Girl in a ballet pose.Years ago my sister gave me a picture book by someone she had  met at a social function. It had one of the best titles ever, Baxter, the Pig who Wanted to be Kosher. The book is hilarious. So I was excited when I saw another book by the same author, Laurel Snyder.

I love this book just as much as Baxter–no, probably more–but it couldn’t be more different in tone. This haunting, lyrical biography of ballerina Anna Pavlova is a dream to read aloud. It opens with her first time to see a ballet: “Her feet wake up! Her skin prickles. there is a song, suddenly, inside her.” We follow her as she tries to enter a ballet school, is rejected, and finally succeeds, becoming a world-famous ballerina.

I was fascinated at how much of the story Snyder conveys elliptically, without actually telling us what’s going on. We figure it out from the rhythm of the words, from the punctuation, and from the art. So when Anna Pavlova is rejected from ballet school (a fact you can confirm if you dip into Snyder’s excellent back matter), we read only: “At last Mama nods, and out of her house Anna goes, into the world of people. Tall people.” The illustration shows Anna entering a building where we see ballet students, in silhouette, practicing. On the next page, we see Anna leaving the building, head bowed, while the students continue to practice. The words say, “And oh? Oh.” The economy of language staggers. But the story is never lost.

I love the lyricism and rhythm of the language in the book. While Anna is waiting to get into ballet school, we see her dancing as she hangs up laundry, and the writing explains, “Anna stretches, bides her time. Shirt, shirt, laundry. Shirt, shirt laundry.

The book lingers over Anna Pavlova’s death–three full spreads are devoted to her deathbed–but the effect is not macabre. Instead, it’s gentle and celebratory. Much like a velvet curtain swishing closed.

The art, by Julie Morstad, is simple but sophisticated, based on a palette of black and white and red or pink. The endpapers are some of my favorite from the entire year.

This is a book to read, curled up next to a child you love, while the snow falls outside your window.

A video clip of Anna Pavlova dancing.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad. (Chronicle: 2015)

I’m happy to join Alyson Beecher of KidLit Frenzy in her 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge!




Cover of book Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird In this lyrical autobiography, ballerina Misty Copeland speaks to a young, uncertain dancer, encouraging her to prepare, to practice, and mostly to believe in her ability to dance. The text has none of the dates or places of the birth-to-death biography but is instead a spiritual account of the internal process needed to succeed in ballet.

You won’t hear from this book that Copeland is one of the great modern ballerinas or that she was born in poverty or that she became, just a few months ago, the first female African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. The book’s language is lovely, but it will have even more meaning if you first dig into Copeland’s life a bit–perhaps at her website or by watching the new movie about her life. Copeland includes a letter to the reader at the back of the book, but it talks more about why she wrote the book than about where she came from. I would have loved a much longer, more detail-oriented back essay here. But luckily there are other resources to fill the gap.

Teachers might think about comparing this autobiography to Yuyi Morales’ biography of Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida.  Both use lyricism and imagery to describe artists.

Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated  by Christopher Myers. G. P. Putnam’s: 2014.