Beautiful books inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker

Today’s Picture Book Month theme is Music and given the approaching season I couldn’t resist looking at a couple of books to go with Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker by James Mayhew, and Nutcracker by E.T.A Hoffman, translated by Ralph Manheim, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Having introduced us to Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Swan Lake, Mayhew’s Ella Bella enters the magical world of Tchaikovky’s Nutcracker in the latest installment of this magical series for budding young ballerinas.

As in the earlier books, ballet teacher Madame Rosa introduces her young charges to the music of the ballet by playing her musical box, complete with twirling ballerina. As the children dance like snowflakes Madame Rosa starts to tell the story of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker before taking her class for a Christmas surprise – a Nutcracker themed party with marzipan fruits and sugar plums – in the hall next to the ballet class. Ella Bella does not join her classmates immediately but dances alone on the stage, letting the music literally transport her into the story of the Nutcracker. She dances with Clara, visits the Marzipan Palace and meets the Sugar Plum fairy before being brought gently out of her imaginative reverie as the music box winds down and Madame Rosa calls for Ella Bella to join the party.

Young ballet fans will take great comfort in the same narrative framework being used in each Ella Bella story – the introduction via the ballet teacher, the use of the music box, the seemingly pivotal role Ella Bella plays in the storyline of each ballet as she dances with the main characters in her imagination, before being brought back to “reality”. Whilst the key elements of the ballet story are all covered in Mayhew’s tale, additional information is included in the end papers, highlighting the original source of inspiration for the ballet and when and where the music was composed and originally performed.

The story and the factual information are pitched perfectly for young listeners and readers, and the illustrations capture the magic with a careful balance of pinkness and sparkle alongside a richer rainbow of colour and characters (for example, there’s a boy in the ballet class) which prevent this from becoming one of those Pink Books I try to avoid like the plague. Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker is genuinely full of sugar and spice and all things nice, without ever becoming simpering or full of saccharine.

If you live anywhere near London let me encourage you to go and see James Mayhew illustrate his version of the Nutcracker live to orchestral accompaniment on November the 30th in Limehouse. Earlier this year we went to see James illustrate live to Scheherazade and it was such an exciting experience; I’m sure his Nutcracker will also be utterly wonderful. There’s a description of what to expect at the concert on James’ blog here, and more details about the event, including ticket purchasing options here.


Maurice Sendak could sometimes appear to be the grumpiest, most curmudgeonly old man of children’s literature and so it was with some surprise that I discovered he had designed the set and costumes for the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker (now in it’s 29th season, tickets for this December available here).

These designs form the basis of the illustrations found in Nutcracker by E.T.A Hoffman, brilliantly translated with vigour and freshness by Ralph Manheim. In a fascinating introduction, Sendak explains how he surprised even himself by eventually accepting the request to design a Nutcracker ballet, agreeing to “abandon the predictable Nutcracker and find a fresh version that did honor to Hoffmann, Tchaikovsky, and ourselves“.

And so this gorgeously produced book tells Hoffman’s original and complete Nutcracker story (making it more appropriate for slightly older readers, say 8+), featuring details and subplots which do not feature in most versions of the Nutcracker. Hoffman’s tale comes vibrantly to life through Manheim’s translation of the original (which is nearly 200 years’ old) – it’s a real pleasure to read aloud and fascinating for anyone who enjoys a good fairy story with dark elements, eroticism (for those who wish to see it) and magic galore.

As to the illustrations in the book, Sendak writes (and I quote at length because I think you’ll find it as interesting as I do):

“Fidelity to Hoffmann’s spirit has also been my guide in this illustrated version of the Nutcracker. In changing hats from designer to illustrator I have been faced with a curious dilemma. After all, there are whole sequences in the tale itself that never appear on the stage. Rather than adjust these designs to fit the book, I decided to completely illustrate “The Story of the Hard Nut.” Because of this decision the pictures for this book are composed of two separate entities. There are the designs and costumes from the ballet version, and then the fresh pictures done specifically for the tale. in addition there are a few to animate the original stage designs, and a few more that I could not or would not resist doing. This may explain some disparity in style and tone from section to section.”

