Dear Zoo stage version coming to Rhodes
"I wrote to the zoo to send me a pet. They sent me an..So begins Rod Campbell's famous lift-the-flap book, Dear Zoo.
But the much-loved children’s classic, which has sold eight million copies in 20 languages over 35 years, almost never saw the light of day.
“When I was younger, I tried to make it as a painter,” said Rod. “I had no money. I lived in friends’ attics and moved 10 times in eight years. I made ends meet by doing painting and decorating. It was like La Boheme.”
For the decade before the book’s publication in 1982, Rod was determined to make it as an artist; he never dreamed of becoming a children’s author, but fate intervened.
“Someone whose sister worked at a children’s publishing house saw some of my drawings,” Rod recalled. “I was introduced to them and asked to illustrate some simple books for under-fives. This act of kindness started me on a career in children’s books – serendipity, one could say.
“One voice in my head was saying, ‘But you’re an artist with a capital A. You can’t possibly do that.’ But another voice in my head was saying, ‘Why not? It looks like great fun.’ The second voice prevailed, thank goodness.”
Not long after Rod reconsidered his career path, book publisher Blackie became interested in his work and everything fell into place.
The delightful story of Dear Zoo – in which a child writes to the zoo asking to be sent a pet – has become a publishing phenomenon and last year celebrated its 35th anniversary.
Now, having established himself as one of the best-loved and most successful children’s authors in the country, Rod will take his book to the stage this February.
Directed by Michael Gattrell and produced by Norwell Lapley Productions, Dear Zoo Live! will appeal particularly to children aged 2 to 6. Puppets and original music are used to bring the story to life.
Rod, 72, found the process of writing a play quite an eye-opener.
“I’ve really enjoyed solving problems, and it’s been a great delight to learn something new,” he said. “I’ve learned a whole new language, including phrases as simple as ‘upstage’ and ‘downstage’. When I wrote ‘exit stage left’, a frisson ran down my spine!”
Above all, in creating the play, Rod was anxious to remain as faithful as possible to the essence of his widely adored book. To that end, Dear Zoo Live! elicits the same excitement as the book.
“The stage show will play on the thrill of opening the crates,” he explained. “Children up to the age of six love the animals and they also love the guesswork – ‘What’s in the box?’”
It is that curiosity, Rod believes, which has ensured that the book has remained so popular.
“Children have a great curiosity about what’s behind the flap. They love to open the flaps again and again. Of course, they know what’s behind each one, but every time they approach it as though they don’t. For every child, each time is like the first time. The pay-off in the play is that inside each crate is an animal that speaks.”
There’s another thing children adore about Dear Zoo. “After the first time, they know that the book is completely safe,” said Rod. “There’s nothing in it that will bite them. So they can luxuriate in pretending to be scared by it.
“And, of course, it ends with a puppy. That’s the present at the end. You’ve gone through several unsuitable animals and then you get to the perfect animal at the end. It’s a reward.”
Even today, 35 years after it was first published, people still rush up to tell Rod how much Dear Zoo means to them.
The author says: “I remember one parent telling me, ‘My 18-month-old daughter loves it. She walks around all the time with the book under her arm.’ Or they say, and this is the killer, ‘My child loves this book – and I loved it when I was a child, too.’ That sort of reaction is deeply touching and you’re forced to think that Dear Zoo is something that connects.”
▀ Dear Zoo Live! will be touring the country this spring, coming to Rhodes Arts Complex in Bishop’s Stortford on Thursday and Friday, February 15 and 16.