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The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann

danse des mirlitons

Ivan Vzevolozhsky’s Nutcracker costume sketch for The Dance of the Reed-Flutes, 1892

Fellow blogger Nathalie Foy offered a fabulous post today: she plans to make an advent calendar of Christmas books, their own or the library’s, and unwrap one each night to be read aloud.

My mind has turned to Christmas too. Just last night N and I looked over our own collection of Christmas books and picked one we added to the pile at this summer’s library sale: The Nutcracker by ETA Hoffmann, wonderfully illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Most people  nowadays are probably more familiar with the ballet version, which simplified the story a great deal, but also brought it to new life through dance and music. The ballet is hugely popular. I have many friends who see it every year and consider it a Christmas tradition. I remember seeing it here in Toronto about a decade ago, when my lovely niece Sophia was one of the dancers, handpicked from the National Ballet School.

maurice sendak nutcracker

Interestingly, the ballet was poorly received when it was first staged in 1892, one of the main criticisms being that it was not faithful to Hoffmann’s story. We’re just a couple of chapters in, and loving it from the first-page description of Godfather Drosselmeier, a strange family friend with a dark but compelling presence:

“Judge Drosselmeier was anything but handsome. He was short and very thin, his face was seamed with wrinkles, he had a big black patch where his right eye should have been, and he had no hair at all, for which reason he wore a beautiful white wig, a real work of art. And Judge Drosselmeier was himself a skilled craftsman, able to make and repair clocks. When one of the fine clocks in the Stahlbaum house was sick and unable to sing, Godfather Drosselmeier would come over, remove his glass wig and yellow coat, and put on a blue apron. For a while he would stick sharp instruments into the clock. Little Marie felt real pain at the sight. But it didn’t hurt the clock in the least; on the contrary, it came back to life and made everyone happy by whirring and striking and singing merrily.”

Every year at Christmas, Drosselmeier makes gifts “of wonderful artistry” for the children Fritz and Marie — but the gifts are too wonderful, and the parents always put them away for safekeeping, so the children can never actually play with them. On Christmas Eve when the story opens, Drosselmeier offers a magnificent miniature castle with chimes playing, doors opening and closing, and tiny ladies and gentlemen in all their splendour, strolling around rooms aglow in candlelight.

It’s a beautiful creation, but mechanical rather than human, and since the things inside it move like clockwork, with no possibility for surprise, the children quickly lose interest. Fritz turns to his toy hussars, and Marie discovers a nutcracker made in the shape of “an excellent little man…. With Marie it was love at first sight, and the longer she gazed at the sweet little man, the more delighted she was with his good-natured face. His light green, slightly too prominent eyes were also full of kindness, and his well-curled, white-cotton beard was most becoming, as it brought out the sweet smile of his bright red lips.”

The family takes turns cracking nuts with him, but Fritz chooses a huge, hard nut, which breaks the Nutcracker’s jaw. From here, the story turns increasingly strange, as Marie is drawn in to the Nutcracker’s magical world.

franz, post nut crack

Sendak’s illustrations, as always, are delightful. I can’t help but see little Max from Where the Wild Things Are in careless nut-cracking Fritz. These are so different from the images that normally come to mind when I think of The Nutcracker — swirling sugar plum fairies and elegant ballerinas en pointe.

It’s amazing to think that this story was written almost 200  years ago, in 1816, and that now in 2012 I’m curling up with my daughter at night, reading a tale that has lasted all this time. Last year she loved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and was not at all daunted by the old-fashioned language and the delicious but cumbersome descriptions. So I’m thrilled to add The Nutcracker to our eclectic collection of this season’s books, which includes:

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The Friendly Beasts by Tomie dePaola
Names for Snow by Judi K Beach
The Huron Carol by Ian Wallace
Bella’s Tree by Janet Russell
The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
The Little Tree by e.e. cummings
The Olden Days Coat by Margaret Laurence
Sadie and the Snowman by Allen Morgan
How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
A City Christmas Tree by Rebecca Bond
The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

Thanks Nathalie for inspiring this post!

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Strega Nona, Old Befana, and me (somewhat middle-aged Befana)

Here’s a quote I like from Julia at Birds and Words, which makes me want to take up birding: “I love birding most because it teaches me the art of sitting with an idea. … birding enables my writing. It sounds like an overly bold pronouncement, and perhaps it is, but the ingredients of birding accompany me to my desk every day: relentless observation, research, patience, and a willingness to accept what comes my way (including some totally-less-than-stellar days).”

