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The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition

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Every December, The Nutcracker comes to life in theaters all across the United States. But how did this 19th-century Russian ballet become such a big part of the holidays in 21st-century America?

Meet Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen, three small-town Utah boys who caught the ballet bug in the early 1900s. They performed on vaudeville and took part in the New York City dance scene. Russian immigrants shared the story of The Nutcracker with them, and during World War II, they staged their own Christmastime production in San Francisco. It was America's first full-length version and the beginning of a delightful holiday tradition.

36 pages, Library Binding

First published September 1, 2015

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About the author

Chris Barton

25 books77 followers
I'm the author of picture books including bestseller SHARK VS. TRAIN, Sibert Honor-winning THE DAY-GLO BROTHERS, and WHOOSH! LONNIE JOHNSON'S SUPER-SOAKING STREAM OF INVENTIONS, which has been included on 21 state reading lists.


My new books include MOVING FORWARD: FROM SPACE-AGE RIDES TO CIVIL RIGHTS SIT-INS WITH AIRMAN ALTON YATES (illustrated by Steffi Walthall; a School Library Journal Best Book of 2022) and GLITTER EVERYWHERE! WHERE IT CAME FROM, WHERE IT'S FOUND & WHERE IT'S GOING (illustrated by Chaaya Prabhat; June 2023).

I visit schools by the score and also love speaking to professional gatherings of librarians, educators, and fellow writers.

I'm married to middle-grade/YA novelist Jennifer Ziegler (WORSER, HOW NOT TO BE POPULAR). Jennifer and I have four adult children and one dog, and we co-host the children’s literature video series “This One’s Dedicated to…” in which we talk with other authors and illustrators about the dedications they’ve written for their books.

Jennifer and I live in Austin, where I serve as a council member of the Texas Institute of Letters, a 501(c)(3) non-profit honor society founded in 1936 to celebrate Texas literature and to recognize distinctive literary achievement.

For more information about me, please visit www.chrisbarton.info.

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5 stars
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119 (48%)
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57 (23%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 57 reviews
Profile Image for Morris.
964 reviews160 followers
November 13, 2015
This is an absolutely gorgeously illustrated book that tells the story of The Nutcracker Ballet. It's very informative while staying on a level that even young children can understand. I believe it would be particularly enjoyed with a viewing of The Nutcracker, but even without that, this is the type of book that can become a Christmas tradition to read for both children and adults alike.

This review is unbiased and based upon a copy won through the Goodreads First Reads program.
Profile Image for Becky.
5,079 reviews96 followers
November 22, 2021
I loved The Nutcracker Comes to America. I did. True, I don't think it comes as a big, big surprise to anyone who knows how much I love, love, love The Nutcracker. But still, I loved it.

This nonfiction picture book focuses on three dancing brothers--William (Willam), Harold, and Lew Christensen. Not all three brothers were born loving to dance even though it was the family business, but, they all learned to love dancing and excelled at it. In fact, two of the brothers left their hometown and sought to become professional dancers, first doing Vaudeville and then later New York. The book focuses not just on dancing, but on the lives of the brothers, on their careers, their contributions to the dance world. Notably, their contribution was in popularizing THE NUTCRACKER ballet into a holiday tradition or sensation.

In 1934, one of the brother's has his ballet students perform a few selections from The Nutcracker. Ten years later, 1944, sees the FIRST full-length American production of The Nutcracker. (Note: Fantasia, a Disney film released in 1940, had used several songs from the Nutcracker. So perhaps a few people would have first heard these songs from watching that movie.) This first production is in San Francisco where two of the brothers, I believe, are working. Two more productions follow: one in 1949 and one in 1951. Many different productions began to follow in the 1950s, including, notably, Balanchine's New York City production in 1954. Also of note, to me at least, is that there was a live television broadcast of THE NUTCRACKER in 1957.

It includes plenty of details on the Christensen brothers, on ballet, and specifically on The Nutcracker. The story is worth sharing. This picture book is a great example of why nonfiction picture books can be SO GOOD AND SATISFYING.

I loved, loved, loved the illustrations by Cathy Gendron. They were just-right and complemented the text perfectly. I loved the end papers too! I loved everything about this one!!!
Profile Image for Jo.
1,105 reviews60 followers
June 14, 2019
Very informative. I had no idea how or why The Nutcracker was a Christmas tradition. Now I do.
Profile Image for Katt Hansen.
3,328 reviews95 followers
December 26, 2015
For some reason I'd thought of the Nutcracker as one of those traditions that was always part of Christmas. I hadn't given any real thought as to where it began, and how it became a part of holiday celebration.

This book gives the story behind the performance that just about everyone has at least heard of. My only complaint is that it felt like there was so much information that the author just had to gloss over a lot, and was really picking and choosing which facts to use. This made the story a little choppy and sometimes hard to follow in the sense of 'Wait a minute, weren't they just doing something else...' kind of way.

