You'd never know today that when it was originally performed, Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker was not a success. Now, of course, it is a beloved ballet and countless children and their families crowd into theaters during the Christmas season to watch toy soldiers and mice battle it out under a gigantic Christmas tree.
Before you take your children to see The Nutcracker ballet, be sure to familiarize them with the plot and music. We've rounded up the best Nutcracker books for you to read and share with your kids. They range from classic retellings of the story, delightful pop-ups, scenes of dancers preparing for a performance, even a graphic novel!
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(Very) Brief History of The Nutcracker
Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffman published his somewhat dark short story, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," in 1816 but what most theater-goers don't realize is that the ballet is derived from an Alexander Dumas adaptation of Hofmann's work, "The Story of a Nutcracker."
The ballet was first performed in 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg. However, it wasn't until 1954, with George Balanchine's production at the New York City Ballet, that the popularity of an annual Christmas performance started to take off.
Fun fact: Maria Tallchief, a member of the Osage Nation, performed the roll of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Balanchine's production.
The Plot in a Nut(cracker) Shell
On Christmas Eve, at the home of young Clara (called Marie in George Balanchine's production) and her family, Clara's godfather Drosselmeyer appears with presents. He gives Clara a nutcracker doll which her brother Fritz subsequently breaks.
After Drosselmeyer fixes the nutcracker, everyone heads to bed. In the middle of the night Clara returns to her nutcracker. The tree starts to grow and life-sized toy soldiers, led by the nutcracker, and mice commence battle.
Upon victory, the nutcracker changes into a prince and he and Clara head off to the Land of Sweets. At the Land of Sweets, they watch a myriad of whimsical performances, culminating in the waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Retellings of E.T.A Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
THE NUTCRACKER illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat
The pièce de résistance of Puttapipat's glorious illustrations is the pop-up scene of Clara, the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Land of the Sweets. The pop-up is an elaborately detailed silhouette with intricate cut-outs. Puttapipat based his illustrations on the original 1892 Nutcracker ballet sets by Marius Petipa. Prior to the pop-up pages, each double page spread features black silhouettes of the main characters against brilliantly colored backdrops. Stupendous. Ages 4 and up.
THE NUTCRACKER illustrated by Susan Jeffers
Many of the picture book adaptations of The Nutcracker are too lengthy for younger, impatient listeners. Not so with Jeffers' superb retelling of the classic story. Jeffers manages to convey the entire story of Hoffmann's tale with a few lines of text per page. Her gorgeous illustrations do the rest of the work. If you get just one version of the book and you don't mind the heavily (but skillfully) edited text, this is the one. Ages 3 and up.
THE NUTCRACKER: THE STORY ORCHESTRA adapted by Katy Flint, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle
This unique book includes buttons that play music from the ballet. It's easy to assume that The Story Orchestra's version of the Nutcracker is going to be as tedious as the ubiquitous "press the button for sound" books that toddlers and preschooler love so much. However, you'd be wrong. First off, the sound quality is surprisingly good. Next, the authors have chosen just the right moments in the story to include corresponding music from Tchaikovsky's score. There are 10 buttons in all. Back matter includes a glossary, a biography of Tchaikovsky and more information about the orchestral moments featured in the book. Aged 3 and up.
NUTCRACKER illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Find it: Amazon | Your Library
This version includes a translation of Hoffmann's full original story. As a result, the book is large, and best as a read aloud for more than one sitting. Readers who are only familiar with the ballet version, should be aware that Hoffmann's tale veers from the ballet in many ways. In 1983, Sendak created the sets for Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of The Nutcracker. The result is a transformation of what is sometimes presented as a saccharine story into something more complex, dark, and weird (in the best Sandak-ian sense). Listen to an interview with Sendak about his approach to creating the sets and illustration for Nutcracker. Ages 8 and up.
THE NUTCRACKER AND THE MOUSE KING illustrated and adapted by Natalie Andrewson (graphic novel)
I love how whimsical and dreamy this graphic novel version of Hoffmann's story is. Andrewson's style, with all of its curvy lines, makes you feel like you are moving along with the characters in their fantasy adventure. Once again, readers only familiar with the ballet will discover new plot points and new inventions and will love the refocused attention on Clara. (Ever notice how she is almost totally passive in the second half of the ballet?) Don't forget to read the author's note in which Andrewson describes her long admiration for the story! Ages 7 and up.
THE TOYMAKER'S APPRENTICE by Sherri L. Smith
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This a fun, page-turning adventure fantasy based on Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Stefan Drosselmeyer is apprentice to his father, but when his father goes missing, he and his cousin embark on a magical journey to find him. Ages 9 and up.
Picture Books Inspired by The Nutcracker Ballet
THE NUTCRACKER IN HARLEM by T. E. McMorrow, illustrated by James Ransome
I love this Harlem Renaissance adaptation of the traditional Nutcracker story, and I think you will, too. The shy Marie gets a nutcracker from her Uncle Cab at a holiday party and afterwards falls asleep and enters a gorgeous dream mirroring Act One of The Nutcracker ballet. When she wakes on Christmas morning she gets her own gift of music. Ages 4 and up.
DUKE ELLINGTON'S NUTCRACKER SUITE by Anna Harwell Celenza, illustrated by Don Tate
Until I read this picture book, I was unaware of Ellington's jazzy musical adaptation of Tchaikovsky score. If you are as ignorant as I was, prepare for a treat. While the text of this book takes you through the creative process of Ellington and his collaborators, the real fun lies in listening to the accompanying CD. All ages for the music, ages 4 and up for the book.
CHARLOTTE AND THE NUTCRACKER Charlotte Nebres, illustrated by Alea Marley
In this autobiographical picture book, Nebres tells us about the gift of her first ballet class, the joy she experiences as she grows up with dance and watching the groundbreaking performance of a Black ballerina, and her hard work learning proper ballet technique. With the support of her family, she auditions and, at 12-years-old, she becomes the first Black ballerina to play Marie in The Nutcracker. Essential reading for any child headed to the ballet. Ages 4 and up.
WALTZ OF THE SNOWFLAKES by Elly MacKay
This beautiful, wordless Christmas picture book is a lovely story that is perfect to read in tandem with your yearly trek to see The Nutcracker. At first, a girl does not want to get dressed up to go out in nasty weather to the ballet. But once she arrives, the magic takes over. She and her mother sit next to a boy and his father and the children's faces light up at the stage action. Gorgeously illustrated double page spreads capture the magic of the show. All ages
BALLET KIDS by Holly Sterling
Sterlin's adorable, wee preschool ballerinas and ballerinos dance across the pages in this charming tale of young dancers at dance class. Every Saturday, Thomas and his friends practice their skills, working hard to make sure their fingers and toes are in the right positions. Then it's time to prepare to dance in The Nutcracker, get parts and pick out costumes. Joyful! Ages 3 and up.
A VERY YOUNG DANCER by Jill Krementz
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Of all the Nutcracker books on this list, Krementz's is a fan favorite. And by "fan," I mean me. When I was growing up I loved this book. Loved it. It's out of print now, but likely it's available at your library. The large picture book follows the journey of 10 year old dancer, Stephanie, from her training in the prestigious School of American Ballet and then through her preparation and performance as Marie in New York City Ballet’s performance of George Balanchine's “Nutcracker.”