Category Archives: picture books for the older set

swan: the life and dance of anna pavlova + laurel snyder author interview

Swan_jkt_Bologna.inddSwan: the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad (2015).


This is one special book. It might make you smile and dance and cry.
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The language and text are both so beautiful and skillful in this book. We can feel the cold of Russia, the thrill of watching one’s first ballet performance, the discipline of practicing turns and bends over and over. The longing to be a ballerina. The joy of finding one’s passion. The satisfaction of sharing it with others, as Anna Pavlova did.


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I love the way Julie Morstad uses white and white space throughout the book (all that snow!), as though foreshadowing this moment when Anna becomes that magical white swan.
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Born to a poor washerwoman and with the wrong feet for ballet, Anna Pavlova became a star against the odds. She was best known for “The Dying Swan,” a short ballet choreographed for her and that she performed thousands of times.
And oh that ending, when Anna is transformed into the dying swan of her famous performance. On her deathbed she asked for her costume and her last words were: “Play that last measure softly.”


“Every day must end in night.
Every bird must fold its wings.
Every feather falls at last, and settles.”




Big thanks to Chronicle Books for images! 


This Picture Book Life: Tell us about your history as a dancer, specifically with ballet. What was the first time you saw a dance performance?

Laurel Snyder: Well, I studied dance as a kid, almost entirely ballet.   I think the initial draw for me was social–because I started taking classes with my best friend, Susan, to whom the book is dedicated.  But from the beginning, I loved ballet, and over the years I went to three different dance schools in and around Baltimore. The problem was that  as I got older, it began to feel clear  that I’d never be a Pavlova.  That was the hardest thing about ballet for me. Once I was in high school, it felt like dance had to be all or nothing, and neither my body or skill were enough to make me a star.  So I quit when I was in high school. I didn’t see a lot of professional performances when I was a kid, honestly.  I think that maybe part of the allure of Pavlova for me, as a kid, was in the grandeur I saw in her old photographs.  I’d just sit and stare at her…






TPBL: What influence did Anna Pavlova have on you? What drew you to her and her story? 

LS: She was definitely an influence, though I’m not entirely certain how it began.  I remember my best friend and I had these paper dolls, and we’d fight over them!  The Swan was always my favorite, but if memory serves, Susan preferred Les Sylphides.  Then, at some point I got my hands on an old book of photos, that included a portion of Anna’s diaries, and I became obsessed.  I loved the rags-to-riches quality of her story.  She was this impoverished washerwoman’s kid, who became a kind of princess. I was also a little obsessed with the idea of boarding school, and I loved history,  so for me, Anna’s saga was utterly dreamy.

Now, as an adult, I’m drawn to the idea that Pavlova really was a missionary for dance. That she wanted to spread the word, share it with the world!  It had changed her life, and she wanted to spread that passion.  But I don’t think I grasped that as a kid.  When I was ten, it was just the transformation of Anna herself that I loved.  And the idea of having a grand passion. I wanted to be devoted to something myself!





TPBL: How was your manuscript paired with Julie Morstad (*swoon*)?

LS: That was sheer genius on the part of the folks at Chronicle.  My editor Melissa was the person who introduced me to her work, and I fell in love at first sight.  I was over the moon when Julie agreed to do the project, and when the first sketches came in, I burst into tears. She really did capture the pictures in my head. I’m not sure how that happened. It’s a kind of magic.

TPBL: Tell us about the spread in which Anna is told she cannot attend ballet school. The thing is, you don’t tell us explicitly that’s what she was told. How did you go about writing those lines and how did you decide on the strategy you used to communicate that information so subtly?

LS: That’s a really good question!  My first genre is poetry– and this book began that way, as a sort of poem.  I didn’t begin with a story so much as a tone, an emotional thread.  I wanted to share my sense of Anna as a girl.  Loneliness, coldness, and then the dazzle of that first ballet, and the hard work of her training.  For that kind of emotional/image narrative, a poem just made sense.





TPBL: I appreciate how you deal with death in SWAN. Tell us about spending time with Anna’s death in the closing spreads. What relationship does death have to Anna’s life and dance and/or to your own philosophy of writing picture books or this one in particular?

