Saturday, November 17, 2012

"Avonlea, We Love Thee..."

I love musicals. As most reading this probably realize, I love Anne of Green Gables. There's an entity that combines these two elements, which I somehow hadn't seen until this weekend at the Wheelock Family Theatre.

Most of my curiosity rested on how the novel-to-musical adaptation would work. If the novel has a flaw, it's pacing, which makes some sense given its origin as a Sunday school serial. But would the play have time and scenery to include the novel's rushed-through Queen's College years? The answer was no, but the script conflates Queens and Redmond Colleges so as to include Anne and Gilbert's scholarship rivalry without leaving Avonlea. It has other little tricks as well to fit in as many of the memorable episodes as possible without being four hours long. Reactions to one incident become responses to another. Anne doesn't walk a ridgepole, but mentions in song that she fell off a roof over the summer. There's no Unfortunate Lily Maid scene, but that's quite understandable for reasons of staging, pacing, and context for an audience perhaps unfamiliar with Tennyson.

And what of the songs? They're joyful enough, and some are perfect; "Oh, Mrs. Lynde!" precisely captures Anne's overwrought apology. Others feel more arbitrary, chosen as song-worthy points only because a lot of the characters are onstage; a song seems to be the only way to signal a transition into or out of school. Overall, the dialogue is much more fun and much funnier, which makes sense since it's the closest to what's in the novel. The script wisely keeps L.M. Montgomery's characterization mostly intact in both the lifted and invented lines. My one quibble is that Matthew becomes comfortable with Anne too quickly, which takes something away from the deliciously awkward buggy scene; he should be mumbling "well now," while marveling at Anne's imagination, not crowing about it.

The WFT did a really impressive, well-cast production. Child actors seemed professional (one well-handled giggle fit notwithstanding). Anne was spot-on, and managed to successfully kick off Slategate despite dropping the slate before it made contact with Gilbert's head. Mrs. Lynde was appropriately haughty. A few characters were played differently than I'd imagined them (beyond the colorblind casting), but that became an exercise in how lines I'd always pictured one way could work another way. Gilbert came off as smarmy at first, but that succeeded in emphasizing his teasing and make Anne's long-held grudge toward him more understandable. Marilla was warmer than the smile-rusty-from-long-disuse character I'd imagined, but every single line worked - she just seemed to be scolding Anne more knowingly rather than being thrown by her shenanigans.

I'm up to Anne's House of Dreams on the Librivox audio recordings. Let the renewed Anne kick continue!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what have you seen?

I don't have any childhood memories of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? That seemed strange to me given the 1967 book's current ubiquity, but apparently (thanks, Children's Book-A-Day Almanac!), it was originally published as part of a basal reader series, and gained much of its popularity when it became an individual book in 1991. By that time, I was more interested in what Kristy and Mary Anne were arguing about than in what a brown bear saw.

My first memory of encountering Brown Bear is from my high school babysitting years (see what Kristy and Mary Anne did?). I had a healthy appreciation for picture books then; those were the years when I developed the party trick of reciting The Cat in the Hat. But my initial response to Brown Bear  was, "What's the point?"

The point, I realize now, is that Bill Martin Junior's text is really for very young children. Oh, reading in sing-song with a responsive child can certainly be fun, and so can appreciating Eric Carle's illustrations. But the joy in the text is not in a plot arc or a big reveal. It's the repetition, the silliness of a blue horse, and the satisfaction of having the "seeing" turned on children who can stand in for the reader.

That combination has a near-magical way of reaching children. The book is a favorite with toddlers, and I remember a sitting charge who was really struggling to learn to talk pointing out the duck quite clearly, and repeatedly. The appealing animals and repetitious sentence structure makes it a great book for English language learners. We have a Chinese customer who sings it with her daughter, and the daughter keeps singing long after the book is closed. I've also recommended Brown Bear to customers shopping for children with special needs. One young customer who has autism, was drawn to the book because of her love of animals, and she's returned to it again and again.

I bet there are lots of good Brown Bear, Panda Bear, and Polar Bear stories out there. Sometimes, it's amazing what a simple book can do.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Why I vote

I vote because of people in stories who don't get to vote, who end up in unjust situations that have
 actually happened or that could happen (in some form).

I vote because of people in our world who don't get to vote, many of whom also don't get to read.

I vote because Americans under 18 can't. I vote because this is going to be stuck in my head all day.

I vote because I champion books that give everyone a voice, and voices are at their loudest on days like today.

I hope you vote, too.