Bringing books to life: How to use props, songs and costumes to tell stories on stage

Published on: 07 August 2019 Author: Kristina Stephenson

Author Kristina Stephenson explains how she draws on her background in television to make her book events extra special...

The front cover of Why Are There So Many Books About Bears and author Kristina Stephenson

I trained as a set and costume designer and worked for many years in theatre and television, specialising in pre-school children's programming both behind and, on occasion, in front of the camera. It was a wonderful period in my life and I collaborated with some incredibly talented and hugely inspirational people during what I believe was the golden age of children's television.

It's no surprise to me that some of the people I worked with then are now hugely influential figures in the world of children's publishing, because working on Playschool (a bit before my time) or its successor Playbus/Playdays (I did that!) was a training in children's entertainment like no other.

It was wanting to stay at home with my first baby, but still needing to earn a living, that made me exit the dock doors of the television studio and enter the solitary world of children's illustration.

Drawing on my TV background

Ten years and two babies later, having barely left the house in all that time, my first manuscript was accepted. I wrote a book called Sir Charlie Stinky Socks and the Really Big Adventure and my solitary working existence began to change.

I was asked to do an event at the Hay Festival... and I'm not above admitting that at the time I'm not sure I even knew what the Hay Festival was! I certainly had no idea what constituted an 'event', but my lovely editor reassured me that it was 'whatever I wanted it to be' – that's the event, of course, not the Hay Festival – so, I seized on the opportunity to use my theatre and TV skills to bring my book to life on stage.

The VW camper van and musicians taking part

Kristina's VW camper van and the musicians who help bring her stories to life

I should mention that I am married to a freelance musician; we'd worked together in the world of TV and I saw no reason why we shouldn't do it again with this new 'event' thing. 'You can write songs, can't you Nigel?' I said, by way of an instruction rather than a question.

I also had two young children who I couldn't very well leave at home - thankfully, they were willing to be part of the show. And so began 12 years of devising, producing and touring book events with my family, in our old VW Camper van.

Turning my latest book into a stage show

I have a new book out this year called Why Are There So Many Books About Bears? It features a medley of the greatest minds in the animal kingdom including William Snakespeare, Albert Swinesteine and a literary snail called Mary Shelley, who have all come together to answer this impossible question.

I wanted to make this a fully interactive event by asking children from the audience to come onto the stage to take on the animal roles. Naturally, I needed costumes for this - simple enough to make and quick and easy for the children to get on and off. I decided T-shirts and baseball caps would provide the perfect starting point.

I sketched out a design for each character based on the illustrations in the book, chose fabrics and enlisted the help of my very talented friend from my TV days, Sally Priesig, and my lovely mum, to help transform my designs into reality. My daughter Maddie was the model.

Kristina's costume design - and daughter Maddie modelling

Kristina's costume design - and daughter Maddie modelling

The story is set in a fictional Oxford college and it also features a door from behind which a mystery character repeatedly interrupts the animals' debate with offers of tea and cake from his trolley. I can't show you the mystery character without giving away a massive plot spoiler but I can show you the door, which I made first in cardboard before committing to the finished thing in plywood. I love scenic painting – it's great to work on a big scale after working on small illustrations.

The tea trolley was fun to make too, putting my prop-making skills to the test and giving me a chance to try a bit of decoupage for the first time.

There were stools to paint, character boards and a big book to make, props to find... and there was a puppet, Trevor the Rat, to design. Again, I enlisted the help of my pal Sally to construct him.

The door and Trevor the Rat

The door and Trevor the Rat

And alongside all this there was the music. Usually, we take a pre-recorded soundtrack to events but for our current Bears event we try to use a three-piece acoustic band whenever possible. It's so important for children to see and hear live music.

And ta-da! We have an event.

In my dreams, I tell you that this all happens in a fabulous studio in a converted chocolate factory, which I share with other creatives. It doesn't!

In reality, it happens in the kitchen, the garden, the living room – anywhere I can find space and time in between writing and illustrating books and all the usual stuff of family life. And these days it often happens in a house full of teenagers or young adults, which isn't always easy. But happen it does... and I love it.

Read our review of Why Are There So Many Books About Bears?

Topics: Features

Add a comment

Sign up for our newsletter

Stay up to date with BookTrust by signing up to one of our newsletters and receiving great articles, competitions and updates straight to your inbox.

Join us