LS: Actually, the publication of this book probably hinged on the fact that I couldn’t imagine the story without the death/end. Long before I had a contract, I wrote the manuscript, but I knew I couldn’t deal with the idea of her death being left off, and  I also knew most editors wouldn’t want to include it.  I kept imagining people saying, “Why don’t we just end it HERE, when she’s blossomed into a swan! Isn’t that NICE?”

So I reached out to an editor I’d been following online, who seemed to feel like I did about such matters. I asked her whether a picture book biography could include a deathbed scene.  And that was the beginning of my poem becoming a book.





LS: I feel very very strongly that most kids can handle big ideas and sad moments. Some kids– and I was this way myself– crave sadness.  Often, kids ARE sad, and when you ARE sad, it can be terrible to be constantly surrounded by balloons and smiles.  Sometimes, the most comforting thing is to know that sadness enters everyone’s life, and that you aren’t alone. Books are such a good way to encounter the sadness of others.  They help us build empathy, and also keep us company.

But also, this isn’t just about sadness.  It’s important for kids to hear stories of good deaths. Anna’s life was a good life, and her death was a good death, in a way. She changed the world, lived on her own terms, and died surrounded by the art she loved. She was mourned deeply, and this book is a part of that. Mourning isn’t just sadness. It’s missing, a celebration of a life well-lived.

If we teach kids only about death as atrocity, we make it a terrifying thing.  Which is awful, because of course we’re all going to die. Anna lived well, and was mourned deeply by millions of people.  Her gift continues now, far beyond her life.  I can’t think of a happier ending for anyone, really.




Big thanks to Laurel Snyder for writing the book and sharing her answers! I leave you with this footage of Anna Pavlova dancing “The Dying Swan.” I’m so glad this exists.





the blue whale by jenni desmond



BlueWhaleThe Blue Whale by Jenni Desmond (out May 27, 2015!)


This is one of those nonfiction books whose facts somehow make me cry. It’s partly the set up in the author’s note that blue whales are few in number due to human activity, from hunting to pollution. But it’s not just that. It’s the way this material is handled—from how the text is constructed to the dreamy illustrations.



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Part of Jenni Desmond‘s originality is how the story appears in the story of the picture book. The boy in the book is reading the very book we’re reading.

But there’s more! He enters the book. There he is, in a dinghy next to a mighty blue whale, staring down in wonder. Because this book is immersive. Immersive in the azure world of the blue whale.



The boy with the red crown is excited about this book he’s reading, excited about blue whales, excited about animals and habitats.


“Every blue whale has unique markings, similar to our fingerprints. Scientists use these, along with the shape of the dorsal fin, to identify individual whales.” 



Together with the boy, we learn that baby calves are born 20 feet long and drink nearly 50 gallons of their mother’s milk every day. That whales have a lot of wax in their ear canals. That a single one of their breaths could inflate 2,000 balloons.

Along with the boy, we feel the world open up. It gets bigger and the blue whale gets smaller. Closer. More precious to us.




“A blue whale’s tongue weighs three tons, and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it.  Fortunately, blue whales don’t eat people.”





And that’s how this book works. It brings the boy character inside it, it brings us inside it and conversely it brings the blue whale into our world, right outside our window and in our kitchen.

It’s the perfect kind of nonfiction book that educates while it enchants. It makes us care.


Thanks to Enchanted Lion Books for images!



Jenni Desmond was kind enough to answer a couple of questions about her process of making the book!


This Picture Book Life:What prompted you to write a book about this particular animal?

Jenni  Desmond: I didn’t choose a blue whale on purpose, it chose me, by just falling out of my head onto the page one day.  Then, the more I drew this beautiful mammal the more I fell in love with it.  There is still so much we don’t know about blue whales. I just found them endlessly fascinating and beautiful, and kept wanting to know more.  When I showed the rough sketches to my wonderful editor, Claudia, at Enchanted Lion Books, she understood my vision for the book and tirelessly helped me to sculpt it into something much more complex and interesting.

TPBL: You include the book itself in the text and illustrations. How did the idea to do that come about?

JDI wanted the reader to be aware of the fictional element of the story versus the factual.  By having the young boy holding and reading the book, I felt that it would mean that there was a clear divide between the two. The facts could stay as facts, and the reader knew that the inclusion of the boy in the images, when he was interacting with the whale, was purely a result of the boy’s vivid imagination.

TPBL: Boy with red graph paper crown. Go!

