How Dragons Came to Mānoa
Original book and play for children expore dragons around the Pacific Rim
Dragon illustration by Joseph Dodd from Kraken: Ka the Komodo Dragon
Once upon a time in Hawaiʻi’s Mānoa Valley, there lived three storytellers who charmed the people of the valley with their wondrous stories about magnificent creatures. Children from all over the realm were drawn to the magic they spun until one day dragons sprang off the page and came to life…
The dragon is born
When storytellers possess great imaginations and inquisitive minds, anything is possible.
For Tamara Montgomery inspiration dawned on a trip to a natural history museum. A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa youth theatre professor and educational puppetry expert spotted a Komodo dragon with a turquoise mosaic pattern on its forehead. Her mind soon overflowed with ideas about how the mosaic got there.
Montgomery teamed up with UH Mānoa alumna Jodi Belknap (MA ’88) to form Calabash Books, and soon the story Kraken—Ka The Komodo Dragon: A Tale of Indonesia was brought to the page.
Montgomery first met Belknap, owner of Belknap Publishing and Design, in 1975 when she adapted one of Belknap’s books, Felisa and the Magic Tikling Bird, as a dance drama for children at the Honolulu Zoo.
The accomplished author later studied with Montgomery on her way to a master’s degree in children’s theatre and playwriting.
The duo often talked about collaborating on a large format children’s storybook drawing on Montgomery’s extensive knowledge of puppetry.
Mānoa puppetry and children’s theatre expert Tamara Montgomery, above, co-authored the Komodo story with alumna Jodi Belknap and directed the dragon-laden play
"We wanted to create a book that would encourage children to make their own shadow puppets and create their own plays," says Belknap.
With Calabash Books, they hoped to focus on the distant reach of the Pacific Rim. "People don’t realize how large the Pacific Rim is. We are part of an international community and we want children to see how interconnected we all are," says Montgomery.
Each Calabash book will focus on one region—its environment, the culture and an endangered species. Since their inspirational animal was the Komodo dragon, they started with its home of Indonesia.
The dragon enters a book
In their story, the goddess Naga creates the first dragon, a beautiful creature called the Kraken-Ka, his skin "deep red and dusted all over with blue, orange and yellow triangles, crescents, spirals and stripes."
Naga warns the gluttonous Kraken-Ka to only take from the earth what he needs, but will he listen? How did the most beautiful creature turn into the squat, dusty brown lizard it is today?
To illustrate their story, Montgomery brought in fellow theatre professor and well-known set designer Joseph Dodd. She wanted the book to capture the art and feel of Indonesia and its beautiful and intricate shadow puppets. Dodd also referenced Chinese paper cuts, Japanese mons (crests) and East Indian folk stencils for the quality of their wonderfully simplified graphics.
Going from three-dimensional set design to book illustration wasn’t a problem for Dodd. "In my scene designs I always try to get the action as close to the audience as possible," he says. He breaks the stage frame with scenic elements that project into the audience. "I attempted to do this in the book by having the illustrations break a margin, cross the spine and even jump from one side of a page to the other."
Belknap stresses that they wanted the book to be as interactive as possible, so Kraken—Ka The Komodo Dragon comes with an instructional CD. The kids’ section features puppets that can be printed out and decorated, a script to stage their own play and a letter from the Kraken-Ka.
A teachers’ section includes several lessons, including an activity in which students learn how much a Komodo dragon eats and then have to figure out how much they would have to consume to match the dragon.
The team created a related website, so children can post pictures of their Kraken-Ka creations.
Kraken-Ka makes its way onstage
Everyone can meet the Kraken-Ka when he comes to visit Mānoa. He’s even bringing along some dragon friends.
Kraken—Ka the Komodo Dragon and Other Pacific Rim Dragon Tales will take over the Kennedy Theatre’s main stage Sept. 21–30, 2007.
Montgomery created two additional dragon stories for the play. The tales are brought to life with a wonderful mix of puppets, song, dance and magic. Each story reflects different styles of puppetry.
In addition to the Kraken-Ka story told with shadow puppets, audiences will meet two little sea dragons?Weedy and Leafy?as they make a new home in Australia’s reef. The reef residents are afraid of the "dragons" at first but they soon make friends. Weedy discovers how to camouflage himself and Leafy learns to dance. Montgomery says the idea stems from the sea dragons at UH’s Waikīkī Aquarium.
