The Famous Bucket

famous bucketPrior to 2007, if you had asked a young reader to name a famous bucket, I’ll wager most would have replied “Charlie.” But that was before a new bucket arrived on the scene. A fire-engine red bucket, wielded by an acrobatic young lady with a blonde ponytail. I speak, of course, of Kate Wetherall. Katie is one of the fantastic characters in The Mysterious Benedict Society, written by Trenton Lee Stuart (Little, Brown, 2007).

Intrigued by a curiously-worded advertisement in a local paper, orphan Reynie Muldoon spends a most unusual afternoon taking a series of strange tests. Later, he joins three other children (Sticky Washington, Constance Contraire and Kate Wetherall) who also passed the tests in unique ways. The children are invited to join a secret mission to stop Ledroptha Curtain, a criminal mastermind. The book is filled with puzzles, riddles, and action, but what I love the best is the friendship that forms between the children as their strengths (and weaknesses) are put to the test.

In the books (there are 3 in the series, plus a prequel), Kate always carries a red bucket stocked with a number of useful supplies. So when To Be Continued, our story time program for 6-8 year-olds finished the book, I just knew we had to something with Kate’s bucket! So I designed this game.

bucket gameAll you’ll need is 1 red bucket, a bucket game template printed on white card stock, and a copy of the bucket game scenarios. You’ll need markers to color in the template (or you can just go with the full color version), and scissors. I also gave kids a list of the bucket’s contents.

A quick word about the bucket. The 6.5″ bucket in the above photo can be purchased from Lowe’s for $2.35. However, since I required close to 20 buckets for my program, I needed something cheaper. I found a 4.5″ treat pail at Party City for 99¢. Nice! I also spotted 8.5″ paper bags at Party City for 79¢. Yes, a bag is technically not a bucket, but it’s a budget-friendly option nonetheless.

buckets and bagTo play the game, read a scenario aloud. Ask the kids to select the bucket items they would use to solve the scenario. Once everyone’s selections are made, go around the room and ask them to display which tools they selected, and how they would use them to solve the scenario. As you can imagine, there were some pretty innovative answers!

I’m a big fan of the Mysterious Benedict Society books, and in 2010 I was delighted to interview the author. If you’d like to listen to (or read) my interview with Trenton Lee Stewart, just click here.

Also, I don’t know if you noticed the amazing footwear on the two models at the top of the post (who also happen to be huge fans of the books). If not, scroll back up and prepare for some serious cuteness!

From Page to Stage

Jillian Snow queenThis month, the Princeton Youth Ballet will be performing its version of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale, The Snow Queen for the fourth year. Risa Kaplowitz, who is the Artistic Director of, and choreographer for, the Princeton Youth Ballet, took some time to chat with me about the challenges and joys of bringing this tale to life through dance.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, The Snow Queen is about a boy named Kai (or Kay) who is first bewitched by magic mirror shards and then abducted by the Snow Queen. Kai’s best friend, Gerda, sets out to rescue him. After escaping a sorceress, receiving advice from a crow (or raven), visiting a palace, being detained by robbers, and gaining a reindeer, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s realm. Despite many challenges, Gerda finds Kai, and her warm tears melt the mirror shard embedded in his heart. Dancing in joy, Kai is also freed of the mirror shard in his eye. The two friends (with assistance from a reindeer, a Lapland woman, and a Finland woman) escape the Snow Queen’s palace and return to their homes.

Risa Kaplowitz has also adapted versions of The Secret Garden and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Before co-founding the Princeton Youth Ballet, she was a principal with Dayton Ballet and has also danced with the Houston Ballet, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Ballet Manhattan, and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.

What first captivated you about The Snow Queen?

I had the book when I was really young. It was one of those holographic books with a 3-D cover. The story was so captivating. Princeton Youth Ballet had done the Nutcracker, but with 48 Nutcrackers in New Jersey, I said “Enough!” My daughter had my book and said, “What about The Snow Queen?” I picked the book back up and I just saw so many possibilities.

SQ hugI Googled “Snow Queen Ballet” and could find only one ballet version, which had been performed in Europe, and I don’t think it was even a professional company. I also discovered that Disney had been working on a Snow Queen movie for a decade and that they were close to finally making the film. I felt that if Disney was going to make this movie, we had to do the ballet now. So, we preceded Frozen by two years.

In ballet, there are no words, there’s no verbal dialogue, there’s no narrator…it’s the dancers, and music, and visuals. How difficult was it for you to translate the story, and what techniques did you use?

Whenever I adapt a ballet from a book, I read every version, and I watch every movie and musical if there happens to be one. For The Secret Garden, of course, there are musicals, there are movies; there are different versions of the book. I usually start with the abridged version because, essentially, that’s the meat of it. A ballet is like making a movie out of a book – you’re not going to be able to put in every single thing. You have to brush broadly and then fill in with the movement that brings out the characters and narrative in what will hopefully be a more visceral way than even reading a book or watching a movie.

