Hooking Readers Through Theater

I was (dramatic pause) a theater kid. I loved going to shows, watching musicals (on VHS!), and performing in my school’s productions. So when I became a mom, I hoped my daughter would love the theater, too. As she got older and became obsessed with reading, I realized that her passion for books was the perfect access point for the stage. The first professionally done show we saw together at Kirkland Performance Center in the Seattle area was The Princess and the Pea by StoryBook Theater and, I am pleased to report, she managed to sit through all forty-five minutes of it without running up and down the aisles, chatting with the kids seated in front of us, or spilling her snacks on the floor. Did she enjoy it? That’s hard to say, but at least we got out of the house for a while and saw a familiar fairy tale in a new way.

Now that she’s six, her attention span is much longer and she will happily sit through an entire stage production (although snacks still help). We’ve seen Elephant & Piggie’s We Are in a Play, a fabulous musical based on Mo Willems’s early reader series, a middle school production of Alice in Wonderland, and last month I dragged her to New York for the first time, where we saw STOMP. I am still bitter that we missed out on the New York City Children’s Theater production of Dory Fantasmagory, one of our family’s favorite chapter book series. Harumph. I would have loved to take my daughter to more shows in Seattle, which has an active children’s theater scene and was our home for the last five years, but COVID made that impossible.

Watching a favorite book series brought to life onstage = priceless.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Threlkeld.

Thankfully, COVID restrictions have been lifted in most places, which means we can start scouting out more book-inspired productions. My daughter is obsessed with the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, as most kids are, so when I found out TheaterWorksUSA's Dog Man: The Musical was playing a few towns over this spring at the Chevalier Theatre in Medford, Massachusetts, I knew we had to go. As expected, the show was highly entertaining, packed with amusing songs about Lil’ Petey, Supa Mecha Flippy the fish, and many other beloved characters. The set was minimal, with just enough props to make it look like George and Harold’s treehouse (they were the narrators, after all), and, while the costumes were also low budget, they were incredibly inventive. Who knew bike helmets were so versatile? Everyone in my family agreed that Dog Man: The Musical was funny, true to the books, and worth driving thirty minutes in ninety-degree weather to see, although incorporating flip-o-rama into the show would’ve made it even more spectacular.

Dog Man: The Musical's set. Photo: Sarah Threlkeld.

If you know some bookish kids, you may want to look into children’s theaters in your area since many of them rely on children’s books for source material. And if you know striving readers who struggle to find books that hold their interest, introducing them to a few titles by way of the theater may be just what they need to get hooked on books. Well-known shows like Peter Pan, Seussical, Mary Poppins, and The Wizard of Oz are performed regularly, but you may also find some unexpected gems as part of a theater company’s season. I was tickled to find out The Phantom Tollbooth, Frog and Toad, and Flat Stanley have all been turned into stage productions. If you happen to live in the Boston area, like me, I highly recommend you check out the Wheelock Family Theatre, whose 2022/23 season includes Matilda, Make Way for Ducklings, and Bud, Not Buddy. This summer The New Victory Theater in New York City staged Leonardo! A Wonderful Show About a Terrible Monster, based on a picture book by Mo Willems, and Disney's Winnie the Pooh: The New Musical Stage Adaptation that incorporates large puppets into the show will be embarking on a national tour this fall after successful initial runs in New York and Chicago. Knowing that the cost of theater tickets can be a barrier for a lot of families, I highly recommend checking out your local library’s summer programming, which often includes puppet shows and ensemble performances. Before you know it you and your kids will be rocking out to Dog Man: The Musical’s “Robo-Dance Party” and working jazz hands into every conversation.

Sarah Threlkeld

Sarah Threlkeld is an editorial intern for The Horn Book, Inc., studying towards an MA in children’s literature and an MFA in writing for children at Simmons University. 

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.