Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Top Ten 2020 - 2021

It's been one hell of a year, but despite all of the COVID related hardships - and there were many - I found joy in teaching my incredible students. Together, we created an energized classroom community full of activity and purpose. We shared and created stories. We explored and questioned. We not only got through a difficult year, we prospered.

At the end of the school year, as in years past, I asked the children to think back to the stories that meant the most to them. Which children's books packed the biggest punch? Which ones left a lasting impact? It turns out our deep dive into Greek mythology ignited everyone's imaginations (three titles made our top ten list). And another strong showing were books showcasing characters who defied stereotypical gender roles (two titles made the cut) and similar books with strong messages about identity, self-love, and individuality. 

So, here it is. The first grade student picks for the TOP TEN children's books of the 2020 -2021 school year. 

Number One on our Top Ten list
#1. Nat's Cats written by two time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser. This came as no surprise because it's a great story about the merits of pet adoption, but it's also illustrated by the students themselves! 

Alison, who is a frequent guest artist with my Broadway Books First Class program, sent me the story because she thought the children might like it. I knew they would, so I invited Alison to read it to the class. I also suggested turning the story into a children's book and inviting the class to create the illustrations. Alison loved the idea, so we ran with it. 

After months of work, Nat's Cats made its way to print (via Shutterfly). We celebrated with a publishing party, which included a reading, book signing, and snacks. It was a tricky thing to pull off with COVID restrictions, but we did it and had the best time.  (A more in-depth post about the making of Nat's Cats is in the works.)

Greek mythology came in strong with the next three entries. 

#2.  Young Zeus by G. Brian Karas.

This is the origin story of Zeus (and his brothers and sisters) with lots of action and engaging illustrations to go with the exposition. It has monsters, Titans, Olympians, battles, bickering, tension, love, hope, despair, defeat, and triumph all mixed together for an oddly relatable tale. 

It isn't the first time this title has landed on an end-of-year top ten list and I'm sure it won't be the last.

#3. Why Spiders Spin: A Story of Arachne retold by Jamie and Scott Simons with illustrations by Deborah Winograd. 

Interactive read alouds are my stock-in-trade and when a story lifts off the page and gets on its feet we really soar! How fun it is for the children to act out the immovable arrogance of Arachne and the fiery wrath of Athena. The illustrations allow for lively debates about which tapestry was the finest and the plot leads to discussions about power and privilege. 

The description and imagery of Arachne's punishment is the stuff of legend - literally!

#4.  Let's Go, Pegasus! retold and illustrated by Jean Marzollo. 

This is the book that starts it all for us! The story that hooks my students into the Greek myths every time. Medusa is playful and terrifying as she taunts Perseus into gazing into her eyes (Spoiler: He doesn't.) This retelling ushers us into an exploration of perspective and starts us analyzing the ways stories change over time. We begin to compare different versions of this myth, which is an excellent way to explore power dynamics with a critical eye. Question everything, kids!

An added bonus is our introduction to Athena (here as a wise protector) and my current favorite God, Hermes. 

I've written about my love for this book in previous posts. It speaks to an aesthetic I cannot resist. There is a nostalgic feel that brings me comfort. It is easy to imagine myself as Morris, getting lost in words and images, appreciating and relishing time alone with books, and thinking of them as friends. 

But, why do the kids like it so much? I think the brilliant Academy Award Winning Short Film helps pull them into the story. I certainly appreciate that it is a visual treat without words, so it is easily accessible to all of my students. Ultimately though, I believe they like it for the same reasons I do. To think children miss the power of getting lost in a good book is to underestimate them. And I never want to do that.

#6.  The Sound of All Things written by Myron Ulberg with stunning illustrations by Ted Papoulas. 

It's easy to see why this book was selected. The book portrays the story of Myron's childhood growing up in Brooklyn with deaf parents. The author recounts how his father would ask him to describe, in fine detail, the sounds around them - like Coney Island's famed Cyclone or the explosive fireworks soaring from the pier on the Fourth of July - using American Sign Language. 

