Peter and the Wolf

Welcome to the first in a new mini-series here on Playing by the bookStories 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!)

Photo: Fremlin

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:

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Retold and illustrated by Ian Beck

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.

Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Retold by Johnny Morris, illustrated by Jenny Thorne

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.

Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev, Illustrated by Julia Gukova, Adapted by Gerlinde Wiencirz

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.
Peter and the Wolf, Illustrated by Victor G Ambrus, Retold by James Riordan

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:

  • Phil Tuga’s Peter and the Wolf page

  • A list of all available recordings with narrators including Boris Karloff, Sting, Lenny Henry, Sean Connery, David Bowie, Jack Lemmon, Dudley Moore – there’s bound to be someone who takes your fancy!

  • How to create your own shadow puppet play based on Peter and the Wolf, from Natural Kids

  • Susie Templeton’s animated version of Peter and the Wolf is incredible – although her interpretation of Prokofiev’s story may not appeal to purists this film is spellbinding and I can’t recommend it enough. Indeed I would choose this over any of the CD recordings I’ve listened to – the music is wonderful and the visuals are a joy. Definitely inspirational and if anything will heal those scars from your own childhood, this is it! (Thanks Mum for introducing us to this!)

  • 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?

    Today I’m linking up again with stART – do head on over to A Mommy’s Adventures to find some more inspiration for book inspired kids’ art and play πŸ™‚

    32 Responses

    1. Ashley

      Thanks for this wonderful post Zoe, I’ve been hunting without success for the perfect
      “Peter and the Wolf” book myself. What surprises me is that it’s very hard to find one that comes with a CD of the music itself, when surely it’s obvious it ought to be included. We have the Janet Shulman book, as listed on your Amazon list, but I’m very tempted to order some of those others.

    2. Ashley

      Forgot to add that listening to Peter and the Wolf at my old Aunts house as a child, is a very fond childhood memory of mine. We would always pester her to put it on when we visited. To this day it’s a piece of music I love.

    3. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Ashley,
      I’m so glad to hear that you have good memories of Peter and the Wolf – you’re the first adult I’ve met who’s said that to me!

      What do you think of the Janet Shulman book? I thought the frontcover looked nice.

      I know what you mean about the book coming with a CD – but then there’s the issue of whether the text in the book follows exactly the text of the narration on the CD, and to be honest I don’t think the narration works as a written text to enjoy in a book – it’s too sparse. What do you think? I guess it might depend on whether you want a book to enjoy on its own, or a book to look at along side listening to the music.

      We’ve had out 3 different recordings of Peter and the Wolf and some of the celebrity narrators were a bit much for me – although it didn’t seem to make a difference to M. Hearing Sean Connery narrate just kept making me think of James Bond…

    4. Choxbox

      Awesome post Zoe. I am so glad I bumped into your blog.

      Peter & The Wolf – we once saw it as a play but that was when my older child was really young, and she didn’t appreciate it that much. Somehow never featured in our reading life till much later – when she herself picked it up in the libe and read it.

      But we do have two book+CDs that are somewhat similar, in the sense the stories are associated with a brilliant piece of classical music – The Nutcracker and Toy Symphony. Have been listened to many many times. Had picked them from a shop called FunLearning in Brent Cross. This shop btw is an Aladdin’s cave. Has real nice goodies, is opposite Waitrose.

      • Zoe

        Hi Choxbox,

        I’m so glad too that you bumped into my blog! You’re a great commenter and that’s much appreciated πŸ™‚

        Could you let me have the details of The Nutcracker and Toy Symphony books you mention (author/illustrator) so that I can have a look for them? I know Ian Beck (same Ian Beck as the one in this post) has done The Nutcracker, but I don’t know of any other versions (yet!)

        I have childhood memories of Brent Cross – we lived in london for a few years when I was in primary school, and there was something in Brent Cross we’d go shopping for – I can’t remember what tho – I shall have to ask my mum! I’ve just found FunLearning online: I’m off to explore now!

    5. Christianne @ Little Page Turners

      I LOVED Peter and the Wolf as a child. The Wolf part was terrifying… but it was a delicious sort of fear. My daughter watched the ballet on TV once, but we have yet to explore the book(s) or music. Thanks for the inspiration and resources!

      • Zoe

        Hi Christianne,
        Yes, I know what you mean about a delicious fear – an essential part of so many good stories for kids!

    6. Natalie

      It’s embarassing to admit that even though I was raised in the former Soviet Union, I am not familiar with this piece. Oh, I might be familiar with it but heard it in such a bad rendition that I blocked it out of my memory. We had a lot of “early musical education” that wasn’t thought out really well. I still think that it’s something that I would wait on for another year, but thank you for this informative post.

