The wide-eyed little llama who frets and fusses at lights-out in Anna Dewdney’s Llama Llama Red Pajama is now the star of a musical based on that 2005 Viking picture book. Performed by the Penguin Players, a theater troupe cosponsored by the Penguin Group and Dollywood Imagination Playhouse, the adaptation debuted on April 16 at the Nashville Public Library. Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen and more than 1500 children attended the play, which the troupe is now performing at venues across the state through the month of May.

Between June 12 and August 2, the Penguin Players will move the production to the Dollywood Imagination Playhouse at Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Here they’ll perform Llama Llama Red Pajama along with theatrical adaptations of Judy Schachner’s Skippyjon Jones (Dutton) and Watty Piper’s The Little Engine That Could (Philomel), illustrated by Loren Long. The troupe performs its play based on The Little Engine—Dolly Parton’s favorite book as a child—each summer during Dollywood’s eight-week KidFest, along with two other musicals adapted from Penguin books, which rotate annually. Parton writes the music for each production.

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie.

Penguin’s collaboration with the Dollywood Imagination Playhouse grew out of the publisher’s partnership with the Dollywood Foundation in a philanthropic initiative, called Dolly’s Imagination Library. Launched in 1996, this program provides a book a month, beginning with The Little Engine That Could, to participating preschoolers until they reach the age of five. Parton first began the venture in her home county in east Tennessee, to ensure that every child has access to books, regardless of their family’s income.

Several years later, Parton expanded the program to include other communities, and the Dollywood Foundation asked Penguin to be the exclusive publisher for Imagination Library. (Parton’s own picture book, I Am a Rainbow, will be released by Penguin’s Putnam imprint next month). A seven-person Library Committee meets annually to select the titles for each year’s mailings, which have grown dramatically in size. In 2007, almost 4.5 million books were mailed to youngsters from 732 communities in 43 states, the District of Columbia and Canada.

Titles adapted for the Imagination Playhouse productions are usually among those selected for the Library. “Penguin provides a recommended list of books, but the Dollywood Entertainment division makes the final selections, looking for stories with great themes—friendship, responsibility, self-reliance and helping others—that translate well to the live stage,” says Shanta Newlin, director of publicity for Penguin Young Readers Group. “Overall their goal is to entertain kids while conveying life lessons using a soft touch.”

Photo: Andrew McMurtrie.

Dewdney, who followed up Llama Llama Red Pajama with Llama Llama Mad at Mama (2007) and Llama Llama Misses Mama (published last month), says that she looks forward to attending the Penguin Players’ kickoff performance at KidFest on June 12. “One of the exciting things is that, though I never conceived of my Llama Llama books as being musicals, I always thought of them as songs, because I wrote them in verse, to be read aloud,” she notes. “So it is very cool, and a little overwhelming, that this very personal llama drama is going out into the big world and will have a whole new life.”

Yet Dewdney is confident that Llama Llama will take to the stage quite effortlessly. The author explains that she chose to feature this animal in her picture books after spending years driving through her home state of Vermont with her daughters, moo-ing to cows and baa-ing to sheep. But when they passed by llamas, she wasn’t sure what noise to make. “So I’d just say, ‘llama, llama,’ which was fun to say and made my kids giggle,” she says. ”Then I decided they were fun to draw too—it was very easy to give them emotions. As I’ve gotten to know llama people, they’ve told me that llamas are very emotional and dramatic animals. So it’s perfect that my llamas are now performing on stage.”