November 27, 2013


Santa Claus and the Three Bears. By Maria Modugno. Illustrated by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer. Harper. $17.99.

The Twelve Days of Christmas. By Susan Jeffers. Harper. $17.99.

Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet. By Robin Farley. Illustrated by Olga & Aleksey Ivanov. Harper. $9.99.

     Christmas traditions, both sacred and secular, are lovely to hold onto and can provide bonding experiences within and between families. Some families, though, may tire of the same stories and ideas year after year, and for them, there are always Christmastime books that ring some changes on classic tales. Santa Claus and the Three Bears, for example, takes jolly old St. Nick and combines him with the decidedly non-seasonal story of Goldilocks and the three bears. The results are amusing, if scarcely unexpected. Maria Modugno essentially retells the Goldilocks story straightforwardly, simply adding details to make it seasonal – for example, she has it take place on Christmas Eve, when the bears have decorated their house “with holly and berry and icicles.” And of course she makes one major change by having the intruder at their home be not a little girl but Santa himself. The bears’ pudding (no porridge here) attracts Santa, who has finished his Southern Hemisphere deliveries and is halfway through the Northern Hemisphere when he shows up at the bears’ home. Tempted by the pudding after a night filled with nothing but milk and cookies, he does all the things that Goldilocks does in the original story: tasting from three bowls and eating the smallest portion; sitting in three chairs and choosing the littlest, but breaking it when he puts his full weight on it; then going upstairs for a short nap and ending up asleep in Baby Bear’s bed. And the bears return, discover the Santa-wrought chaos, make the expected exclamations of surprise and dismay, and then discover Santa – who wakes up and gives the bears, amusingly, a great big present for Baby Bear, a middle-sized one for Mama and a small one for Papa. He also promises to replace Baby Bear’s broken chair next year – and then takes off in his sleigh to finish his duties. Readers never find out what gifts the bears receive – the final page shows them just starting to open the boxes – but kids may enjoy speculating. And parents looking for something new to read and discuss about Santa may enjoy Modugno’s approach, which is quite nicely illustrated by Jane Dyer and Brooke Dyer.
     Susan Jeffers’ illustrations are a major attraction of her retelling of The Twelve Days of Christmas, whose story modifications resemble Modugno’s. Again there is a classic story retold in straightforward fashion, but modified in some key ways to make it a Christmas tale. The book starts on Christmas Eve, with a girl named Emma opening a gift earlier than she should: it is a Santa-decorated box containing a glass globe inside which is a partridge in a pear tree. Happy and excited, Anna does not watch where she is going: she trips on a rug and drops the globe, which breaks. Emma sadly puts the globe back in the box and, holding it to her (as another little girl, Clara, does in Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker), falls asleep. And just as in the ballet, something magical happens: Santa and his sleigh emerge from the box and take Emma on a wonderful, world-spanning ride during which they encounter all the gifts listed in The Twelve Days of Christmas – but here they come not from “my true love” but from Santa. Jeffers not only creates lovely drawings but also comes up with some amusing elements, such as the seven swimming swans flying into the midst of the eight maids a-milking, with a touch of predictable (but harmless) chaos. Eventually, the 12 pipers pipe Santa and Emma to the door of Santa’s workshop, where Emma shows Santa the broken globe – which Santa repairs while Emma goes to sleep. All just a dream? Perhaps – but when Emma wakes up on Christmas morning and rushes downstairs, the package she opened the night before is still intact, and the globe inside is undamaged. It is a lovely fairy-tale ending to a story that reinterprets its source without diverging from it in any significant way.
     Jeffers’ rethinking has so many parallels with The Nutcracker that the ballet’s story may well have been in her mind when she redid The Twelve Days of Christmas. And The Nutcracker itself gets a remaking this season, too, in Robin Farley’s Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet, featuring the balletic kitten learning for the first time about Tchaikovsky’s much-loved seasonal tale – which her grandfather, who has brought her a nutcracker as a gift, tells her as “Mia closes her eyes and listens very, very carefully.” As the story unfolds, Mia imagines the whole ballet – with herself as Clara, of course, and her friends in the other major roles, from the Nutcracker Prince to the Mouse King. The book follows the plot of the ballet closely, including the trip to the Land of Sweets and the character dances that Mia/Clara sees there. Mia imagines her older sister, Ava, who is a full-fledged ballerina, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Grandpa’s retelling of the story ends as a sleepy Mia finds herself thinking of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance – after which Mia’s mother puts Mia to bed and Mia falls asleep while gazing at her very own nutcracker. A pleasant, nicely illustrated version of The Nutcracker for budding ballerinas who are already fans of Mia, Mia’s Nutcracker Ballet can serve as an introduction to a Christmastime musical treat – and would go particularly well with a trip to an actual performance of Tchaikovsky’s work.

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