JD: I think sometimes non-fiction can feel quite dense and difficult, so I hope that by including the boy, the reader can have a little bit of respite to digest the information while they watch the boy having fun, hopefully even seeing themselves in the boy.  I‘m not sure why he’s wearing a crown.  Why not.  Maybe he’s the king of the book.  Maybe he likes dressing up.  Maybe it’s just a nice shape and gives a splash of colour to the page. Maybe it’s all of these things.


Thank you, Jenni, both for the interview and for this outstanding book!



ellington was not a street

ellington-was-not-a-streetEllington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (2004).


The words of this book are taken from Ntozake Shange‘s 1983 poem, “Mood Indigo.” And that title is taken from Duke Ellington’s famous song. In the same way, this picture book circles back to the past and brings it forward again.


Which leads us to its title: Ellington Was Not a Street. Ellington was Duke Ellington of course. And Duke Ellington was one of the many influential men who gathered at Shange’s house when she was a child.




The art in this book is by Kadir Nelson, who is a painter’s painter, a master of beautiful realism that draws you in. No matter what’s pictured, it’s the little girl in the blue dress we look for. Her stance. The look on her face. The way she is an observer as well as a part of something bigger.

(By the way, did you guys know Kadir Nelson created Michael Jackson’s posthumously released album cover??)



“it hasnt always been this way/

ellington was not a street”


This book takes us back in time. Back to when the great men of Shange’s childhood weren’t mere remembrances, but were living, breathing, creating, pioneering people. Right in her home as a little girl. I can only imagine the impact such a childhood must’ve had on her. Listening around a corner to conversations about race and struggle. Meeting Dizzy Gillespie at the door.




“du bois walked up my father’s stairs”

“hummed some tune over me sleeping in the company of men

who changed the world”




“politics as necessary as collards/

music even in our dreams”


There is a tinge of sadness to this book because the writer is looking back to a more vital time. She’s asking us to remember, to travel back with her. And Nelson’s illustrations transport us.



I put this book in my “older set” section because there is, of course, a history lesson here. And the glossary at the back with details of the men depicted would be a wonderful starting point to a study of African American history, music, jazz, or civil rights.




There he is at the end of the book, Duke Ellington himself, echoed by the girl on the cover holding his record, her gaze saying, “Come, listen.”












All images from Kadir Nelson’s website

the red piano, picture book

8768986The Red Piano by Andrê Leblanc and Barroux (2010).

There aren’t a ton of picture books about The Cultural Revolution in  China, but as China’s history fascinates me, I was very happy to find The Red Piano.


It’s an incredible book about a young girl, a re-education camp, and the piano that connects her to memories of her old life, to freedom.



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“For several years now, pages from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier have been passed round the camp, from hand to hand. The father of a friend sends parcels. Several sheets are hidden in each package. If there is an inspection, they are confiscated and she has to hope for another package.”

There is a piano, miraculously, hidden in the camp. Music is what helps the girl survive. Remember. Feel human, feel hope.




One day, she’s discovered, and punished. “The music in her heart subsides.” Until, another day, it is all over.


The illustrations are bleakly beautiful. Stark. Cream paper, ink gray, bleeding bursts of red.

the red piano picture book

The story is inspired by concert pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei‘s true story.


You may also want to check out the middle grade memoir, Red Scarf Girl, which covers the same historical period.




hans christian andersen treasury of fairy tales + giveaway

treasury-andersen-fairy-talesAn Illustrated Treasury of Hans Christian Andersen’s  Fairy Tales illustrated by Anastasiya Archipova.

Ever since this book arrived, I’ve been waiting for the perfect time for a special giveaway. This is it as it will arrive in time for the holidays.

“The Snow Queen” is one of the fairy tales in this illustrated compilation, from which I adapted my advent calendar version. Did you see it?

It’s a perfect holiday gift for a young reader and one the whole family can share, a treasure indeed. It contains eight of Andersen’s famous tales including “The Brave Tin Soldier” and “The Little Match Girl” which are very well suited for this time of year.




Thanks to Myrick Marketing and Floris Books  for images of “The Snow Queen!”

I received a review copy; opinions are my own. 

Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win this Illustrated Treasury!

(Giveaway ends Thursday, December 4th at midnight; it’s a quick one! Open to N. America only. I’ll contact the randomly chosen winner by email for their mailing address.)