Monday, January 17, 2011

I Wish My Cat Were Fatter

Story: What Will Fat Cat Sit On by Jan Thomas
Puppets: Cat, Cow, Pig, Chicken, Dog, Mouse
Props: A bag to keep them in, a chair to sit on
Presenter: one
Audience: Toddler Time (1 and 2 year olds)

I have a fine puppet cat: a grey striped Folkmanis hand puppet with fairly agile arms and an expressive face. He’s not particularly skinny, but you couldn’t call him fat either. Still, when I decided to do What Will Fat Cat Sit On by Jan Thomas in this week’s Toddler Time, he got the lead role and managed just fine. After using this book several times with kids in the past few years, this was my first try at using puppets instead. When I use puppets, I try not to get too hung up on matching them just right with the book; I don’t have that many puppets and I don’t make my own, so I use what will work. In this case, Fat Cat threatens to sit on several of his friends and it’s very funny to see the huge cat that Thomas draws for the book. But with puppets, movement matters more than size, and you can still create that moment where the audience thinks: “Oh no, pig is about to be squished!”

At the line “What will Fat Cat sit on?,” I pop Cat out of my bag and he looks around at the kids. Then it’s: “Will he sit on…..” and the attention goes back to the bag. A bit of hesitation to generate more anticipation (and to get my hand into that dang little pig puppet), then out pops Pig. Cat may not look that much bigger than Pig, but by moving him ominously above Pig and having Pig look up in fear and move about nervously, you get the same effect as the book.

Thomas is great at packing surprises and suspense into very few words, just at the preschool level. I like those moments with puppets too. So after Fat Cat has nearly squished Pig, Chicken, and Cow, I lengthen the hesitation a bit for Dog, who pops out and rises ominously above Cat. Puppet Cat and Puppet Dog can’t come close to duplicating the expressiveness of Thomas’ illustrations, so they need to convey the twist in the tale through their positioning.

And when you’re telling a tale with puppets, but without a stage or curtain, your own facial expressions are crucial. Kids watch the puppets, but they also watch your face, so when Pig pops out of the bag, your expression is scared and worried; when Dog pops out you’ve got a bit of a frown. The kids notice this and seamlessly ascribe your expressions to the puppet you’re holding.

The story finishes with another great storytelling touch from Thomas. Mouse pops out and seems like the most likely victim, but cleverly suggests that Cat sit in a chair. At which point I slide off the chair I’m sitting on and seat the puppet there. And for the final joke (“Now what will Fat Cat have for lunch…?”) I do a quick little double take between Cat and Mouse: They look at each other, then both look at the audience, then quickly at each other again…it’s an easy bit of puppetry that really catches the attention of a group.

And catching the attention can be pretty important with a Toddler Time. My sessions are for 1 and 2 year olds, and to me What Will Fat Cat Sit On in book form is just right for 3's. The puppet version, though, can often stretch the age level younger, and it works in this case. The 1's and 2's see the action of a cat nearly sitting on a bunch of animals, and at that age that's a bit easier to focus on than the pictures on the page, especially when you're amidst twenty other ones and twos to distract you. That's one reason I typically save my puppet stories for the end of Toddler Time, knowing they stand the best chance of grabbing the kids who are just about at the end of their natural be-in-a-group limits.

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