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A TV show brings Broadway home to your little ones

”Johnny and the Sprites” debuts on Playhouse Disney, and three books on caring for sprites, kitty cats, reptiles and bugs, bugs, bugs!

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A TV show brings Broadway home to your little ones

TV

Johnny and the Sprites
(Playhouse Disney, premieres Jan. 13 at 10 a.m.)
It would be much too simplistic to say that show tunes have finally made their way to the sippy-cup set, thanks to Johnny and the Sprites. Sure, theatergoing parents may revel in the live-action program’s Broadway pedigrees, from its star, Tony Award-nominee John Tartaglia (Avenue Q) and choreographer Donna Drake (A Chorus Line, original cast), to its composers (Stephen Schwartz, Wicked; Mark Hollmann, Urinetown; and Michael Patrick Walker, Altar Boyz). But the real beauty of Johnny and the Sprites is that the creators were able to take that delectable Broadway bigness — the show-stopping songs, the lights, and physicality of the characters — and make it size-appropriate for little ones, not to mention a little screen.

Johnny plays a singer/songwriter who moves to a country home; his backyard happens to connect to an enchanted world known as Grotto’s Grove, where magical creatures called sprites (Ginger, Basil, Lily, and Root) take residence. Thanks to the creative talents of Jim Henson protégé Michael Schupbach (Avenue Q, Sesame Street), the hand-and-rod sprite puppets come alive with eyebrows and antennae that move, fleshing out characters so well you’ll forget they’re merely made of felt (and the occasional CG-fairy dust), and think of them as actual children. In one segment that should resonate in today’s world, the sprites try to persuade Johnny to leave his new videogame behind and join them outside; it’s not until Johnny has a bad dream that he’s woken up 75 years later and wasted his life alone and clicking buttons that he realizes he should shut off the game to play with his friends. In another segment, Ginger Sprite (voiced with honeyed goodness by Leslie Carrara-Rudolph) worries about her overly curly antennae, until Johnny and the other sprites point out that it is our differences that make us special.

Tartaglia was approached by the Disney channel back in 2004 when he was starring in that other puppet vehicle, Avenue Q, a raucous look at post-college life (a sign near the box office warned that the show was most definitely not for children). It’s lovely to see Tartaglia use his talents and theater connections to bring a little taste of the Great White Way to the preschool set. AEileen Clarke
Recommended ages: 2-6

BOOKS

The Care and Feeding of Sprites
By Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black
From the folks who created the Spiderwick Chronicles comes this truly magical and wonderful book; one that reminds me, ever so slightly, of Gnomes (any other grownups out there remember that one)? This guide to acquiring and keeping a sprite is packed with delicate, detailed, antiqued illustrations and crisply delivered commonsense advice. ”There are two ways to obtain a sprite,” say the authors. ”You can either purchase one from a reputable dealer or catch one on your own.” And if you catch it on your own, you’d better be able to tell it apart from a goblin or a will-o’-the-wisp. How to tell if your sprite is healthy? (It will try to escape from its cage.) What to feed your sprite? (Clover, acorns, and flower petals.) How to dress it? (”Sprites enjoy making their own clothes from flowers, leaves, and bark.”) How to groom it? (”If you have a particularly filthy sprite who will not bathe, misting him or her with water will most likely have the desired effect.”) In short, everything you need to be a member of the International Sprite League is here. Technically, I suppose, this book isn’t really about reading, but it’s about something just as important: immersion in the world of imagination. Kids fascinated by magic and fairies and leprechauns will find much to love with Sprites. And they’ll probably like the book jacket, which cunningly unfolds to become a wall poster. ATina Jordan
Recommended ages: 8 and up

Mr. Pusskins: A Love Story
By Sam Lloyd
Little Emily lavishes love on her cat, Mr. Pusskins — rendered as quite the arrogant thing in Lloyd’s vibrant illos — but he, naturally, could care less: ”The girl’s constant babbling bored his whiskers off. He wanted more than this dull life.” So he up and runs away, joining the Pesky Cat Gang. Well, wouldn’t you know, his new friends end up being less than nice, and Mr. Pusskins begins to sorely miss all the attention he once had. There are different messages here for little kids, but I like the starkest one: Be careful what you wish for! Rest assured, moms and dads, Mr. Pusskins doesn’t end up on the streets. A-TJ
Recommended ages: 2-5

Extreme Pets!
By Jane Harrington
For the more literal-minded kid, the one who doesn’t want a sprite, there’s always this book, which offers advice on the keeping of… well, basically, a bunch of reptiles and insects. I will keep this far, far away from my kids, I vowed, my stomach turning, as I read on and on about snakes, lizards, anoles (think iguanas), roaches, and millipedes. (This was before I realized that Tillie, the family dachshund, would devour just about anything pictured in the book, with the possible exception of the ferret and the chinchilla.) Seriously, for the right child, this is a great book, packed with practical information; its spiral-bound format is set off by zany fonts, lots of photos, and appealing lists of weird facts (did you know that when a tarantula grows old, it loses its fur)? ATJ
Recommended ages: 7-12