Act2-111Next I build the score. I listen to hundreds of hours of music. For the Snow Queen, I wanted music that evoked a Norwegian feel. I found it in Edvard Grieg. I also use Nikolai Rimsky-Korsadov for the ice castle scenes. I have the sort of brain that when I hear music, a narrative comes to me, so I follow the music’s lead and a narrative arc unfolds along with the characterizations.

I’m fascinated by the process of defining a character with choreography. For example, in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, the Snow Queen is evil. How do you translate that in dance? 

For me, it’s very helpful to have the dancer in my mind. In the case of the Snow Queen, the dancer I thought of when making the ballet was Jillian Davis, a former student who is over six feet tall – on pointe, she is probably six foot six. She is gorgeous with long limbs, and even though she was not always the Snow Queen because of other engagements, I used her as my guide. Although she is now a professional with Complexions Contemporary Dance Company in New York City, she is performing the role for us this year [Editor: Jillian is dancing the role in the first photo of this post].

At times, I made the Snow Queen’s movements very sharp. For example, in an arabesque, when your arms are normally out and very graceful [Risa elevates one arm in front of her and one arm behind her] Instead, I have her do something like this [Risa sharply bends the elbow of her back arm, resembling an archer pulling a bow]. This [indicating the sharp position of her arms] is much stronger and indicative of a spear or an evil instrument. However, I also evoke some quiet movements becomes sometimes the quiet ones are scarier. In the steps and Jillian’s interpretation, she is just pure coldness, yet she is gorgeous.

SQ and KaiWhat is it like to choreograph for the very young children?

Probably the biggest compliment I’ve ever received was when somebody said, “What’s really amazing about your work is that you always make the dancers look good.” And I thought, “Well, doesn’t every choreographer?” And apparently, that’s not the case! [laughs] The tiniest ones, honestly, we spend these nine rehearsal weeks making their runs as beautiful as we possibly can. Holding their backs, holding their stomachs. They are not going to do anything much more than that!  Even when they are still, we teach them to be ballerinas – to have that presence, to have their chest up, their head inclined, and correct body lines. So, for them, it’s more of a matter of my giving them interesting pathways rather than interesting movement.

SnowbeesAs the Artistic Director, you also help develop the costumes for the production. It seems so natural for the snow portions to go with white and filmy…

But we didn’t. We went with blue! Because when you get that cold, ice isn’t white, it’s blue. You become absolutely blue with cold. So the interior of our ice castle scenes are blue and the ice maidens are in blue long tutus with a little silver shimmer on top. The Snow Queen is in white to differentiate herself.

Do you get a chance to watch the audience reacting to your ballet?

After a performance, we always have a meet and greet and I’ve seen kids from the audience who were speechless – really in awe of what they just saw. There are always some characters that they just love to meet, like the robber girl because she is so full of spirit.

Robber girl They are always a bit afraid of approaching the Snow Queen. Even though she’s in this beautiful dress, they sometimes want her to stay away! I like to ask them, “What was your favorite part?” and almost invariably they will say either the robber scene, which is really boisterous and fun. Or they say “The end.” At the end of the ballet, there’s an apotheosis where the ice maidens are taken to heaven by the angels and Gerda and Kai revisit the people who either helped or hindered Gerda in her quest to find Kai.

That’s not in the story, is it? You added that part?

Yes.

That’s beautiful!

Just thinking about the ending gives me chills. You know, last year, when Frozen came out, I told the Princeton Youth Ballet’s board President, “My biggest fear now is that people will be expecting to see Elsa, and they are not going to see Elsa!” [laughs]. It’s definitely not Frozen, but they will see Han Christian Andersen’s amazing story unfold in a beautiful way.

Ice Castle with Kai


Photos by Melissa Acherman, used with permission of the Princeton Youth Ballet.

 

Teaching the Untouchable

vellumThis month, College & Research Library News published an article I wrote about teaching children using rare books and special collections materials. I’ve posted it here as well!


The Cotsen Children’s Library at Princeton University is a Rare Books and Special Collections Library devoted to children’s literature. It has an extensive and engaging collection, and part of our mission is education and outreach to children. Rare books and children…can the two mix?

The answer is yes, absolutely. For seven years, I’ve had tremendous success bringing collections education to New Jersey schools. This outreach initiative, which I call Cotsen in the Classroom, consists of six staff-lead programs that are available, free of charge, to K-5 classrooms in public schools, private schools, and home schools. To date, over 14,000 children have participated in the programs.

Each Cotsen in the Classroom program is set at a particular grade level and is based on items from our special collections. Beatrix and Peter, the kindergarten program, features the natural history drawings, family photos, and picture letters of Beatrix Potter (for more Potter fun, take a look at this post). Kamishibai, the first-grade program, includes historic photos, story cards, and performances of kamishibai, a type of street theater popular in Japan from 1930-1950 (you can read more about kamishibai in this post). Mr. Andersen, the second-grade program, follows the life story of Hans Christian Anderson, using a number of his personal paper cuts and century-spanning illustrations for The Ugly Duckling.

