Swan Lake

Swan Lake

by Mark Helprin, Chris Van Allsburg

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The two-time Caldecott medalist illustrates Mark Helprin's enchanting story of the characters in Tchaikovsky's famous ballet.


The two-time Caldecott medalist illustrates Mark Helprin's enchanting story of the characters in Tchaikovsky's famous ballet.

Editorial Reviews

Mr. Helprin's original achievement is transforming the magical evanescence of the fairy tale of an enchanted princess into a rational and worldly account that - by narrative suspense, wit, humor and linguistic virtuosity - aspires to high art. . . . This ''Swan Lake'' is also satire and social-philosophical commentary. Mr. Helprin takes aim at income tax, childhood and education, the misuses of wealth, the urban literary-scene-cum-espresso-cups, gossipy parties, rural labor and the pastoral myth and hunting. . . . The Helprin-Van Allsburg ''Swan Lake'' is a provocative curiosity. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In Swan Lake Helprin spins a story as elegant and beautiful as the swan that graces the book's cover; white as pages in a book, the bird glides halfway between earth and sky where illusion and reality intermingle. In language that is wise without being didactic and musical without being affected, Helprin tells of tragedy transcended by love and memory. Unlike the recent Fonteyn/Hyman version (HBJ) that faithfully recounted the famous ballet, Helprin's Swan Lake , while retaining some of the details of the familiar story, enlarges both its plot and vision. Helprin's characters are not governed by magical enchantments but by human nature and the qualities inherent in them as individuals. The Prince, having sworn to be faithful to Odette and the world of beauty and nature she represents, is beguiled by the glitter of civilization and by ``webs of obligation'' to betray her. Odette is not portrayed literally as a swan, but as she and the Prince leap to their deaths they fall ``in smooth dampened curves that promised flight.'' Helprin's complex tale within a tale, like C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, will be a welcome challenge for young readers. The story is focused in part upon the Prince and his Odette but also upon the characters who love and remember them: the Prince's curmudgeonly tutor and a girl who discovers that she is their daughter. The tutor's leisurely narrative is sprinkled with humor and philosophy and often interrupted by the girl, who learns what it means to be ``conquered by the world of the heart and all the possibilities therein.'' In his Van Allsburg's richly colored paintings, Van Allsburg has chosen to sometimes depict sometimes inconsequential moments from the story. The villain, Von Rothbart, e.g., is not pictured at all, while an entire page is devoted to the insignificant ``academy of truffle-hunting pigs.'' The 16 paintings, extraordinary in themselves, mark a departure for Van Allsburg, whose picture book illustrations in the past have been integral to the plot. Here, because the text is of greater length, he follows the tradition of earlier children's book masters; the light-filled paintings are set within like jewels that ornament and reflect the text without systematically explicating it. In Winter's Tale Helprin describes books that are ``hard to read'' but ``could devastate and remake one's soul''; his Swan Lake contains truths ``that take us beyond what we can reason and what we can prove.'' All ages. (Oct.).
Children's Literature - Trina Heidt
Helprin and Van Allsburg have teemed together to create a story that brings deeper meaning, another dimension, to the ballet Swan Lake. They have succeeded immeasurably. The young prince and the orphaned princess, Odette, have been carefully crafted to allow us to share their emotions as they struggle to overcome life's obstacles. Their story, though tragic in most aspects, becomes a transcendental journey of love over adversity and leaves the reader with a hope that goodness lives on and will overcome. Though written as a children's book, this is an absolutely hauntingly beautiful story that will be treasured by readers of all ages.
School Library Journal - School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up-- Visually this book is stunning , with handsomely designed borders , elegant paper, and an evocative small black - and - white illustration of two swans on the title page. Some of the 13 full-color illustrations placed throughout the book are more affecting than others. The emperor lying with his head propped on his dog and his pen between his toes, the rider standing on a galloping horse, and the two great swans with wings raised as if to dance are memorable images. The archer in the window poised to kill seems more shadowy than sinister, and the two lovers falling to their death are awkward rather than graceful. The retelling and adaptation of the well-known story is more problematic. The fragile story of a prince who leaves his childhood behind when he finds his princess, an enchanted swan held captive by an evil magician, has been adapted into a tale of the power struggle between an evil politician and naive rulers, with the lovers caught in the middle. The magician Von Rothbart is now the emperor's second in command and the real power in the land. The only enchantment is the pure love between Odette and the Prince that survives in the form of an infant daughter. The Prince's tutor, who acts the drunken fool in order to keep his post at court, tells the story to their child. The writing is skillful, with verbal images so strong that the illustrations almost seem unnecessary, but the plot is overloaded with philosophical musing about the quality of life and ironic descriptions of life at a decadent court. It is much too dense and sophisticated for children, and at the same time thin fare on which to pin so much for adults. A special purchase for large public libraries because of interest in the two creators and as a lovely example of book making. --Amy Kellman, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
7.76(w) x 9.73(h) x 0.46(d)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

Meet the Author

Chris Van Allsburg is the winner of two Caldecott Medals, for Jumanji and The Polar Express, as well as the recipient of a Caldecott Honor Book for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi. The author and illustrator of numerous picture books for children, he has also been awarded the Regina Medal for lifetime achievement in children's literature. In 1982, Jumanji won the National Book Award and in 1996, it was made into a popular feature film. Chris Van Allsburg was formerly an instructor at the Rhode Island School of Design. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife and two children.

Brief Biography

Upstate New York
Date of Birth:
June 28, 1947
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
A.B., Harvard University, 1969; A.M., 1972. Postgraduate study at Oxford University, 1976-77.

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