Stories in Tune – The Nutcracker – Part 1

Just in time for Christmas, today I bring you a series of reviews of picture book versions of The Nutcracker as part of my series Stories in Tune.

The Nutcracker ballet, with music written by Tchaikovsky and a libretto adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”, could barely be more appealing to young children. The story, set at Christmas, is full of toys who come to life, a hard fought battle, animals who behave like humans, sweets galore and a happy ending with a marriage to a prince. So with a cracking story (pun intended, sorry!) and wonderful melodies, The Nutcracker is perfect for introducing kids to some magical classical music and an enduring story.

The Nutcracker by Susan Chandler, illustrated by Kate Leake

A lovely version for the younger crowd (say, 2-5 years), this is a great introduction to the key characters in the story of the Nutcracker without going into lots of detail. J adored the idea of toys coming alive (perhaps primed by the Toy Story films) and enjoyed the illustrations – simple, slightly wobbly line drawings with a child-like quality in muted colours, dominated by pastel pink and purple. No explicit connection is made between this story and the Tchaikovsky ballet, but of all the books reviewed here it is this one that is most similar to the ballet rather than to the original Hoffman tale.

The Nutcracker by John Cech, illustrated by Eric Puybaret

This version (which is more loyal to the original Hoffman tale of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King rather than to Pepita’s libretto for Tchaikovsky’s ballet in that there is a second story within the first, about Princess Pirlipat and the nut Crackatook) is considerably longer than the Chandler/Leake version and so I read it to the girls in a way I’ve never read a book to them before; they both were playing with playmobil on the floor whilst I sat and read it aloud, as if they were listening to an audio story.

It felt rather strange for me as I’m used to reading with the kids in my lap, sitting more or less still, rather than moving around and getting on with other things at the same time but this approach worked really well for both children who would come up every few minutes to take a look at the illustrations and then move back to their playmobil. I’m sure J wouldn’t have sat still for a story of this length, but it was clear she still enjoyed it and got something from it. I shall try to use this technique again with other longer stories when I want to read to both children.

Although the girls didn’t pore over the illustrations I enjoyed them greatly. I kept thinking of art deco posters – lots of curves, plenty of graded colour, yet somehow restrained, perhaps because many of the forms are almost geometric rather than naturalistic.

If it were interesting and beautiful illustrations or a great book for a bedtime read for an older child this is the one I’d choose out of my selection, although if you’re looking for a book which tells the tale of the ballet per se, this isn’t it.

The Nutcracker based on the classic story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Julie Paschkis

Paschkis has done a marvellous job with her lyrical storytelling in this version of the Hoffman (rather than the ballet) Nutcracker with lines like like “Uncel Drosslemeier was small and thin, and his face was covered with little crisscross wrinkles, as if a spider had spun its web all over his skin.” In comparison, the Cech retelling seems a little bland, whist this sings and is full of small background, descriptive detail giving the story a sense of authenticity and freshness; Paschkis is very loyal to the Hoffman story but doesn’t ever give the impression of being constrained by retelling it.

Unfortunately Paschkis’ illustrations don’t work for me. They seem as if they haven’t been quite worked through; the wide decorative borders full of with folk-like motives could be exactly the sort of thing I love, but here they don’t click with me. Some her characters have a little of the grotesque about them – the nutcracker with the huge chin, and the rather plain Clara. Of course, you could argue that this unatractiveness is very deliberate – the Hoffman story (rather than the ballet version) makes much of why the nutcracker is ugly, but even with an understanding of Paschkis’ decision, unattractive lead characters make the pictures much harder to enjoy.

This book contains a CD with excerpts from the Ballet even though at no point is the connection made between the story told in the book and the story of the ballet.

The Nutcracker, adapted by Janet Schulman, illustrated by Renee Graef

Upon our first reading of this I was disappointed. Schulman’s text sometimes grated a little with me with its slightly jarring use of language e.g. the archaic “Godpapa Drosselmeir” and the language used by the children seeming to be very far from the sort of thing a real child would say e.g. when Marie says “You’re a hard-hearted creature, Fritz“.

I also felt the choice made by Graef to set her traditional illustrations in 19th century Germany (although a nod to the time when Hoffman wrote his original story) was a poor one as it felt that in opting for historical accuracy it was harder to capture the more fairytale-like, fantastical aspects of this story.

However, after several more readings this book has ended up being pretty popular with all of us…

M really loved the illustrations full of little small details, and the page showing Marie and Fritz seeing their bedecked Christmas tree for the first time epitomised what I think M is hoping to see at Christmas. Although I didn’t enjoy reading the story aloud, the book comes with a CD containing not only excerpts from the ballet, but also the entire story read aloud and so both girls have had this on a lot as they have played the past few days. The independence an audio CD gives the girls is something they really like – they can enjoy the story whenever and wherever they like, and how many times in a row they like.

I also really liked how Schulman mangages to weave lots of elements from the ballet into Hoffman’s story: when Marie and the Nutcracker visit the Land of Toys once the Mouse King has been vanquished there is lots of dancing – all the dances you would want to see from the ballet, including the Russian Cossack, the Chinese Tea Dance, the veiled Arabian dancer and the Waltz of the Flowers are effortlessly intertwined in the story making this a good read if you wanted to prepare a child for seeing the ballet version of Nutcracker.

So to summarize:

  • A book for the younger crowd: The Nutcracker by Susan Chandler, illustrated by Kate Leake
  • A book with stylish, interesting illustrations: The Nutcracker by John Cech, illustrated by Eric Puybaret
  • A book with wonderful storytelling: The Nutcracker based on the classic story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, illustrated by Julie Paschkis
  • A book that would provide background before going to the ballet: The Nutcracker, adapted by Janet Schulman, illustrated by Renee Graef
  • Have you read any other versions of The Nutcracker? Please do leave a comment if there’s a version that you particularly like. Sur La Lune has more recommendations of picture book versions of the Nutcracker – if you don’t know Heidi’s website but are interested in fairy and folk tales you should definitely check it out. I’m looking forward to the next Ella Bella Ballerina book by James Mayhew which is all about the ballet Nutcracker and due out toward the end of next year.

    On Friday I’ll be posting Here’s the post about the activities we got up to alongside our reading of these lovely picture books – I know this is a busy time of year for many people but I really hope to see you then!

    3 Responses

    1. Rachel

      This is the one we have, by Susan Jeffers:

      I like it. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a pretty good version. The narrative is close to that of the ballet. The pictures show dancers playing the Snowflakes, the Flower in Waltz of the Flowers, etc. In the author’s note at the end she specifically mentions the lack of references to the ballet in other versions and states that one of her inentions here was to include it. Even in this somewhat pared-down version parts of the story are hard for younger children to follow.

      By the way, my first introduction to Eric Puyabet is his illustrations of Puff the Magic Dragon. They are very similar in style and tone to his Nutcracker – perhaps too similar. I have not been persuaded to buy it since it seems more like a repeat of what he’s already done, not simply something else done in the same style.

      Finally, we are going to the NYCB’s Nutcracker this Sunday, if my daughter continues to be on the mend from her pnemonia. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

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