Margaret Atwood on alliteration, new ‘Wandering Wenda’ show, being a teen puppeteer

Margaret Atwood's alliteration inspires CBC Kids show

TORONTO — When Margaret Atwood’s daughter was young, the acclaimed author would tell her an alliterative story filled with “P” words while getting the tangles out of her long, curly hair.

“You could just make it up as you went along,” Atwood recalled in a recent interview. “So it was different every time until I wrote it down.”

Atwood eventually published that story, “Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut,” as well as three other alliterative books for children.

On Saturday, the CBC will premiere “Wandering Wenda,” an animation series inspired by those books.

The show follows the globe-trotting adventures of red-headed Wenda and her two best friends, Wesley Woodchuck and a bookish boy named Wu. Each episode runs about eight minutes long and features wordplay with one letter of the alphabet.

Alliteration allows parents to teach their kids “without being overly didactic,” said Atwood.

“Kids think it’s funny and when the parents read the books, they often get mixed up and kids think that’s funny too,” said the Toronto-based novelist and poet, who appears in the opening and closing credit sequences.

“The Bs and Ds are particularly difficult for kids with dyslexia, and the Rs are particularly difficult with some people from other countries who are learning English. So in fact the R book has been used as a teaching aide in language classes for that reason,” she added.

“The P letter is just funny, kids think it’s funny for obvious reasons. W is quite a difficult letter for kids to write because it can make so many different sounds like what, where, why, when.”

Atwood — whose 1985 Governor General’s Award-winning dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been adapted into a TV series debuting Sunday on Bravo â€” has been telling stories to children since she was a teen.

That’s when she and her high-school friend had a business putting on puppet shows for children’s birthday parties. They even made their own puppets and the stage.

“We were such a deal, we did everything — we greeted the little children at the door, we supervised the unwrapping of the presents, we dried the tears of the jealous children who weren’t getting those presents, we passed around the sandwiches, we supervised the cake and then we put on the puppet show,” said Atwood, 77, noting she still has the puppets.

“The mothers thought we were wonderful because they didn’t have to do it. They were out in the kitchen drinking the martinis. They had to make the sandwiches and supply the food and we just turned up and we did it all.”

Atwood and her friend ad-libbed their puppet shows based on the stories of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Three Little Pigs” and “Hansel and Gretel.” The tales had no more than four characters onstage at a time, which was perfect for their four hands.

“They’re all about what little children that age like, which is cannibalism,” Atwood said with a laugh. “I’m going to eat you up. No, I’m not.’ ‘No, you’re not.’ ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘No, I’m not.’ In each of the tales the children escape that horrible fate.”

The two also put on puppet shows for Atwood’s younger sister’s birthday parties.

“I traumatized a whole generation of little girls who are now 65,” said Atwood, adding playfully in a witchy voice: “Because her birthday came at Halloween…. She loved it. I made the cake, too, always orange with black decorations.”

As their business grew, they got an agent and booked company Christmas parties with as many as 200 children in the room.

“There we were and the backdrop fell down during ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and there were our two gigantic faces: ‘Uh oh,'” recalled Atwood. “But the wolf saved the day. He said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to them, they’re not really there.’ The wolf was onstage while we were able to get the backdrop up.”

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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