Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation.

Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes (Ages 4-8) is told entirely though illustrated panels. (If you have doubts about the value of wordless books, read this.) I first fell in love with MacKay’s acclaimed cut-paper dioramas in Fall Leaves—but, wow, has she outdone herself here. Her art seems actually to dance off the page. It’s as if we were watching the ballet unfold from the same velvet seats as the story’s young heroine, who is attending the show for the first time with her grandmother. In fact, it’s precisely the experience of watching “The Nutcracker” to which McKay brings our attention.

The girl in the story is not as easily seduced as us readers by the prospect of going to the theater. In fact, she isn’t keen on leaving her house at all. Especially not to venture out into the rain and across town with her Gran, who surprises her with Nutcracker tickets. The girl looks stiff and miserable while getting her long hair brushed and her frilly dress on.

MacKay’s washes of browns and greys perfectly echo the dreariness of the cold, wet night. (I know we’re supposed to feel their contrast with the splendor of what’s to come, but there’s something just as beautiful for me about these pictures.)

Despite not getting the response from her granddaughter which she (likely) desires, Gran’s enthusiasm never wavers. She bounces along with a swing in her step and no umbrella.

When the pair enters the theater, it becomes clear the girl thinks her bad luck is only worsening. A boy around her age sticks out his tongue at her as she walks by. When they climb the stairs to the balcony, he turns out to have the seat next to her.

But then, the violinists begin, and the magic happens. Swirls of color sweep into view, and the dismal palette of the previous pages is juxtaposed by the vibrant reds, oranges, greens, and blues of the characters and sets on stage.

If my daughter’s reaction is any indication, those familiar with the ballet will have fun recognizing the different scenes as they flash by. Equally fun is identifying expressions on both the girl’s and boy’s faces, as they take in the performance for the first time. There’s anxiety at the nutcracker’s battle with the mouse king, for starters. And then relief—accompanied by a playful “I was never actually worried” glance at her neighbor—when Clara intercedes on stage to stop the mouse king.

What we begin to realize is that, much as we love seeing our favorite scenes from the ballet rendered so incredibly beautifully on paper, it’s actually just as much fun to watch the shifting relationship between the girl and boy in their seats. In their collective experiencing of the show, they become something more than strangers. Tentative at first, but with increasing warmth, they become playful, even a little flirty, with one another. It’s as if the magic on stage reaches out and holds them in its spell. Clearly, we are meant to draw parallels between the young children’s camaraderie and the relationship between Clara and the nutcracker prince. (McKay paints both the main characters and the dancers with refreshing racial diversity, adding another element of beauty to these relationships.)

Did I mention that by the time the show lets out, the rain has turned to snow?

 

Take away the stage lights, the lavish costumes, the festive sets, and the ethereal dancing, and there is still something magical about E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which long ago inspired “The Nutcracker” ballet. It’s a story about handmade gifts that grow in size and come alive on Christmas Eve, when the night is ripe for the unexpected and the impossible seems possible.

T.E. McMorrow (a former stagehand himself) taps into the spirit behind this timeless Christmas Eve tale in The Nutcracker in Harlem (Ages 4-8), which stars a young African-American girl named Marie, living at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in the artist-rich Sugar Hill neighborhood of New York City. If Waltz of the Snowflakes has us hearing the classical music in our heads, The Nutcracker in Harlem has us conjuring up the soulful sounds of jazz—voices accompanied by trumpets, saxophones, and women dancing in head scarves and feathered boas. Brilliantly illustrated by the accomplished James Ransome, the story stays true to the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, right down to the sweet potato pie.

Our heroine, Marie, loves “the sound of Christmas,” but she doesn’t participate in it. Despite others’ encouragement to “let it out,” the shy, serious girl cannot bring herself to sing alongside her gregarious family and friends. In the pictures, she stands watchful and stiff on the sides. “She wished she could sing, but Marie was afraid she wasn’t any good.”