Overall, I liked the book and find myself wanting to track down a little more information as the story is fascinating. Really enjoyed discovering this one today.
Profile Image for Mary.
2,531 reviews11 followers
July 31, 2015
An informative picture book history of the Nutcracker ballet production in America. Barton's story of the Christensen brothers and their role in the annual holiday tradition is told in a conversational style that is engaging and makes this interesting for all ages. A lovely picture book that is likely to become part of the annual Nutcracker holiday observance.
Profile Image for Janice.
1,262 reviews11 followers
December 15, 2015
I normally don't review children's books but a friend gave this to my daughter and I was fascinated by the history in this little beautifully illustrated picture book--particularly the Utah connection to bringing The Nutcracker to the United States.
Profile Image for Vannessa Anderson.
Author 1 book165 followers
January 17, 2022
The Nutcracker Comes To America cover is a work of art!

The Nutcracker Comes To America tells the History of the Nutcracker and how it became a hit in America. We learn The Nutcracker is a Russian Ballet. Brothers William, Harold and Lew Christensen who grew in Utah in the 1900s revived the ballet. As adults, the brothers went their own way. Brother William went to Portland, Oregon and became a dance teacher where he met a Russian immigrant who was the conductor of the local youth symphony. The conductor suggested to William to teach his dance students to dance the Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker Comes To America is a must read as the History of the Nutcracker written by German author E.T.A. Hoffman who originally named it the Nutcracker and the Mouse King has an interesting History.
Profile Image for Jessie.
1,940 reviews26 followers
May 30, 2017
This is the story of how Nutcracker became a December staple for American ballet companies (which it isn't elsewhere in the world). It's also the story of the Christensen brothers, who started both the San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West.

The tone is pretty casual, but it works well. The backmatter contains a full timeline. There are suggestions for further reading, but it's not a bibliography (see the author's note for that); it's more about similar or related books.

Some of the dance illustrations are a little awkward (one developee a la seconde and one low arabesque especially), but others are excellent (stretching in attitude, a jump in a turned in retiree). I also loved all the stage illustrations and pictures of dancers doing non-dance things (talking, making costumes, etc).
Profile Image for Jo Oehrlein.
6,254 reviews9 followers
May 30, 2017
This tells the story of 3 brothers and what led them to create the first staging of the Nutcracker in the US.

From small town Utah, to NYC, San Francisco, Portland, and back to Utah, these brothers had a huge impact on ballet in the US. They led 2 major ballet companies (San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West), led big ballet schools, and started a holiday tradition.

I thought the time line at the end was especially edifying.
61 reviews
November 22, 2021
It was a thorough biography of the way that the Nutcracker became such a great Christmas tradition in the US. I felt like this was the sort of book I would read to my kids before surprising them with a streaming of or a trip to see the Nutcracker. It was also really interesting to see how The Nutcracker came about in the midst of WWII, and how that historical context changed the way that the show occured, in what was needed for costumes and dancers.
Profile Image for Melyssa LeDay.
59 reviews
March 23, 2018
This book is really inspiring for students because it shows that hard work and dedication can pay off. I think that this could inspire a kid to also be interested in ballet as well.
This could be a good book to read around the holidays for students.
The illustrations do a great job of demonstrating the hard work that the Brothers went through to become a success.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
1,066 reviews
November 26, 2017
I'm going to Nutcracker and wanted to learn more. Appreciated this book. One of the 3 attended West Point for awhile. Good for ballet and the Nutcracker that he choose dance as his career. Beautiful illustrations too.
Profile Image for Lauren.
465 reviews13 followers
October 30, 2018
This was a very cool book. I never would have known the history behind the Nutcracker ballet. I was very surprised to learn that it was created by Americans. The illustrations are very well done. Also I think the text is perfectly written for a younger audience to listen to and enjoy.
Profile Image for Sally.
1,944 reviews7 followers
April 26, 2022
An interesting look at how 3 brothers grew up in a family who danced, learned ballet, taught ballet
and created/choreographed dance to go with old music composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Those dances and revisions to the story telling became the winter classic "The Nutcracker."

Profile Image for Leslie.
1,675 reviews11 followers
November 24, 2022
I really enjoyed reading about the history of The Nutcracker ballet and how it came to America. I appreciated the Author and Illustrator’s notes at the back. Excellent research by Chris Barton, as always!
Profile Image for Camille.
433 reviews15 followers
February 4, 2017
This would be a wonderful gift to accompany a child's or an adult's viewing of the holiday classic ballet, The Nutcracker.
Profile Image for Elissa Lombard.
14 reviews
December 31, 2022
A brief introduction to how The Nutcracker came to be popularized in the United States. My favourite section was the historical timeline at the back of the book with accompanying photographs.
Profile Image for Grace MacLaine.
409 reviews12 followers
January 4, 2022
I don't know if this picture book would appeal to people who don't care about the Nutcracker, the San Francisco Ballet, and the SF Ballet's version of the Nutcracker. But I care a lot about all those things, so I loved this. I had no idea that the SF Ballet was so instrumental in popularizing the Nutcracker in America (and thus giving American Ballet its cash cow). Very cool.
Profile Image for Margaret.
2,511 reviews
August 17, 2015
If you were to ask a group of children if they have heard of the German author E. T. A. Hoffmann, you will probably find yourself the recipient of many silent stares. If you question them about their knowledge of a Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a low mumbling about your current state of mind is likely to begin. On the other hand if you mention The Nutcracker, nods of recognition and slight smiles will be seen and the stories will start.

