Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Book with Alison Fraser

The in-person first grade class with Alison Fraser (May 2021)
 
I post these group shots sometimes and realize it's so easy for others to give a cursory glance before moving on to the next photo, the next post, the next...whatever. Today, photographs have lost a bit of their power. This may be because they are so easily taken, viewed and forgotten. It wasn't always that way.

Nevertheless, I've been looking at this photo and thinking about the individuals in it. I see the unique personalities of each child wrapped in the backstories I know so well, as I was lucky enough to spend two years as their teacher. I know their smiles, delights, struggles, kindness, bravery, tentativeness, humor, sadness, challenges, energy, and unique talents. I've witnessed them all firsthand during a difficult period in our lives that brought us together in unprecedented ways. They are extraordinary. 

Then, there is the woman in the striped shirt, straw hat, and black face mask trimmed with lace. That's two-time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser nestled in the midst of my first graders. She has moved audiences with laughter (The Divine Sister, Gypsy), frightened and repulsed us with a quiet, menacing calm (Squeamish) or steely presence (First Daughter Suite), made us rise to our feet to tearfully cheer (The Secret Garden), and swept us along with singing and storytelling so good we simply have to revisit the show again and again (Romance/Romance). She is extraordinary. 

We came together in May 2021 to take a group photo memorializing our collaboration on a literary project. I suppose it's impossible to capture all of this life in an image. Yet, it's a snapshot of a moment we wanted to document and remember. Unless you take the time to look a little closer or dig a little deeper, you may only see what's on the surface. Does anyone have the time to slow down these days and think, "I wonder..." 

What brought us all together? What is the story behind the photograph?

I ponder this sometimes with old, sepia-toned photographs. I'll never know the answer for many photos, but I do for this one. The folks in this picture got together to create art, to tell a story and to make a book. We called it Nat's Cats

In the doing, we found purpose and joy. Alison wrote the story. My students illustrated it. I orchestrated and oversaw the progress, lovingly putting it together for publication. Alison then asked if I would write the foreword, which I am sharing here.

The Cover of Nat's Cats
The students chose orange, which just happens to be Alison's favorite color.

"Once every 100 years or so society is forced to slow down and readjust due to devastation caused by a global pandemic that will not be ignored. In 2020, the spread of COVID-19 closed NYC public schools. My class of kindergartners took to remote learning. We only saw one another on the computer screen and the children thought about the time when they could laugh and play together again. 

As schools slowly opened up, some students returned for in-person learning and some remained remote. My brave little ones were champions, even as they were full of emotional turmoil. In the midst of all this, I received an email from Alison Fraser. Alison is a celebrated Broadway star, with two Tony Award nominations, and a frequent quest with my Broadway Books First Class program. Attached to her email was a charming story about her two cats. I fell in love with it. The language and style were reminiscent of one of my favorite books for children, Curious George

I asked her if my students, now in first grade, could illustrate it. Alison loved the idea and met with the children via Zoom to read her story and invite them to collaborate with her. The class responded with a resounding, YES! and we set off to study children's book illustrations for inspiration. The students experimented with different visual arts media. They worked with watercolors, markers, collage, pen and ink, crayons, paint, and colored pencils for weeks to create their artwork. The result can be seen on the following pages. 

This is how you find joy even in uncertain times. Create art."

Alison reads Nat's Cats while students follow along in their own books.

Our efforts were realized in the beautiful, hardbound copies of our book. One hundred copies, to be exact! As authors and illustrators do, we celebrated with a publishing party. Alison came to visit us in the classroom to read the book, as students followed along in their own copies. 

Children proudly smiled when their drawings came up on the pages. We'd stop and cheer. It was a time of happiness rooted in the satisfaction that comes from the fruition of sustained work. We spent weeks on this project and now we had something tangible to show for it. The lesson of perseverance and goal setting was a good one for the students to learn. 

What is a publishing party without a book signing?

Alison wrote a personalized message for each student. She also made it possible for every child to take home five books to share with family and friends. 

I'd love to see this book in every animal shelter because it stands as a testament to the value of pet adoption. I'm really proud of it - not just the finished product, but the whole process that got us there. And, my goodness, we got to collaborate with Alison Fraser! It's an embarrassment of riches, as they say. 

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