Monday, December 24, 2012

Sendak's Nutcracker

A little while ago I got an email from Random House asking if I'd like to review Maurice Sendak's illustrated Nutcracker.

I jumped at the chance and I'm very pleased to be able to talk about it with you here.

The book is, as you might expect, lovely. Sendak's take on the E. T. A. Hoffman classic is surely the best and brightest, darkest and most imaginative version of the story. 

Many others will be able to explain the story, the music, or indeed the production design of the ballet better than I can. What I hope to be able to provide you with here is a little of the history and the feeling of the book from a life long follower of Maurice Sendak's work. 

To set the scene, here's look at the official book description.


"A classic, new and complete. One of the ten best illustrated children's books of the year." 
New York Times Book Review.

The tale of Nutcracker, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816, has fascinated and inspired artists, composers, and audiences for almost two hundred years. It has retained its freshness because it appeals to the sense of wonder we all share. 

Maurice Sendak designed brilliant sets and costumes for the Pacific Northwest Ballet's Christmas production of Nutcracker and created even more magnificent pictures especially for this book. He joined with the eminent translator Ralph Manheim to produce this illustrated edition of Hoffmann's wonderful tale, destined to become a classic for all ages. 

The world of Nutcracker is a world of pleasures. Maurice Sendak's art illuminates the delights of Hoffmann's story in this rich and tantalizing treasure.


This book's history is two-fold; it was born of the 1983 stage production where Sendak served as the production designer.

A quick Google search yields a few pictures of the ballet.

I love hearing Maurice Sendak in his own words and the book benefits from having an Introduction by Sendak himself. Here he provides insight into the characters, the designs, and how he and Kent Stowell even came to partner on the original production. Characteristically Sendak, the first line of the Introduction is, 
"My immediate reaction to the request that I design Nutcracker was negative." 
Throughout the Introduction, Sendak tells how he warmed to the project, overcoming his initial distaste for the play ("I didn't want to be suited to the confectionery goings-on...") and how ultimately the production culminated, for him, in a "superb moment" at the premiere.

Sendak thought of this book as being comprised of "two separate entities" with the costumes and designs from the production making up the one half and the other being the new work he did specifically for the book. 

Here he speaks to retracing some of his steps and adding new work for the book:
"In changing hats from designer to illustrator I have been faced with a curious dilemma. After all, there are whole sequences in the tale itself that never appear on the stage. Rather adjust these designs to fit the book, I decided to completely illustrate 'The Story of the Hard Nut'. Because of this decision the pictures for this book are composed of two separate entities. There are the designs and costumes from the ballet version and then the fresh pictures done specifically for the tale. In addition, there are a few to animate the original stage designs and a few more that I could not or would not resist doing."

What draws me, and I suspect many others, in to Sendak's worlds are his treatment of children. Speaking of the heroine Clara ("Marie" in the book)
"I endowed her with the wisdom and strength I conjure up to endow all my children and then surrounded her with a minefield of problems."
And very like a certain Max, 
"The stage became her half-real, half-nightmare battleground. The drama grew naturally as we watched Clara, frightened yet exuberant, cross that battleground."
The sprawling spreads found in The Capital are some of my personal favorite examples of Sendak's haunting, lyrical work which meshes so well, in my estimation, with the poetry of the story.

"Who is this on the rosy waters?
A fairy or fairy's daughter?
Bim-bim little fishes,
Sim-sim golden swans.
Faeries come hither,
Fly through the spray
Splish splash, splish splash
The rosy spray."


The book is a delight. And comes well recommended from me.

Again, an image from the ballet itself, not from the book.