The more curious minds in your group will start to wonder what possible connection an author and composer living across the ocean from the United States and residing in different countries could possibly have to this well-known Christmas fairy tale. The Nutcracker Comes To America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created A Holiday Tradition (Millbrook Press, September 1, 2015) written by Chris Barton with illustrations by Cathy Gendron offers a fascinating explanation. It all begins with three births in 1902, 1904 and 1909.

My full recommendation: http://librariansquest.blogspot.com/2...
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
580 reviews7 followers
September 18, 2015
I LOVED this book. But I have to admit, there is a bias because I love the Nutcracker. First of all, the way the book is written is unique to children's history book- it reads more like a conversation than a history book. I found the illustrations gorgeous and felt like they did a good job capturing the movement of ballet. The Nutcracker Comes to America also does a great job setting the time frame for kids in the book- showing that it takes place largely around the World Wars. I felt like I learned a decent amount- I had no idea that it was three American brothers who are responsible for the popularity of The Nutcracker in the United States- I always figured it was because of a group of Russian immigrants or something along those lines. That's what I get for assuming!

I received a copy of this book for award consideration.
Profile Image for Holly Mueller.
2,165 reviews
November 23, 2015
It was tradition when Libby and Katie were growing up for us to go see "The Nutcracker" every Christmas. We've seen it many times in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and the girls have a Nutcracker collection. Barton's strong voice, creative lead, and research about how the Christensen brothers of Utah brought the Russian ballet to America will appeal to many kids who, like my daughters, enjoy the show every year. Beautiful paintings by illustrator Cathy Gendron grace the pages and bring to life the history of the ballet. I had the pleasure of hearing Chris Barton speak about his writing process at NCTE 2015 and (shhh!) had him sign two of his books for Christmas Eve presents.
Profile Image for June Jacobs.
Author 29 books144 followers
January 13, 2016
I've loved the Nutcracker Ballet since I was fortunate enough to see a live performance in the San Francisco Opera House when I was a child. This picture book narrates the story of how this ballet became a Christmas tradition in the United States.

The illustrations are gorgeous and realistic when depicting the varying time periods mentioned in the text. The author provides a detailed timeline at the end of the story where I learned even more about the history of this artistic family.

Highly recommended for children and adults of all ages!


I borrowed a copy of this book from the 'New Book' shelf in our local public library.

Profile Image for Carrie.
400 reviews2 followers
August 6, 2015
This is a wonderful story of three siblings who work together to make a dream come true: The Nutcracker. From humble beginnings in Utah to the big stage of San Francisco with vaudeville and world war II in between, this is a story not only of gumption but also a story of life unfolding during that era. Bold, mixed media illustrations bring the story of the Christensen brothers to life. The story is told at times with brief interjections, which may be distract some readers and may also keep others engaged. Nice piece of illustrated non-fiction!
Profile Image for Mary Ann.
1,482 reviews279 followers
December 28, 2015
When the three Christensen brothers learned ballet, they not only fell in love with dance, they also loved the show-stopping way it entranced audiences. Fast forward to 1940s when the brothers were in charge of the San Francisco Ballet, searching for a big production that would draw in crowds and they staged the first American full-length production of what was soon to become an American tradition. This well-researched history helps children see that what we love as classics today were actually the result of hard work and inspiration by real people.
Profile Image for Lynn.
2,860 reviews12 followers
December 13, 2015
Familiar tone welcomes the reader into a history that could be very dry. 'You probably don't think of this.' I had never thought much about how Americans came to love the annual tradition, but this will be a treat to all dancers?
Full color, surrealist illustrations show angular lines. Some pages show full theater scenes with curtains and audiences. Others show a few dancing figures against a white background with a ribbon floating over and around them. Texture is provided with fine faint lines, giving a feeling of glimpsing into the past.
Profile Image for Heidi-Marie.
3,854 reviews81 followers
October 5, 2016
Illustrations are great; loved reading how the illustrator spent a year researching and practicing to create them. The story is very interesting--I always enjoyed the Nutcracker when I was able to go see it. Never thought how it became a tradition, and certainly didn't think it was 3 small-town Utah boys who brought it about. The story-telling wasn't absolutely fabulous, but it still kept me interested. I think fans of dancing, ballet, and the Nutcracker will like this little bit of history. How it will do as a Beehive long list runner? Meh.
Profile Image for Bethe.
5,839 reviews51 followers
August 19, 2015
Bookaday #157. I've seen many performances, live and TV, of the Nutcracker ballet but never really thought about how it came to be. Barton takes a casual approach to the narration of the history of the brothers responsible for such this staple of holiday entertainment. The illustrations have a warm, wood grain feel. Love the timeline with photos and the endpages with stage backdrops from the ballet.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 57 reviews

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