Carnival of the Animals

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While on a class trip to the Natural History Museum, young Oliver wanders off and falls asleep, only to discover that his classmates, family, and teachers have turned into the animals from the museum displays: His librarian becomes a portly kangaroo; the headmaster becomes a pompous lion; and his great-aunt is a stately swan.

Told as a story for the first time, the jubilant text that accompanies Camille Saint-Saëns's composition was originally written by John Lithgow for a New ...

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While on a class trip to the Natural History Museum, young Oliver wanders off and falls asleep, only to discover that his classmates, family, and teachers have turned into the animals from the museum displays: His librarian becomes a portly kangaroo; the headmaster becomes a pompous lion; and his great-aunt is a stately swan.

Told as a story for the first time, the jubilant text that accompanies Camille Saint-Saëns's composition was originally written by John Lithgow for a New York City Ballet production of Carnival of the Animals, in which he narrated the story and danced the part of Mabel Buntz, the school nurse who waltzes at the Elephant Ball. Boris Kulikov's inspired illustrations glow with the light of a theatrical performance and illuminate the magic of this wondrous night.

On the enclosed CD, John Lithgow recites the text, and members of Chamber Music Los Angeles, under the direction of Bill Elliott, play the complete composition.

A mischievous boy slips away from his teacher during a field trip to a natural history museum and, after the museum closes, sees all of the people he knows transformed into animals.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
John Lithgow -- actor and creator of The Remarkable Farkle McBride, Micawber, and other bestselling picture books -- spearheads a sprightly book and CD about an imaginative boy who dreams up a museum of animals. Inspired by the 1886 Camille Saint-Saëns composition that became a New York City Ballet performance for which Lithgow wrote the words, this effervescent book follows Oliver Pendleton Percy the Third, who falls asleep at the Natural History Museum during a class visit. Soon, all of the people from Oliver's life begin to appear in the form of animals, from the leonine Professor McByrd to the elephant-nurse Mabel Buntz to a flock of freckly schoolgirls. Oliver's dream is a mysterious delight, but after we meet a crying cuckoo ("Is the cuckoo a cuckoo? Or perhaps something other? The fact is, the cuckoo is Oliver's mother.") and tag along with Oliver to an animal-filled ballet, the boy comes back to the real world. Brought to life with Boris Kulikov's flamboyant, shadowy illustrations, Lithgow's tale will have audiences cheering "Bravo!" The author's fun-loving taste shines through in rollicking verse that makes for a crackerjack read-aloud. Thankfully, the book also includes a CD of Lithgow reading the text and Saint-Saëns' Carnival of the Animals performed by Chamber Music Los Angeles, adding that extra dose of atmosphere. A sophisticated story for dreamers young and old. Matt Warner
Publishers Weekly
In this story within a ballet within an orchestral suite, Lithgow (The Remarkable Farkle McBride) adapts to picture-book form a rhyming narration of composer Camille Saint-Sa ns's 1886 composition Carnival of the Animals, which the author originated for the New York City Ballet last year (a music recording along with the author's ebullient narration accompanies the book). The resulting read-aloud takes a flight of fancy as well as a few leaps of logic. During a field trip to a natural history museum, Oliver Pendleton Percy the Third sneaks away from his class and hides among the taxidermic beasts in an exhibit labeled "under repairs." After closing, as Oliver sleeps with the fishes and antelopes, bears and beavers the boy dreams that the various people in his life take on the guise of the museum animals. His classmates morph into a pack of rule-breaking hyenas, his teacher a lion and his mother a tearful cuckoo searching for her chick. A kindly night watchman eventually facilitates Oliver's safe return home. Lithgow gleefully tackles the challenge of inventing a child-friendly story around the music's imagery. His penchant for employing often sophisticated and fun-to-pronounce words remains intact. However, as a stand-alone text, the dreamlike quality of the poem makes for some disjointed, stream-of-consciousness vignettes that may leave some readers scratching their heads. In addition, the author occasionally bends the story line to fit the rhyme scheme, with mixed success. Kulikov's (Morris the Artist) artwork acts as the glue here. He gamely stays in step, providing a fanciful plumed and furry menagerie of wild animal-human hybrids. His sophisticated yet playful treatment of size and perspective along with copious humorous details will have readers poring over many of the compositions. Ages 5-10. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Lithgow uses his encyclopedic and pyrotechnic language facilities to tell the story that accompanies the New York City Ballet's production of Saint Saen's "Carnival of Animals." The conceit is that a young boy falls asleep and dreams that all of his friends, classmates, and the annoying neighborhood little kids are turned into animals. Thus the school wrestling team becomes asses, two elderly sisters who used to dance the cancan in the Folies are the lumbering tortoises, and so forth. Lithgow, reading his rhyming text on the accompanying CD with dignity and poise, is accompanied with interspersed excerpts from "Carnival." Kulikov's paintings portray the clothed animals on stage, raucously hanging from the ceiling, or filling a room, with humor and energy. Stereotypes abound (the shy librarian, the giggly school girls, the oafish guys) and the story, set in another era when boys wore suits and girls wore dresses, seems dated. Still, for those lucky enough to see the ballet, the book is a pleasant souvenir, and for those others, the language is playful, the story holds up well if not freshly and, of course, it is always a treat to hear the music. 2004, Simon & Schuster, Ages 5 to 10.
—Susan Hepler, Ph.D.
School Library Journal
K-Gr 2-This absurdist fantasy at first explodes off the page like a well-shaken bottle of champagne, but fizzles into a sappy mess by the end. Drawing on Camille Saint-Sa'ns's suite, Lithgow has concocted a story in which young Oliver, left behind in the Natural History Museum after a class trip, is visited by dreams of his classmates, teachers, and extended family members transformed into the animals they most closely resemble. Lithgow's stanzas, at their best, recall the giddy hilarity of Edward Lear, as when he describes "The ferrets and badgers and weasels and rats/Were sticky-faced toddlers and snotty-nosed brats,/A species that always drove Oliver bats:/The Greater New York younger sibling." The moments of humor, slapstick, and charm clash with the darker ones-Oliver's terrifyingly toothy music teacher looming over him at the piano, the image of the bird-woman weeping over her empty nest, for example-without ever jelling into something coherent: a story. It's a shame that the text doesn't live up to Kulikov's splendidly rich and vibrant watercolor-and-gouache illustrations, which are uniformly excellent. At the book's end, of course, Oliver is delivered safely into the arms of his relieved parents, but due to the lack of plot, it's a strangely unsatisfying conclusion. Lithgow's narration, included on a CD at the back of the book, is as zany and inspired as always.-Sophie R. Brookover, Camden County Library, Voorhees, NJ Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Commissioned to flesh out a storyline and create a spoken text for a New York City Ballet production set to the Saint-Saens piece, Lithgow offers a tale of a wayward schoolboy who escapes his teacher during a museum visit, falls asleep surrounded by stuffed exhibits in a closed gallery, and dreams of his classmates, neighbors, music teacher, librarian, mother, and great-aunt as animals. The author once again shows his knack for brisk doggerel-"Oliver Pendleton Percy the Third / Was a mischievous imp of a lad. / The tricks that he played on Professor McByrd / Nearly drove the old schoolmaster mad." Kulikov catches the rollicking comic tone with floridly dressed, theatrically posed figures bearing animal-like heads on humanoid bodies, or vice versa, performing for an amused-looking lad in a rumpled school blazer. An attendant CD features actor Lithgow's animated reading, interspersed with musical passages from the production. Though not quite another "Peter and the Wolf," this will give a much-performed orchestral piece a leg up with younger listeners-and it works at least as well on paper as it does on stage. (Picture book with CD. 7-9)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780689873430
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
  • Publication date: 9/18/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 40
  • Sales rank: 785,057
  • Age range: 5 - 10 Years
  • Product dimensions: 10.70 (w) x 9.70 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John Lithgow

