I am a Christmas book junkie. I have Christmas stories from my childhood and books that I have collected over the years from book sales and library donations. Every year I give each of my daughters a new Christmas title (this year I found a favorite from my library storytime days called A New Suit for Santa for Gloria and Strega Nona's Gift for Frances). We have so many Christmas books that every year I wrap 25 Christmas stories and we open and read one each day and we still have plenty left to enjoy at other times. Yes, say it with me: I am a Christmas book junkie.
So when HarperCollins sent me Mary Engelbreit's Nutcracker to review, the girls and I were excited. We have several great versions of The Nutcracker at home, and I wondered how this one would stack up against some of our favorites. I actually really like this version, but I am not surprised. If you don't know Mary Engelbreit, she is a designer who dabbles in many artistic endeavors. She has created greeting cards, fabric, home decorating books, a magazine and many other things based on her darling, vintage illustrative style. Now in the past few years Engelbreit has begun issuing her own versions of some famous children's stories (Mary Engelbreit's Fairy Tales, Mary Engelbreit's Mother Goose) as well as writing her own original stories (at our house, The Queen of Halloween is a favorite).
Engelbreit has an amazing knack for distilling the plot into a storyline easy for readers to follow. The Nutcracker can be confusing. After all, there are two distinct sets of events - Marie meeting the Nutcracker and battling with the Mouse King, and then the trip to Toyland. But here, with just a few lines of text on each page, Engelbreit keeps what's important and focuses it. Her version isn't long (it probably took us ten minutes to read aloud), but it has all the elements we love - magic, fantasy, action and even some romance. And instead of seeing all the action swirling across a stage in a ballet performance, where there are often many things going on, Engelbreit keeps everything told through Marie's perspective. It allows children to really identify with Marie, with her love for the ugly Nutcracker, her anger at Fritz, her bravery, her awe. Readers see it all through Marie's wide eyes.
This is a retelling of the original version, created by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816 as The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. As such, there is no mention of ballet in this version, which may serve as a contrast with other versions. Having experienced the ballet both with Frances and on my own, I know the storyline can sometimes be forgotten in the face of glorious ballet performances and swirling costumes. But there is still dance in this story, especially in Toyland. Engelbreit has paid homage to the movements and dance of the characters subtly throughout. This works because so much of this story is experienced through its illustrations.
Mary Engelbreit's illustrative style evokes the illustrations of old, and this book is no exception. On the jacket flap of this book, Engelbreit explains that she is influenced by old picture books, and you can definitely see it here. It's in Herr Drosselmeyer's top hat, the style of houses, the cars and the toys pictured throughout. For those who are aficionados of Engelbreit's work, many of her regular motifs and characters appear here as well. The old-fashioned look of the book is also tied to the old-fashioned candy scattered throughout many pages. There are peppermints, lollipops, gumdrops and ribbon candy encircling Marie and the Nutcracker on the cover. As the book goes on, candy sprawls everywhere - it overlaps frames, spills onto streets and of course pops out of presents. It adds a lush feeling to the story, and one that many children will delight in. Adults, too, will enjoy seeing the old-fashioned details that make this book unique.
Engelbreit uses multiple frames to help tell the story. Pages often have several different illustrations to pore over. On the page where Marie and the Prince enjoy the dancing in Toyland, there is a framed illustration in the middle of the page with Marie and the Prince eating...you guessed it, candy. There are spot illustrations of more food and international dancer fill the rest of the page. Your eye moves from spot to spot following the line of dancers across the page. Even though Engelbreit puts a lot on each page, the illustrations do not feel busy. Instead they convey interest and movement. This can subtly evoke the whirling dance of the ballet.
There is one page where there seems to be on odd choice in the illustrations. During the battle between the mice and soldiers, the text mentions that "Marie was so frightened she fell and bumped her knee." Yet the illustration focuses on the mouse army. At the bottom of the page is Marie's head, oversized, peeping from the edge of the page. There's no evidence of her fall. In a book where there is limited text and every word counts, either that fact should have been eliminated or it should have been shown to make the fight even more dramatic. But this is just one small misstep from a veteran illustrator.
I hope you still have room under your tree for one more Christmas title. This one is fun for young and old readers alike. Mary Engelbreit's Nutcracker reminds me of Christmas candy - sweet, nostalgic and full of flavor. Enjoy and Merry Christmas!
Mary Engelbreit's Nutcracker. Mary Engelbreit. HarperCollins, 2011.
This book was sent to me in galley form by the publisher in hopes I would review it.