October 12, 2017


The Nutcracker in Harlem. By T.E. McMorrow. Illustrated by James Ransome. Harper. $17.99.

That Is My Dream! By Langston Hughes. Illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Schwartz & Wade. $17.99.

     Most children’s books try to reach out to a wide audience based on prospective readers’ ages and presumed interests, but some cast a narrower net in the hope of appealing to a smaller, more carefully targeted group of young people. Books for African-American children fit the latter category, sometimes ringing changes on well-known stories to try to interest a specific audience, sometimes using material originally designed by and for African-Americans. The Nutcracker is a timeless holiday story dating originally to an eerier and rather scary tale by E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1822) but best known today through Tchaikovsky’s ballet, which was based on an altered and much-less-frightening version of the narrative. The Nutcracker in Harlem takes that adaptation into another adaptation, setting the tale in Harlem and making the nutcracker as well as all the characters African-American. Marie, the protagonist of the story, is too shy to sing with the adults, preferring to sit with the nutcracker – a gift from her uncle, not from a mysterious godfather – by the Christmas tree. She falls asleep there, then awakens to see the bird decorations on the tree come to life, and then watches the tree grow – a different set of events from those in the story and ballet (T.E. McMorrow deliberately avoids the sibling rivalry that leads to the nutcracker being damaged; here it is unharmed). The battle between mice and nutcracker-plus-soldiers here revolves around a drum that the nutcracker drops when the mouse leader (a general here, not a grotesque multi-headed king) jumps on him: Marie picks up and plays the drum, and its sound drives the mice away. Then Marie imagines herself dancing with the nutcracker and singing, and then she wakes up to find it is Christmas morning, and now she is happy to sing along with her family. In truth, although James Ransome carefully illustrates The Nutcracker in Harlem with African-Americans, and McMorrow explains at the end that he wrote the book as a tribute to the so-called Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, there is nothing here more relevant to people of one color than to people of any other – just as Hoffman’s original story, and Tchaikovsky’s ballet, transcend their respective eras and the circumstances of their creation. If The Nutcracker in Harlem gets young African-Americans interested in Hoffman and/or Tchaikovsky, so much the better – but the real power of the basic story, and the ballet made from a sanitized version of it, is quite independent of superficialities such as skin color.

     In contrast, the poetry and other work of Langston Hughes (1902-1967) – himself a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance – were always intended primarily for his fellow African-Americans. And his early poem Dream Variation (1926) certainly fits that mold. Illustrator Daniel Miyares emphasizes a long-ago time of segregation and racial separation in presenting the poem to 21st-century children under the title That Is My Dream! There is always a question about the motivation for books of this kind. Hughes wrote nearly a century ago of a time and circumstances long since gone by, with the very real racial conflicts and uncertainties of contemporary society existing in a wholly different world and on a wholly different basis. So in what way does Miyares hope to engage and involve 21st-century African-American children by showing segregated buses and fountains marked “whites only/colored only”? Hopefully the intent is to be sure that modern African-Americans are in touch with the long-gone past and aware of how far they – and other races – have come since those times, no matter how much more remains to be done.  But if the intent is to dredge up the vestiges of anger and resentment in which no one currently alive had any part, that is a different matter – and not a pleasant one. Miyares’ lovely illustrations are at their best not when focusing on the unfairness of legal segregation but when showing the young boy who narrates the poem and book thinking, “While night comes on gently,/ Dark like me,” and “Night coming tenderly/ Black like me.” This sort of self-awareness, this acceptance of forms of beauty and of one’s own place within the world and nature, can be communicated especially well by poetry, and indeed it is in this respect that Dream Variation remains an appealing and meaningful poem. It will be up to today’s parents to determine how to explain details of the poem and its context to today’s children – up to them to decide whether to nurture a feeling of belonging to a greater world or a feeling of resentment and anger at circumstances that no child reading this book ever experienced or ever will.

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