Sendak’s illustrations are actually superb, with no reason to complain. Some veer towards the darkly grotesque, others delicately capture the Regency period and make one think of the parties described by Jane Austen. The subtle hues and the richness of composition make this an illustrated book to treasure.

Having delighted in both these versions of the Nutcracker we set about arranging our own Nutcracker party. We made sugar plums (there’s a great selection of recipes and some history on this NPR site) – an ideal sweet treat for young hands to make as it’s basically like messy play, mixing up lots of ingredients, and requires no cooking.

We used ready-to-roll icing, liquorice laces, flaked almonds and food colouring pens to create sugar mice.

Again, this was great for little hands as it required no cooking and was essentially like playing with playdoh.

Continuing the playdoh-theme we then made marzipan fruit. I bought a block at the supermarket and we made the different colours by simply kneading in food colour.

The table was completed with a ballerina cake styled on the one which appears in James Mayhew’s Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker.

Tutus were compulsory party-wear, and we nibbled at all this sweet goodness in between dancing around the kitchen to the ballet music.

As well as listening to orchestral versions of the Nutcracker we listened to:

  • The Nutcracker Suite played exclusively on bicycle parts
  • The Simpsons Nutcracker Song
  • Duke Ellington’s Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)

  • Other activities which would go well alongside reading these two fantastic books include:

  • Making your own musical box complete with twirling ballerina. You can get all the supplies you need from The Music Box Shop (I have no affiliation with this company, nor have I actually used them).
  • Watching the film made of Sendak’s version of the Nutcracker. It’s available to watch in its entirety on YouTube here.
  • Creating snowflakes to dance in your window. If you haven’t any paper, or don’t want to make a mess you can create virtual snowflakes with this little flash programme. Want something a bit different? How about Star Wars snowflakes? My personal favourites are borax snowflakes.
  • .

    Have you a favourite picture book version of the Nutcracker?

    Disclosure: I received a free copies of both books reviewed today via the publishers, Orchard Books and Crown Publishing. I was under no obligation to review the books and I received no money for this post.

    14 Responses

    1. Rachel

      Love all your sweet treats. A favourite of ours is “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” by Sue Whiting. Lovely story with bright colourful illustrations and a cd – story read by Antonia Kidman. There is also some information about the Nutcracker and Tchaikovsky at the back of the book.

      • Zoe

        Thanks Rachel for the suggestion of the book by Sue Whiting – I shall certainly look it up, and also to Wendy – Susan Jeffer’s Nutcracker is new to me too.

    2. WendyLady@GoodBooks

      Who better to tackle the darkness and childish pleasure of The Nutcracker than Maurice Sendak? As a former window dresser for FAO Schwarz, and a designer of opera sets, he must’ve been in his element with The Nutcracker! 🙂

      I’ve never seen Mayhew’s Ella Bella, but I’d give my eye teeth to watch him illustrate it to the music!!! Have you seen Susan Jeffer’s Nutcracker? It’s dreamy! (she said it took her three years to finish!)
      WendyLady@GoodBooks recently posted..1000 Good Books

      • Zoe

        Se7en, what? you don’t have a Katie book in your house either?? This is scandalous!!

    3. Polly

      My best childhood rainy days were spent listening to the Nutcracker on a little portable record player lying on my bed reading my brother’s Asterix books. I can’t here a bar of it now without immediately becoming 9 again… Thanks for the Mayhew tipoff-I’m STRAIGHT on to it.
      Polly recently posted..RHCBA Blog Tour: Jonathan Meres

    4. Zoe

      Polly – love the image of you reading Asterix to the Nutcracker! And yes, do go see James illustrated live – it’s quite an experience 🙂

      Maggy, ah! you NEED an Ella Bella book!

      Library Mice, ashamed to say I don’t know the Pienkowski version – shall have to look that up. Thanks for alerting me to it.
      Zoe recently posted..Beautiful books inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker

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