John Lithgow is the New York Times bestselling author of I Got Two Dogs; Mahalia Mouse Goes to College; Marsupial Sue Presents: The Runaway Pancake; I’m A Manatee; Micawber; Marsupial Sue; The Remarkable Farkle McBride; and Carnival of the Animals. An award-winning actor, he has starred on stage, film, and television. He performs concerts across the country and has recorded the CDs Farkle and Friends, Singin’ in the Bathtub, and The Sunny Side of the Street. Visit John at

Boris Kulikov, a former set and costume designer in St. Petersburg, Russia, was chosen as a Flying Start by Publishers Weekly. He has also illustrated Morris the Artist by Lore Segal, The Perfect Friend by Yelena Romanova, and Carnival of Animals by John Lithgow. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with John Lithgow about Carnival of the Animals

Carnival of the Animals is a magical tale that you wrote to accompany Camille Saint-Saëns's musical composition for a New York City Ballet production. How were you approached to work on this project?

JL: I had worked with Christopher Wheeldon when he choreographed Sweet Smell of Success, my first Broadway musical. Shortly after it closed, he called with the notion of my helping him devise a story for Carnival of the Animals, write a rhymed narration, and perform as its narrator. Between my affection for Chris, my love of ballet, and the excitement of actually working with the company, I couldn't say yes fast enough.

You played the part of Mabel Buntz, the school nurse who waltzes at the Elephant Ball, in a performance of the ballet in New York City in 2003. What was your favorite part of performing the ballet in front of a live audience?

