Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Baby Monkey, Private Eye


It turns out that rubbing elbows with successful artists at fancy schmancy shindigs has its advantages. On Christmas Day, I met the creators of one of my recent children's book obsessions - Baby Monkey, Private Eye - at Tony Award nominee and drag legend Charles Busch's holiday soiree. His beautiful apartment has been featured in several newspapers, including the prestigious New York Times, and Charles is a host on par with Auntie Mame.

After navigating my way through the throngs of well-known show folk I settled myself on the lush sofa and struck up a conversation with the man in the chair beside me. His name was David Serlin. We bonded over academia (we both have PhDs), issues in deaf education (he works alongside esteemed scholar Carol Padden at UC San Diego), American Sign Language and books.

At one point he mentioned Brian Selznick, whom I immediately recognized when I entered the lipstick red living room. I'd met Brian years before when he visited my classroom while researching Wonderstruck, but I only have a vague recollection of it. David reintroduced us and soon the three of us were chatting about their children's book Baby Monkey, Private Eye.

With Brian Selznick (center) and David Serlin (right)

I bought this book as soon as it came out and it was - and is - a huge hit with my students. Brian's illustrations are exquisite and the story holds a young child's interest. It is a thick chapter book, which is unusual for a book targeting beginning readers. It only has something like 52 words and they appear in a predictable pattern with strong picture support. My preschool students take great pride in reading this book. I enjoy the fact that it has an index, a bibliography, and lots of small details encouraging repeated readings.

David told me he would send me a Baby Monkey, Private Eye poster when he got back to California. It arrived yesterday. He actually sent two - one for my classroom and one for the school library - both signed (see above).

I can't wait to get it framed and proudly display it in my classroom.

Thank you, David!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Putting It Together

Artist Sean Baptist's sketch for the "window" in our dramatic play area

In Sunday in the Park with George the titular character sings about the process of making art.

Bit by bit, putting it together
Piece by piece, only way to make a work of art
Every moment makes a contribution
Every little detail plays a part

Ounce by ounce, putting it together
Small amounts, adding up to make a work of art

Putting it together, that's what counts!

We experienced this first-hand when the children had the notion to create a window in the dramatic play area. They envisioned a landscape with grass, flowers, and trees. A place where magical animals roamed and frolicked in the sunshine.

We shared their vision with our teaching artists from the Children's Museum of the Arts  - Katya, Zuzia, Ian and Sean Baptist - and they helped us execute a plan. Sean began with a quick sketch for the children to approve (see above) and we set to work. It has now morphed into the backdrop for a stop-motion animated movie, which we've already begun.

Here are some photographs of this work in progress.

Sean brings his sketch to life


The painting begins!


The sketch is made permanent with a Sharpie


After mixing colors to find the right shade, children begin to paint the foreground


We learned we should make the scenery closest to us the darkest in order to gain the right perspective


Finishing the hat, er...tree


Figuring out the right color for this tree


Things are coming together. Looking good, kids!


It's a nice view from the kitchen table


Finishing touches and an overlay of apples for the trees


The basics are in place
The sun and clouds will appear in the animated movie

Saturday, March 23, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Gregory Jbara

Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara and his young fans

"It's like magic" whispers a small voice as Gregory Jbara reads aloud from Creepy Pair of Underwear by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown. The adults in the room, charmed by the child's astonishment, glance at one another with expressions of sweet sentimentally, place palms over hearts and silently mouth "awww".

It IS magical! There is jaw-dropping wonderment for the children in the tenacious pair of green-hued underwear Jasper Rabbit so desperately tries to eradicate. And there is a collective, palpable sense of assurance amongst the watchful adults in the room that childhood innocence endures despite the chaos blaring outside our windows.

We take in the small interactions; one boy joyfully turning to high-five his best friend when the cross-eyed, Frankensteinian underwear inexplicably returns from a sojourn to China, two children holding hands for reassurance as Jasper Rabbit tiptoes into his cavernous bathroom to find "THEY WERE BACK!", and the unbridled, contagious laughter rising from the children whose gaze is fixed in turns on Greg, the ASL interpreter and the book's film noir inspired illustrations.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
The unbridled capacity for enjoyment is evident on the faces of these 4-year-olds

Stepping into this place where magic happens takes some preparation. It also requires the right players. And in that respect we were certainly in good hands with Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara. In 2015, Greg was the very first performer to "raise his hand" when I asked if any of my Broadway friends would be interested in joining my fledgling program. After his initial visit he wrote in my memory book, "Please include me whenever you feel I might be helpful". And I have! Greg christened Broadway Books Upper Class the following year and came back this school year to usher in Year Four of Broadway Books First Class.

