Saturday 18 March 2017

Cozy Classics - An Audience with the Authors

A while ago we wrote about a beautiful and original introduction to the classics, the BabyLit series by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver. These have been real favourites amongst many people we know, and Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennett from the Pride and Prejudice playset regularly race each other round the room in the interests of creative persuasion for Culturebaby to practice her violin. We also wrote about re-creating the Georgians in this post about dressing up our dolls in easy-to-make Regency attire. This was one of the most effective and memorable activities Culturebaby and friends have enjoyed. The girls also love visiting the costume collections in the V&A Museum and the Museum of London and spotting the dresses they see in our books.

Fans of both these projects will be delighted to hear that whilst perusing the internet I fell across another utterly adorable and completely unique set of books designed to introduce the youngest reader to the great classics, this time through the idea of simple word association with particular scenes. The absolute joy of these gorgeous titles, collectively called Cozy Classics, which ooze character and creativity on the part of their creators, is that they contain photographs of scenes painstakingly created from felt dolls set up in natural environments. These exquisite characters seem to truly capture the essence of the titles that they represent. Also, a huge bonus, they follow the stories in order through a series of scenes, and whilst the titles do not provide the narrative, they do allow a parent who knows the tales to re-tell them simply and effectively. They are absolutely stunning additions to the girls' library, and whilst they are board books, both girls enjoy them. We will treasure this set beyond childhood.

We were very interested in the inspiration and creative process for these brilliant little books, so we posed a few questions to the authors. We hope you enjoy this unique insight into the creation of Cozy Classics from Holman and Jack Wang.

How did you come up with the idea of using handmade characters to illustrate a classic?

HOLMAN: When Jack came up with the idea for Cozy Classics years ago, I loved it. However, neither of us were trained illustrators (I’m a lawyer and Jack’s a creative writing professor). We didn’t think that anything we might draw or paint would stand out in the marketplace, so we had to think outside the box. I came up with the idea of needle-felting wool figures and photographing them to create our images—not that I had ever needle-felted before! So I jumped onto YouTube, watched a few videos, and taught myself the technique. Then I created some initial test images, which we thought were fresh and could give us a signature style. We’ve been felting ever since.

Why did you decide to focus on classic books for the very young?

JACK: The idea for Cozy Classics arose out of my experiences reading word primers to one of my daughters when she was very young. Early word books all seemed to be organized around concepts—shapes, numbers, colours, barnyard animals. All very important, of course, but not the most engaging reading for parents. I wondered to myself why word primers couldn’t be organized around narrative. I thought that creating extreme abridgments of well-loved stories would inject interest, irony and humour into the word primer genre, and I think we’ve done that. And if parents present one of our word primers to their children with just that little extra bit of enthusiasm, then we will have done our tiny part in helping parents model an engaged and affectionate relationship with books.

How do you decide on which story to do next? What would you like to cover in the future?

J: We decide our next titles based on an ever-shifting logic. Our first two titles, Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick, just seemed like quintessential classics—one “girl friendly” and one “boy friendly.” Then we wanted to push our abridgements to the extreme by taking on massive tomes like War and Peace and Les Misérables, which also expanded the series into Russian and French literature. After taking on some moodier classics such as Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, we wanted to balance the series with lighter fare, so more recent titles include The Nutcracker and The Wizard of Oz. So there’s always a rationale, but it’s never the same. As for what we’d like to take on in the future, there are a few titles that are not quite in the public domain, like The Great Gatsby, that are on our list.

What sources do you use as inspiration for the costumes you create?

H: Costuming is always an interesting challenge because we obviously want our characters to evoke the proper sense of time and place for each book. At the same time, we want to bring our own design elements to a character. So we watch movie adaptations of the classics and research images of period clothing to draw inspiration. Then we try to design costumes that are fresh, but still resonate with popular imagination.

What do you do with the little figures when you've finished working with them? Do they live as a little collection together?

H: Most of the felt figures live in my garage studio in Vancouver, Canada after they’ve “retired.” Luckily, however, the figures do get out for fresh air sometimes! I take figures with me when I do school visits, and we’ve had museum exhibitions which have required us to fly figures around the continent. For example, our figures have been exhibited at The Strong, National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, as well as The Original Art Exhibition put on by the Society of Illustrators in New York City.

What feedback have you had on the approach taken - using single words on each page? Do you find parents fill in their favourite stories using the scenes? Why did you go with this particular way of exploring the stories?

J: We’ve received a lot of appreciative feedback from parents who relish the opportunity to share their favorite stories and characters with children at the earliest stages of learning. Parents definitely use our books as storytelling vehicles. And as we like to say, there’s no “wrong” way to read Cozy Classics. Even if parents don’t know the original classics, they can always make up the story, or ask their child to. The only important thing is that parents and children bond over books, and the earlier the better!