As educators, we strive to select books that mirror the lives of our students. We want them to be able to see themselves in the characters they read about. This can include race, culture, class, etc. The Sound of All Things does this because many of my students have parents or family members who are D/deaf and can relate to it on a personal level. 

#7.  Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman. 

This year I introduced a new study focusing on gender identity and expression. It was inspired by family circumstances within the student population, but is a topic that is worth exploring even without those connections. 

Sparkle Boy is about a young boy who likes sparkly, shimmery, glittery things. It causes a bit of a stir until his family comes to understand that freedom of expression should be accepted, respected, and even celebrated. 

I asked legendary drag performer and Tony Award nominated playwright, Charles Busch, to read it to the students. He was, of course, brilliant, and helped deliver the message that being true to yourself is the only way to find happiness and success.

Oh. My. Goodness! This book! It is so breathtakingly beautiful. Do yourself a favor and get this book. It is the story of a young boy named Finn who is mourning the loss of his beloved grandfather. When he dozes off, he enters a magical landscape where the ocean meets the sky and they are reunited. 

The Fan Brothers have moved into the top spot of my favorite children's book authors/illustrators. This book continues their streak of high-quality children's books and my students obviously get the appeal.

#9. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. 

This was another book in our study of gender identity and expression. It is the story of Julian who sees some beautiful mermaids on the subway and falls in love with their outfits. When he arrives home he finds a way to recreate the costume using his Abuela's curtains and a potted plant. This is a moment of tension when she finds him posing, but she is fully supportive and shows it by bringing him to the Coney Island mermaid parade.

The book and its sequel, Julian at the Wedding, showcase the importance of self-love and individuality. 

#10. Firenze's Light by Jessica Collaco.

A children's book about gratitude, compassion, and self-appreciation rounds out our Top Ten list. This is another instance where the read aloud added a touch of something special. 

I invited three-time Tony Award nominee, Mary Testa, to read it to my students (you can watch it by clicking here). Mary's inspired interpretation brought a deeper understanding of the message and encouraged the children to "let their lights shine". 

*Honorable mention goes to The Olympians series of graphic novels by George O'Connor

My first graders devoured these books and learned so much about Greek Mythology from them. Students even purchased the boxed sets and spent hours reading them. Many of the titles were represented on individual student lists, but, like the selection process for the Academy Awards, they canceled themselves out of the final cut because nobody could decide on an overall favorite. We all have our favorite god or goddess in the Olympic pantheon. 

Who is your favorite?

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Creating Worlds with Daryl Roth

My views on success have changed over time. I used to equate success with money and fame. Those outward manifestations of societal achievement don't necessarily touch the heart, but they are great for fostering a prideful sense of "look at me" whilst walking down a red carpet. I thought attention and admiration from others were the ingredients that made a successful person. It was a child's view on life. An immature, limited outlook that I know some folks never outgrow. 

But, I now gauge success in happiness. Am I joyful? Peaceful? Is it well with my soul? 

There have been many, many people in my life who've served as my teachers in this regard. Sometimes it is the great influencers, like my mom, and sometimes the lessons come from unexpected places. One of the latter happened years ago when I saw an interview with Daryl Roth. I, of course, knew her as a Tony Award winning producer credited with "the singular distinction of producing seven Pulitzer Prize-winning plays".  She even has her own theater! I've been there many times. I knew her as a powerful force on Broadway and imagined she breezily waltzed through life luxuriating in all of the perks pursuant with her achievements. 

And then I watched that interview. 

She spoke with a calm, quiet intensity that seemed to be fueled by love. Hmmm....I was intrigued. I was drawn in and listened to her talk about her passion for theater, for producing projects that meant something to her, for wanting to provide a platform for stories that aren't generally told, and for bringing people together in that glorious space where the audience and performers can share a cathartic or uplifting experience. As she spoke, I remembered why I loved theater so much and why I wanted to be a part of it in the first place. How could someone this outwardly successful still glow with the light of connection to their uncomplicated, grounded truth? 