As the first guest artist ever to venture into my classroom Greg's early visit helped me establish the structural framework and flow that other visits would follow. Back then, he read a funny story of veggie haunting entitled Creepy Carrots, so this time he returned to read the sequel. This time he read for two classes - preschool and second grade - of energetic children. This time, he remarked, the program had found its rhythm, flowing seamlessly from one segment to another (with some nice additions, such as sharing childhood photos of each performer). And although things are running smoothly and I've come to feel confident and comfortable in my role as host and facilitator, the unexpected does happen.

Gregory Jbara answers questions alongside ASL interpreter Lynnette Taylor

As Greg was answering questions about the character he played in Billy Elliott the Musical  - click here to listen to his show-stopping tearjerker Deep Into the Ground - we were interrupted by an announcement over the school PA system, "Attention, this is a soft lockdown drill. Please take appropriate action."  My first thought was, "UGH! Why now?! We are in the middle of something!" But, we all diligently swung into action. Lights out, door locked, children and adults huddled in a corner of the room out of sight.

The soft twinkling of the still-illuminated Christmas lights around the bulletin boards provided a comforting glow as we silently waited. The minutes passed and children started signing to one another - an advantage these students have over other school children in similar situations. Then the whispered voices engaging Greg in conversation. For his part, Greg seemed intrigued to take part in this drill and remained good-natured.

I felt bad about taking up his time in this manner, but found consolation in the thought that, perhaps, it could somehow inform his character on Blue Bloods. Greg plays Deputy Commissioner for Public Information (DCPI) Garrett Moore on the hit CBS police procedural drama. In fact, he was in NYC shooting the series and found time in his busy schedule to fit us in. That dedication to freely giving back to the community and the joy it brought to everyone present reminds me that pockets of goodness still exist in these divisive times.

I love this picture! You can see the joy in this child's smile.

Once the lockdown was lifted we returned to the meeting area and Greg complemented the children on how well they responded to the lockdown, my 4-year-old student Jefferson stood up and shyly asked, "Can you sing for us?"

Greg replied, "Can I sing for you? I would love to sing for you."

But first he educated them with little insider information about the audition process.

"As an actor we audition for people to get jobs to be in shows and sometimes when you do a musical they'll say, 'Here's a couple of songs from this musical. Here's the music, go home, learn it and come to the audition and sing these songs from the show that the character you're auditioning for would have to sing if you got the job'. Sometimes, they say, 'Don't worry about the music from the show. Bring us a song that you like to sing or a song that you sing a lot so we can hear something you're comfortable with and know very well. And then we can decide if we want to see you again.'"

Greg sang us a song he's been auditioning with since the very beginning of his career. It's one that he'd learned as a student at Juilliard and sang during his first audition to play Frankenstein's monster in Have I Got a Girl for You! The song - Have You Met Miss Jones? - was followed by Love is Sweeping the Country (his audition song for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Chimp in a Suit.

Gregory Jbara sings CHIMP IN A SUIT from DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil 

Once again I observed the watchful, interested faces of the children as they sat soaking in the music, the message, and the moment. Each song followed by hands clapping or raised in the air, waving applause as is typical in Deaf culture. Greg graciously met the requests for more until we shifted gears by presenting him with the gifts we prepared (a Broadway Books First Class t-shirt and a copy of Creepy Pair of Underwear signed by all of the students).

Greg signs copies for each child
I've experienced times in my life when I've tried to hold onto a moment even as I knew it must end, so I realized with sadness that our visit was winding down. Greg provided lasting memories for each child with his visit. Now was the time to make those memories more tangible with a book for each child to take home, signed by Greg.

The thank you cards the children wrote capture their gratitude. "We loved talking to you. We are super lucky you came." "I love the song you sang us and I like your voice. It is amazing!" "Thank you for coming today. I hope you can come again soon!"

The children were delighted when, a couple of weeks later, we received a video message from Greg saying how much he enjoyed reading the cards when he returned home to California. From start to finish, Greg's visit was a wonderful way to begin Year Four of the program.

To learn more about the Broadway Books First Class program, click here.

To make a tax-deductible donation to support literacy by providing books for children, please click here.

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