Do you see a future series for slightly older children with simple versions of the stories themselves using the gorgeous photos in the originals?

H: We actually had this debate with our original publisher before the series was launched. They worried that word primer versions of the classics wouldn’t work, and actually encouraged us to pair each of our images with a couple of simple sentences. We resisted this idea. It diluted our “high concept,” discouraged parents from storytelling in an open-ended way, and opened us up to criticisms that the simple prose lacked the beauty or music of the original texts—criticisms that haven’t been directed towards our word primer versions. After Cozy Classics hit store shelves and met with early success, our publisher told us that Jack and I were right to stick to our guns. So, no, we don’t see a future series for slightly older children at this time. But it’s a great question!

You can watch a wonderful behind the scenes video here, narrated by the authors showing the creative process and how the scenes were made:


You can also access instructions for a great extension activity on simple felting provided to us by Jack and Holman. Click here to learn how to felt a heart.

We are hugely grateful to the publishers of Cozy Classics, the fantastic Chronicle Books, who sent us copies of the series to review and to the talented Jack and Holman Wang who took the time to answer our questions. We hope you've enjoyed meeting the authors as part of this post.

In the Night Garden Tour 2017

It will soon be that time of year when green spaces around the country grow a strange bubble-like snow dome and toddlers from Richmond to Manchester career around the streets grasping miniature inflated Pinky Ponks. We've re-posted last year's review of In The Night Garden Live below and we are hosting, until the end of March, a unique discount code for Culturebaby readers.

In the Night Garden Live runs annually and tickets can be booked at this site or on 0330 120 0123

This year's dates are as follows:

Blackheath, London 25 May - 10 Jun 2017

Richmond Old Deer Park, London 17 Jun - 5 Jul 2017

Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham 12 Jul - 30 Jul 2017

intu Trafford Centre, Manchester 5 Aug - 28 Aug 2017

Tickets: £12.50 - £35
Two separate shows throughout the run: The Pinky Ponk Show and The Ninky Nonk Show
Running time: just under 1 hour for each show with no interval.

Some things in life provide wonderful experiences because of their simple and arresting joy. In the Night Garden Live is an adorable production for the very young and rarely have I witnessed such unparalleled delight in little people as at the arrival of these household names in larger than life form before their eyes.

In The Night Garden is one of those utterly bizarre, and probably genius, Cbeebies programmes that have captured the heart of a nation. At the slightest whisper of threat to children's programming, parents declare war in defence of Upsy Daisy the pacifier and Iggle Piggle the entertainer of their miniature brood. I'm not sure a few years ago that I could have imagined I'd be writing an article about this surreal toddler wonderland, but there too leapt I into the giant showdome, pre-schoolers in tow, and found myself surrounded by the Richmond parenthood chanting along in one voice to the unintelligible but gripping choruses of Makka Pakka
, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka moo! and Igglepiggle, wiggle, niggle, woo!  
I wonder what a future anthropologist falling upon some ancient footage might deduce from such scenes: who are these furry deities depicted on materials from dining equipment to painted bedroom walls, treasured in effigy and emitting strange and otherwordly chanting? But to the 2 year old, who sees true friends and companions in these colourful puppets, the whole phenomenon makes total sense.There are two shows available this summer, each covering a simple tale. Let's be honest these are not (for the adult observer) complex and gripping tales of adventure. In ours Makka Pakka travels around the garden, introducing a range of his buddies and washing their faces. At one point he loses a sponge. The sponge is consequently recovered. There are bubbles. There is dancing. But the joy created in this showdome is utterly infectious. It was a thoroughly happy event, with audible expressions of delight throughout from young and old alike. It isn't cheap and inevitably is rather commercialised, but it is a great child-friendly performance and good option for a first experience of theatre designed entirely for and on a perfect wavelength for the very young.

My four year old, who in hindsight didn't consider herself too mature for the whole experience, was particularly taken with the sense of scale and use of various sized puppets to bring the Night Garden alive. A larger Makka Pakka emerged alongside the Pontipines, whilst a smaller puppet was used beside the enormous Iggle Piggle. There were glorious moments when Iggle Piggle's boat appears amongst the waves, when Upsy Daisy finally danced onto stage, and when projections of stars onto the ceiling made the whole experience multi-dimensional.
As I circled my toddler's palm with my finger as the show began and witnessed her childish awe at the familiar spectacle unfolding before her, the emotion associated with the brevity of this tiring but wonderful phase rather bowled me over. I found myself wanting Oliver-like to bottle the whole experience. For In the Night Garden - for better or for worse - seems to be a right of passage for today's toddler and now, as then, I recall the immortal words of Evelyn Waugh:
"I should like to bury something precious in every place that I have been happy, so that when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up, and remember."

We received a family ticket in exchange for an honest review of the performance. As always all views are very much my own. Photographs courtesy of In the Night Garden Live.
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