Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Biggest Thing with Cardboard and Felt

Book:  The Biggest Thing in the Ocean  by Kevin Sherry
Puppets:   A few sea animals, including a shark
Props:   A big cut-out squid
Presenters:   2
Technology:  Projector with a ouple slides
Audience:   Family Storytime (mostly 3-6 year olds)

One of the many benefits of doing two-person storytimes is that you get to do stories that you never would have thought of yourself.  In this case, Sheila and Terri developed the story, Brad came up with a couple of additional enhancements later, and by the time I got a turn at a recent Family Storytime, all I had to do was walk around behind a piece of cardboard.

  I've used The Biggest Thing in the Ocean as a read aloud and it works great.  Sheila and Terri worked out a cool way to act it out with kids.  Sheila created a big giant squid, using cardboard and blue stuff which looks like felt, but is actually called something like headliner fabric or cartop.  "It was easy," she says, but I don't think it would have been for someone as craft-clueless as me.

 The squid works kind of like a giant puppet or mask.  You just hold it up in front of you and walk around, and you're a squid.  You can even have the words written on the back!  The story's pretty simple.  As Squid, I just brag about how I'm "the biggest thing in the ocean."  On the screen behind me we projected a silent video of moving ocean water, which was a nice touch....but it would work fine without that too.  Then Terri enters with a Starfish puppet.  I brag that I'm bigger than a starfish, and Terri attaches the puppet to the squid.  The puppets all have velcro and stick easily.  And this whole thing could be done with felt figures instead of puppets just as well..

So now there's a Starfish on the Squid.  I was a little worried that the kids would think the Squid ate the Starfish, but it's pretty clear that it's there just to show the comparative size.  Now that Terri has shown what to do, she guides four kids from the audience to come up, one at a time, and do the same thing with puppets they had been given.  So I say:  "I'm even bigger than a Blue Fish.  Is there a Blue Fish out there?"  And the child with the Blue Fish comes up and attaches it to the Squid.  Earlier we had tried having the kids walk across stage with their puppets in front of the Squid, but it was hard for them to figure out where to go.  Another time the kids stayed seated and held up their animals while the Squid came up to them.  That didn't work great either, since the kids usually forgot to hold up their animals and the rest of the audience couldn't see.  Then Brad had the idea of having the kids attach the sea creatures, and that did the trick.   Sometimes it just takes us a few tries before we get it right.  Soon the Squid has plenty of animals to prove how big he is:

Then he says something like:  "I'm even bigger than a Shark, although I'm glad I don't see any sharks around here.  They're smaller than me, but they're scary."  Terri, meanwhile, has a Shark puppet on her hand and we have a little hide-and-seek-followed-by-chase scene, which adds some action to the tale.

For the conclusion, the Squid brags one more time about being the biggest thing in the ocean...then the Whale appears.  We used the screen for the Whale, with the image moving slowly across the screen while the Squid retreats just in front of the jaws, then gets swallowed, as I move it out of sight behind a backdrop with the Squid.  So imagine the blue Squid in front of a screen, then the whale above slowly moving across the screen from right to left, towards the Squid, and as it reaches the edge of the screen, the Squid moves in front of the open mouth as if being swallowed.

Then the inside of the Whale's stomach appears on screen, and Squid comes out in front of the screen so it looks (kind of) like he's in the stomach, along with all of the other animals that are attached to him.  
He realizes where he is, admits that he's smaller than the Whale, and delivers the concluding line:  "I'm the biggest thing in this whale!"
The interaction between Squid and screen actually works very nicely, and the kids all seem to get the joke at the end, or at least as well as they do with the book....

Saturday, May 2, 2015

I Elephant, 1 Piggie, 2 Birds, 3 People

Book:  There Is a Bird on Your Head  by Mo Willems
Puppets:   Two Birds
Props:   Nest, Egg, Baby Birds (3), Elephant Hat (or similar), Piggie Hat (or similar)
Presenters:  3
Audience:   K-2, Preschool

It's been nine(!) months since I posted on this blog, but I haven't really quit.  The usual suspects are to blame:  procrastination,
laziness, and their various relatives, but I choose to put the blame on computer Scrabble, which, as it happens, I purchased for $2.99 just a week or two after my last blog entry, and I'm afraid that's too close to be mere coincidence.  It's not like I'm addicted, and really I can quit any time I want, it's just that I choose not to.  So for now my plan is to get back to blog entries with an unambitious (but attainable) two times a month, and as for Scrabble....well I don't think anyone needs to know how many Scrabble games I play in a month.  

