Review: Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Reviewed by Christina
[I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]
It's about: Most of us are fairly familiar with the basic story of the ballet: little girl Clara gets a Nutcracker for Christmas, then has an elaborate dream in which he comes to life, defeats a rat king, turns into a prince, and takes Clara to a magical candy kingdom where she watches a sort of multinational (and somewhat culturally insensitive, by today's standards) ballet variety show. It's a classic Christmas tradition, set to Tchaikovsky's unforgettable score.
But until reading this beautiful hardcover edition I never realized that the ballet is actually a watered-down version of a much stranger, darker, and more complicated story by Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann. Here "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" is translated from German by Ralph Mannheim and illustrated by the late, lamented Maurice Sendak.
I thought: Well, was this book a surprise! I read a few chapters each night to my five-year-old daughter, Isobel, and we finished it in a week. It is by far the most literarily advanced thing we've read aloud together, and I loved discovering with her this wide departure from the familiar ballet story. A good deal of plot probably went over her head- the language isn't always child-friendly, with fairly long and convoluted sentences and uncommon words like "roseate" and "scaramouche." (Although I should thank Hoffmann/Mannheim for the happy moment during the ballet when Isobel correctly identified hussars!) But still, if she were writing this review I know she'd have positive things to say and as a mom I have to give it some points.
Still, this is a good edition to look for if you want The Nutcracker's text as it was originally conceived, and if you are a big Sendak fan you'll probably appreciate his illustrations more than I did. I enjoyed it and I'm happy to have it in my family's collection of holiday books. And if my kids request it year after year, I will likely come to love it more passionately than I do now.
Verdict: Stick it on the shelf.
Reading Recommendations: I'd definitely recommend reading this a little bit at a time over the holidays, preferably with snuggly adorable children listening.
Warnings: Nothin'. Non-religious readers might not appreciate that this story is slightly more Christian than the ballet. Very young children might be frightened by some of the darker elements: mild peril, scary rats, toy battle sequences, disfiguring magic spells.
What I'm reading next: Still Les Misérables