady in grace

spread an arabesque of wings

and climb …”

And while the narrative is a conversation is between a beginning dancer and an experienced ballerina, Copeland’s message of determination and realizing your dream is an important and inspiring message for all of us.

Using bold and striking mixed media illustrations, award-winning illustrator Christopher Myers enhances the soaring and inspirational text by dramatically capturing the movement of the dance and Copeland’s amazing ability to stretch her body in extraordinary positions. Likewise, his illustrations also depict the tender and affirming relationship between Copeland and her protégé. Myers, the son of the late children’s author Walter Dean Myers, has received multiple awards for his illustrations. Visit Reading Rockets for a selected list of his books and a video interview.

The Afterword contains a poignant message from Copeland about her childhood struggles and how ballet “saved” her. Nevertheless, as an African American, she did not see herself in this almost exclusively white world. With hope, hard work, and support she made it and has turned to supporting other young dreamers like herself to enter the world of Classical ballet.

Copeland has just been appointed the first African American principal ballerina of American Ballet Theater. Visit Misty at her website and see her reading Firebird at the April 6, 2015 White House Easter Egg Roll. A search on YouTube will display many videos featuring interviews and performances. Click on the link to read an excerpt of Life in Motion and see a short video of Copeland discussing her determination to succeed. Earlier this week it was also announced that for two weeks this August, Copeland will star on Broadway in the musical “On the Town.”

– Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

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A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream by Kristy Dempsey

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream (Philomel Books, 2014; $16.99 Ages 5-8), by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, is reviewed today by Rita Zobayan.

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Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream written by Kristy Dempsey with illustrations by Floyd Cooper, Philomel, 2014

Inspired by the story of Janet Collins, the first African-American ballerina at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream is a story of high hopes and grand dreams. Told from the point of view of a young African-American girl in 1950s Harlem, the story encompasses her wish to become a ballerina set against the realities of racial prejudice and poverty. Even though our young heroine has practically grown up at the ballet school and has accomplished the movements, she is concerned that she will be held back by societal barriers. Could a colored girl like me ever become a prima ballerina? Mama says hoping is hard work. Mama unpins the extra wash she’s taken on to make ends meet…If there’s one thing Mama knows, it’s hard work. Mama works all day long every day, and most times on into the night, for the ballet school.

Hopes are raised when Janet Collins’ performance is featured in the newspaper. The young girl and her mother go to the opera and watch as Ms. Collins takes the stage, and suddenly the girl’s heart jumps up from where I’m sitting, soaring, dancing, opening wide with the swell of music. In my heart I’m the one leaping across that stage, raising myself high on those shoulders. When she and her mother head home, the girl knows that there is no need to waste my wishes. I’ve got dreams coming true.

The art work is a perfect match for the story, seeming almost ethereal, as if the viewer is watching from beyond, back in time. The muted colors give a feel for the setting, with the factories spilling out pillars of smoke.

To be completely honest, this book brought tears to my eyes. It is a wonderful tale of courage, perseverance, and determination. Children, regardless of ethnicity, will be able to identify with having a dream, the fear that it might not come true, and the inspiration to see it through. My girls certainly did.

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