A little while back I had tea with some fellow bloggers (Kerry at Pickle Me This, Julia at Birds and Words, and Nathalie at Nathalie Foy), and we were joined by a couple of diminutive blueberry gobblers named Gavin and Harriet. The conversation roamed from books to blueberries to books to birds to books to piano to books again, and then to picture books, and Kerry spoke of an excellent post she’d read by mom-author-blogger Laurel Snyder, A Meditation on My Fierce Love of Picture Books. I went home and looked it up, and even though weeks have gone by, I’m still mulling what I read there. Here’s an excerpt:

“We are pushing children to read chapter books too soon. Maybe you’re not, but trust me, someone you know is.  I do countless school visits every year, and am horrified by the number of kids who tell me they have moved on to chapter books and don’t need pictures anymore (though they never seem to mind them when I pull out a picture book). I can’t count all the parents who beam and explain that little Emma is reading at a fourth grade level in kindergarten. That she doesn’t like baby books anymore.  She doesn’t need pictures…. the saddest part is that in abandoning their picture books, these kids are missing out on sheer  play and poetry—two things they’ll have a harder and harder time finding in their lives as they get older.”

That’s something I’ve believed for a long time, but I realized after reading Snyder’s post that I’ve been somewhat guilty myself of rushing N through the stages — because I’m excited for her, because there are so many wonderful books to discover, because I’m amazed by what she can take in.

So lately we’re mixing it up a bit. She’s finishing off the first Harry Potter for the second time, and we’re dipping into an array of picture books. N loves Tomie dePaola illustrations, so we’ve taken a bunch of his books out of the library the last while. Strega Nona looks an awful lot like our dear, rather ancient Italian neighbour, who grows tomatoes, beans, and basil in her backyard while singing Italian songs. Sometimes she makes delicious vanilla biscuits for N and passes them over the fence.

And like our neighbour, Strega Nona is kind and nurturing. She cooks pasta in her magic pot, and cures headaches and warts and makes people fall in love. The witch in dePaola’s Old Befana has a darker quality. She’s a cranky woman who sweeps and sweeps and sweeps (“Like you, Mom!” says N; “Yeah, like you!” says her dad J, who is always irritated by what he calls my incessant tittling).

I’m especially intrigued by the Old Befana story, not because of the sweeping, but because of the fact that it’s based on an old Italian legend. Like any legend, different versions have evolved over the years. DePaola’s Old Befana isn’t as cranky as he claims, but she sweeps like mad, and she bakes too — you can often smell the goodness of her baking wafting from her home. You can sometimes hear her singing lullabies, though Old Befana lives and sweeps and bakes alone.

Then one night she is awoken by a blaze of light filling her humble little room. She looks out the window and sees a bright and glorious star. More annoyed than dazzled, she closes her shutters again and tries to go back to sleep. The next day she is visited by three kings among a caravan, asking for directions to Bethlehem. “Old woman, you should come with us!” says a boy traveling with them. “This child, this baby king has come to change the world. He comes for us! He comes for the poor! We are bringing him gifts.”

But Old Befana has her sweeping to do, and her baking. True enough, she herself is poor, but what does she want with Bethlehem, wherever that is? What does she have to offer a little baby who will change the world? And yet, she can’t get those words out of her head. This baby king has come to change the world. She decides she will go after all, and she’ll bring along some of her baking and her broom too, because the baby’s mother will be too tired to do her own sweeping. But first! She’ll just give her own house and walk a little sweep sweep sweep.

In the end, the sweeping delays her so much that she never does catch up to the caravan or find the baby, but in her effort to do so she runs so fast and so furiously that she is lifted high into the sky until she is flying. And ever after, on the eleventh night, you can find her there, with her broom and her treats. She flies over the rooftops, stopping at each house where a child sleeps, and just in case it is the child, she leaves goodies behind before continuing on her journey.

Each time N and I read this story, something niggled the writer in me. An essential ingredient had been left out of dePaola’s version. Why was Old Befana cranky and alone? Who did she bake for before the three kings came along, and why did she sing lullabies? DePaola doesn’t say, but I decided the original story must have gone further — and if it were my retelling, I’d put a baby in Old Befana’s past. She was a mother whose child had died, and she could never get over the loss, so she baked and baked and baked for her baby, and she swept and swept and swept for him. He was so real to her that his cries could sometimes be heard by others, even though he was dead and gone. Without him, she became a sad and bitter old lady. And then came the baby who would change the world. The belief that it might be her baby stirred inside her, but Old Befana resisted the thought until she couldn’t resist any longer, and she went chasing after him with such hope and devotion that she was lifted up. She looked and looked, but she never found him. (In his version and mine, I love that part best.)

As it turns out, I was not far off. You can read other versions of the story here and here.

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