September 24, 2009


Applesauce Season. By Eden Ross Lipson. Illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein. Roaring Brook Press. $17.99.

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story adapted by Wren Maysen. Illustrations by Gail de Marcken. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.

     In early fall, when kids are just adjusting to the rhythm of a new school year but the weather has not yet turned nippy, when the days seem to get shorter with increasing rapidity (although, in fact, they have been getting shorter since the first day of summer), when thoughts are just starting to turn from swimming and beaches and shorts and flip-flops to pumpkins and Halloween – this is Applesauce Season. Eden Ross Lipson, children’s book editor of The New York Times from 1984 to 2005, has left behind a wonderful story of apples, applesauce and family traditions – “left behind” because Lipson died of pancreatic cancer in May. This lovely book is all about the different types of apples available to city dwellers: “There are no apple trees, but there are farmers’ markets where there are lots of apples,” says the boy narrator. And then kids ages 4-8 learn all about making applesauce, watching as Mom cuts apples into quarters while Grandma cuts them into sixths (“I don’t know why”); discover the many different types of apples, and how using them changes the flavor of the applesauce; and find out about cinnamon sugar and other additives – a bit of butter, a touch of salt. And when the homemade treat is done, “We eat applesauce plain, or with ice cream, or cottage cheese, or gingerbread, or cookies, or sliced bananas.” And as autumn moves toward winter and the apple varieties change, “the color and the thickness and the taste of the sauce changes every single week,” all the way to Thanksgiving and afterwards – and all the way to an applesauce recipe at the end of the book. Applesauce Season is a simply delightful (and delicious) story – but Lipson’s words are not enough to make it so good. Mordicai Gerstein’s homey, charming illustrations add a great deal to what is already a wonderful book – especially on the inside front and back covers, which show 24 illustrations of different kinds of apples and, drawn the same size and in similar style, the boy narrator’s face and those of his family members. Yum.

     Autumnal stories point toward winter, and few tales are more associated with the season of cold and Christmas than The Nutcracker. But very few readers today know the real story of The Nutcracker, as it was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann nearly 200 years ago. Hoffmann wrote scary, fairy-tale-like stories, and they were intended for adults, not children, so it is no surprise that his Nutcracker tale was Bowdlerized in the 19th century and became best known in the utterly delightful but (by comparison) very juvenile version used by Tchaikovsky as the basis of his Nutcracker ballet. Really, there are two Nutcracker stories – the one practically everyone knows, which has its own place in seasonal celebrations, and the one Hoffmann wrote, which uses the Christmas season simply as a device to tell a tale of love, loss, cruelty and hope. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is a real rarity: a children’s version of the original Hoffmann story. Wren Maysen has toned it down and rearranged the events, and Gail de Marcken’s excellent illustrations are far too opulent to communicate the frightening aspects of the tale in more than a gauzy, distant way. But still, this book restores some of the power of what Hoffmann wrote – and some of the mystery – and the happy ending (a fairy-tale wedding, not a little girl awakening from a lovely dream). As Maysen and de Marcken re-create the story, it starts with the familiar Christmas scenes, the gifts, the wonders of Godfather Drosselmeier’s mechanical creations, and the affection Marie holds for her Nutcracker even after her brother, Fritz, breaks it. And so it goes, through the battle between the Nutcracker and his toy troops and the mice, led by the Mouse King – shown with seven heads, as Hoffmann intended, although the heads are more cute than scary here. But after the battle, things get really interesting, as Drosselmeier recounts the story of how the Nutcracker came to be a nutcracker, which is the tale of a gorgeous princess named Pirlipat, the demanding Dame Mouserink, and a hard nut called Crackatook. Kids and adults alike will marvel at the depths of this story, which has far more to it than the simplified version of The Nutcracker. Yes, there is a journey to Sweetmeatburgh in the land that the Nutcracker rules, but this is no mere diversion, for it is part of a growing-up story that eventually brings the real-world prince – a relative of none other than Drosselmeier – before a more-mature Marie, who becomes his bride. It is a marvelous story that need not displace the more-familiar The Nutcracker but that surely deserves to be known just as well. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King does Hoffmann proud – and makes Christmas, or any season, a little more wonderful and wonder-filled.

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