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How Anna Pavlova’s life captured imagination of Atlanta children’s book author twice

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Atlanta children’s book author Laurel Snyder will appear at the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Saturday with her latest, “Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova.” CONTRIBUTED BY WEBB ROBERTS
Atlanta children’s book author Laurel Snyder will appear at the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Saturday with her latest, “Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova.” CONTRIBUTED BY WEBB ROBERTS

Atlanta children’s book author Laurel Snyder will appear at the AJC Decatur Book Festival on Saturday with her latest, “Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova.” CONTRIBUTED BY WEBB ROBERTS

Laurel Snyder’s name is printed on the luminous cover of her new children’s book, “Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” of course. But her co-author is not credited.

Swan_FC_HiRes-1That’s because the 41-year-old Atlanta author’s collaborator is, well, her 8- or 10-year-old self.

Snyder will participate Saturday in an AJC Decatur Book Festival author panel on the subject of historical picture books, sharing the session with Lynn Cullen (“Dear Mr. Washington”) and Karen Deans (“Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm”). But Snyder’s kid self is sure to be present too.

To explain: Snyder was a dance-obsessed 8- or 10-year-old when she bought a copy of the 1974 monograph “Anna Pavlova” at a Baltimore used bookstore. The sharp black-and-white photographs of the St. Petersburg-born prima ballerina caught the young dancer’s eyes, but it was the passages included from Pavlova’s diaries about her childhood years that fired Snyder’s imagination.

Born to a poor, single washerwoman, Pavlova witnessed a performance of “The Sleeping Beauty” at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg when she was 8 and declared that she would pursue ballet.

Snyder was roughly the same age, during a difficult period of health struggles and the divorce of her parents, when she bought the paperback. She read about Pavlova overcoming her own challenges and felt empowered, scribbling in the book, “Someday I will dance as noone has danced. I will be … Pavlova’s twin.”

That didn’t exactly happen, though Snyder does still take two Zumba classes a week for the sake of physical fitness and mental health. But she did go on to become an accomplished author.

Appropriate for ages 5-8, “Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova” (Chronicle Books, $17.99) is her 12th children’s book, plus there are three she’s written for adults.

The idea for it was sparked in 2011 when she was back in Baltimore and her mother pleaded for her to go through her books and papers in the dusty basement. Snyder came upon the nearly forgotten Pavlova monograph, its cover dog-eared and stained, and her girlish scrawl therein.

She talked with the AJC about the discovery and how it helped her co-write “Swan” with her childhood self.

On what attracted her to Pavlova originally: “I was already into dance, and I also was obsessed with this weird conflation of I loved sad stories, I loved impoverished stories, I loved history. I loved ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ and I loved ‘Little House’ — as long as they had pretty dresses, ballet, frugality and poverty!

“(Pavlova) was this sort of ‘Little Match Girl’ kind of character, swanlike, who becomes this amazing princess. And that totally caught me.”

On reconnecting with the Pavlova used book from her youth: “I hadn’t forgotten it but it just hadn’t come up. You know, you’re rewatching ‘Doctor Zhivago,’ and you think, ‘Oh yeah, I wonder what happened to that book.’ And I was just a book kid. I had a million books that hadn’t made it into my adult life. Some were in my mom’s basement, some in my dad’s attic, some of them got eaten by termites. … If I hadn’t stumbled upon it, I don’t know where it would’ve lived in my memory. But I happened to find it.”

 

Laurel Snyder, author of “Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” was a dance-obsessed Baltimore 4-year-old when this family photo was taken.

Laurel Snyder, author of “Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” was a dance-obsessed Baltimore 4-year-old when this family photo was taken.

On how finding her scribbles helped her connect with her childhood self: “Part of what I do when I write for children is try to find that childhood self again. You don’t want condescending, didactic adults writing for children. You want adults who are still there on some level, who can still speak that language and still know what children want to read. And when I began writing for children 10 years ago, I don’t think I had a clear sense of that. I didn’t have children of my own yet (she’s now mom to Mose, 9; and Lewis, 8). And my sense of what a children’s book was was rooted in what I had liked when I was a child 35 years ago.

“In some ways, what I’m doing now is trying to get back to that place again. … You’re trying to keep your adult brain intact at the same time that you’re having a seance, trying to conjure up your childhood self so she can accompany you and sort of work beside you.”

On how Pavlova and other book heroines lent strength to her childhood self: “Eight was a very hard year for me in particular … and the years surrounding it were not great either. My parents split up, and I was diagnosed as a child with epilepsy (and there were other health issues). I really do think that the timing of that alongside the fact that that’s exactly the age in which you become an independent reader, it was critically important for me.

“Books were absolutely an escape, but at the same time, they were building the tools that I was going to need to get out of those bad times. Books saved me.”


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