Fantastic Fiction for Kids – Theatres

posted in: James Mayhew | 6

I’m very excited about this week’s contribution to Fantastic Fiction for Kids! It comes from (did you manage to guess?) none other than James Mayhew, author and illustrator of the Katie series (including Katie’s Picture Show, Katie in London, and Katie and the Sunflowers, which I reviewed here) as well as numerous other books.

When I first approached James about contributing to Fantastic Fiction for Kids I thought he might select books with an operatic theme, as I knew that opera is one of his passions, but instead he has opted (in his words) for “theatre in all its forms, but not retellings of, for example, Shakespeare. These are stories that explore theatre from within. The backstage dramas, the thrill of preparing for a performance, the aspirational dream to be a star: these books touch on such ideas, some more than others, but all make the idea of being on stage (or even backstage) irresistibly exciting. As someone who dreams of one day designing sets and costumes for Grand Opera, these books continue to inspire and excite me with images of the sheer magic of working in a theatre, with the potential to touch and transform lives.

After such an enticing introduction let’s take a look at James’ selection of books!

moominsummer_madness_frontcoverMoominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson.

All families are filled with Hemulins, Fillyjonks and have a snork or two. You just need to know where to look. And this was Jansson’s genius: to take reconisable human foibles and illuminate them in her beautifully crafted words and images. Her Moominvalley is one of the great literary imaginings of the twentieth century. Here we meet Misabel and Whomper who join the flooded Moomin family in an apparently haunted floating theatre. Eventually Emma the stage rat reveals herself and Moominpappa is inspired to write a play. The lonely Misabel dreams of becoming an actress and the rest of them come to grips with revolving stages, drop scenery and theatre etiquette. While young Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden fall overboard and encounter different adventures, his parents and their eccentric entourage take to life in the theatre with their usual resourcefulness. This book is funny and beautiful and bizarre, and has an authentic whiff of greasepaint in the fanciful scenes in the theatre.

Pet of the Met by Lydia Freeman and Don Freeman

This is a vintage American picture book, recently republished, which tells the exciting tale of the Petrini family who live in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The fact that they are mice is what makes the book so delicious. Drama is provided by Mefisto, the theatre cat, who is out to get Maestro Petrini, the father. But without giving too much away, the story (with sparky retro illustrations) ends happily, and simultaneously whets any child’s appetite for Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

higgelty_piggelty_pop_frontcoverHigglety Pigglety Pop: Or, There Must be More to Life by Maurice Sendak

So much of Sendak’s work has a theatrical dimension, not least his book of The Nutcracker. And the great man has designed sets and costumes for many operas and ballets, while some of his works, including this book, have been adapted for the stage. This story became an opera at Glyndebourne together with Where The Wild Things Are. That’s quite a tribute! Starring a dog called Jennie, it is about many things, but for my purposes here it is particularly about finding a leading lady for the Mother Goose theatre. Could Jennie the dog fit the bill? What must she do to gain the necessary experience?

The Swan by Helen May

This is an unusual and out of print book, published in 1958, which tells the life story in rather earnest words but with lovely sketchy drawings, of Anna Pavlova, the great prima-ballerina. Famous as both Tchaikovsky’s Odette and as Saint-Saen’s The Dying Swan, the title becomes clear. Again, we learn about the hard work behind being successful on the stage and while there are many books about ballet – story retellings, pop up theatres and so on (not to mention Noel Streatfeild), I am always more interested in the real people who created the illusions on stage. Good biographies of really admirable people are rare for children, which is a shame. There should be more books like this, unflinching and real, yet with the romantic sweep of an ambition and a dream fulfilled to make us all believe we can succeed in life.

Now, don’t those books sound lovely? I’ve just reserved those I can through our library system and can’t wait for them to arrive. In the meantime I shall do some browsing of the various blogs which James writes – why don’t you take a look too!

  • Katie’s Picture Show
  • James Mayhew
  • Elle Bella Ballerina
  • Whilst browsing James’ blogs you might enjoy listening to:

  • Theatre Rat Emma’s Song from the album The Best Original Moomin Songs (in Finnish πŸ™‚ )
  • Hi diddle dee dee, an actor’s life for me from Pinocchio
  • The Traveling Show by The Bummkinn Band
  • Mozart’s Magic Flute and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake
  • And as to theatrical crafty inspiration, here are some of my favourite finds:

  • This gorgeous toy theatre made from a cardboard box by the Angry Chicken
  • Ticket printables for the shows you and your kids put on at home, from Gingham Cherry, found via The Crafty Crow
  • Some tips on putting on a shadow puppet play from BloesemKids
  • Thanks indeed to James for this week’s wonderful list of books. I’ve certainly discovered some new titles, and am now feeling inspired to help M and J put on a little performance here at home over the holidays! I’m also very pleased to be able to announce that James is just the first of several authors who have agreed to contribute to Playing by the book – I’ve already got two more authors’ contributions for the new year πŸ™‚ And in the mean time, next week we’ve got a very yummy Fantastic Fiction for Kids post lined up – all about baking! Looking forward to seeing you all then πŸ™‚

    6 Responses

    1. Ashley

      Wonderful to have you post here James, thanks to Zoe’s reviewing of Katie and the sunflowers I’ve begun collecting the Katie series for my little boy, I really love the concept of mixing art with literature.
      Gosh I’d long forgotten about Higglety Pigglety Pop, it’s a book I bought for my mum many years ago and we just loved it. Must see if she still has it.

    2. vanessa@silly eagle books

      This is wonderful! Just today, Juliet was asking me about plays and asking if she might be in one someday. I am on the lookout for some of these! She is already interested in ballerina books since she started taking dance this fall–so we are adding those to our list as well. Great post!

    3. Kristine

      These books sound lovely. I love the mix of theatre and kids. Psychologist say that children can’t truly discriminate between fact and fiction until the age of 8. It seems hard to fathom but watching my three year old talk to a puppet – she knows it’s not real but something makes her want to beleive. Actually Russell took her to see a school play of three little pigs and half way through my daughter yelled out “Run little pig. The wolf is behind you” to much amusement from the cast and audience She just got swept up in the moment. Despite the very basic costuming and the age of the actors they made it beleivable for her.

    4. Nina

      Hi. I’m really glad to have found you! I came to you through BMB.
      I’ll be back to read more! πŸ™‚

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