Reviewed Book: The Nutcracker in Harlem – T.E. McMorrow and James Ransome, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2017
Author T.E. McMorrow and illustrator James Ransome have set the the story of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” in the extended cultural moment of the Harlem Renaissance. They are not the first African American artists to have reimagined this Christmas classic as an inspired vehicle for a little girl of color. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s did so in their jazz-inflected arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s music.
In the afterward to the book, McMorrow acknowledges that the specific characters of Uncle Cab and Miss Addie were created as homages to the great bandleader Cab Calloway and to Adelaide Hall, a singer with Ellington’s orchestra. The Nutcracker in Harlem is much more than a transposition of the traditional story to a different era.
First, the book is elegant. From the fur trimmed cloaks and black Mary Janes of the women guests to Uncle Cab’s bright red tie, the people in this Nutcracker are natural and life-like citizens of a cultural capital. The dark blue sky and flat white moon are the background for Harlem townhouses and streets busy, but not as busy as today, with 1920s autos leaving white patches with their headlights on the blue streets.
My favorite aspect of the book’s illustrations is their portrayal of Marie (known as Clara in some versions of the tale). These images reflect Marie’s developing sense of herself. In several pictures, as in the double portrait of Marie and the Nutcracker prince clasping hands and dancing, the two characters closely resemble one another. Indeed, here their features virtually portray them as twins. In the lively picture of Uncle Cab playing the piano while Marie accompanies him on a snare drum, their profiles are juxtaposed at two levels, with each one’s face mirroring the other’s expression. In another double page spread Marie stands solemnly in front of a row of toy soldiers, playing her drum to lead them in battle. Her bright pink dress and hair ribbon are a contrast to their uniforms of military blue.
T.E. McMorrow is a journalist and playwright who has also worked at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. James Ransome is a distinguished and prolific illustrator with many books for children based in African-American history. His 1994 illustrated edition of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, The Creation, unfortunately no longer seems to be in print; it should be reissued. Some of his other outstanding works pay homage to such historical figures and milestones as Harriet Tubman, the Great Migration, and the Emancipation and Reconstruction era. The Nutcracker in Harlem represents a joyful part of his ongoing artistic vision.