Here it is! Our final installment by our friend, Mr. Ken the Librarian. In this post, he recommends books about going to the theater!
Earlier this year I was absolutely captivated by a performance on the Hertz Stage of Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical. I could not imagine how the actors could sell a performance to an audience full of toddlers and preschoolers—surely the children could not sit still for more than five minutes?! Well, how wrong I was. The music, the performers, the set—it was all mesmerizing, and held the attention of the extremely young crowd for nearly an hour!
I guess I should not have been so surprised. Going to the theater is not such a foreign experience for children as perhaps going to the symphony for the first time, or visiting an art gallery. Children understand theater. It’s in their wheelhouse from the start. They know how to pretend, to play, to act, to imagine. That’s what theater is! It’s part and parcel of being a child.
Here are some picture books that portray the drama and theater experience from a child’s perspective.
Oddrey / Dave Whamond
Oddrey likes to be noticed, so when she is cast as a tree in her school’s play, she decides to “branch out” and saves the production, earning the admiration of her classmates who decide to be different too. The simple message and the bold illustrations make this picture book memorable.
Evie & Margie / Bernard Waber
Bernard Waber (Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile) wrote this touching story about best friends (who are hippopotamuses in the same hardly noticeable way that Arthur is an Aardvark) who try out for the same part, the lead in Cinderella. Margie is better at turning on the waterworks, so nails the part while Evie becomes the understudy. When Margie can’t attend the performance due to illness, Evie steps in. This is a story about drama on and off the stage.
Starring Miss Darlene / Amy Schwartz
Darlene gets to play various roles in plays, but always ends up forgetting her lines or causing some unexpected mayhem. The thing is, the local newspaper critic is enraptured by her performances and thinks that her goofs are actually inspired. This picture book may be one of the few to address the role of critics in drama!
Marsupial Sue Presents The Runaway Pancake / John Lithgow; illustrated by Jack E. Davis
In my blog post about books dealing with the symphonic experience I mentioned a title by comedic actor John Lithgow. Here is another picture book authored by him that deals with the theater. Based on the kangaroo character Marsupial Sue (who was introduced in a previous and very delightful musical poem), the premise in this book is that MS and her Australian animal friends are putting on a performance of The Runaway Pancake, which essentially is the story of the Gingerbread Man. Jack E. Davis’s wonderful illustrations convey the fact that this is a dramatic retelling of the familiar story with a stage and audience and improvised costumes. Otherwise it doesn’t really address the theater experience directly, but the story is hugely entertaining (as is the recorded performance by John Lithgow himself that is included on an accompanying CD).
Too Loud Lily / Sofie Laguna; illustrated by Kerry Argent
What is it about Hippopotamuses? They seem to be thick on the ground with children’s books on the theater experience. Here is yet another. Lily is loud, but she discovers that one place she can be loud without upsetting anyone is in Miss Loopiola’s music and drama rehearsals. She really is in her element on stage and is no longer Too Loud Lily.
Amandina / Sergio Ruzzier
Amandina is a very talented little dog. Singlehandedly she prepares for a public performance, doing everything from readying the theater, making props and costumes, pasting up flyers, and practicing, practicing, practicing. On opening night when the curtain rises, the seats are empty, but by the end of her performance she hears thunderous applause. The wonderfully idiosyncratic naive illustrations, which evoke Europe (and the heritage of the author / illustrator), are the perfect complement to the simple story.
Backstage Cat / Harriet Ziefert; illustrated by Jenni Desmond
The backstage cat, Simon, is the pet of the leading lady. He watches her as she goes through makeup and dresses in her costume. Simon blunders onto stage and interrupts the performance, cowering high in a tree that is part of the scenery. Only the leading lady can coax him down with her sweet singing. But when a mouse runs across the stage during the third scene, Simon gives chase. He seems to want to be a star. And, as we learn, the show must go on!
Stagestruck / Tomie DePaola
One of Tommy’s teachers tells him he has a wonderful stage presence, so he thinks he’s a shoo-in for the lead in the play his kindergarten class is putting on. When he doesn’t land the lead, he still thinks he can shine by being a ham. He gets the applause, but did he ruin the show by stealing the spotlight? In any case, he’s stage struck. Tomie DePaola’s (Strega Nona) illustrations are the star of this book.
Louise the Big Cheese / Elise Primavera; illustrated by Diane Goode
Louise has a big dream to have the lead role of Cinderella in the play, but instead she gets the role of a mouse. When the lead actress freezes up on stage, Louise is there to feed her lines to her and saves the day. This book bleeds pink and even has glitter on the cover, so girls in their “princess stage” will be particularly smitten by this one.
Rifka Takes a Bow / Betty Rosenberg Perlov; illustrated by Cosei Kawa
Rifka’s parents are actors in the Yiddish theater in New York City, in the early 20th century when Yiddish theater thrived. Rifka gets to see all that goes on backstage, where the props are stored, and learns the secrets of the trade. When she stumbles into a live performance, she tries to make it seem like it was on purpose. Being on stage is in her blood after all! This book offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of theater and the stylized illustrations evoke a bygone era of New York City theater history
Amazing Grace / Mary Hoffman; illustrated by Caroline Binch
Grace loves stories, and she loves acting them out. When Grace’s teacher announces that they will stage Peter Pan, Grace knows she has to have to lead role. If Grace puts her mind to it, she can do anything she wants. Caroline Binch’s illustrations are wonderfully wrought and are reminiscent of the fine detailed work of Jerry Pinkney.
The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, The Bard / Gregory Rogers
This wordless graphic novel in picture book format follows the adventures of a boy who time-travels back to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre after his soccer ball bounces into an abandoned theater. A big chase through London ensues, and even Queen Elizabeth I makes a cameo. This is a great book for the slightly older child who may need a smidgen of history to fully appreciate this tale.
Full Moon and Star / Lee Bennett Hopkins; illustrated by Marcellus Hall
This book describes the process of playwriting when Kyle writes a simple play called Moon. Katie matches his effort with her own play Stars. Together they collaborate on a play called Full Moon and Star. This simple story will introduce the very young to the process of creating and performing drama. It’s really as simple as that!
Moses Sees a Play / Isaac Millman
Moses is hearing impaired, but that doesn’t mean that he can’t participate in the theater experience. When the Little Theatre of the Deaf comes to his school to perform Cinderella in American Sign Language, Moses’s class is inspired to stage their own play. At the end of the book Moses tells him Mom about his day in ASL, and the signs are illustrated so that the reader might learn. See also Moses Goes to a Concert.