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The Children’s Book Blog Christmas Countdown: The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Rebecca Davies

F9 The Nutcracker 300x300 The Children’s Book Blog Christmas Countdown: The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmannor December I’ve decided to turn the children’s book blog into a sort of literary advent calendar. Every day of the month I’ll be posting a short recommendation of a wintry or Christmassy children’s book to warm your cockles or, in some cases, chill the blood. There’ll be something for readers of all ages, from picture books all the way up to YA. My choice for December 9th is E.T.A. Hoffmann’s ‘Nutcracker’.

Having once seen a regional ballet production of The Nutcracker, I wrote it off for years as a slightly pointless, saccharine story. To be perfectly honest, the version I saw of it was so flouncy and long-winded that I’d be hard-pushed to tell you what it was even about (give me the dancing mushrooms in Fantasia any day!).

Then I learned that the story was originally written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, author of The Sandman and other tales of the uncanny, and my interest was rekindled. If you’re unfamiliar with Hoffmann’s work, imagine an early 19th-century German Tim Burton and you’ll be pretty close.

While Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was written for children, even interrupting the narrative at times to address its young readers, it also harbours some rather sophisticated subtexts. On the surface it’s about a girl called Marie who is given a wooden nutcracker in the form of a toy soldier for Christmas. When the nutcracker and all the other toys in her cabinet magically come to life, she becomes embroiled in a war between the toys and the evil mouse king. This line of narrative then interweaves delicately with a set of bizarre stories told to her by her creepy godfather, Drosselmeier. How much of what happens is ‘real’, and how much can be attributed to Marie’s overactive imagination is left for the reader to decide, but one thing is clear: Marie’s fantasies about the nutcracker are fuelled by her own sexual awakening.

Adult readers won’t be surprised to hear that Sigmund Freud was a big Hoffmann fan. That said, the erotic subtext is far too nebulous for children to pick up on in any real way, and they will read the story as an innocent adventure in a surreal world – not unlike Alice in Wonderland, in fact. Tracking down Hoffman’s tale is easy enough, but the version illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) is one of the prettiest.

Check back tomorrow to see which book is lurking behind the ‘calendar door’ for December 10th and catch up on my previous recommendations here

Rebecca Davies is a journalist and children’s author. She is currently working on a Young Adult fantasy novel set in Hackney. You can follow her on Twitter as @TheStoryMonster

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