Christmas Eve is two days away. Today after playing with my canine companion outside, I found thirty-six white bags and thirty-six white candles on my doorstep. Our neighborhood is the only one in the area to line luminaries along the streets on Christmas Eve. They have been doing it for fifty-three years. My home sits on a corner lot, so I have the honor of placing the lights on two sides. It is going to be a wonderful sight.
Each year this time brings to mind welcome memories of past celebrations and traditions. In The Nutcracker in Harlem (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, September 26, 2018), debut picture book by author T. E. McMorrow with illustrations by James Ransome, a story set in the 1920s era gives readers a glimpse into a marvelous time in African American cultural history. The art, music, dance, theater and literature in Harlem in New York City, New York, were spectacular, singular and made a lasting impact on world culture.
It was snowing in Harlem on Christmas Eve.
There is a party at a young girl's home. A symphony of sound swirls around the room as Marie listens. Her Uncle Cab, playing the piano, asks her to join the festivities. Oh, how she wishes she could sing like her uncle or the melodious Miss Addie.
When it is time for the gift-giving Uncle Cab usually gives her brother Fritz toy soldiers and Marie a doll. He claims the wood used for them is magic. He says this every year. On this Christmas Eve he gives Marie a nutcracker, a drummer boy. The room again fills with music. Marie stands silently holding the drummer boy and shaking her head when Miss Addie requests she sing along with her.
After dinner Marie takes a piece of sweet potato pie and sits near the Christmas tree. She falls asleep holding Uncle Cab's present. In her dream she wakes up as her mother's favorite glass birds on the tree come to life and begin to sing. Everything comes to life and grows larger and larger. The drummer boy plays in a steady beat.
A sudden smash announces the presence of an enemy. A battle starts, stops and starts again. Marie knows she needs to help the nutcracker. She searches and finds that which she never knew she possessed. On Christmas Day the enchantment of a dream and a nutcracker continues.
Dum diddy dum dum, dum-dee-dum.
T. E. McMorrow through research and using a past experience takes us back in time to a remarkable era. Music is the link between the E. T. A. Hoffman tale, the Harlem Renaissance setting and Marie's deep desire. The blend of narrative and dialogue moves us from reality to the dream and back with ease. In McMorrow's words a gentle story of finding one's gift through other gifts received is revealed. Here is a passage.
Marie opened her eyes. The
house had gone silent.
Outside, it had stopped snowing.
A full moon glowed in the sky, and
the living room was filled with a
ghostly white light.
Opening the matching dust jacket and book case is the first of numerous moments when you feel like gasping at the beauty spread before you. The artwork of James Ransome rendered in watercolor glows from the pages. This glow spreads to you, warming your reader's heart and soul. When you see Marie on the front holding her nutcracker drummer boy with the other figures come to life in front of Harlem's buildings, the essence of the story is there waiting for you. It's inviting you to join in the magic.
To the left, on the back, an interior scene is framed in a deep blue hue. It's the moment Uncle Cab gives Marie her gift. The opening and closing endpapers are covered in a deeper, darker blue.
On the title page James Ransome begins his visual story. Guests adorned in their best clothes are walking down the sidewalk to Marie's home. Windows are golden with warm light. A Christmas tree stands tall in one window. Snow covers the ground and landscaping. Flakes drift on the air. Period cars line the street. You can almost hear the excited chatter of the people, anticipation filling their minds and bodies. It's Christmas Eve.
A page turn gives readers a stunning bird's eye view of Harlem on Christmas Eve in the 1920s. A huge white moon hangs in the upper right-hand corner of the two-page picture. The text for the verso and dedication pages is in small white print in the night sky. (I could stare at this painting for hours.)
Each illustration spans two pages or one and one half pages, creating a column for text and a place for a smaller picture. Rich shades of blue are predominant in the full-color visuals. The shift in perspectives are exquisite, taking us into the story. It wraps us in its charm and warmth.
One of my many, many favorite illustrations is when the glass birds are coming to life. We are brought close to the tree in a picture spanning one and one half pages. On the left we are looking through the tree branches, close to the ornaments and lights. One of the birds is in flight on the right barely beneath the huge moon shining through the window. On thefar right in a column of rich red is the text. Under it, in a smaller image, we can see the other birds coming to life and flying from the branches.
What readers will remember the most about The Nutcracker in Harlem written by T. E. McMorrow with illustrations by James Ransome is how this Christmas Eve changes one little girl. The magic remains. It makes us wonder if we too can find our heart's desire. James Ransome's eloquent paintings send the narrative soaring. You'll want this book in both your professional and personal collections. I know I will be reading it every Christmas Eve. In an Author's Note T. E. McMorrow further explains why he wrote this book. I would pair it with 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 and Waltz Of The Snowflakes (Running Press Kids, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group. Inc., October 17, 2017, conceived and illustrated by Elly Mackay.
To learn more about James Ransome and his other work, please follow the link attached to his name to access his website. T. E. McMorrow reads The Nutcracker in Harlem aloud at KidLit TV. James Ransome hosts Young At Art on KidLit TV. Both videos are lovely.
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