Like Clara in “The Nutcracker,” Marie gets a nutcracker doll from her Uncle Cab. It is carved, her uncle tells her, from “magical wood” and carries a drum around its neck. After everyone else has gone to bed, Marie sits in the dark beside the twinkling Christmas tree and rocks the nutcracker in her arms. In Ransome’s watercolor, we feel tenderness and affection, but we also identify a palpable sadness in Marie’s solitude.

When Marie awakens after briefly dozing off, the tree has doubled, tripled, quadrupled in size, and the glass ornaments have come to life. So, too, have the dolls and the wooden soldiers, the latter now an army led by the nutcracker himself. In sweeps a second, equally formidable army made up of enchanted mice and led by a mouse general, who charges ahead with cries of “Candy Cane!” and “Marzipan!”

The battle rages on, until it’s time for Marie, like Clara before her, to intercede before the mouse general destroys the nutcracker. But instead of kicking or throwing a shoe at him, Marie picks up the fallen nutcracker’s drum and begins to play. Marie’s power comes from within, but it comes in the form of music.

At once, the mice return to normal size and scamper away, and Marie is left with the nutcracker prince, with whom she dances beneath falling snowflakes. Marie does what we’ve been hoping she will do from the moment we meet her: she closes her eyes and sings. Her entire face softens, and her eyes sparkle.

When Marie wakes again, she is in her bed. It is Christmas morning, and she is surrounded by her smiling parents and her brother. Only an extra drum under the tree suggests that perhaps Marie wasn’t dreaming after all. That and the fact that later in the day, when the guests gather again in her house to sing, Marie joins in.

In McMorrow’s Author’s Note, he says about the story’s ending: “Just as the memory of The Nutcracker remained with Marie, so too did the memory of the Harlem Renaissance remain in the American soul.” Music and art have incredible power to transport and transform. Another reason why next year, you’ll find us in the audience of “The Nutcracker,” relishing once again the magic of the season.

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Review copy of Waltz of the Snowflakes provided by Running Press Kids. The Nutcracker in Harlem published by Harper Collins Children’s. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Shoot!

May 25, 2017 § 3 Comments

It never fails to astonish me how long my kids can withstand a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Earlier this spring, we waited in line for three hours to get tickets to an art exhibit, and they entertained themselves for at least an hour playing this hand game. Long after myself—and every adult around us—was ready to banish the words “rock,” ‘paper,” and “scissors” from the English language, my kids kept going. Alas, this is not a quiet game.

Perhaps when I could have been pondering nobler pursuits, I have instead been asking myself: What is it about this highly repetitive game (“Rock, paper, scissors, shoot! Rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”) that lends itself to such welcome repetition? The answer, I’ve decided, is larger than simply immediate gratification or the apparent thrill of saying “shoot” over and over. RPS is the perfect game of chance. Rock trumps scissors trumps paper trumps rock. (That’s all the Trumps you’ll get out of me.) It’s an equilateral triangle—a closed system, if you will–where each opponent has an equal shot at winning and losing. (Apparently, this is not strictly true, as some professional players—yup, they exist—are able to “recognize and exploit unconscious patterns in their opponents’ play.”)

Apparently, I am not the only one spending quality time contemplating a greater meaning behind this mundane game. Two of the cleverest, funniest, and most subversive children’s book creators—Drew Daywalt (author of the wildly popular The Day the Crayons Quit) and Adam Rex (illustrator of Chloe and the Lion and How This Book Was Made, to name a few musts)—have teamed up to imagine what the backstory to this age-old game might look (and sound) like. Let’s just say it didn’t take me more than half a second to decide we needed to own The Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors (Ages 5-10). (It’s also a beautiful reminder that elementary children are not too old for picture books.)

