Break a Leg, Tallulah
Book Reviewed: Tallulah’s Nutcracker – Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger, Clarion Books, 2013
When you pair the highly original talents of an author who can bend words through both poetry and prose, and an illustrator who specializes in creating persistent and confident female characters, the result should be predictably good.
Marilyn Singer and Alexandra Boiger’s Tallulah’s Nutcracker, one in a series of stories about a little girl with ballet dreams and the energy to match them, is not a rendition of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince’s mysterious nighttime adventure. It is instead an episode in the chronicles of Tallulah’s lessons about balancing ambitions and reality. The text and pictures are realistic, but with a touch of the magical which makes the Nutcracker story appealing in almost any incarnation.
Here, we are introduced to regular little girl Tallulah in her family’s living room. You know right away that she is not an awesome exception to childhood, no matter how talented. Her mother is lying on a modular couch unit reading the newspaper, while her little brother sits, also reading, on a too-large chair littered with toys, including a toy soldier flat on his back in a premonition of the Nutcracker story.
Her father has longish hair and an untrimmed beard and her mother is wearing glasses, leggings, and a green buttoned tunic. She looks tired. Maybe they live in Brooklyn.
Tallulah gets a phone call informing her that she will be a mouse in a professional production of the Nutcracker Ballet. She counters her brother’s skepticism with assertiveness about her own importance: “This is a real Nutcracker for a real ballet company in a real theater.” Tallulah soon joins a class to prepare for this great event. As in other books in the series, the members are multicultural in a natural and unforced way. The ballet master is African –American. He anchors the story from beginning to end through his professional skills, but also his ability to relate to the torments of childhood. Of course, these occur, as Tallulah steps on a fellow mouse’s tail during her debut.
Boiger’s pictures amaze with their grace and delicacy at the same time that they are firmly rooted in the real world. One two-page spread features the ballet master, as solid as a stature, holding the small Nutcracker toy in one hand and a hoop in the other. A looping string of mice fly from a clock, through the hoop, and around the ballet students in a circular motion. Their smiles show them to be as enchanted as the views of a sleight-of-hand trick, but In the following pages they themselves are working hard, literally jumping through hoops. The pages following Tallulah’s blunder are a scene of desolation. She sits in a semi-darkened prop room on a red bench, which matches the color of the Nutcracker’s suit on a mounted poster. Her long tail droops to the floor and the head of her mouse costume is next to it, lifeless. Singer’s words for Tallulah’s shame are bold-faced and enlarged:
“I thought I was going to be
the best mouse, but I was the total worst,
she said to herself. I thought I was better
than everyone else, but they’re all better
than me. I’m never going to be a star.”
Naturally, adult reassurance, as well as Tallulah’s own ability to rebound, save the day. She exits the theater ready for a snowball fight with her brother. Child readers should leave Tallulah’s performance ready to fight another day. Adults will also appreciate the ballet master’s reminder, as he, along with Clara and a Sugar Plum Fairy bend towards Tallulah with a small crown: “You know, Tallulah…in ballet, embarrassing things happen all the time, but a REAL dancer keeps right on dancing.”