Stories in Tune – Swan Lake – Part 1

Welcome to the sixth post in our mini-series here on Playing by the bookStories in tune – all about picture books inspired by classical music. In the last month or so we’ve been listening to Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky, doing a fair bit of dancing, and of course reading some lovely books.

Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake by James Mayhew was published less than a month ago and couldn’t have arrived at a better time for us – Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake turns out to be the perfect book to introduce this amazing ballet to the youngest of children

Ella Bella is a young girl (I imagine her to be 6 or 7) who takes ballet classes in a gorgeous old theatre with the grand but kind Madame Rosa. At this particular class Madame Rosa introduces her students to the music of Swan Lake, telling them some of the key elements of the ballet’s storyline whilst they dance to music created by Madame Rosa’s wind-up musical box (complete with a spinning ballerina). When the class ends Ella Bella is so entranced by the music and the fairytale that she continues in her own reverie, dancing and imagining herself alongside Princess Odette as the story of Swan Lake plays out: when the prince is deceived by Odile, Ella Bella tries to warn him and when Odette flees the palace Ella Bella helps the prince to fine Odette.

Creating an illustration for Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake. Image: James Mayhew

Ella Bella’s daydream ends just as the prince and his princess find each other and live happily ever after; Ella Bella’s mother is waiting for her and, having been utterly transported, this budding ballerina splashes “in the puddles all the way home, just like a baby swan.”

This story worked so well for us: it showed the girls how Swan Lake is not just a tale, but a ballet; it appealed to so many little girls’ idea of heaven – dressing up and being a ballerina, it put Ella Bella (and by extension my own girls listening to the story) at the heart of the action making is seem alive, and it showed how listening to music can sweep you up and take you to new and wonderful worlds. All these facets added up to making this book a great stimulus for imaginative play and really listening to the music.

The book itself is gorgeous – larger than A4, bright pink with the title embossed in silver, it’s a book that would definitely make a lovely present (imagine giving it with a CD of the music, or a tutu – I think the recipient would be so happy!) The illustrations will delight any fan of retro styling – the limited palette and illustrative approach is very reminiscent of 1940s and 50s design, with even one or two nods to the iconic Dandelion clocks design by Sanderson making an appearance.

Ella Bella is lucky to have a whole series of books about her ballet lessons and the music and stories she gets to explore through dance – all of which you can read about on the blog James Mayhew presents Ella Bella Ballerina. I’m pretty sure it won’t be long before we’re reading more of her stories in our home!

If your kids love things pink and girly Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake will definitely be a hit with them. If, however, your children are perhaps a little older and not swayed by diamanté and an abundance of net, then Swan Lake, as retold and illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger is a wonderful book to introduce them to the story of Tchaikovsky’s most famous ballet.

This version of Swan Lake is magically told in classic fairy tale format, opening with those spine tingling words “Once upon a time..” and ending with the prince and princess having a long and happy life together. As Zwerger and Mayhew both note at the back of their books, the ballet traditionally ends with Odette and her prince dying together but being reunited in heaven. Zwerger adds “ year after Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893, the score and the choreography were drastically changed. Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest, reworked the libretto. But the biggest change was that the story was now given a tragic ending. In the original Tchaikovsky had let love conquer evil. You can imagine how relieved I was to find this. Since Tchaikovsky himself had wanted a happy ending for Swan Lake I felt free to do the same.

Although Zwerger’s illustrations allude to the music at the heart of this story, with the inclusion on each double spread of a few bars of music from the ballet, her storytelling is such that the tale stands completely on its own – you might never know that it was inspired by the ballet, for none of the characters are named; there is simply a Swan Queen, a prince and an evil sorcerer.

Zwerger’s illustrations are full of moody hues, an abundance of ethereal slate greys and stony blues creating a melancholic atmosphere more in tune with the darker aspects of the story of Swan Lake, despite her decision to opt for the original, happier ending. Putting aside this slight mismatch, the illustrations have a definite fairy tale quality to them and an aesthetic which will appeal particularly to older children and adults.

Swan Lake: The Magic of the Ballet by Adele Geras, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark provided us with a return to Swan Lake the ballet, rather than Swan Lake, a beautiful fairy story.

If you are looking for a book which very closely follows the story of the most recognised version of Swan Lake, and which provides a good bit of background to ballet in general this is perhaps the pick of the three; reading this version before going to see a performance would provide a pretty solid preparation. All characters are named, and only in this version do the lovers drown together.

I really enjoyed reading this version aloud. The text was beautifully but simply written, with clear authorial voice inviting us listeners to be transported to another world. The opening lines immediately grabbed all out attentions, despite having read several versions of the story already:

Listen. These things happened long ago. There was daylight and darkness. There was Good and Evil.

Whilst the storytelling was lovely in this version, the illustrations were a disappointment. Although most pages have illustrated borders (eg of feathers, musical instruments or flowers), few scenes from the ballet are depicted, and those that there are appear as small cameos amidst text; there is only one full page illustration, so if you’re hoping for a richly illustrated version of Swan Lake this isn’t the book for you.

That said, those illustrations that are included are instantly recognisable as Chichester Clark, so if you like her style you may just be disappointed she didn’t get to showcase her talent a little more.

Because of the great retelling and the paucity of illustrations I can imagine reading this to M whilst waiting for the curtain to rise at a performance – a situation where she would just want to listen, not look at the book because there would be too much else of interest going on. The size of this book means it would also fit handily into a handbag along with some sweets, and perhaps some tissues ready for that day when we do manage to see a performance of Swan Lake for ourselves.

Photo: jamedz

There are several more picture book version of Swan Lake, including one illustrated by Chris van Allsburg that I’d love to see, but I haven’t been able to get hold of them. If you’ve read any of them, please let me know what you thought of them!

Apart from reading these great books we also, of course, got up to various other Swan Lake related activities. Tune in on Monday to see what we got up to!

Disclosure: I received my copy of Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake, gratis from the publisher, Orchard Books and my thanks go to them. This review, however, reflects my own and honest opinion.

2 Responses

  1. amandab

    My Princess was first introduced to Swan Lake through her Barbie dvds (I was almost happy to buy this one, knowing it was going to be a ballet in parts and was a classic tale) and the first time she watched it I was made to turn it off, it quite frightened her. She has watched it again, but even know is not happy if she sees a black swan at the lake as she is convinced that all black swans are really evil 🙂

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