Day 2 of the picture book countdown to Christmas includes this book which is probably cheating to be called a picture book. At 102 pages, this is much more of a storybook, chapter book, or…? But the Nutcracker story is a classic Christmas tale and this edition by Maurice Sendak is a delightfully unique version of the famous story. Here’s E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Nutcracker, translated by Ralph Manheim, with pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1984.

Most people are probably familiar with the Nutcracker and even Maurice Sendak. But I’m guessing not a lot of people have encountered Sendak’s immensely different version of the classic ballet. In 1981, Sendak was approached to design Nutcracker for the Pacific Northwest Ballet. His introduction to this book shares his very negative feelings to the idea and the traditional ballet itself. But in the end, he and the artistic director for the Ballet created this incredibly fresh version paying honor to Hoffmann, Tchaikovsky and themselves. (That intro also includes gorgeous little illustrations of the original set designs!)

I am not a Nutcracker scholar unfortunately. My most familiar knowledge of the story is from my beloved childhood Golden Book which I’ve featured in these lists before. Sendak’s version veers from that Nutcracker tale quite terrifically. It is a thrilling tale to be sure, but I would have to do extensive research to understand where it differs from the original and from the traditional ballet storyline.

My favorite part of this book is the deeply vivid and detailed illustrations. Sendak had such a distinct and unique style to his art. None of his characters are beautiful, but have a quirk to their features – humanity –  and seemingly, their personalities. I love the scene framings, the ornamentation, the full wordless spreads, and the thoughtfully dramatic use of color. Even if just browsing, this book is an eye-full of striking pages.

Regardless of your loyalty or care for the Nutcracker ballet in its traditional form, I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse of something quite different. It is worth a look, and several reads, and a daringly exciting escape into unknown land with the Nutcracker!

Hope to see you tomorrow as we continue our 25 Days of Christmas Children’s Picture Books!

P.S. Found a few clips of Sendak’s ballet with the amazing sets and costumes!