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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(click image(s) to enlarge)

 

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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! 
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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…

 

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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!

 

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

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

  1. Oh Danielle! This is the most I have seen yet from the inside of this beautiful book. LOVE! Can’t wait to read. Glad it is getting so much buzz on it’s book birthday!

  2. The book sounds amazing, and this post is one of the best about a picture book that I have ever read. Thanks for the insights into what promises to be a wonderful, enduring picture book.

  3. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia says:

    Our national dessert here in Australia is the pavlova – everyone calls it “pav”! It’s basically a 12 inch diameter meringue base – which was inspired by Anna’s tutu, with a soft meringue filling, then slathered with thick cream and passionfruit or strawberries – divine and decadent! Legend has it, that it was invented by a hotel chef in Western Australia in 1926, when Anna was touring here and bedazzling audiences with her dancing. When the head chef tasted it, he said that it was “as light as Pavlova!” and hence the naming of this luscious dessert. Thought you might be interested in this tasty bit of trivia, Danielle – and as you’re a keen baker, perhaps you should give it a whirl! You’ll find stacks of recipes on good old Google. There is no record of Anna’s reaction to this dessert named in her honour – perhaps out of politeness she may have eaten a spoonful – but I can imagine her shuddering at all those forbidden calories!

  4. ohmylorelei says:

    Thank you so much for this very thoughtful interview and post. I’m grateful!

    (and for the record, a HUGE fan of Pavlova-the-treat. I make it every Passover!)

  5. I love that this book shares a good life AND a good death. So rare that’s included. Sounds a very special picture book Danielle!

  6. This is a beautiful post for a beautiful book. Thanks for sharing, Danielle!

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