When the folks at the Kennedy Center had an idea to do a show based on the award-winning book Knuffle Bunny, Mo Willems didn't hesitate. Okay, maybe he hesitated, but he certainly accepted the challenge to write the script and lyrics of Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical. For over two years he worked with more than thirty people to turn the picture book into a one-hour family musical.
With Grammy Award winning composer Michael Silversher taking on the music, Mo worked most closely on the script with dramaturge Megan Alrutz. As he notes on his blog, "If you ever get the chance to get your own Dramaturge, do it! They're awesome. The thought of losing my Dramaturge to other dramaturgically needy projects in the future fills me with dread. And, as long as you're getting a Dramaturge, get Megan. She rocks." Workshops and rehearsals with the cast and crew helped to further shape the musical with even additional tweaking even on the Friday before the performance.
The musical certainly feels like a Mo Willems production. Fans will instantly recognize the background projected on the stage and even the clothes the characters are wearing as being from the book. The plot is the same, the father takes his young daughter to the laundromat and misplaces her beloved Knuffle Bunny, causing a toddler meltdown of miscommunication and complete frustration.
For the musical, the part of Trixie is played by Stephanie D'Abruzzo, an old pal from Mo's Sesame Street and Sheep in the Big City days. She dives into the tough role, portraying Trixie's garbled speech and active imagination with a childlike enthusiasm. Michael John Casey gives the audience a fantastic Dad, who is ready to take on anything and make it fun. Erika Rose is the knowing Mom, and Matthew McGloin and Gia Mora handle the other characters as Puppeteers.
The children in the audience laughed during the show, and there is much for adults to appreciate as well. Trixie's inability to communicate creates much of the humor of the book and the musical, and yet it's also a real source of frustration and helplessness for both father and daughter. The musical gave an opportunity to explore this deeper connection to our own feelings of inadequacy as parents. That point when we recognize that our child has ideas and an individually that we can't always comprehend or even recognize.
This theme is evident as the father sings about all the things that he will teach his daughter, while not noticing her already intense fascination with the world around her. In fact as she expresses delight in a friendly pigeon - yes, that pigeon - her father scares the bird away as a "dirty rat with wings." As poor Trixie sings a sad song of toddler gibberish - complete with boa and spotlight - about the loss of her stuffed friend, her father is lost in misunderstanding. And yet as he feels that frustration of not getting it and not doing it right, he still is able to tap into what is most important - the love that he feels for his little girl. Of course, it all turns out fine at the end.
Overall, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical is a fun show for kids and their adults, with catchy music and lots of laughs along with a sentimental spirit. And what struck Mo Willems as a member of the audience? " I loved holding my daughter's hand during the song "Really, Really Love You." Best moment by far."
The show travels for eighteen months or so before returning to Kennedy Center next year, so look to catch a performance at a theater near you. If you're excited about the possibility of another Mo musical, be encouraged that he's talking about ways to work together more with the group, having enjoyed this experience so much. Whatever it is or may be, count me in the audience. Or crashing the premiere party as I may or may not have done this time. Read all about my personal experience at the musical over at MotherReader.
Today, April 12th, is National Drop Everything and Read Day (known as D.E.A.R. Day). D.E.A.R. Day is held on April 12th every year, in honor of Beverly Cleary's birthday. It is "a special reading celebration to remind and encourage families to make reading together on a daily basis a family priority." Partners in D.E.A.R. Day include The National Education Association (NEA); Parent Teacher Association (PTA); the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association; Reading Rockets; The General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC); the Newspaper Association of America Foundation (NAA); First Book; HarperCollins Children's Books; Read Kiddo Read; Walden Media and, of course, Ramona Quimby.
This year, the official spokesperson for D.E.A.R. Day is Joey King, who plays Ramona in the Ramona and Beezus movie, due in theaters July 23rd. Ramona, of course, advises on the D.E.A.R. website that kids "check out all the great books Beverly Cleary wrote about me and Read It Before You See It!"
While there will be D.E.A.R. events held at schools and libraries around the US, all you really need to do to participate is take 30 minutes out of your day, wherever you are, to drop everything and read. Here at Booklights, of course, we suggest spending those 30 minutes reading with a child, if you can. But reading on your own counts, too (though I'd suggest reading books over reading blogs, if you want to be true to the spirit of the day).
The D.E.A.R. website has some wonderful lists of Drop Everything Reads, organized by age range, and compiled by "children's reading experts from Reach Out and Read, NEA, and Reading Rockets". In addition to the somewhat classics-heavy favorites lists, there are also suggested multi-cultural read-aloud titles for D.E.A.R. families, compiled by the Quicklists Consulting Committee of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.
How great is it that there's a day set aside to celebrate the sheer joy of reading? The fact that the irrepressible Ramona is the face of D.E.A.R. Day just makes the whole thing that much more fun. Happy D.E.A.R. Day. Enjoy!!
Sit back. I'm going to tell you one of my favorite children's book publishing stories.
No, wait. I already did. Go and read it or this post won't make much sense. I'll wait here.
What took you so long?
Isn't that an amazing story? (I mean the Curious George story, but I love all three of them.) It's been a favorite of mine for a long time, even before I read Louise Borden's wonderful book: The Journey That Saved Curious George.
I happened to be in Manhattan this past weekend and luckily stumbled across an extraordinary exhibit at The Jewish Museum that thoroughly documents the Rey's four month trip from France to the United States via Brazil. There are countless original sources including the journals that H.A. Rey meticulously recorded. There's the hand drawn wedding invitation and incredibly creative New Year's cards. There are the letters from various publishers. There are the videos of interviews with the Reys. But there's so much more than that.