      • Zoe

        Hi Natalie,
        Do you know any Russian language picture book versions of Peter and the Wolf – I did have a brief look but my Russian is very rusty (19 years since I last studied it!!) and so didn’t have much luck, but if you know of any, or could find any, I’d love to hear about them, even if just a weblink.

    7. MamaGames

      We love Peter and the Wolf here. The first version we had was the Janet Schulman illustrated version that comes with a cd – on your Amazon list. This one was perfect for reading while we listened, and has fanciful illustrations sometimes incorporating the instruments.

      Personally I love our recording with Patrick Stewart narrating… my kids both often ask for this one as their bedtime cd.

      We also have the Chuck Jones version of the book – which greatly expanded the story line. There is an animation out there somewhere of his version, but we haven’t seen that. The kids do get a kick out of the familiar cartoon illustrations, though!

      • Zoe

        Hi MamaGames,
        Yes, we’ve had the Patrick Stewart version out this month – he does have a lovely voice I’ll agree. But maybe I’m biased seeing as I’m not averse to Captain Picard!

    8. Michelle

      I totally forgot about this story, I loved listineg to it in music when I was a child. Thank you so much for sharing!! I love the wolf masks and the fun that they had with them. Thank you so much for linking up and sharing your wonderful ideas for stART :0)

    9. Janelle

      We had a Peter and the Wolf record when I was a kid. Can’t remember who narrated the music. I’ll have to ask my mom if she still has the record.

    10. Stephanie

      I just bookmarked this post — it’s very inspiring! I’d almost forgotten about Peter and the Wolf and I think my 6-year-old would love it.

    11. Kristine

      it’s a pretty amazing piece of music – so many changes. I remember in drama moving to each part and I remember the story being quite scary but not the finer details.
      The mask looks wild.

    12. helen rawlinson

      Hi Zoe,
      we adore Peter and the Wolf in our house and I loved it as a child. We went to see it at Sheffield City Hall with Jonny Morris as the narrator, no less! My mum was a keen classical music fan, so this was her way of getting us involved. I got my 4 yr old the Susie Templeton animation at Christmas and he was smitten. It’s a beautiful adaptation. We also have a couple of versions on CD, but not books. Having seen your book list I’m now going to seek some out as the story was a bit vague in my head and I’d love to read it again. The play acting is a brilliant idea, so we’ll definitely be trying that. Thanks for the info. x

    13. Cindy

      I have been looking for months online as well as in the library for Peter and the Wolf both as a book and as a CD. It has really been hard. That surprised me. I have always loved the music and the delightful story. So have my children. Now I wanted to get a copy to send to my grandchildren along with puppets that I made to go with the story. My children always loved retelling their favorite stories that way. Silly me for thinking this would be easy. Thanks for your input. It was the first real help in this adventure.

      • Zoe

        Thanks Cindy, I’m glad what I’ve written has been helpful. Your puppets sound great!

    14. john

      I was interested in ChoxBox note about the site
      for children’s classics. It wasn’t clear to me if they had the story avalible in Russian. I have tried to find Peter and the wolf in Russian at Amazon but have had no sucess. I have been trying to become comfortable with written Russian and felt that this folk tail would help me get started.

      Thanks for the site.

    15. James Mayhew

      Hi Zoe,

      Stumbled across this post as I’m preparing for a performance of Peter and the Wolf. It’s really tough, especially as I’m going to illustrate it live on stage at the same time!!!! I think combining art and music really helps draw children in. A book and CD could do the same I think.

      It would be my dream to retell and illustrate this as a book, as I loved it as a kid (and was really upset when the duck got eaten!). I have lots of old vintage records and books (as you know, my speciality!). My favourite CD is one that came free with BBC Music magazine (search for it on ebay). It has David Attenborough narrating as if for one of his wild-life films, and it’s perfect πŸ™‚

    16. Zoe

      Thanks James for taking the time to comment here. Fingers crossed that one day you do get the chance to retell and illustrate Peter and the Wolf, I know you’d do it brilliantly!

    17. Emily

      Thank you so much for writing this post, I’m Christmas shopping and have been driving myself bonkers trying to find the perfect picture book version to go along with the Leonard Bernstein narration I loved as a kid. Now trying to get my almost 3-year-old son hooked as well. I love how useful posts like this hang around on the internet until just that perfect moment when you most need to find them :).

      • Zoe

        Emily, so glad to have been of help – I’d love to know which picture book version you’ve gone with in the end – especially if it’s one I haven’t featured. Happy reading and happy listening!

      • Zoe

        Hi Adam, I don’t know this version, but lots of Jorg Muller books are still in print (Jorg Muller is the illustrator of the version you link to) so I hope you are able to track down a copy.

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