I'll jump back into it with yet another Elephant & Piggie.  We did There Is a Bird on Your Head for a K-2 Book Adventure program on "Award Winners" (it won the 2008 Geisel Medal) and the repeated it for Family Storytime.  We acted it out with me as Gerald and Sheila as Piggie (as usual, but one of these days we're going to switch roles, challenging stereotypes of gender and height, just for fun) and Terri with the Bird puppets.  

 Sheila and I sat, while Terri moved the first Bird onto my head.  She didn't talk for the birds, but gave little chirping whistles that were just right.  As usual with a Mo Willems, we stuck to the word from the book very closely.  When Gerald first learns there's a bird on his head, I jump off the chair and run away, while Terri takes the first Bird behind our backdrop.  Then I return and she comes back with two birds.

Then there's a progression as the birds go to work, while Gerald gets increasingly worried about what's going on up there.  They bring out a Nest.  Then an Egg.  Then Chicks.  In the book it's three eggs, and although we do have three plastic eggs, its too hard for a puppeteer to manage them along with two birds and a nest.  So Terri showed one egg, and Sheila stood up, looked into the Nest, and counted three.  We do have three baby birds.  Actually they're three finger puppets connected to that nest (it's a Folkmanis nest that they don't make any more but you can find it on ebay and elsewhere).  So Terri kind of pulled them up so the audience could see them peeking out.

As with most Elephant and Piggie's, you have to take your time with the dialogue and don't really need to overdo it.  The characters and pace is so strong that the kids totally get what's going on and why it's funny.   Piggie finally suggests that Gerald simply ask the birds to leave, then Sheila exits.  The birds do leave, as Terri follows her behind the backdrop.

 That sets up the finale, where Gerald calls Piggie back to thank her for the suggestion, and she re-enters with both birds on her head.  The visual effect of her showing up with the birds works well, but Terri had the good idea to add one more line.  In the book, Piggie closes the book with "you are welcome," and her perturbed look tells readers all they need to know.  Sheila's perturbed look is equally effective, but she also says:  " there a bird on my head?" which circles back to the opening line and makes it clear that this is the end.  Okay, so we messed with Mo's words just a little bit, but the transition from page to act-out sometimes just needs a bit of that, even with a perfect book....

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Monkey with a Pen

Book:  Monkey Face  by Frank Asch  (aka Bread and Honey)
Puppets:  Monkey (with pen-holding ability) Owl, Alligator, Rabbit, Elephant, Lion, Giraffe, Another Bear (optional)

Props:   Whiteboard and pen  (or clipboard, paper, and pen)
Presenters:  One
Audience:  Family Storytime  (mostly 3-7)

I've fallen way behind on posts here.  One reason is that I'm doing fewer new stories lately.  It's great to create new stuff, but so much more efficient to retell things and just tweak a little bit, and the job requires extra efficiency lately.   I've also been busy preparing and teaching an online course on Storytelling with Puppets (Winter session starts January 5th; details are here).  So my new goal is a post every two weeks...

I've never really gotten into Draw and Tell stories, partly because the stories that go with them usually aren't very interesting to me.  And also because I don't draw very well.  But Frank Asch's Monkey Face is perfect, because the story is great and you're not supposed to draw well.

In the book, Monkey draws a simple picture of his mother.  As he walks home he meets different animals one after another.  Each animal gives him a suggestion to improve it, so Monkey takes out his pen and adds a bit.  That part about "he meets different animals one after another" almost always means:  Puppets!   The "taking out his pen" part is a bit harder, but my Monkey puppet has very workable hands, and after all, the pictures don't have to be that good.

I use a standing white board that I can get behind to do the drawings.  Sometimes I have an easel, other times (like in the photos below) I just hold it on my lap and lean it against me while I retrieve puppets.   I have Monkey draw the first picture with his pen, then stand back and look at it.
I don't want to move the drawing surface, so the "walking home" part happens from narration:  "Monkey walked home with his picture, and on the way he met......Owl!"  At this point I reach behind the whiteboard with my left hand and Owl pops out above the board.  Owl likes the picture, but makes a suggestion:  "You made the eyes too small."

