Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlovais 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
Back matter includes a short biography and a bibliography.
I highly recommend Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlovanot 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.
What’s the first thing I noticed when picking up my review copy of Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass? The piercing eyes of Douglass in illustrator London Ladd’s cover portrait and the absence of a title on the front. Then, gripped by the story, I devoured the book, not once, but twice in my initial read throughs of this expertly crafted picture book. Part of the Big Words series, Frederick’s Journey effortlessly pairs Rappaport’s thoughtful biography of this former slave turned author, abolitionist and ultimately free man with Douglass’ actual words. “Douglass had traveled far – from slave to free man, from illiterate to educated, from powerless to powerful. It had been a difficult journey.” The book ends with this quote from Douglass, “What is possible for me is possible for you.” As a picture book, Frederick’s Journey is brought to life by Ladd’s inspiring artwork. I’ve interviewed this talented illustrator once before, but felt compelled to reach out again, this time for his insight on creating the illustrations and what working on the book meant to him.
An Interview with London Ladd
GRWR:Please tell us how you came to be connected with this project?
London Ladd: The publisher contacted my agent at Painted Words, Lori Nowicki, to see if I would be interested. I read the title of the manuscript [and] the answer was a definite yes. Once I read the through the manuscript I was so moved by it, so eager to get started.
GRWR:How do you decide what medium you’ll use for each book you illustrate and what did you choose for Frederick’s Journey and why?
LADD: For my illustration career I’ve primarily use acrylic with minor touched of pastels and colored pencils on illustration board if necessary. People says acrylics are challenging to use, but I love its flexibility because you can make it look like watercolor with layered thin washes or heavy opaque application like oils. It’s something I’ve always been comfortable using and quick drying is excellent for fast approaching deadlines.
GRWR:You mention in the back matter Illustrator’s Note how deep you dove into the research to really understand your subject including actually posing yourself in front of a mirror and reciting lines. Was there any particular text from Rappaport or quote from Douglass that you found most inspiring for this story’s artwork?
LADD: Rappaport’s text was so excellent with the way she gracefully combined her text with Douglass’ own quotes. But his autobiography was so powerful because you’re getting a first hand account in all its detail of his experience as a slave during the 19th century. Each page was filled with so much raw, honest, brutal, heart breaking material. So many vivid images would pop into my head from sadness, anger.
GRWR:Was there one particular image in the book that most resonated for you?
LADD: I think the first three images [see below] as a whole really resonate for me deeply due to the range of emotions and sounds I hear from the heart wrenching scream of Frederick’s mother as he’s being taken from her, the peacefulness of the river when he’s fishing with his grandmother, and his low weeping as he suddenly realizes his grandmother is gone and now his new life begins in the institution of slavery.
GRWR:You travelled to a lot of places in Douglass’s history, which place made the biggest impression on you?
LADD: Wow it’s so hard to pick one. Visiting his home in Anacostia was powerful. But I’ll have to go with a trip to Rochester in 2006. During my last semester in college I enrolled in an African American religious history course and the final was this amazing project where you had to travel to historical locations involved in the Underground Railroad in and around the Central New York area like Harriet Tubman’s grave and church in Auburn, NY. Well it happens that Douglass’ grave at Mount Hope Cemetery (Susan B. Anthony is buried there, too) in Rochester NY was on the list. The cemetery is huge and his grave is by the front street nearby so vehicles drive by constantly so it can be a little noisy. When walking to his grave it was so quiet with only a slight wind blowing. Being at his gravesite was moving. I just stood there silently for 20 minutes with many emotions going through my mind. After visiting his grave there was this incredible interactive Douglass exhibit at a local nearby museum and I’ll never forget it. So much on display like his North Star press, part of a house with hidden area for slaves, a double-sided mirror that when you dim the lights Douglass’ face appeared on the other side, an exhibit where you lay in a really small area like slave did during the middle passage (that had a strong impact on me) and so much more. Ten years later and it’s still one of my favorite museum exhibits.
