25 Days – Book 16: The Nutcracker in Harlem

Day 16 brings another new book this year that is a delightful reinvention of The Nutcracker. Set in Sugar Hill in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, this familiar, yet completely new story is an amazing tribute to the classic while giving unique honor to the power of jazz on the American soul. Add this one to your shelves immediately: The Nutcracker in Harlem by T. E. McMorrow, illustrated by James Ransome, 2017.

Christmas Eve and snow have arrived in Harlem. The sound of Christmas to Marie is a party with singing, music, and dancing. She longs to join in the singing, but fears her inadequacy. When the time for gifts arrives, Uncle Cab gives Marie a stunning drummer boy nutcracker that sets the room to music once again, leaving Marie shyly behind.

She settles near the Christmas tree with a slice of sweet potato pie and her nutcracker. She is awakened by the silence of the house, disrupted by the ornaments and tree coming to life. Suddenly her evening is filled with dancing toy soldiers and dolls, and an invasion by the mouse army in search of sweets. The nutcracker drummer leads the toy soldier charge with his steady beat; and a scuffle with the mouse general causes trouble, unearthing Marie’s bravery to save the evening.

Such a thrilling reinvention of a beloved story! The author’s note at the end is a lovely bonus to the story. He talks of being inspired by the power of jazz while working as a stagehand in Harlem. I discovered the moving power of jazz when I was a freshman in college and stumbled upon a Miles Davis album. I’ll never forget how those songs made me feel, like I was finally able to take a deep breath in my soul. I have been a big jazz lover ever since, swooning to the sounds of Ella, Billie, Chet, and many more. I was thrilled to hear about and finally pick up this new Nutcracker from the library. (We’ll be adding it to our shelves too once the book budget is full again.) I love the simplicity of the reinvention. The Nutcracker is a beloved classic, but it often gets lost in the many retellings. McMorrow has taken it and made it fully his. With his nods to Cab Calloway and Addie Hall, the use of music to move instead of solely dancers, every detail is wonderful.

I especially love the setting of this book and the rich color that it brings. James Ransome is a fantastic illustrator, though I hesitate to call him that as his work is much more painterly and deep than illustration often implies. The classic Nutcracker is heavily white-washed in characters and in costume. Not so in Harlem! This is a celebration of color in all its forms.

This Nutcracker received a huge sigh of pleasure and gasps of delight at our first read-through. I highly recommend it for expanding the joy and wonder of your Christmas season.

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