Sunday, February 5, 2012

Book before Show: Michael Rosen, Helen Oxenbury, Dr Seuss' The Lorax, Mary Norton's The Borrowers / Arrietty

Adaptations reveal the bear facts about books
Annie Ho 

Early last month, I took my four year-old daughter to see the KidsFest stage performance of We're Going on a Bear Hunt, based on the book by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. We have Helen Oxenbury's I Can and I Hear, two of her books for babies, but had not yet read Bear Hunt. We managed to borrow the book from a mummy-friend. She apologised that her copy of the book was in really bad shape, as her children were already four and six years old, and it had been read so often that the binding was coming loose. 

I reassured her that I loved to see old and tattered books because it meant that they were read, re-read and handled time and time again. 

For myself, I always make it a point to read the book before I see the film adaptation. I did that with the Harry Potter series as well as In Cold Blood (for Capote) and Michael Cunningham's The Hours. In all instances, I wanted to see these releases, but postponed doing so until I had read the books. 

And so, I set out to immerse my daughter in the Bear Hunt story in the week leading up to the stage performance. Unexpectedly, after one reading, she declared that she didn't like the story because the bear was too scary, and I was not able (or not allowed) to read it to her again. 

Fortunately, the onstage bear was as cute and friendly as a three-metre tall bear-suited character could be, and we enjoyed the stage show very much. It was interactive and lively, with silly sequences that appealed to the children in the audience. 

As a parent, I appreciated that the production did not rely on expensive sets to tell the story. In fact, it was so lo-tech that the characters crossed a river that was simply a dozen blue bath towels placed on the stage. It also really tickled me to hear children in the audience shout out the next lines ('You have to go through it!') because they know the story so well. Fans of Mary Norton's beloved children's book The Borrowers, will be pleased to learn that The Secret World of Arrietty, the English version of Hayao Miyazaki's animated feature based on Norton's novel, is also out soon. Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, my favourite husband-and-wife comedy team, will provide the voices of Arrietty's worrisome parents, and Carol Burnett that of the meddlesome housekeeper.

The Borrowers is one of the few books that I owned as a child, and I'm sure the tattered copy remains in a box in some storage closet at my parents' home. Norton wrote this classic story back in 1952, yet it still speaks well to children. It is good for both reading aloud and for primary school children to read on their own.

I'm tempted to purchase the new hardcover published by Orion Children's Books, a weighty tome containing two favourites, The Borrowers and The Borrowers Afield. 

And coming to cinemas next month is another animated film based on a children's book, The Lorax. This is Lorax is classic Dr Seuss, with the perfect rhyming rhythm and ingenious invented words that are his signature. 

The voice of the Lorax will be provided by Danny DeVito, who also resembles the Lorax. It is a fun way for young children to learn about conservation and the environment. 

In my opinion, taking a child unprepared to a stage performance or film that is based on a story book is like going to a concert without knowing the music. And that is why, after re-reading all these children's classics, I will also need to get reacquainted with my Duran Duran back catalogue before going to see the band perform in Hong Kong next month.

Annie Ho is on the board of governors at Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities across the city

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