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August 27, 2015

Swan, by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad

swanThe thing about a book illustrated by Julie Morstad is that you’ve just got to buy it, because Julie Morstad books are an occasion, the occasions not at all diminished by the fact that she’s been very prolific lately and her books coming out every few months now. (Recently: Julia, Child; This is Sadie.) I’ve been particularly looking forward to her collaboration with Laurel Snyder, because I’ve been an admirer of Snyder (who is pretty prolific herself) since before she’d ever written a book, when I was an avid follower of her long-ago blog (except then we called ourselves readers and not followers). I even have a copy of her 2007 poetry collection (for grown-up people), The Myth of the Simple Machines, whose cover image is more than a little Julie Morstad-esque.

Morstad and Snyder’s collaboration, Swan, is a picture book biography of the ballerina, Anna Pavlova.

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For anyone with a thing for laundry lines in literature (and there are many of us!), this book is for you. It’s the story of a young girl (born in 1881, as the note from the author at the end informs us) whose world is transformed when her mother takes her to see Sleeping Beauty at the ballet.

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“Now Anna cannot sleep. Or sit still ever.” Even as she works with her laundress mother, she is thinking about dancing. “She can only sway, dip, and spin…”

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The route to success is not so direct. Anna does not get into ballet school on her first try. Once she is admitted (“The work begins. The work? The work! Up and down and back and turn and on and on… Again! Again! Again!”), it is generally assumed that she does not have the right body type, too strange feet for ballet. But she flourishes. Five years into her career, she dances her most famous role: The Swan.

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Swan reminded me of Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, the story of a young woman with fierce ambitions who also wishes to make the world more beautiful. Anna Pavlova does this not by planting lupines, but by bringing her art to people around the world who’d never before had access to the elite world of ballet. “Across bullrings and the warped boards of dance halls, she moves everyone. The sick and the poor come to meet her boats and trains, they cheer her, and are cheered.”

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I love the fashion (that cloche hat!) in Morstad’s illustrations, and the gorgeous costumes. I also love the footsteps in the snow, which reminds me of Singing Away the Dark, by Caroline Woodward, one of my favourite Julie Morstad titles. Snyder’s prose is full of its own kind of music, sound and rhythm, repeating patterns, a contrast of soft and quiet tones, the reader wholly engaged in the narrative. It’s a book that begs to be read aloud: “There’s a swell of strings, a scurry of skirts. A hiss and a hum and… HUSH! It’s all beginning!”

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Full disclosure necessitates that I tell you that Harriet isn’t quite as mad for this book as I am. She admires much about it, but says she finds the ending much too sad. While I really love the ending, how Anna Pavlova’s death is represented as another beautiful performance. (The author’s note explains that Pavlova was calling for her swan dress in her fever.) I appreciate that death is necessarily part of the story, and how gorgeously Snyder puts it: “Every day must end in night. Every bird must fold its wings. Every feather falls at last, and settles.”

“Can I still read it anyway?” I ask Harriet, and she says I can.

I have a feeling it’s going to grow on her.

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3 thoughts on “Swan, by Laurel Snyder and Julie Morstad”

  1. Beth Kaplan says:

    Beautiful! I have a feeling it’s going to grow on me too.

  2. Kerry says:

    I read it to her again this morning, and took care to talk about the illustrations, about Anna Pavlova’s amazing life. We went through the illustration above with all the costumes and coats and Harriet picked out her favourite—the queen, she said… It’s all in how you sell it!

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