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.
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.
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.
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.
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)