Long before they make one another’s acquaintance, the anthropomorphized Rock, Paper, and Scissors have a taste for battle. Each spends his or her days seeking out opponents. Rock, for example, who lives “in an ancient and distant realm called the Kingdom of Backyard,” baits a clothespin on the laundry line: “Drop that underwear and battle me, you ridiculous wooden clip-man!” To which the clothespin replies, “I will pinch you and make you cry, Rock Warrior!”

A battle ensues—and yet, despite Clothespin’s big talk, Rock is quickly victorious.

As we quickly understand, no matter whose buttons Rock pushes (“You, sir, look like a fuzzy little butt,” he says to an apricot, to which the latter responds, “What?! I challenge you to a duel!”), Rock always dominates. And yet—as anyone who has antagonized a younger sibling will understand—rather than feeling satisfied with this predictable turn of events, Rock finds himself disheartened by what he realizes are not “worthy challenges.” “Smooshing you has brought me no joy,” he mutters atop a squashed apricot.

A similar search for a worthy foe is simultaneously taking place in both the “Empire of Mom’s Home Office” and the “tiny village of Junk Drawer,” where Paper and Scissors respectively take on computer printers (“Noooo! Not a paper jam! Paper is victorious!”) and adhesive tape.

Probably because I’m always asking my children to lower their voices, they think my reading a book which demands shouting and taunting and battle noises is absolutely hysterical (puts me in mind of this). But I must admit: with writing like this, I kinda do, too. If you can’t beat ‘em, sometimes you have to join ‘em. (Plus, the scene where Scissors forges into “the frigid wastes of Refrigerator/Freezer” and refuses to bow down before a bag of cocky dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets—she spears them to bits instead—is sheer brilliance.)

Like mine, your children will relish the anticipation of the inevitable: Rock, Paper, and Scissors at last meet (in the “great cavern of Two-Car Garage”) and discover worthy opponents in one another. The battles are “epic and legendary” and the trash talk even better. Says Scissors, “I hope you’re wearing your battle pants, rock warrior.” Replies Rock: “If by ‘battle plants’ you mean ‘no pants, but I’m willing to fight you,’ then yes…yes, I am wearing my battle pants, weird scissory one!”

The surprise comes when each in turn is finally beaten. Where we might expect sorrow from the defeated, instead there is elation. “You have made me so happy by beating me!” cries Scissors to Rock. The latter (not having challenged Paper yet, to whom he will fall) responds, “I wish I felt your joy, Scissors, for I have yet to meet a warrior who can beat me.”

There’s pride to be taken in a hard-fought loss to a worthy opponent. And perhaps this message is not all that foreign to our children. After all, they beg and plead for “one more minute” of playtime—sweaty and grassy, they chase each other back and forth across the backyard—but when we bring down the parental “That’s enough,” when we guide them through the front door and into the bathroom and over to the dinner table and into the bath and into bed, they know they’ve lost. They’re free at last to give up the good fight and surrender—with a sleepy smile on their face.

And prepare for Round Two tomorrow.

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Book published by Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperColllins. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

November’s Birthday Pick Battle

November 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

Battle BunnySix year old boys live in a world of their own. Often, the only people who understand them are other six year old boys. Take this recent conversation I witnessed as I was driving JP and his buddy home from school:

Friend: “I think I just saw a box of dynamite on the side of the street.”
JP: “Cool! Imagine if you took an inflatable bouncy house and blasted dynamite underneath it, and the bouncy house exploded into Outer Space and caught fire to the moon!”
Friend: “Yes! And then the bouncy house would blast the moon to the sun where it would explode into a thousand pieces and turn to gas!”
JP: “And then that gas would get into the Earth’s atmosphere and poison the guts out of all the bad people!”
Friend: “And they’d all become zombies and their eyes would fall out of their heads!”
JP: “Look, my cheese stick is pooping!”
Friend: “Cool!”