So monkey gets his pen and enlarges the eyes.  Before he starts to draw, I make sure to have examine Owl's eyes for a moment, to clue the kids in on why he's going to draw these eyes so big:

Once he's done, Owl praises the new version ("Fine work!") and Monkey goes on.  With each new animal he meets, he "improves" the drawing, with the adjustment always matching a prominent feature of the animal:   Alligator = big sharp teeth; Rabbit = long ears;  Elephant = long nose;  Lion = mane;  Giraffe = long neck.  So the drawing gets sillier and sillier.  You could substitute puppets if needed, as long as the sub has a notable feature that can easily be added on to the drawing.  By the time he meets Giraffe, it looks pretty crazy.

Asch always has a nice way with language.  In this book each animal always thinks the picture is great ("I love it!").   And after Monkey shows them the new version they add more praise:  "Unforgettable!" "Much better!" and the like.  I don't always match the book exactly but do try to use interesting vocabulary for each animal.

When Monkey finally gets home he shows it to his Mother.  You could use another Monkey puppet for Mother, but I usually skip that and just speak as Mother.  When Monkey asks:  "Do you like it?"  Mother steps back, looks at it, and thinks for a minute.  I believe the kids are always thinking that she's going to say something disparaging or at least act surprised, but instead it's the perfect parent answer:   "I love it!"  "Just the way it is?" says Monkey.  "Just the way it is."  And she hangs it on the refrigerator.  (Which I can't do because the drawing is on a board, but everyone gets the idea).

There are many different ways to tell this one.  It works great without puppets, just using a pen and paper.  That's where I first learned it, from Bonnie Janssen of Alameda County Library.  I've also told it using the Monkey puppet, but with paper on a clipboard instead of a whiteboard.  This is kind of fun because you can draw without the kids seeing, then reveal the drawing all at once.  But also it's one more thing to handle.  Or, you can do it with the Monkey puppets, but without all of the other puppets.  The fun there is that kids sort of ponder along with you as they imaging that Owl or Elephant and anticipate what the picture will look like.

Monkey Face is an old (1977) out-of-print book; Asch actually retold it as Bread and Honey in 1981 and it looks that version is being reissued in March 2015!  B and H changes the monkey to a bear (I think it's the bear from Happy Birthday Moon) and adds a little more back-story to the beginning and end.  The original also uses more interesting vocabulary.  When Giraffe sees the now long-necked picture she says "Perfect" in B & H; in Monkey Face her line is:  "How elevating!"  (Which I enjoy, though the kids probably don't get).  So I still think the original is stronger for storytelling.  Plus none of my puppet Bears can hold a pen as well as my Monkey.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Funny Food + Scott Joplin

Book:  Food Play  by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers
Puppets:  none
Props:   Selected images from the books, scanned, printed, and laminated
Presenters:   one
Audience:   Toddler Time  (1's and 2's)

Saxton Freymann & Joost Elfers have done a bunch of books with photographs of fruits and vegetables put together to look like people, animals, and other stuff.  They're really amazingly creative and kids love to look at them.  We've used them more than once for our "Food in Fact and Fiction" K-2 Book Adventures program, putting scanned photos into a slide show that we ran with musical accompaniment.

Later, we used an adapted version of that in Family Storytime.  I decided to give it a try in Toddler Time, but there's just one thing:  we never, ever do anything in Toddler Time that puts the pages of a book on the screen.  Although I've really enjoyed our creative uses of the screen with stories for older kids, we're not going there with 1's and 2's.  Also, our Toddler Time crowd is small enough (20-25 kids, but they're little) to see pictures pretty well.

So my first thought was to play the music and use the book, just doing page turns.  That didn't work too well, though, because most of the pages have at least two separate images.  Which is great for a book, but in a group presentation you want to be able to focus on one photo at a time.  So I decided to enlarge and print out individual pictures, cropping where needed, and show one piece of funny food at a time.  For our earlier presentation, we selected images from a variety of books, but this time I stuck to just one book, Food Play, which actually consists of pictures from several of the other titles, kind of like a "Greatest Hits" collection.