JL: At a certain point in my performance as Mabel Buntz, I am lifted in the air by four male ballet dancers and carried across the entire width of the stage. The audience roars with laughter, but I consider it a moment of pure ecstasy.

How did you prepare for your role as Mabel? Had you ever danced or performed in a ballet before?

JL: I had NEVER performed in a ballet or ever thought I would. Chris asked me to play Mabel after the narration was completed and again, I couldn't refuse. I took daily ballet classes for three months prior to rehearsals. I was a little overtrained for the choreography Chris had in mind for me, but I had a good time doing it.

Why did you decide to create a book with the text that you wrote for the New York City Ballet?

JL: The notion of a book came fairly early, as soon as I realized that the ballet would have such a wonderful beginning/middle/end story, with a lively kid as its hero. Those are key elements on a good children's book.

How did you choose Boris Kulikov to illustrate this book?

JL: I had spotted Boris' wonderful work in The New York Times. The Times is a great sourcebook for illustrators since they use such superb ones, especially for their Sunday Book Review (although as I recall, the Boris picture that caught my eye was on the first page of the Travel section).

How did you and Boris work together?

JL: Boris and I sat together and talked, and he came to see the ballet at its premiere. He was very responsive to my ideas although, as always, illustrators bring hundreds of brand-new visual elements to my books which I never dreamed of.

The CD that comes packaged with Carnival of the Animals features members of the Chamber Music Los Angeles, under the direction of Bill Elliott, playing Camille Saint-Saëns's musical composition of Carnival of the Animals. Why do you feel it's important for children to hear the musical composition as well as the story that you created?

JL: The verses are calculated to precisely reflect the tone of the musical passages in Saint-Saëns's suite. I couldn't imagine a book that did not include the music. It enhances the experience of the book, it serves a distinct educational function, and it allows kids, teachers, and parents the chance to think of the story as a performance piece. Initially, I was told that it would be too expensive to license an orchestra recording of the piece. I was crushed. I responded by financing our wonderful eleven-piece version myself, performed by my friends from Chamber Music Los Angeles and conducted by Bill Elliott, who has been music director for all my kids' concerts.

Your picture books -- The Remarkable Farkle McBride, Marsupial Sue, Micawber, and I'm a Manatee -- and A Lithgow Palooza!, your first book for parents, are aimed at introducing children to the arts. Why do you feel this is important?

JL: I have always felt that the arts were a vital and essential part of a child's education, as they were for my own. I want my books, songs, and concerts to primarily entertain and delight children, but their hidden agenda is to get them curious and excited by all the performing and visual arts.

What was the first ballet that you saw performed onstage?

JL: I remember seeing the American Ballet Theatre on tour. Their big closing piece was a kind of introduction to the ballet, set in a ballet class, with the dancers basically showing off everything they can do. I walked home leaping around all over the sidewalk.

Do you have any suggestions for teachers and librarians on how to incorporate the arts into their curriculum even when many schools do not have a specific class period devoted to music and/or art?

JL: I don't underestimate the uphill struggle most teachers face fitting the arts into a demanding school curriculum. But if they can think of the arts as an incentive to learning, a way to stir the enthusiasm of their students for exploring, for self-expression, for experiencing joy inside a classroom, they may find that a lot of the stress and strain of teaching is eased.

What's next in your acting career?

JL: I am currently rehearsing a big new Broadway musical comedy based on the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It will open on Broadway in March of 2005.

What will your next children's book be about?

JL: My next book will be a sequel to my second, Marsupial Sue. This time, Sue and her friends will put on a play. I intend it as a love letter to theatre. You see? I'm up to my old tricks!

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 4, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I Love This Book!

    I love this book! I think it is great for kids. Another reviewer felt it was for older kids, and I couldn't disagree more. My two and a half year old loved it. It is both intelligent and fun. We borrowed it from the library and I will be buying it for Christmas. This book would not be appropriate for most toddlers, but the recommended age of 5 - 10 is right on target.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2006

    An interesting viewpoint of Carnival of the Animals

    I thought this book was an interesting twist to the timeless musical piece Carnival of the Animals. Students who have no interest in music at all are drawn to this books funny antics, and memorable music.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2006

    Not a bad book....but...

    While the illustrations are very nice and the book is lovely, the wording of this book is very inappropriate for young children. I had purchased this book to teach my elementary catholic school general music class. When I read it I was astounded to see that they opted to use Jackass instead of donkey and cock instead of peacock. Not what I wish to teach my students. It's not at all for ages 5-10. I'd recommend it for an older group of you wish to use it in the classroom. The recording is fine as well, but Lithgow's narration should have been rethought before publishing.

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