Videos recapture some of the magic of reading aloud

The magic of books read in childhood, or of books read to us in childhood, is something we never quite forget. And sometimes we may wonder if it's still possible to convey that special feeling to today's kids - surrounded as they are by rapid-fire video images and computer games.

Mark Sottnick has answered this question positively - for himself and a lot of children. He is the producer for the award-winning Storybook Classics series of records and videos from Windham Hill/Rabbit Ears Productions and Random House Video.

These charming tales are classics from authors like Rudyard Kipling, Hans Christian Andersen, and Beatrix Potter, narrated by Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and other well-known actors.

The stories are set to original music by contemporary artists such as jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, New Age pianist George Winston, and Lyle Mays (keyboardist with the Pat Metheny Group). And the videos are semi-animated original drawings by various artists.

Mr. Sottnick, who has produced films for children before, says that basically he got fed up with the fare his two daughters were getting from TV.

``I think a lot of the stuff that's done for children, especially video, goes much too fast,'' he explained in a recent interview. ``The design is just for baby-sitting, and it's a very passive experience for children. There's no real concern for what the content is, or whether they even understand it.''

Sottnick's work with children in the past convinced him that things had to slow down in order to make any sense, and that's how he hit on the idea of making records and videos that would capture the wonder that seems lacking in much of today's entertainment for kids.

``The intent was to go back to literature, to the great children's stories. After all, they were our first introduction to storytelling, and to great art.

``Since kids today are going to be getting stuff on videotape, shouldn't they get the same sort of experience that we had as children - a great story, a great storyteller, with good art?''

As far as the art was concerned, instead of using costly animation, Sottnick settled on something he felt would serve the stories better:

``What I did was find one illustrator for each story - one who was really good, and have them do 200 or 300 drawings, and then design the flow of the story.''

The results range from the luminous outlines of Sottnick's first project, the award-winning ``The Velveteen Rabbit,'' to the humorous caricatures of ``The Elephant's Child,'' to the vivid depictions of ancient China in ``The Emperor's Nightingale.''

As for how the music is done, he explained: ``The voice becomes the dictator of everything that we do. The musicians then do the music as if the storyteller was the lead instrument. They always have headphones on and are listening to the storyteller as they work.''

Sottnick travels around demonstrating the videos at schools, and he says he has had good response from children.

``They're fascinated with our storytellers. They don't know who they are, but the fact that they tell the stories so well. And I don't think they're used to hearing one person use so many voices [for the different characters in the stories].''

He tells of how one six-year-old child said, ``Boy, that lady can really tell a story,'' not realizing that it was Meryl Streep.

Storybook Classics are geared to children of different ages, from about five years old to fifth grade or higher, but Sottnick feels that children of all ages can enjoy them - and, in fact, so can adults.

``With Kipling, for instance, you realize how delicious language can be, and that you don't have to understand everything.

``In the best of children's literature, there's a dual audience - adults want to read the story, too. They get something on one level, and they love it. And the child is getting the story on the level that he should. The result of that is the wonderful possiblity for a shared experience.''

Sottnick smiled as he recalled a letter he had received from a very young fan - so young that the letter had obviously been dictated to a parent.

It was a thank-you note for ``The Velveteen Rabbit'' and ``The Elephant's Child,'' Kipling's utterly fanciful tale of how the elephant got its trunk:

``He said he liked the `Velveteen Rabbit' very much, but he was especially happy with `The Elephant's Child,' because he had learned the truth about elephants!''

A selection of Mark Sottnick's Storybook Classics videos for children

``The Elephant's Child,'' by Rudyard Kipling. Narrated by Jack Nicholson; music by Bobby McFerrin; illustrations by Tim Raglin.

The combination of Nicholson's sly reading, Raglin's fiendishly funny drawings, and Bobby McFerrin's one-man-band African-flavored vocals makes this story of how the elephant got its trunk a pleasure for children of any age (and adults, too).

``The Emperor's Nightingale,'' by Hans Christian Andersen. Narrated by Glenn Close; music by Mark Isham; illustrations by Robert VanNutt.

The Emperor discovers that the song of his jewel-studded mechanical nightingale can never take the place of a real one in this elegant and colorfully illustrated tale.

Glenn Close's graceful reading is appropriately understated, and Mark Isham's music captures the flavor of ancient China.

``The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher and The Tale of Peter Rabbit,'' by Beatrix Potter. Narrated by Meryl Streep; music by Lyle Mays; illustrations by David Jorgenson.

Jorgenson's soft, muted drawings lend a gentle atmosphere to the tales of Jeremy Fisher about a frog and his fishing adventures and of Peter Rabbit's narrow escape from Mr. McGregor's garden. Lyle Mays's contemporary jazz arrangements enhance the mood of the story, and Meryl Streep's voices for the various animals are funny and charming.

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