In our slide show, we utilized three pieces of music, but for Toddlers I stuck with one:  Marvin Hamlisch's recording of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" (aka the Theme from The Sting).  It's an instrumental that has just the right bit of playfulness.  It also has a strong pattern, so you get very strong end-of-line cues on where to do your page turns.  Or in this case, page switches.  The music adds a lot to the experience, and I'm sure there are other tunes that would also work.   I actually did go to the trouble of "transcribing" the music, so I could organize the images neatly.  I don't know anything about music, so my transcription was just a line by line list of sounds, using a "d" for some reason:
    d d d D d D d D  /   d d D d d D d d D
It made sense to me anyway, and did help my planning some, so if anyone wants to try the story and would like the line by line, let me know and I can send it.  I'd also be glad to list the photos I used, but it's also fun to just pick out your favorites.

The song divides neatly into 6 sections, and I picked 4 illustrations for each section, grouping them into similar themes for each section:   Faces, Animals, People, Vehicles, More Animals, and Faces again to end.  With the slide show, we used more illustrations, switching them faster, because clicking for a new slide is seamless.  Also, the toddlers really need more time to absorb what they're seeing.  So doing 4 per section means that I held each one up for about 4 or 5 seconds.

I thought about putting the images on sticks to make them easier to handle, but just using two hands worked fine.  And even though "holding up a picture" sounds simple, Terri pointed out that there should be rhythm and sameness to the appearance of each picture.  So I picked up the picture from the stool on my right, slowly panned it from left to right, then slowly went back right to left, and picked up the next one.  That regularity meant the kids could focus on the images without having to work to track where the picture will be.

This is one where all the work is in the prep.  Choosing the illustrations, scanning, printing, and laminating, and practicing to the music.  You really want the transitions from one picture to the next to match the rhythm of the could work without that, but it's better with.  And then once it's time to tell it, you just put on the music and flip from one picture to the next.

The toddlers really enjoyed it, but I'm sure it was on a different level than the preschool or K-2 groups did.  The older kids see bananas that look like giraffes and are amazed at the cleverness;  toddlers just see giraffes that look kind of silly...and that's okay.  Identifying the fruits is more of a lap activity, and since so many of the Freymann/Jelffers books I had available checked out, I'm sure some of that happens later at home.

A couple weeks later I did this same version for a Family Storytime at the Hillsboro Library, where I'm a sub and do a Sunday Storytime a couple times per month.  We don't have the screen and projector set-up there, so using the pictures and my ipod worked just fine.  The things I was sure to do for Toddlers (fewer pictures, move them slowly and regularly) were equally useful for a mostly 4 and up group, so I really didn't need to change a thing for the older crowd.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tap the Magic Tree on the Screen

Book:  Tap the Magic Tree  by Christie Matheson
Puppets:   None
Props:   None
Technology:  Scanned Images and Projector
Presenters:   One or two
Audience:  Family Storytime  (mostly 3-7 year olds)

Making books interactive by directly involving readers in the action can be pretty cool:  There Are Cats in This Book and Press Here are two of the best examples from recent years.  Tap the Magic Tree takes that interactivity used so effectively in Press Here and fits it into a pleasing book about a year in the life of a tree.  For Family Storytime, we scanned the images, adjusted the placement of the words a bit, and used the PowerPoint click to work as a "page turn."

 The book opens with a bare-limbed tree.

 Readers are told to do different things (like "tap it once"), and when the page turns, we see the effect.  Since we don't want 80 kids rushing up and touching the projection screen, we ask them to tap in the air.  When they do, we click on the PowerPoint remote to bring up the next image, which shows that a green leaf has been added:

In putting the PowerPoint together, we scanned the images and lined them up so that the tree was placed in the same spot for each image.  That way, it would look like the same tree, just with the added item (like the leaf above).  For the first scan (above), we covered up the text.  Then another click makes the text appear:

In the book, the words are sometimes on a facing blank page, so we re-typed all of the words to make them appear alongside the image of the tree.  By doing the text as a second step, instead of simultaneous to the illustration, we could guide the audience's attention properly.  First they see the visual change on the screen.  Then the text appears with the instructions that will lead to the next change.