She also created a story of a dragon living in Hawaiʻi skies. The mischievous creature riles all the inhabitants of the Pacific. His ocean swims create huge waves that ruin the crops, Bali complains. He lights the volcanoes and causes hot lava to come oozing out, Hawaiʻi grumbles. His spinning and flying makes mighty winds, Mexico frets. When everyone chases him away, the dragon hides high in the sky until the Pacific people discover they need him.
Theatre student Kamuel DeMoville drafted the script; Molly McKenna and Kat Pleviak constructed the puppets.
"This is an excellent opportunity for students," says Montgomery. "It is impressive for a student to have his or her play staged at Kennedy Theatre."
UH Mānoa is renowned for its puppetry program. Graduates have become professional puppeteers with TV programs Sesame Street and Eureka’s Castle.
The set proved to be a challenge. "It would have been easier to just design an Indonesian influenced set for Kraken-Ka," says Dodd, "but the play features three different dragon stories from different Pacific Rim countries, making a visual style from any one country difficult to choose."
He took inspiration from the Pacific’s ring of fire, creating a circle of lava rock sculpted by the elements to resemble a stony dragon. "I wanted something primitive, natural and timeless," explains Dodd.
What happens next?
Where will the storytellers venture next? The journey around the Pacific Rim has just begun, with many countries to choose from.
The sources of inspiration are unending, but here’s a hint: Have you heard of the Arctic fox? Did you know he never longed to be white?
More for kids: Picture books and other offerings from UH alumni
- An unlikely hero teaches a lesson to a greedo gecko
- Photo book explains traditions of Girls’ and Boys’ Days
- Girl’s chant turns a giant into a Kauaʻi mountain
- Tedrick De Bear travels to the country’s national parks
Melissa DeSica (BA ’05 Mānoa) dishes out just deserts to a greedy moʻo in her latest book, Gecko and Mosquito (Watermark Publishing).
The unlikely hero unites the bugs in the hale to deal with a greedy gecko in this lively tale related in rhyming verse.
Now battling her own bully, lukemia, DeSica encourages people to consider being bone marrow donors; contact the National Marrow Donor Program or call the Hawaiʻi registry at 808 547-6154.
A Kailua High School graduate and Roald Dahl fan, DeSica was raised by her grandmother along with 16 foster siblings.
She illustrated her first book cover, Shark Stories, at age 14. More recently she’s brought a poetry-loving Hawaiian mouse to life in Wordsworth Dances the Waltz, a child’s view of the changes as grandparents age.
Gecko is her first project as both author and illustrator. More information under children’s books at the publisher's website.
Ishii with young fan
Minako Ishii (MA ’07 Mānoa) drew on assignments as a photographer to craft Girls’ Day/Boys’ Day (Bess Press), a visually rich work that is two books in one.
Brief text and bountiful photos tell the origin, significance and customs of Girls’ Day in Japan and Hawaiʻi. Flip the book over for the same experience with Boys’ Day.
Ishii’s early interest in world cultures was heightened by her travels throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas during eight years as a senior business analyst with Sony.
Her passion for storytelling through images is reflected on her website.
Edna Cabcabin Moran (BA ’84 Mānoa) draws on an enchanted akua theme and Hawaiian oli to tell the kaʻao, or fanciful story, of how Nounou mountain came to be in The Sleeping Giant: A Tale from Kauaʻi (BeachHouse Publishing).
Only young Pualani can tame the hungry giant, who devours the villagers’ taro.
The author, an Alameda, Calif., resident and a mother of two, has worked as a graphic artist, caricaturist and children’s entertainer.
She draws on her artistic training and her experience as a dancer with Nāl Lei Hula I Ka Wēkiu to add subtext and emotional clues to the paintings that illustrate the book.
More at Beachhouse Publishing.
Rizzi with Tedrick
Trefoni Michael Rizzi (MFA ’92 Mānoa) credits co-author Tedrick De Bear, "a teddy bear with a heart for adventure and a burning need to have his picture taken in front of every national park entrance Sign in the nation," as the inspiration for his family travel guide, Teddy’s Travels: America’s National Parks (Tdb Press).
Rizzi has designed sets off-Broadway and at Lincoln Center Theatre’s Director’s Lab and taught theatre and puppetry at universities across the country.
His travel guide—the first in a series of 10 covering the entire National Park System’won ForeWord magazine’s 2007 Book of the Year Silver Award and the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Benjamin Franklin Award.
Teddy's Travels is available at 15 National Park bookstores from Denali to Yosemite, including the USS Arizona Memorial.
More on the book, blog and newsletter (trivia cards and postcards to come) at the authors’ website.