Scholastic Video—part of the New Video Group—has assembled a distinguished series of books-on-video that use original drawings and sometimes modify them or animate them to make them more film-friendly. Teachers love them for classroom resources, but parents also appreciate them as a way of introducing children to favorite books from their childhood or expanding their child’s viewing universe beyond the typical cartoon fare kids spend so much time watching.
This is the same Scholastic company that’s brought reading excitement to elementary schools with their Scholastic books mini-catalogs, and the video branch is just as solid. Of all the titles I’ve reviewed (and they have a tendency to repackage materials frequently), only a handful have been disappointing. Most have been impressive, and that’s the case with “Stone Soup . . . and other stories from Asian tradition.”
Though the packaging says this DVD is recommended for children ages 4-9, I’m convinced that the four stories included here would appeal mostly to first through third graders. And the stories are sufficiently complex and fabulist in nature that they’ll hold the interest of boys as well as girls. The stories feature sophisticated themes and there are questions embedded here that can prompt thought or discussion, if a parent decides to engage the child.
But like any compilation, some stories are stronger than others. Below is an overview, with more plot summary than usual, given that concerned parents will be reading this.
“Stone Soup” (12 min.) is written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth, whose book by the same title was published in 2003. It’s a variation of a traditional folk tale that he enjoyed, and as you look at his illustrations it’s easy to appreciate how, as he says in the lone bonus feature, he was drawn to Asian culture because of the art—the graceful calligraphic lines of Asian art that his mother, an art teacher, exposed him to at an early age. A painting by Caravaggio with its dramatic, implied (but ambiguous) narrative also awakened him to the possibilities of storytelling through strong images, and the drawings in this story really bring the narrative to life.
B.D. Wong narrates this tale of three monks who come upon a village where everyone keeps to themselves and seldom interacts. They’ve grown cautious because their country was ravaged by wars and pestilence and various other things that can make you mistrust all of humanity. And in that one introductory line, the stage is set for a more “adult” story that should prompt children to “read” the tale on a deeper level than the typical read-aloud books.
In this fable, the three monks knock on door after door, only to be ignored. Then they announce their intention to cook stone soup in the town square. First a curious girl approaches to see what they’re doing. Then a few more, because, after all, who had heard of stone soup? And when they casually mention that salt and pepper would make it taste better, one of the villagers announces that he has some, and he returns with not just those seasonings but with other spices as well. “As each person opened his heart to give, the next person gave even more,” the narrator tells us. And so it goes until the whole village is tricked by the wily monks into pitching in together to cook and share a tremendous feast. “You have shown us that sharing makes us all richer,” one of the villagers says.
Actor B.D. Wong narrates, employing different voices for each character—his female voices not exactly convincing—but he avoids the overly enthusiastic tone that can be off-putting to children who have reached an age when they’re sensitive to anything “babyish.” And it sure as heck beats a monotone.
“The Five Chinese Brothers” (10 min.) is adapted from an older book (1938) written by Claire Bishop and illustrated by Kurt Wiese. The drawings come close to what some might now call stereotypes, but the story itself will seem pleasantly convoluted to younger audiences. It’s about five Chinese brothers who looked identical and possessed skills that one could only call “magical real.” The first brother, we’re told, could swallow the sea, while the second had an iron neck, the third could stretch to infinity, the fourth could not be burned, and the fifth could hold his breath indefinitely.
Of course, all of these characteristics come into play when the first brother, who uses his talent to always bring fish to market, caves in to a boy’s request to accompany him one day. But the boy is seduced by the dry seabed and keeps going farther and farther, mocking the man rather than return when summoned. Of course, the man cannot hold the sea in his mouth forever, and it spills out, covering the boy. The man is sentenced to have his head chopped off (yes, there are some adult themes in these stories), but like the billy goats in “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” he tricks the judge by asking if he can go home to say goodbye to his mother and return the next day. Only his identical brother with the iron neck returns in his place. This repeats with the other brothers, with swaps finally leading to a satisfactory (and bloodless) conclusion.
“The Stonecutter” (5 min.) is the slightest of the stories and the most abstractly illustrated. But this tale from writer-illustrator Gerald McDermott is one of the most interesting and could lead to the most discussion, because it’s a simple fable about the circle of life, abuse of power, and the old maxim “Be careful what you wish for.” In this simple tale, a stonecutter works at the base of the mountain and is perfectly satisfied until he sees a prince and all the finery he has. Envy creeps in, and like Aesop’s dog who saw his own reflection in the water and dropped the bone to grab one in the reflection he thought larger, he asks the mountain spirit to grant his wish to be a prince. Everything escalates after that, with the stonecutter wishing to be something else every time something seems more powerful . . . until the realization occurs to him that he had one of the most powerful jobs from the very beginning.
“Lon Po Po” (13 min.) is the weaker entry in this set, but only because the Asian version on the Red Riding Hood classic will be overly familiar to young viewers. There’s some variation, but it’s not so significant as to prompt wide eyes (the better to see you with). B.D. Wong narrates this story that’s written and illustrated by Ed Young in a more naturalistic style
As with other titles in this series, the video is quite good, with only a slight graininess that’s more pronounced in the older films. For the most part the colors are bright and well-saturated, and the detail is sharp—something you’d hope for, with a visual medium like children’s picture books. The series is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, and though there’s a slight hollowness of tone that’s the result of center speaker reliance, the treble and bass have a nice balance and the sound isn’t murky. In other words, it’s decent.
In addition to a read-along option that highlights words at the precise moment they’re read, there’s an 11-minute interview with Stone Soupauthor/illustrator Jon J. Muth that’s aimed mostly at parents.
Books can inspire, and these books-on-film do. It’s one of the better compilations to come out of the Scholastic Video Collection, but one that works best for children ages 6-8.