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Ready for 'Little Prince' Lite?

August 08, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sure, millions of young readers in America have loved "The Little Prince" since it was first published in 1943--but they've never experienced Antoine de Saint-Exupery's classic fable quite like this.

Tivola Publishing, a Berlin-based producer of children's multimedia CD-ROMs, will release the English language CD-ROM adaptation of the bestselling book Aug. 28. The CD-ROM ($29.99), which was released in Germany two years ago, features a 3-D animated version of Saint-Exupery's story, based on a new translation by poet Richard Howard, with British actor-director Kenneth Branagh as narrator and Owen Evans, a 12-year-old west London-based actor, providing the voice of the Little Prince. Tivola plans to release an English-language "Robinson Crusoe" CD-ROM here sometime next year.

The tale of "The Little Prince," that of a downed aviator in the Sahara desert who encounters an "extraordinary little fellow" from a planet that is "hardly bigger than a house," is just the start on the CD-ROM. Now you can actually enter the Little Prince's "universe."

But is a CD-ROM version of a children's classic--complete with interactive activities, games and biographical author information--a good thing?

Yes and no, says Mitzi Myers, who teaches children's literature at UCLA. A classic children's book shouldn't be exempt from appearing in other media, she says, but she's puzzled why "The Little Prince" was chosen for a CD-ROM.

"The Little Prince," she said, "is an extraordinarily sophisticated fantasy . . . a very philosophical book. To be understood would require a lot of interactive conversation with a parent. I'd think it would be a very exceptional child who could hear the book and understand it."

In a CD-ROM, Myers said, "you've got the child sitting passively. Nobody is there to discuss the issues, and the book is full of things that demand discussion. I even have to discuss a lot of it with graduating seniors at UCLA."

The story addresses such issues, she says, as what do we live for and what is friendship? And the key question, which most of the movie versions delete, is what is the meaning of life and what is the meaning of death?

Ann Kaganoff, a certified educational therapist in private practice in Irvine who works with students who tend to have reading problems, says the question of whether something is difficult for a young reader to understand could be asked of "Huckleberry Finn," "Tom Sawyer" or any book.

"The reason I emphasize parents sharing books with children is that it's really an opportunity to promote question-asking, discussion and interpretation," she said.

That "The Little Prince" is now on a CD-ROM doesn't bother her. "I think they've certainly chosen something that has delightful illustrations that live, and the voice of Kenneth Branagh will add a tremendous amount of meaning," she said.

Parents, she added, might consider this analogy: "There is a difference between reading Shakespeare and attending a performance of Shakespeare, and the CD-ROM could be a kind of performance of the book if it's well done.

"What you have to remember is that for children who are struggling readers, the pictorial information can become very powerful, and they can tend to depend on that as their source of meaning. It complements meaning, but it doesn't substitute for the printed word."

The CD-ROM, of course, offers a lot more than just the story of the Little Prince. You can, for example, catch an orbiting planet in the Little Prince's universe with your "star cursor" and "learn all about the planet's secrets and its inhabitants." Or enter the Fox Training Game and, after you've "tamed" the fox that the Little Prince meets, he will give you a gift (a "secret notebook" with personalized stationery).

Or you can watch an animated biography of Saint-Exupery, complete with archival photographs of the author, who disappeared over the Mediterranean while flying a reconnaissance mission for his French air squadron a year after "The Little Prince" was published.

Myers, for one, doesn't buy it.

"It's more like making it fun and games instead of making the child think, which was the book's whole point," she said. "I'm sorry, but I'm not the world's favorite fan of gunking up stuff."

And nothing, she emphasizes, replaces human interaction.

"A CD-ROM, with its cute little interactive things--click on this and that--is dealing with the surface. It's not dealing with a truly philosophical book about how to live your life. I defy anyone to come up with a gimmick that makes that better than having someone talk to you."

Alexandra Uhl, owner of Whale of a Tale children's bookstore in Irvine where "The Little Prince" is a steady seller, agrees. "I think there's nothing like the written word, so I'm not a big fan of CD-ROMs per se. But I think there is a market for that, and for kids that wouldn't otherwise be familiar with the book, I'd encourage it."

For purists, two English-language book versions are available. The original translation by Katherine Woods (for as long as the current printing is in stock) and the new translation by Howard, published June 29, the centennial of Saint-Exupery's birth.

What's a reader to do? As Howard puts it in his new translation that has some "Little Prince" critics harping at the changes: "One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes."

*

Dennis McLellan can be reached at dennis.mclellan@latimes.com.

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