Colonial Classroom, the third-grade program, features a day in a Colonial American classroom, complete with horn books, copy books, primers, and writing blanks. Illuminate Me, the fourth-grade program, demonstrates the process of creating illuminated manuscripts and discusses the world-changing invention of the Gutenberg press, and the advent of the printed book (manuscript fans, click here). You Are Here, the fifth-grade program, exhibits 18th-century geographical objects from London, England, and discusses how, over the century, they reflected changes in education and social structure in Europe. To see the full program descriptions, click here.

display boardsSince the programs travel out of Cotsen and into local schools, I don’t use actual collections materials. Instead, I teach with enlarged high-resolution photos mounted on foam board, reproductions of historical items, and objects that have been purchased (or specially constructed) for the programs. Students work with (and take home) full-color reproductions of collections items, as well. The visual material is reinforced by a lively lecture, hands-on activities, and a succession of question and answer opportunities designed to keep the students engaged during the 45-minute presentation.

Are the programs successful? Do students gain an appreciation for the collections material? Do they retain the information in the programs? Do they enjoy the programs? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

The entire programming year for Cotsen in the Classroom (which runs for 38 – 40 weeks during the academic year) consistently books within 48 hours of the opening registration date. I’ve observed students exclaiming over a 15-century illuminated manuscript, avidly searching for the publication year on a 1776 copy book, and racing each other to locate New Holland on a paper globe from 1830. Students often recognize me when I return to their schools and eagerly share what they enjoyed the previous year. Teachers repeatedly relay stories of students making further connections to, and initiating personal projects on, topics inspired by the Cotsen in the Classroom programs.

manuscript workThere are also the thank-you cards I receive from classrooms. While some are obviously form letters dictated by the teacher, others recall key pieces of the presentations, make personal connections to the material, or accurately replicate, through their illustrations, the collections material presented in the programs.

It’s definitely possible to bring special collections to school children, including those who visit your library on tours. Whether designing a new program or adjusting a current one, I offer the following recommendations for developing successful programs for your young patrons.

Allow hands-on whenever possible. Rare materials are, by their nature, not things to be handled frequently or casually. Therefore, I use reproductions of collections items. A large poster to pass around the classroom, a reproduction of a period object, even a contemporary version of a historical object can all be used to great effect. For children, being allowed to touch an object creates an instant connection to it, and promotes absorption and retention of the information. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Whisper sticks, for example, were a form of punishment in Colonial schools. Pupils caught whispering were forced to clamp sticks in their mouths. I use wooden Popsicle sticks, purchased in bulk from a school supply company, to replicate this experience.

Adjust for your audience. The younger the children, the more activities, transitions, and visual changes you will need. The Beatrix Potter kindergarten program, for example, starts as a group sitting theater- style on the floor, then quickly moves back to tables/desks for some natural history sketches, then returns to the floor for the remainder of the program. In between these transitions, there are plenty of visuals. The fifth-grade program, in contrast, takes place almost entirely at the students’ desks, with the visuals presented at the front of the classroom and a collaborative group activity at the end of the program.

Leave time at the end for Q & A. Answering questions is my favorite part of these programs, and a good way to assess if the audience was interested and engaged. I build in at least 5 minutes at the end of each program to answer questions. One fourth-grade class kept me busy answering questions for 30 minutes! I’ve fielded a wide range of questions about these programs – questions about the content, questions about the Cotsen library and rare books, questions about my work and expertise, and questions about how the programs were researched and designed.

Send materials home. Every student who participates in Cotsen in the Classroom takes home a full-color reproduction of a collections item. “We get to keep this? Really? Cool!” is the refrain I often hear as I pass materials out. Sending materials home allows students to connect with what they learned, and share it with their families. One parent (who also happened to be the principal of the school) stopped me in the hall to tell me how excited his five-year-old son had been to show him the Beatrix Potter sketchbook he’d brought home from class that week.

Ask your audience to analyze your program. During the first three years of the Cotsen in the Classroom initiative, I gave every classroom teacher an evaluation form. On this anonymous form, he or she was asked to rate the program on a scale of 1 – 5. I also left space on the form for teacher comments, student comments, and general suggestions. I used the invaluable feedback I received on these forms to improve the presentations, clarify content, and assess whether the program was accomplishing its educational goals.

model pressTeaching the untouchable can absolutely be done through quality reproductions, replicas of historical objects, and a presentation designed to engage, enlighten, and empower young learners. It’s also incredibly rewarding. A kindergartener eagerly asking a question, a fifth-grader gazing thoughtfully at an 18-century map cabinet, a first-grader creating a kamishibai title card, a third-grader who wants to find books on the subject I just presented – after seven years of teaching these programs, I never tire of watching students making connections to the special collections material. I also enjoy their expressions of appreciation for my visit. “That was so cool.” “I never knew that!” “That was the best presentation ever!” “Can you teach us something else?”

But my favorite compliment of all time was one that was not expressed directly to me. As I left the classroom, I overheard a fourth-grade boy whisper to his friend, “I thought that was going to be boring but it totally wasn’t!”

Success!


Teaching the Untouchable: Rare Books Education in Elementary School Classrooms was originally published in College & Research Library News, November 2014 (Vol. 75. No. 10). Full text version, click here. Pdf version, click here.