Welcome to the first in a new mini-series here on Playing by the book – Stories in tune.
Regular readers will know that we listen to a lot of music in our home, and that music plays a part in every post at Playing by the book, but it is also true that we listen to only a small amount of classical music, and I wanted to find a way to change that. I decided I’d look for picture books inspired by classical music to read to M and J, and thus Stories in tune was born.
Today’s post is about one of the all time classics when it comes to children’s orchestral music – Peter and the Wolf. (If you are like one of the many adults I’ve met who were scarred by listening to Peter and the Wolf, please don’t close your browser now! I really hope that this post will inspire even the most reluctant adult to re-listen to the music along with their kids!)
Peter and the Wolf is an orchestral piece written by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 specifically designed to introduce the orchestra to young children. It tells the tale of Peter, who disobeys his grandfather and enters the nearby woods where he captures a wolf. Although wolves feature in many a folktale or fairy story, it seems that this story is one that Prokofiev himself wrote – as well as an orchestral score he provided the text for a narration to take place alongside the playing of his music.
It has inspired many retellings, with (English language) picture books based on the story appearing from as early as 1940. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve enjoyed reading four versions, each quite different from the others in terms of illustrations and storytelling style, and here are my thoughts on them:
Beck provides a faithful, simple retelling of Prokofiev’s story, with few descriptive additions, and whilst the storytelling isn’t the most imaginative of those we’ve read, the reason to look out for this book is its illustrations. With typical panache, Beck draws charming scenes, alluding to the Russian heritage of the tale – the landscape is covered in snow and Peter appears to be wearing something like a Cossack’s uniform with a large fur hat and high boots. The unadorned text and almost chocolate-boxy images make this a perfect choice I think for introducing Peter and the Wolf to younger readers and listeners.
The final page of the book provides some background to the music of Peter and the Wolf, explaining which character are played by which instruments. Indeed, on each page of this book you can find the appropriate instrument as each character appears, making this a version you could actually read alongside listening to the music, particularly if you have a recording without narration.
Johnny Morris’ retelling of Prokofiev’s story is more detailed and imaginative than that of Beck, though it still manages to remain equally faithful to the original bare bones of the story. The illustrations are, however, rather bland and dated to my eyes (and did not appeal to either M or J). There is a clearer sense that the tale takes place in Russia, with a landscape of Silver Birches, the clothes worn by Grandfather and the hunters, and the architecture of Peter’s home all reflecting the national roots of this story. Like Beck’s version, this retelling includes pictures of the instruments matching the characters appearing on each page, and the story is accompanied by 4 further pages of background information on the music, suggesting to me that this might be a good version if you were wanting to explicitly teach something about Peter and the Wolf, rather than simply enjoy the book on its own merits.
If you were looking for a Peter and the Wolf inspired picture book simply to enjoy as a great story with engaging illustrations, independent of the music this is the version I would recommend. The storytelling is wonderful – one that you will want to read again and again, and the illustrations (like oil paintings) are full of detail and texture.
Some readers and listeners may not like the fact that this retelling does not stick strictly to Prokofiev’s story – the wolf is tied to the tree rather than caught by his tail, and at the end of the story Grandpa is not cross with Peter, but rather helps him to prevent the hunters from shooting the wolf. Additionally, the illustrations, whilst lovely, suggest the story could be set anywhere – there is no hint of the Russian heritage of this tale.
The more complicated text and detailed images make this a great version for slightly older readers and listeners.
I got hold of this version of Peter and the Wolf as I knew Ambrus’ work from one of our favourite TV programmes – Time Team, but not as a children’s illustrator (although it turns out he was a prolific children’s illustrator and has twice won the Kate Greenaway medal), and the illustrations are indeed the reason you’d seek out this version of the story. The retelling is faithful to Prokofiev but has no special sparkle, whilst the illustrations are colourful, detailed and full of cartoon-esque characters – if you or your kids like Korky Paul then I think you’d like these illustrations a lot!
The book contains a prologue with the standard intro to the musical instruments common in several versions of Peter and the Wolf, and also an epilogue – a really great addition as it points out that the story of Peter and the Wolf actually has a rather open ended finale, leaving plenty of scope for imagining what happened next. Riordan encourages the reader to think of possible endings, indeed “Perhaps you can make up a musical story about it yourself.” – what a great starting point for some fun play!
Of these versions M enjoyed Beck’s book the most. I was surprise how much she liked comparing the different versions – I hadn’t thought this would happen so explicitly, but she was intrigued to see so many different visions of the same story. As for me, whilst I learnt a lot through looking for the books, none of them went to my heart. I was left wondering whether a wordless picture book might work well – one that you could really enjoy alongside the music, and I also wanted (but failed) to find an illustrator that really revelled in the Russian heritage of the story.
Other picture book versions of Peter and the Wolf can be found at the Amazon list I created called Peter and the Wolf Picture Books. If you’ve read any of these versions (or indeed other Peter and the Wolf picture books not included here or on my Amazon page), please let me know what you thought of them!
To go along with all these books of course we played out our own version of “Peter and the Wolf” – I made a wolf mask for M, and we ran around in the garden chasing the cat and the bird up the tree, and eventually M/the wolf captured the duck and gobbled it up!
We found the instructions for the wolf mask in the Usborne Book of Masks (Usborne How to Guides) by Ray Gibson and Paula Borton – they were easy to follow and the book has several other good looking masks too!
Some Peter and the Wolf links you might enjoy if you want to learn and play more:
So where do you stand on Peter and the Wolf? Is it something you enjoyed as a kid? Have your kids already heard it? What did they make of it?