As the year progresses, the tree changes, and so do the things we ask the kids to do to make it change:

When the tree is full of autumn leaves (above), we all "blow!" and the leaves fall off as we click:

Then we get the whole audience clapping to bring....:

The only other adjustment we made from the book was to put a colored frame around each image.  Borderless works just fine in the book, but we needed frames to make the pictures distinct against our big white screen.  I thought it would be cool to match the color of the frames to a dominant color from the illustration on that page, but I think next time we'll use just one color for the frame so that the change in the illustrations is the only change the audience sees.

It's a nice simple book to scan and tell, but with a very effective impact.  Our scanned PowerPoint presentation is really not different at all from the way we would read it to a smaller group.  I used the book version with my Toddler Time group and it was equally effective, but the scanning allows us to share it with much larger groups.  

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Online Course on Storytelling with Puppets

If you're interested in learning more about the puppetry side of this blog, this fall I'm teaching an online course called "Storytelling with Puppets" through the ALSC Online Education Program.

Details about the course are here.

The four-week course starts on the week of September 8th, but you can register now.  You register by going to the ALA Online Course Registration Page.

It's a "Moodle" course which is run asychroniously, which means you don't have to login to class on certain dates and times, just go through the assignments and participate in forums when it works for you.

This is the first time I'm teaching the class, but I think it will be fun.  The three main elements will be watching videos of storytelling with puppets, trying out some stories on your own, and sharing what you think and learn online.  The "trying out some stories on your own" part is very flexible.  You do have to tell in front of an audience, but that audience can be a co-worker, spouse, your own kids....anyone as long as they can give you a bit of feedback.  I'm hoping it will be useful to beginners and people who have already spent way too many hours with puppets on their hands.

If you have any questions or want to know more about the course, contact me at or add a comment below.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Three Wishes Acted Out

Story:  The Three Wishes  by Margot Zemach (also other versions)
Puppets:  Wizard/Elf
Props:   Axe, Tree, Sausage
Presenters:   Two
Techonology:  Sound effects - music, magic, spring, burp (optional)
Audience:  Family Storytime (mostly ages 3-6)

I did The Three Wishes once as a puppet show long ago, when I was just starting.  As I remember, I had technical difficulties with the sausage-on-the-nose-of-puppet, so I never tried it again.  I think by now I could work out those problems, but for a recent Preschool Stories and Science session, we did it as a two-person Act Out, and that was much easier.  Sheila and Terri developed the story, but when Sheila missed a day unexpectedly, I got to step in.

Like many folktales, sticking to the bare bones of the story works best with a mostly-preschool audience...and the bare bones are the best parts anyway.  Sheila found a nice accordion music clip to use in the beginning.  It has a nice folktalish feel.  As the Woodcutter, I grabbed my ax and narrated myself into the woods to chop down a tree.   Terri was behind our big tree (which we use for so many stories....if you want to make one big cutout prop to help with a lot of different acted out stories, definitely consider a tree).  As the Elf, she spoke from behind the tree a couple times just as I was about to chop.  Then the puppet popped up and explained that if the Woodcutter spared his home, he would grant three wishes.  Sheila added a nice magical entrance sound effect  to play when the Elf entered and exited.

As I walked away from the tree and back home, Terri walked inconspicuously from behind the tree to behind the home, kind of pretending to be sneaking when it was obvious that everyone could see her.  When you don't have trap doors and underground passages (maybe next year's budget?) for seamless transitions, it's fun to let the audience in on it and have them laugh along with you.

Once home, the Woodcutter is hungry, so I wished for a sausage.  From behind the screen, Terri tossed the sausage over the top.  It's just a construction paper creation, attached to a fishing line so she could control the landing onto the table.  Sheila had added a spring-y sound effect for the sausage's appearance.   Then Terri came out as the Wife, and we went through the back and forth argument about wasted wishes.   When she wishes it was stuck to my nose, we click on the sound effect again and up comes the sausage.  To attach the sausage to my nose, I just held it there:  technical difficulties solved.  Our argument continues as the Wife tries to pull the sausage off of the Woodcutter's nose, with some funny tug-of-war/back-and-forth movements, then she picks up that ax and nearly chops it off.

In the end, of course, they use the third wish to remove the sausage, and at least have a nice meal to show for it all.  We pretend to eat the sausage, the accordion music comes back, and we finish with a final sound effect of a loud burp.  That one is optional, but it did get some laughs.