Adventures with “Eigo de Asobo”: Learning to Play in English is Never Simple
Guest post by Gerri Sorrells, Japan
In 2014, SCBWI Japan was contacted by NHK Educational seeking illustrators and writers to collaborate on creating segments for their television program "Eigo de Asobo" (Let’s Play In English). After various meetings and a complex selection process that SCBWI Japan assisted in administering, one SCBWI Japan writer, Gerri Sorrells, and one SCBWI Japan illustrator, Ross Wiley, were selected for ongoing work. The episodes began airing in April 2015. Below are posts from Gerri and Ross about their experiences thus far.
The assignment for the “TV Picture Book” was simple. Or so I thought.
Write one story in the present tense, in two hundred words or less, divided into four segments, featuring a different focus phrase or words from the “Can-Do List.”
What could be difficult about creating stories with “What’s your name?” or “It’s mine?” But then, the instructions started to sound more like a math problem.
Take one theme of less than two hundred preschool English words, divided by four stories, which are each a minute to a minute and a half in length with fifty words or less, multiplied by four sections, of which three of the stories in the series require “to be continued” endings yet must also “stand alone.” Add to the equation a little girl with a magical backpack, a stuffed teddy bear who is quite alive, and a noisy parrot who all travel through “Something-Something Land,” and then write a story encompassing a fantasy adventure, a moral lesson, finding happiness. And be entertaining.
Uh, sure. A piece of cake. Or a manju.
As someone with no gift for drawing, I was stumped as to how I could possibly explain four frames of a “comic strip,” never mind turn it into the Sunday funnies with minimal words. “It was a dark and stormy night” was already too long! Thus, began my journey with square boxes, stick figures, and regrets that I opted for performing arts rather than fine art classes in high school.
Fortunately, Ross Wiley, who is both an illustrator and a writer, was allocated the bulk of the work, so I got the lighter load. Ross’s stories were broadcast from April to June. Two more of his and two of my stories will be aired in October and December.
Although I was only writing a couple of stories, I was asked to attend all the meetings with the producer, directors, advisors, and tech crew to observe the whole process of choosing the “key phrase” for each day, to narrow down what words were used in each episode, and to see how the illustrations would evolve. The project has since become more complex as the “simple” picture book concept took on new life when the crew realized a still picture on a moving television screen wasn’t exactly mesmerizing the children. The graphics are now “pseudo animation,” with wings that flap, balls that bounce, and hands that wave. It’s more work for Ross, but it’s much more visually stimulating than just panning up and down.
I studied the “Can-Do List” of “Do you have bananas?” and “Look at the three trucks” and found no inspiration. I decided to at least tackle subjects I wanted to share with children today and chose two themes—cleaning up the ocean and how sharks can be nice, and what happens when you find a baby dragon! After submitting the first “fantasy adventure” drafts with detailed synopses and verbal storyboards featuring four to five conversational sentences per episode, the director requested the “adventures” to be simplified (and simplified some more), and by the time I was done a month later, the answer to the math problem was “I’m hungry,” “I’m sleepy,” and “I’m tired.”
In truth, this picture book project was quite challenging. To “write” a story without the use of words and to envision an “animation” without the characters reacting to one another in conversational form or having storytelling narratives was definitely a test in creativity. I haven’t seen the finished product, but I’m sure it will be wonderful with Ross’s artwork.
As I reached over to grab the last piece of leftover manju, I remembered a traditional comical rakugo story that said manju is kowai. Whether the interpretation for the word kowai is “scary” or “hard,” I had to agree. Both manju and math problems are certainly very kowai.
Gerri Sorrells is a writer of many genres, such as children’s books, screenplays for animation and musicals, textbooks, advertisements and promotional videos. In her other life, she is the voice in books, educational texts, train stations, airplanes, buildings, commercials, and animation characters for TV, movies, theme parks and stage shows. Her latest publication is Cute to pretty ha dou chigau? (How Are Cute and Pretty Different) and tries to “simplify” the fine nuances of the English language through illustrations and anecdotes. Needless to say, it’s pretty cute!