The Nutcracker in Harlem

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
The Nutcracker in Harlem Book Poster Image
Nutcracker and girl are drummers in jazzy holiday update.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

An author's note explains the setting of this version of the Nutcracker story: New York in the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance. It explains the music of the period: "Jazz was a combination of African rhythm and European harmony." And the author reveals the inspiration for the two main adult characters: Miss Addie is after Adelaide Hall, a singer in Duke Ellington's band, and Uncle Cab is after singer and bandleader Cab Calloway.

Positive Messages

"Music lives inside everyone. You just have to let it out." 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Marie is too shy to sing at the party but eventually finds her voice and confidence through drumming. Miss Addie and Uncle Cab are kind and encouraging to Marie.

Violence & Scariness

A battle between the mouse army and the toy soldiers. The mouse general knocks the nutcracker down, but no one is hurt.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that T.E. Morrow's The Nutcracker in Harlem sets the familiar Nutcracker story in 1920s New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Here, young Marie and the toy soldier nutcracker are drummers. And the scope of the story sticks to the battle between the mouse general and the nutcracker, with Marie getting involved to scare the mice away. She also goes from too shy to sing at the party to finding her voice through music. The African-American cast and Jazz Age period details rendered in vibrant watercolors make this a fresh retelling of a holiday classic.

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What's the story?

THE NUTCRACKER IN HARLEM begins like the traditional Nutcracker ballet, with a big family Christmas Eve party where young Marie is too shy to sing with the others. She opens a gift brought by Uncle Cab and finds a toy soldier nutcracker. After she falls asleep by the Christmas tree, it grows super tall, as do the mouse army and toy soldiers, and the nutcracker here is armed with a drum, not a sword. In a nod to the Land of Sweets in the original, the mouse general commands, "Candy canes! Marzipan and chocolate! Charge!" When the mouse general knocks the drum out of the nutcracker's hands, Marie picks it up and drums till the now small mouse army flees through the mouse hole. Marie and the handsome nutcracker share a special dance, then she closes her eyes and wakes up in her bed on Christmas morning. Under the tree, she finds a real-life drum, picks up the drumsticks, and plays and sings with confidence, along with Miss Addie, Uncle Cab, Momma, and Poppy. 

Is it any good?

This strikingly illustrated update of the traditional nutcracker story benefits from a fresh approach and edited story arc. The ballet version with all its characters can be confusing and hard to follow. The Nutcracker in Harlem tightens the focus to the opening mouse-toy soldier battle and Marie's intimate connection to the nutcracker. And mysterious/creepy Drosselmeyer is replaced by cool, joyful Uncle Cab, an allusion to singer and band leader Cab Calloway. 

Vibrant watercolors by James Ransome (My Name Is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth) draws readers in to feel part of the action, whether it's a lively dance party, an intense battle, or a sweet romantic moment.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the role of music in The Nutcracker in Harlem. How does the nutcracker being a drummer boy change the story? How does Marie being a drummer change it? 

  • This version of the classic story we know from the Nutcracker ballet leaves off the part about traveling to the Land of Sweets, where Marie and the nutcracker watch a series of colorful figures dance. Is it OK to trim traditional stories? 

  • What elements in the art capture the role of music in the story? 

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