Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad
This is a poetic and radiant look at the life of Anna Pavlova, prima ballerina. It begins with her childhood where she grew up poor, the daughter of a laundress in Russia. Then her mother takes her to the ballet one night and Anna’s life is transformed by a desire to dance. She auditioned twice for the Imperial Ballet School, turned down the first time because she was too young. At age 10, she was admitted and studied dance. Her body was considered all wrong for ballet, since she was so thin and not athletically built. She became the most famous ballerina of all time, helped by her tireless work to bring dance and music to those who had never experienced it. The book goes all the way through to her death, where she still longed to perform and dance until the very end.
Snyder’s poetry is just as delicate and strong as Pavlova herself. Through the words you can feel the tremble of desire, the longing for a different life and then the drive to learn and perform. As Pavlova’s story continues, Snyder captures the way that she created a home for herself when Russia changed and the importance of her performing around the world. Her performance as the swan is particularly beautifully captured in words, allowing her grace and particular style to be understood by young readers.
Morstad’s illustrations help with this as well. They highlight her beauty and grace, allow her to shine on the page and dance across it. Her pale beauty and black hair captivate on the page. Other pages show how hard she worked both in learning to dance and then again in a repeating format how hard she worked as a prima ballerina as well.
Beautifully written and illustrated, this picture book in poetry offers a glimpse at the wonder that was Anna Pavlova. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Told in the first person by a young African-American dancer, this book shows how dreams can come true with lots of hard work and plenty of hope. Set in Harlem of the fifties, this young dancer dreams of becoming a ballerina. Her mother works hard to pay for her dance lessons. The ballet master saw her pretending to dance and offered her lessons. She isn’t allowed to dance onstage with the white girls, but can take lessons each day in the back of the room. Then she learns about Janet Collins, the first colored prima ballerina. Now she is going to the Metropolitan Opera House to see Collins dance and feast on the hope that that brings to her.
Dempsey’s picture book is in verse that not only shows what the little girl is feeling but also speaks to the time before Civil Rights and the separation that came with it. It is much more the story of the young girl than of Janet Collins, though it is her inspiration that led a generation of non-white girls to realize that they too could be dancers.
Cooper’s illustrations are gauzy and beautiful. When the young girl is up on the rooftop dreaming, his image is breathtaking with the color of the sky shining upon her face. He unerringly turns her toward light, speaking with pictures of the hope that sustains her. It is beautifully done.
Inspiring and exquisite, this picture book belongs in the hands of all little girls dreaming of pirouettes and tutus. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel.
When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky: Two Artists, Their Ballet and One Extraordinary Riot by Lauren Stringer
This is the story of how two Russian artists collaborated to create a revolutionary new ballet, The Rite of Spring. When the two artists met one another, each of them started to change. Stravinsky’s music changed and Nijinsky’s dance changed. They inspired one another to try something entirely new and created a ballet based on Russian folk dances and folk songs. Even at rehearsal, some of the musicians walked out, but enough stayed so that the show could go on. When the ballet was first performed, the crowd was split. Some people loved the new music and dancing, others were shocked and hated it. The crowd took to the streets to continue to express their anger and appreciation. This is a great picture book biography that captures the magic of creativity that results when two masters collaborate on something brave and new.
Stringer’s writing takes a complicated story and distills it to the most important points. Young readers will quickly understand that the two men brought new ideas out of one another, finding each other inspiring. Her art also speaks to the collaboration of these two men, using flowing lines and deep yet soft colors. She inserts elements from the art of the time, referencing movements like cubism in both her text and art. The end of the book has photographs of the two artists and dancers in the ballet. It also has a longer look at their collaboration.
A great choice for art and music classes, I’d recommend listening to The Rite of Spring with the group too. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle
There are oh so many ballet books out there for little ballerinas who look for tulle and pointe shoes. So it was with that bias and perhaps a cringe or two that I opened this book. Inside it’s very pink cover is a very pink world that is pure pink fabulousness! In this wordless book, Flora meets the flamingo and immediately imitates its stance and attitude. Then the flamingo launches into a dance that Flora struggles to match in her swimcap and flippers. It all goes well until Flora loses her footing and flops into the water. What happens next speaks to what friends should do when they see someone take a flop. Start again with plenty of support. All this with no words!
Idle has a stunning simplicity in this book. It has the draw of flaps to open, but that is all about the dance and the movement. There is a pleasure in lengthening the dance by having the two of them dance movements again and again by opening and closing the flaps. It turns readers into storytellers in a way that is engaging and free, just as this entire book is throughout.
I love Flora and her lack of tulle and ballet outfit. Instead wearing her swim gear, she is able to mimic the flamingo all the better. It takes the emphasis off of the clothes of ballet and back to the dance itself. Now all children need is a friendly flamingo. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
The Nutcracker by Alison Jay
A lovely holiday confection, this book is based on The Nutcracker ballet. The story is told in a very readable and accessible way that will invite children who don’t know the ballet story to hear it for the first time. It also welcomes those who know the ballet to return to the story in a new format. The book follows Clara as she moves through her Christmas Eve and receives a nutcracker toy for a present. Her brother works the mechanism too hard and the nutcracker’s jaw is broken. In the evening Clara returns to her toy, curling up with it under the Christmas tree. She awakens to find the tree and her nutcracker growing bigger and bigger. Her adventure continues as the nutcracker fights the mouse king and then becomes a prince. The prince takes Clara to his castle in the land of sweets where she meets the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Jay remains true to the story of the ballet, her skillful writing making the story a pleasure to share aloud. It is her illustrations that really make this a special book. As with her other picture books, the illustrations are done with a crackled finish that creates a sense of timelessness that is perfect for this story. She uses deep colors that evoke the holidays, the warmth of the fireside, and the delight of candy.
If you have a young ballerina in your life, this would make a wonderful holiday gift. It is a great choice for libraries looking for a holiday picture book that is an instant classic. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.
Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca
This is the story of how three great artists came together to create a classic American ballet. Aaron Copland’s music inspired the original story and dance of Martha Graham and then in turn Isamu Noguchi created the minimalist sets. All of these have become iconic so it is a pleasure to understand how the three collaborated on the creation, each drawing from the others ideas but also adding their own to make an ever more powerful ballet. This picture book manages to capture the arc of creativity and also the ideas behind the ballet itself.
Greenberg and Jordan have somehow managed in so few words to tell two stories. They reveal both the story of the collaboration between the creators of the ballet and also the story of that the ballet itself tells. The text also gives insight into the design elements of the sets, the simple power of the music, the creative process of choreography. This is truly a look at what it takes to be a master composer, choreographer and artist. The text invites the reader in, explains the elements and leaves one in awe.
Floca’s watercolors are alive and vivid. They offer a real look at the costumes and sets but also offer stirring glimpses behind the curtain and into the artistic process. His use of color is subtle yet strong, really allowing the original creativity of the collaboration to shine.
Highly recommended, this book is a breathtaking look at a ballet. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.