Prior to reading “Nutcracker” by E.T.A. Hoffmann, my experience of this famous Christmas story was based on sitting in Merrill Auditorium in Portland each December with an assortment of children while sugarplums danced across the stage of the darkened theater.


Reading the holiday favorite was an entirely different experience. More strange than magical, the original story follows the fantastical journey of seven-year-old Marie when her uncle gives her a nutcracker for Christmas. It has been re-released in a keepsake edition illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Crown Publishing, 1984), winner of the Caldecott Medal for “Where the Wild Things Are.” Created by the Romantic German writer in 1816, the text lacks the childlike innocence of the play and instead teeters toward the dark and diabolical.

“Weird,” said my nine-year-old daughter after I’d finished reading her the 100-page story, followed by, “Awesome.”

My nearly three-year-old son was equally enchanted, readily curling up on the couch each morning and patiently sucking his fingers as I read my youngest children the fantastic tale.

And it is fantastic, from Sendak’s vivid illustrations of the Stahlbaum household to the freaky, wild-haired Godfather Drosselmeier to the wooden prince himself.

“One of the ten best illustrated children’s books of the year,” said the New York Times Book Review .

The narrative captures much action that is missing in the ballet, such as the three-part “Story of the Hard Nut,” and the text is wonderfully written. Although, the end leaves one wondering what is real and what is imagined. Perhaps this is just the balance Hoffman was aiming for.

In any case, the book makes a lovely gift for anyone interested in this traditional holiday tale and would make seeing the ballet much more relevant.

Although, we don’t have tickets to go this year, the book did inform my family’s recent trip to the hospital. While waiting for a standard test, my three-year-old looked at a dark-haired man beside us and exclaimed, “That’s Godfather Drosselmeier!”

I wonder if he heard.

A copy of this book was provided for me to review by Waterbrook Multnomah.