sugarplum fairies and seven-headed mice

Are you going to a Nutcracker performance this year?

the nutcracker from the nycballet dot com

I have such fond memories of taking my children to the ballet — the magical sets, enchanting costumes, sparkling celeste, scampering mice.

Today, I’ve got six books starring the Nutcracker, none of which tells the original story. There are dozens of books that do that, illustrated by everyone under the sun it seems, so you can choose your own favorite version. Meanwhile, we’ll meander around the story looking at if from different angles, starting with:

the nutcracker comes to america cover imageThe Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition, by Chris Barton, illustrated by Cathy Gendron
published in 2015 by Millbrook Press

I never stopped to think about why the Nutcracker is such a huge holiday tradition. I guess it’s such a fixture, it never occurred to me that it had to start sometime, somewhere.

Here comes Chris Barton, though, to carry us back to the early 1900s, to an obscure town in Utah where three Christensen The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three-Ballet Loving Brotherbrothers grow up in a family that loves to dance.

A potent mixture of showmanship, ballet, Russian symphony conductors, world war, mad sewing skills, endless practice and years of patience culminate in a 1949 Christmas performance that launches this spectacular annual treat. Who knew?

It’s an unusual slice of history and an intriguing story of perseverance that will be of special interest to children ages 5 and up who are familiar with the ballet.

duke ellington's nutcracker suite cover imageDuke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by Don Tate
published in 2011 by Charlesbridge

If you’ve never heard the swingin’, bluesy sounds of Duke Ellington’s jazzed-up Nutcracker Suite, do yourself a favor and listen now!

There’s a CD tucked into this book that will allow you to do just that while you read the backstory of how Ellington came to write it in 1960.

duke ellington's nutcracker suite illustration don tate

As we know now, courtesy of Chris Barton, the tradition of a holiday Nutcracker performance had just taken off when the idea surfaced for Ellington to give it his own signature spin. Working with his good friend Billy Strayhorn, the reimagined music was composed in less than three months.

duke ellington's nutcracker stuie illustration don tate

Settle in with the CD, read the story a bit at a time, and listen to each snazzy tune as the band records it in that Los Angeles studio. Perhaps a box of peanut brittle is in order as well. Knowing the original Tchaikovsky music will sharpen a child’s appreciation for these variations and this story. Ages 6 and up.

the new nutcracker suite and other innocent verses cover imageThe New Nutcracker Suite and Other Innocent Verses, by Ogden Nash, designed and illustrated by Ivan Chermayeff
published in 1962 by Little, Brown and Company

At the same time as Ellington was riffing, poet Ogden Nash was commissioned to pen some verses for use as narration to the original music. He wrote them in 1961 and ’62.

This book contains those typically witty and highly-original poems. the new nutcracker suite and other innocent verses illustration ivan chermayeffThere’s a collection called “Between Birthdays” which were written to accompany Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, a few miscellaneous poems, and then seven poems correlated to various Nutcracker pieces.

Here is his Russian Dance poem:

The Russian moujik is mad for music,
For music the moujik is most enthusic.
Whenever an instrument twangs or toots
He tucks his trousers into his boots,
He squats on his heels, but his knees don’t crack,
And he kicks like a frenzied jumping jack.
My knees would make this performance tragic,
But his have special moujik magic.

Apparently Peter Ustinov read these poems for a Columbia recording with music conducted by André Kostelanetz. Wouldn’t that be a joy to hear?

the new nutcracker suite and other innocent verses illustration detail ivan chermayeff

The masterful design of Ivan Chermayeff is the cherry on the top of all of this.  His bold, playful 1960’s colors and sensibilities completely own the pages.

the new nutcracker suite and other innocent verses nash and chermayeff

Why on earth is this book out of print?! Ages 4 and up if you can find it.

the toymaker's apprentice cover imageThe Toymaker’s Apprentice, by Sherri L. Smith
published in 2015 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story has been pared down here and trimmed up there to create the ballet production most of us are familiar with.

This new holiday novel does just the opposite. Sherri L. Smith takes the kernel of Hoffman’s original story and spins out an elaborate tale of sparring kingdoms. There’s the empire of Boldavia with their new Princess Pirlipat; the Drosselmeyer family, whose fantastical mechanisms win them both friends and enemies; the mouse kingdom and its Queen mad for power and revenge; and the rats, whose scarred memories of a Pied Piper still inform their philosophy of life.

Mythical nuts, clever inventions, German Christmas markets, scholarly squirrels, life-and-death gambits, cogs, clocks, plus a dash of romance — swirl in this enjoyable, fast-paced fantasy. 385 pages. Ages 9 and up.

bea in the nutcracker cover imageBea in the Nutcracker, written and illustrated by Rachel Isadora
published in 2015 by Nancy Paulsen Books

If you’re looking to introduce the delights of the Nutcracker to the very youngest of revelers, look no further.

Rachel Isadora’s book is a charming, pint-sized peek into the Land of Sweets. Bea’s toddler ballet class is putting on the Nutcracker and lucky Bea has the part of Clara. See their costumes, watch the show, celebrate the success. 

bea in the nutcracker interior3 rachel isadora

Darling illustrations and the bare minimum of a story line here will tantalize very young children’s imaginations and prepare them for an outing to a performance.

Perfectly-pitched for ages Under-Two and up.

talullah's nutcracker cover imageTallulah’s Nutcracker, by Marilyn Singer, illustrations by Alexandra Boiger
published in 2013 by Clarion Books

And finally, a darling story about little Tallulah, whose stars align at just the right moment bringing her a golden chance to play the part of a mouse in the Nutcracker. Thrilling does not even begin to cover it!

tallulah's nutcracker illustration2 alexandra boiger

Tallulah’s enthusiasm for her part is as soaring as a grand jeté, and dreams of stardom and sugar plum roles in the future dance in her head. The one thing she doesn’t count on is a mussed-up stumble on stage. Oh dear.

tallulah's nutcracker illustration alexandra boiger

A lovely outpouring of empathy and kindness from the dance master and the Sugar Plum Fairy herself, gives renewed hope and happiness to Tallulah. It’s a sweet story, with charming, delicate illustrations, for ages 3 and up. There are a number of other Tallulah stories if you wish.