A Jazzy Retelling

T.E. McMorrow has breathed new life into a children’s Christmas classic.

“The Nutcracker
in Harlem”

T.E. McMorrow
and James Ransome
HarperCollins, $17.99

It seems unfashionably early to be discussing holiday season fare. Either the marketing blitz for the festive period has begun earlier than ever or T.E. McMorrow has breathed new life into a children’s Christmas classic with such a timely twist that, in the current sociopolitical climate, it begs to be on the shelves now rather than later.

Set in Harlem during the 1920s, this jazz-inspired retelling of “The Nutcracker,” with gorgeous illustrations by James Ransome, does something more than offer a black cultural representation for young readers: It reintroduces some of the original characters and plot themes as imagined by the story’s creator, the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, who wrote and published it as a novella in 1816. 

Alexandre Dumas altered that original version, making it lighter and less scary. In 1892, Dumas’s version was turned into a ballet with music by Tchaikovsky, eventually becoming Balanchine’s Christmas season ritual, sugarplums and all.

But something happened to Hoffmann’s story in this progression from dark to light: Marie became Klara, and her flights of imagination became sweeter and more tame. Without returning to the depths of Hoffmann’s darkness — with which Freud would have had a field day — Mr. McMorrow has reintroduced Marie as the protagonist. Here she is a sweet and somewhat shy African-American girl, surrounded by her large, music-loving family, celebrating one snowy Christmas Eve in an elegant home in Harlem.

Marie falls in love with a nutcracker doll that turns into a handsome teen after she falls asleep. In her rich, coming-of-age dreams, an army of angry rodents appears, hot on the trail of Christmas candy and sweet potato pie. Happily, a more modern, girl-power moment ensues, with Marie relying only on her smarts to win the battle.

Each page is filled with sumptuous illustrations and paintings by Mr. Ransome, who has worked on dozens of children’s books and teaches at Syracuse University. His style not only illuminates the delights of Hoffmann’s literary treasure, but perfectly captures the glitz and gaiety of the era’s thriving black culture. 

From an author’s note we learn that Mr. McMorrow worked as a stagehand for a ballet company in Harlem many years ago, where he saw “the power of music and dance transform people.” Today, as some readers might know, Mr. McMorrow is a reporter for this publication, as well as a playwright and member of the Drama Desk in New York City. 

His well-crafted, quasi-homage to the original “Nutcracker,” together with illustrations that help the imagination run wild and the inclusive theme of Christmas magic, will be sure to provide an escape from the tedium of the imminent commercial holiday season.