GRWR:Not many illustrators get a front cover portrait with no title as an assignment. That’s a huge honor and your cover is outstanding. Can you tell us more about how that decision was made?
LADD: Thank you so much. That’s what makes the Big Words series so unique from other book series because each biography has this beautiful portrait of a well known person with the title on the back. That’s why I worked so hard on trying to not only capture Douglass’ likeness, but his essence.
GRWR:In a previous interview here you said “The human spirit interests me. I love stories of a person or people achieving through difficult circumstances by enduring, surviving and overcoming.” Douglass clearly exemplified that spirit. Who else, either living or deceased would you like to portray next in your artwork or in a story of your own creation?
LADD: Ernest Shackleton! I would love to illustrate Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance. An absolutely amazing story of when, in the early 20th century, he and his crew were stranded near Antarctica for nearly two years and everyone survived. It’s a testament to his tremendous leadership during the whole ordeal.
This Shackleton quote sums up my attitude towards any challenges I face. “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.”
GRWR:It’s said art is a universal language. What is it about making art and teaching it as well that speaks to you?
LADD: I think to be able to share with other people is something very important to me. I wouldn’t be here without the help of other people so it’s always been my goal to pay it forward when possible.
GRWR:Can you share with us anything else about your experience working on Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglass?
LADD: I truly loved working on this book and I’m so thankful to have been part of such a special project. Hopefully young people will learn, enjoy and appreciate the life of Frederick Douglass.
A huge thank you to London Ladd for this candid and informative interview.
April is National Poetry Month so throughout the month we’ll be reviewing different poetry books we think you will enjoy.
I chose this particular biography to kick off National Poetry Month because I was drawn to it by the title and then moved by this remarkable and intelligent woman’s story. A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet(Candlewick, $14.99, hardcover, ages 8-12; also available in paperback)by Kathryn Lasky with illustrations by Paul Lee is certain to enlighten curious young readers.
“At first there was just blackness. Complete blackness. Then the blackness dissolved into darkness …”
The year is 1761 when Phillis Wheatley’s story begins with these short yet powerful sentences. I felt compelled to read on about this young girl stolen from her family in Africa. I tried to imagine her fears and sorrow as she was thrown on board a slave ship bound for America and treated more like cargo than a human being. I could not imagine at seven years old being separated from my mother, my life and my country and then enduring a grueling ten-week journey across the sea only to find myself being purchased for a few dollars upon arrival. Phillis’s only good fortune, if it can be called fortune, was that her new owners, John and Susannah Wheatley, were kind Bostonians and the laws for slaves in New England were far more lax than in the South.
Phillis was a quick study and not only learned English but Latin and Greek as well. She taught herself from books Mrs. Wheatley gave her and copied Bible passages by the light of a candle. Her passion for poetry soon emerged and her first published poem was in 1767 in the Newport Mercury newspaper. How many of your children know about this extraordinary black woman who at fourteen years old was visiting the “finest families in Boston” alongside Mrs. Wheatley, to read her poems? I think her story should be shared in every classroom.
Phillis’s earliest poems were written prior to the Revolution, and one particular poem, a tribute to Reverend George Whitefield upon his death, made her famous both “in the colonies and in England.” This English preacher who found slavery sinful, had made a profound and lasting impression upon young Phillis who had found a new kind of freedom through her words. Mrs. Wheatley, who considered Phillis more like a daughter than a slave, was determined to have Phillis’s collection of poetry published but printers in Boston refused to publish “the work of a Negro.” The only choice Mrs. Wheatley had then was to send Phillis to England where the collection was published in 1773.
The book is broken down into nine vividly illustrated chapters, plus an epilogue, notes from the author and illustrator, selected sources, an index and author and illustrator biographies. It’s an inspirational read for anyone interested in learning how individuals can overcome some of life’s harshest obstacles. Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped as a diamond in the rough from Africa and grew to become a polished poet who could shine on even the dullest New England day. Her outstanding contribution to poetry has truly earned her a place in American history.