October 10, 2013


A Single Pearl. By Donna Jo Napoli. Illustrated by Jim LaMarche. Disney/Hyperion. $17.99.

Tallulah’s Nutcracker. By Marilyn Singer. Illustrations by Alexandra Boiger. Clarion. $16.99.

     The imagined musings of a grain of sand that does not realize how important it will turn out to be are the heart of the sweetly told and unusual A Single Pearl. The fact that sand irritates oysters, encouraging them to coat sand grains in nacre – which builds up until it eventually becomes a pearl – is a fascinating element of zoology, one that many young readers may know before picking up this book (although the word “nacre” does not appear in Donna Jo Napoli’s story). But whether they understand the process or not, what children will learn here is an oft-given lesson about how much something – or, by implication, someone – can matter. The story is told from a sand grain’s point of view, although Napoli stops short of anthropomorphizing the bit of sand to an extreme by writing lines such as, “The grain of sand would have cried, if sand could make tears.” It is, after all, only a grain of sand, which does think – Napoli gives it that much humanity – but cannot actually do anything. What is done to it and with it turns out to be meaningful, though, as it gets stuck in an oyster, becomes the center of a pearl that grows year after year, and eventually finds itself – that is, the pearl whose center it is – harvested by a human pearl diver and “sold…to a prince for bags and bags of money.” Jim LaMarche’s illustrations really come into their own at this point, the expressions of the people fully reflecting the wonder and delight that the pearl creates – although the humans think not at all of the sand grain that made the pearl possible. Eventually the sand finds its pearl hung around the neck of a young princess, and now, Napoli writes, “The grain of sand laughed in joy, for anyone can laugh.” That would be a lovely conclusion – but it is not quite the end, for A Single Pearl is really about how small things can matter a great deal, and it is entirely fitting that the book should go on a bit longerr and that its final words should be, “And it mattered.” A lovely story.

     Tallulah’s Nutcracker takes a nearly opposite approach to the notion of importance. Tallulah is a young, aspiring ballerina who is honored to be chosen to be a mouse in a professional production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. She is, in fact, a little too honored, deciding that she is quite important indeed. She practices extra-hard, which is all to the good, but her motivation becomes increasingly self-centered: “Being in a real ballet is Big Time. Maybe I’ll be on TV!” Then Tallulah does her best to impress the ballet master; and as she practices and practices – Marilyn Singer makes it clear that this is hard work – Tallulah is thinking that “the whole audience will notice me” and “I bet they’ll ask for my autograph.” Tallulah is obviously headed for a fall, and she literally has one during the performance, right after thinking that she is “the scariest, mousiest, most marvelous mouse of all.” Tallulah picks herself up, manages to finish her dance, but then rushes offstage to hide, “tears rolling down her cheeks,” convinced now that she will never be a star dancer because “they’re all better than me.” But of course Singer cannot and does not leave things there, as Tallulah gets some support from unexpected quarters: the stars of the ballet, who tell her about their own early misadventures on stage. And she ends up with just the right level of self-esteem after all, thinking, “maybe I’m not the best mouse or a star, but I AM a real dancer – at least, I’m going to be.” This is a delightful story that transcends the seasonality of The Nutcracker, and Alexandra Boiger’s illustrations make it something particularly special: Tallulah looks so small backstage after the on-stage disaster, but when she realizes at the end that she is important after all, the illustration “looks up” from street level at Tallulah with arms spread, herself looking up at the gently falling snow, and then looks up beyond her at the concert hall, the Christmas decorations, and the lit windows above – a truly lovely scene. And Boiger’s cover, with beautifully applied glitter, is a real charmer. The humility lesson in Tallulah’s Nutcracker is scarcely a new one in children’s books, but Singer and Boiger make it feel new, just as The Nutcracker itself feels new at every performance even after 120 years.

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