We as parents might not be able to compete with this level of engrossing conversation, but I’ll tell you who can: Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, whose Battle Bunny (Ages 5-9), is going to rock the world of every boy in the universe, guaranteed. For starters, the book’s premise turns the conventional picture book on its head. A juvenile and saccharine-sweet story (resembling something from the Little Golden Books era) gets a complete makeover with the help of a boy’s imagination—and his big, black Sharpie. What we as readers get is the finished product: a book where words are crossed out and replaced, whose illustrations are embellished with chicken scratch, and where new sentences and comic book-like sketches are squeezed into the narrative. Are you following this? A boy has taken a Sharpie to his book and turned it into something far more entertaining in the world of elementary boys.

I’m talking, of course, about the Stuff of Battles. Birthday Bunny, an innocent young bunny whose animal friends throw him a lame surprise party, becomes Battle Bunny, a bunny on a doomsday quest to bring about the demise of his animal friends. As in, “I am going to whomp on you, bird brain, and pluck you like a sick chicken!” (Bunny says this to Crow). The animals all put up a good fight (“I will take you down with my Furiouso Claw!” Badger retorts; and Sgt. Squirrel even comes ready with “robot killer bees”); but no one is a match for Battle Bunny. Except, of course, our master puppeteer and narrator—a boy named Alex, who also happens to be celebrating a birthday and who writes himself into the second half of the story to bring about Bunny’s successful surrender. Naturally, Alex doesn’t miss the chance for some self-promotion, giving Bunny these lines: “Alex, you have defeated me with the greatest birthday powers. Now I know that you are the best!”

I knew that the book’s format, with its crossed out words and scribbles, would blow my son’s mind; and I could not have been more pleased with his response. I casually handed him Battle Bunny and told him to look it over while I put his sister to bed. Minutes later, the door to his sister’s room burst open, and a wide-eyed JP blew into the room. “Mommy, there is something wrong with this book! There is drawing on it! Some of the words are erased!” (Not surprisingly, my children have been taught to treat books with the deepest reverence.)

A call out to Matthew Myers who is responsible for the book's illustrations, perfect renditions of a child's hand and which lend the narrative a lightheartedness that downplays some of the violent language.

A call out to Matthew Myers who is responsible for the book’s illustrations, perfect renditions of a child’s hand and which lend the narrative a lightheartedness that downplays some of the violent language.

Only when JP and I explored the book together did I stumble upon its additional appeal for the early-reader crowd. For all its silliness and bad guy banter, this is a book about words, about word play, about the creative process itself. JP has been diligently learning to read, but he is easily intimidated by reading a book cover to cover. Battle Bunny is not an “early reader” per se—its vocabulary and visual layout will require adult help for those still in the throes of learning to read—but the layered narrative encourages children to seek out the hidden gems buried under and around the layers of Sharpie. Parents will read the new, revised story; but kids, in their own time, will enjoy hours of fun deciphering what the words used to be. After all, the book’s deliciousness lies in the transformation of Birthday Bunny to Battle Bunny. At breakfast, “carrot juice” becomes “brain juice,” and “carrot crispies” become “greasy guts.” Birthday Bunny’s “Special Thinking Place” on a “big gray rock” becomes Battle Bunny’s “Evil Plan Place” on a “launchpad,” perfect for his deadly rocket ship built from a piece of the Eiffel Tower and an arm of the Statue of Liberty. I’ll say it again: this is the stuff that takes up prime real estate in boys’ brains.

Mac Barnett is no stranger to drawing children’s attention to the creative process. Chloe and the Lion, which he co-authored with Adam Rex (one of my favorite books of 2012), gives readers a hilarious look at the banter between writer and illustrator as they attempt to agree on the direction of a story. In Battle Bunny, Barnett and Scieszka go one step further, inserting the child reader into the driver’s seat. As Alex usurps creative control and re-imagines Bunny’s story, it’s as if he’s sending a message to children everywhere that they too posses the power to drive their own narratives, both on paper and in real life. The subject matter might not always be of our choosing—but hey, it’s a start. And a mighty hilarious one at that.

 

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