You get to see the artwork.
Creating picture books is a very involved process and there are numerous steps that have to happen in order for you to hold the finished book in your hands. For some great children's picture books with details and illustrations of every step, see Eileen Christelow's What do Authors Do? and What do Illustrators Do? and Aliki's How a Book is Made.
Original picture book art is the actual illustration that's used to make the image you see in the book. It's magical stuff. No matter how well you know the book, the real artwork will always surprise you. It will be smaller or bigger than you expected. It will have many more or less colors than you expected. It will have colored pencils where you thought there was paint. It will have texture and fabric that you're not able to fully appreciate in the book. At the same time, the image is so familiar to you that it feels like an old friend.
The remarkable thing about this exhibition is that there are nearly eighty original works. That's right, almost eighty. Usually, if you're lucky, you'll get to see a few pieces at a time or maybe even ten. But with this exhibit we get to see so much more than that. We get to see our friend George in pictures you'll recognize immediately. And not just him. There's Katy Kangaroo, Pretzel, Spotty and Whiteblack the Penguin and many other delightful characters that the Reys created. What does it look like? Hop on over to the exhibition's main page to see a tantalizing sample.
Okay, hop back. What struck you the most? For me, it was the physical shape of the of the pictures... which is the most obvious in the picture of George swinging from the trees and eating bananas. I'm so used to seeing the white pristine background but in reality the pictures were cut out (much more than in that one image you saw) and glued on to the pages. It makes perfect sense but was so surprising to see nonetheless. George himself was fairly small suspended in the middle of a huge white space. Once I got over that, I wanted to spend all day looking at the artwork. It was so beautiful I really can't put it into words.
This exhibit showcases many treasures from the extensive archive of the Rey's papers at the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. Take a look at the H.A. and Margret Rey Digital Collection. It's fascinating.
Curious George Saves the Day:The Art of H.A. and Margret Rey is at the Jewish Museum in New York City through August 1, 2010. It's appropriate for all ages and completely accessible to kids. There's a comfy reading area filled with many of the Reys' books which are begging to be read aloud.
If you can't make it to New York, the best substitute is The Journey That Saved Curious George which contains lots of the archival material found in the exhibit.
And keep your eyes open for picture book art. Ask around. Maybe your local library (particularly if it's a large, central, urban library) has a few on the wall of their children's room. Maybe you'll find a picture or two in a children's bookstore. Watch for exhibits that come through your city. Visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts.
The artwork above that you're drooling over is for sale at the legendary Manhattan children's bookstore: Books of Wonder. It's all of the original cover art work for Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. The artist is John Rocco. There are also pictures you may not have seen before that were created for the deluxe edition of The Lightning Thief. You can see better pictures here and even order your own prints.
Whenever or wherever you find it, it will always be magic.
1. National Book Festival
I packed my pockets with tissues and cough drops, and went to the National Book Festival on a chillly, rainy day certain to exacerbate my cold. Totally worth it. The fifth grader and I went to the Mo Willems signing, while the teens tried for Rick Riordan's autograph waiting in a line that defied description. After missing out on his signature, the teens went to his author session early to make sure they didn't miss that too. The fifth grader and I went to see Mo Willems' presentation.
My daughter was picked to go up on stage and read/act the book Today I Will Fly, with her as Piggie, Mo's daughter Trixie as the dog, and Mo as Gerald the elephant! My heart was bursting with pride as my daughter turned in a wonderful performance for a packed house, and now we can't wait to see the webcast on the National Book Festival site.
The whole bunch of us also saw Jeff Kinney, who was delightful, funny and truly humble, and Rick Riordan, who shared the news of his upcoming books. Patrick Carmon talked about his new titles along with The 39 Clues Series. Judy Blume held the crowd mesmerized just by being there. My whole story is available in at MotherReader in two parts.
2. Banned Book Week
With everything I've got on my plate this week, I've let others carry the online efforts for Banned Book Week. Fortunately, they've done a wonderful job. While a Wall Street Journal op-ed questioned whether you can even call a book banned in this country, Colleen Mondor wrote a reply at Chasing Ray that amounts to the world's most eloquent Yes. My good friend Lee Wind has a exceptional two-part interview with authors of challenged books. A letter posted last year at MyLiBlog (and tweeted by Neil Gaiman this year) offers an incredible answer to a patron who wanted a picture book removed from a public library. I also can't help returning to the Banned Books Week manifesto, a jarring poem of Ellen Hopkins, "Burn every word to ash. Ideas are incombustible."
3. The Cybils
Nomination season has begun for the 2009 Cybils, also known as the Children's and Young Adult Blogger's Literary Awards. If you have a children's or teen book that you loved that was published in 2009, you can nominate it at the Cybils site. You can submit one book per genre, and nominations are accepted from today through October 15th. At that point, a panel for each genre reads, analyzes and discusses the books to come up with a shortlist of finalists on January 1, 2010. Then a second round of judges take those books and in the course of a month an a half come up with a winner for each category. With all the genres and judges and rounds, the Cybils involves many bloggers in the KidLit and Young Adult online communities making it a festival season for book lovers. This year I'll be the organizer and a panelist for the Fiction Picture Book category, so I'll be bringing you lots of the best picture books over the next few months. Of course, you don't have to look just to me. Check out the Cybils page for reviews of great titles across the genres.