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swan: the life and dance of anna pavlova + laurel snyder author interview
“Every day must end in night.Every bird must fold its wings.Every feather falls at last, and settles.”
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?
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.