In his 1989 book The Araboolies of Liberty Street, children's author Sam Swope introduced readers to the tyrannical General Pinch and Mrs. Pinch, and their "enemies," the fun-loving and free-wheeling Araboolies.
A new musical based on the book debuts Saturday at Imagination Stage, a children's theater in suburban Washington, D.C.
Swope and composer Kim Sherman worked together to transform the 32-page, wildly illustrated book into a colorful 75-minute, acrobatic musical.
"What we've done is to inflate the book, expand it like a Macy's Day balloon on Thanksgiving," Swope tells Melissa Block.
In the story, the Pinches smile "nasty smiles" and quash any signs of merriment on Liberty Street with bellows of "I'll call in the army!" — that is, until the Araboolies arrive.
The newcomers' skin changes colors. They glow in the dark, paint their home with red and white zigzags, sleep outside, and they even have pets — anteaters and "popaloks" among them. They dare to be different, and they dare to have fun.
Despite the fanciful language and illustrations, Swope's book has run into trouble. Critics have labeled it "anti-military," since the villains are the general and his wife. Some schools have banned it.
Swope remembers hearing from a teacher in New Jersey shortly after the current war in Iraq began. She said her school's superintendent canceled a production of a play based on the book because he thought the book was anti-military and pro-Arab — because of its title.
But the book was written before the first Gulf War, and Swope says "Araboolies" was "just a name."
Instead, Swope says his book is an anti-fascist parable.
"Children have so little power in life that they envy power, and they imitate powerful characters," Swope says.
But because their lives are so controlled and restrained, the author says, children "love mayhem and anarchy and the chance to live without rules because they live with rules so much of the time."
His story also celebrates the beauty of individuality and difference.
"Children are so afraid of being singled out and made fun of," Swope says. "And everyone, young or old, does feel like they have weirdo tendencies within them and they don't want anybody to find out. And so to want to be a weirdo becomes the climax of the play. When the children decide, 'Yes! I want to be a weirdo,' it's a happy moment," he says.