2016, for whatever reason, has turned out to be a VERY Nutcracker heavy year. If you are unaware or only vaguely familiar with what The Nutcracker is, I will sum up. In 1816 Prussian Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffman wrote an odd little children’s story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It was this wild bit of imagining about a girl who receives a nutcracker from her uncle and the fantastical story that ensues. There’s even a story within a story, which concerns the tale of the Princess Pirlipat and the nut she had to eat to break a spell. It’s good and trippy. There was even a version of it illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
In time this story was adapted by Alexander Dumas into merely The Nutcracker. And from that tale we get the two-act balled choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Tchaikovsky.
For a long time the ballet was done exactly the same way every year. Then people started to get creative. In 1983, Maurice Sendak (who had four years before adapted Where the Wild Things Are to the stage) designed the set for the Pacific Northwestern Ballet’s production of Nutcracker. It was a massive hit partly, as Maria Popova puts it, because it embraced, “Hoffmann’s essential weirdness”. Looking at the art Sendak did for the accompanying book, one really wonders why he never illustrated Struwwelpeter at any point in his career. But I digress.
The Sendak production ran with the Pacific Northwestern Ballet until 2014 when it finally ended its run. Weep not, little children, if you feel you might have missed a chance to see a true children’s book master’s hand on a Nutcracker production. I come with tidings of great joy. Here in Chicago the Joffrey Ballet is presenting from December 10th-30th a production of The Nutcracker choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, with puppets by Basil Twist and costumes and sets by Julian Crouch and our very own Brian Selznick. Marvelous, no? The show will this time be set during Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. Just bounce that thought around your noggin for a while.
On the book side of things, stories about the Nutcracker are abundant. Last year we saw a couple come out, as well as a nice behind-the-scenes story by Chris Barton called The Nutcracker Comes to America. That may well be the only nonfiction title related to The Nutcracker you’ll find on your shelves, by the way.
This year Nutcrackers have multiplied like so many Mouse King heads. I have found six for starters. Yet for all that they’re now common, writing this book is an incredibly difficult affair. The struggle each one of these books is figuring out how to tell a story that is both familiar to those kids who are either in the ballet or have seen it, and also has some relation to the original source material. To put it plainly, there have been mixed results.
The Nutcracker by Grace Maccarone, ill. Celia Chauffrey
This is one of those books that certainly feels as though it was created to appeal primarily to those kids that get to act in a production of The Nutcracker as party guests and mice. The entire trip to the Land of Sweets is kept incredibly short. All told it’s a pretty rote retelling of the ballet specifically. Perfectly decent but not a top pick.
The Nutcracker by the New York City Ballet, ill. Valeria Docampo
Apparently an entire ballet company is capable of writing a book together. Here the fact that the show IS a ballet is never forgotten (the cover makes that much clear). Yet the name of our heroine isn’t Clara, as most productions of The Nutcracker name her, but Marie. That’s her name in the original Hoffman book! Yet the book itself acts as a younger introduction for kids to the show. The kind of title you’d read to a five-year-old who was about to go and see their first performance.
The Nutcracker by Kate Davies, ill. Niroot Puttapipat
Just a quick note here. Remember how I said that in the original Hoffman story there was an odd little subplot involving a character with the name Princess Pirlipat? How likely is it that a Puttapipat would illustrate a book that originally contained a Pirlipat? The editing gods work in mysterious ways. This is one of the lovelier Nutcrackers out this year and for good reason. The silhouettes are delicate and delightful and the small pop-up details even nicer. Both the original Hoffman and the subsequent Dumas stories have been combined here to try and bridge the gap between ballet and text.
The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, ill. Lisbeth Zwerger
It’s not entirely fair to include this since this is technically a reprint, but the original has been unavailable for years. This is Hoffman’s original story but instead of Sendak’s art you have Zwerger’s. She doesn’t necessarily tap into the oddities of the text, but she has the dreamlike aspects down pat. A lovely one.
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, retold by Renate Raecke, ill. Yana Sedova
I think that when it comes to the story and the mix of text and image, this may well be the most successful. Like the Puttapipat version it does a good job of building a bridge between the ballet and the original story. It also, as you can see here, is has some of the best art. This is my own personal pick of the lot.
E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker by Jack Wang and Holman Wang
Aww. The latest from Cozy Classics. I couldn’t finish this post without paying tribute to this one. If you know a kid in a production of this show, just get them this book. It’s quick. It’s cute. And it does a darn good job of showing a ballet slipper in flight in felt. And what more, I ask you, do you really and truly need in this life but that?