I realized her success wasn't merely based on or defined by money and fame. It was forged in happiness. She appeared joyful, peaceful. All seemed well with her soul. Evidently, it was possible for both versions of success to be true at once. They weren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but without happiness and purpose, the rest is meaningless. 

That interview, which I cannot locate now, opened my eyes a bit. I read and watched more interviews with her and imagined how incredible it would be to have her share her story with my class of first graders. How could that ever happen? I had no idea, so I kissed it up to the universe and went about my business. 

The years went by and I guess the universe was listening because Daryl Roth joined Broadway Books First Class via Zoom this past May! 

I wanted her to read something special related to creating beautiful worlds from the imagination (as Daryl does in the theater), so I suggested Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers. The illustrations are breathtaking, magical, awe-inspiring. They take you soaring into places, which are at once strange and familiar. But, for all the eye-popping wonder there is a heartbeat underneath it all. The story is propelled by loss and longing. A young boy dreaming of meeting his beloved grandfather in the mystical place where the ocean meets the sky. 

The book had parallels we could make with Daryl's work as a producer - bringing all the parts together in one place to create a cohesive whole that is meaningful and healing. Just how she does that is something the children wanted to know. What does a producer do? 

Daryl explained that her role is to first find a story that speaks to her in some way and then put together the creative team to bring the story to life on stage. This includes the director, set designers, costume designers, etc. Daryl called them the "family" of a particular show.  A producer, she explained, gets to work with everyone. For someone like her - who has a deep love and passion for the theater, but who isn't a singer, dancer, actor, or director - being a producer is a perfect fit. Her gifts for making things happen is one that suits a producer well! 

Closer Than Ever:
The first show Daryl produced
The children asked how she became a producer. She told them the very first show she produced, Closer Than Ever, came about because a little voice inside of her spoke up. 

Her friend, lyricist Richard Maltby, invited her to a small venue in Greenwich Village to attend a presentation of some new songs he'd written. As she watched, the songs spoke to her in a way that felt personal. She envisioned the songs "coming together into a beautiful musical evening, a real show". 

Afterwards, she shared her thoughts of producing it and things took off from there. She learned on her feet, pushing forward with a belief in herself and in the work. Those are important lessons young children need to hear/see again and again. 

The students also asked about accessibility for audience members who are deaf and hard of hearing. How do producers do this? Daryl advocates for ASL interpreted performances and believes more of them will be offered in the future. Producers also sometimes provide scripts upon request, so audience members can become familiar with the material beforehand. Interestingly, Daryl supports Deaf West Theatre (they put on successful Broadway revivals of Big River and Spring Awakening). Side note: Our school is planning a collaboration with Deaf West next spring! 

Some in-person students hold up their copies of Ocean Meets Sky (personalized by Daryl Roth)

She's currently producing a riveting show called Blindness. It's a perfect theatrical offering in this time of restricted activity due to COVID. However, I am most excited about Between the Lines. I mean, it makes sense. It's got Broadway. Books. Class. :) And I really want to look into providing opportunities for my students to attend children's show performances at the Daryl Roth Theatre. After all, it's only 8 blocks away from our school!

Our Zoom visit lasted almost an hour. That's a long time for young children, but as Daryl told us, when you are doing something you love you stay energized and engaged. We loved our time with her. She is an extraordinary person to interview because she was game to answer all our questions and always had an additional something special to interject into the conversation. 

New York City school kids are blessed with a great many cultural opportunities. I am so grateful to Daryl Roth for opening her heart, sharing her success, and allowing us to step into that magical space where new worlds are created. The place where the ocean meets the sky. 

A child's thank you card for Daryl Roth showing all of us sitting in front of the TV during our Zoom session.


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