Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Story, A Ballet, A December Night

If you were to ask a group of children if they have heard of the German author E. T. A. Hoffmann, you will probably find yourself the recipient of many silent stares.  If you question them about their knowledge of a Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a low mumbling about your current state of mind is likely to begin.  On the other hand if you mention The Nutcracker, nods of recognition and slight smiles will be seen and the stories will start.

The more curious minds in your group will start to wonder what possible connection an author and composer living across the ocean from the United States and residing in different countries could possibly have to this well-known Christmas fairy tale.  The Nutcracker Comes To America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created A Holiday Tradition (Millbrook Press, September 1, 2015) written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Cathy Gendron offers a fascinating explanation.  It all begins with three births in 1902, 1904 and 1909.

AND THIS. (a ballerina)
AND MAYBE EVEN THIS. (the Mouse King)

In a small town in the state of Utah there lived the Christensen brothers, William, Harold and Lew.  The family had a dancing school, so naturally the boys danced.  Up until the arrival of their Uncle Pete the boys had little introduction to the world of ballet but those ballerinas accompanying their uncle opened up a whole new world for William and Lew.  Harold decided the United States Military Academy at West Point better suited his wants.  Before too long Harold failed at the academy returning home to run the dancing school.

Why, you ask, was Harold running the school instead of the other brothers?  William and Lew had practiced and perfected their form of ballet and could be seen on the Vaudeville circuit.  It took Harold three years to learn to dance like his brothers but he did it, joining them in New York City.

During the next eight years the three brothers never gave up their pursuit of ballet, sometimes working together, sometimes working in states apart.  One while teaching in Portland, Oregon, chatted with a Russian immigrant, a conductor, about a possible performance for his students.  Portions of a Christmas ballet, the music written by Tchaikovsky, got a positive audience response.  Two others were refining their performing and choreography skills in their own original ballet in New York.

World War II separated the brothers for four years with Lew serving while the other two, Harold and William, taught in San Francisco.  Times were tough on those aboard and at home but Harold and William with help decided to keep ballet alive by staging the first American full production of The Nutcracker on Christmas Eve, 1944.  It was years later before William, Harold and Lew each worked together to present another full length version of The Nutcracker but doing what you love with those you love can bring about a miracle and create a holiday tradition.

One of the first things which come to mind when reading this book is how much fun it is to read aloud.  Chris Barton strings words together to supply us with an energetic, down-to-earth chronicle of the three Christensen brothers.  We are keenly aware of his impeccable research in the way personal details are presented within the text.  In the course of the narrative if a word is introduced which Barton feels the reader might not know, it is defined easily and without pause.  The flow of his storytelling matches the ups and downs experienced by the brothers as they come together, move apart and join one another again.  Here is a sample passage.

Now, folks in San Francisco were not in the habit of attending big shows during the holiday season.  But it was on Christmas Eve, no less, that the Christensens and company put on the whole shebang.  
And---who would've thought?---the War Memorial Opera House was packed.  Aside from some troublesome wigs, The Nutcracker was a genuine, deck-the-halls, oh-come-all-ye-faithful holiday smash.

A stunning display of light and shadow is spread across the matching dust jacket and book case in a single illustration, bleeding into the flaps, rendered with painstaking care by Cathy Gendron. The chosen color palette here, throughout the entire book, invites an emotional response in the reader.  The magic of the dance, like the ribbon flowing within several images, weaves around the reader.

The opening and closing endpapers are a dazzling panoramic view of the entire stage as it is being set up for a performance of The Nutcracker and how it changes during a particular scene with a common element in both illustrations.  On the initial title page and the formal title page, the nutcracker, inanimate and alive, is featured.  Pacing and emphasis on the narrative direct the size and background of the paintings. Gendron may place several smaller visuals on a background of white followed by an edge to edge single page picture.  Her double-page images are breathtaking.  You will pause at every single one.

The details in body positions and facial features will have you believing everything is going to come to life any second.  To present this type of accuracy the research must have been extensive.  We are given a clear sense of the people, the time and the places in which they lived and worked.

One of my many favorite pictures is prior to the first full performance of The Nutcracker.  It covers two pages.  It's a casual gathering in a living room.  William and Harold are chatting with their two friends, George and Alexandra.  These two unlike the Christensen brothers had danced during an entire performance.  The scene is luminescent.  Woven through the picture above the heads of the four people is a musical staff with notes.  Among the notes are tiny pictures from the ballet, soldiers, candy canes, peppermint candies, a nutcracker, a ballerina, a mouse and a gingerbread man.

As surely as this ballet is a part of the Christmas season, you are going to want The Nutcracker Comes To America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created A Holiday Tradition written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Cathy Gendron to become a favorite read aloud with your students, children, family and friends.  The story of these three brothers continuing to follow their passion despite life's trials is truly inspirational.  You can't help but think what if William had not been where he was, when he was.  This is nonfiction at its finest for all ages.  At the close of the book the Author's Note, Illustrator's Note, Timeline, The Whole Shebang, In A Nutshell: A Summary Of The Nutcracker and Suggestions For Further Reading are must reads.

To learn more about Chris Barton and Cathy Gendron please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Cathy Gendron blogs here.  She is interviewed at Writing and Illustrating about her work and process.  Please take a moment to read Setting the Record Straight: The Nutcracker Comes To America at Huffington Post.

Make sure to stop by Kid Lit Frenzy to enjoy the selections of the other participating bloggers in the 2015 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by educator Alyson Beecher.


  1. it's a magical wonderful view and read....making education a pleasure at every page turn.....