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Pavlova’s Gift

by Maxine Trottier, Victoria Berdichevsky, illus.

This biographical picture book is a new addition to a burgeoning genre. Like Alvin Schroeder’s Ragtime Tumpie (about Josephine Baker), Pavlova’s Gift imagines an incident in the life of a real person. The historical afterword should pique the reader’s interest in further reading, but misses the opportunity to suggest new titles.

Anna Pavlova, the famous ballerina, is summoned out of retirement by Czar Nicholas II to dance for his ailing son. On the way, in good folktale fashion, she meets an old gypsy woman who tells her she has “the gift of dance,” and must choose that night how to bestow it. She also gives Anna a wooden heart necklace. Anna and the driver of her sleigh stop in the forest for repairs. She sees a young gypsy woman dance in the firelight, and offers her the chance to go to the Czar’s palace and dance in her stead. Anna wraps her own red cloak about the young woman, gives her the necklace, and sees her off. She then spends the rest of the night dancing to the gypsy music, recalling her lost youth. The next day, Anna receives a letter of thanks from the Czar for “her” performance.

Maxine Trottier, best-known for The Tiny Kite of Eddie Wing, has given a satisfying folktale shape to the story. This is a quiet book that carries a sense of mystery muffled by the falling snow. Berdichevsky’s delicate line-and-wash artwork, though occasionally marred by poor draughtsmanship, captures the poignancy of the text. Most of the illustrations are presented in dramatic double-paged spreads, with red and orange highlights against winter blues and whites – perfect for storytime. The strong nostalgia for a lost world is central to the story, but strikes me as unusual in a picture book, perhaps because it’s seen from an adult perspective. Recommended for children of about six and up, especially ballet fans.