Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Afternoon in Williamsburg: "The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza)" at the Leonard Library

On Mondays, between our early morning composition class at the fantastic Fordham University and our late afternoon Cold War literature class at the wonderful City College of New York, we get to come home for a few hours of lunch and work and, if we're lucky, a short nap and enough time to go to one of our favorite neighborhood places.

This afternoon we walked across Metropolitan Avenue to the Leonard branch library to return a copy of Invisible Man and pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot, which we'll be teaching later this week at the fabulous School of Visual Arts (yes, part-time college teachers sometimes borrow the much-read books on their syllabi).

We had the great fortune to be in the library just as a story time reading for young kids commenced. It started while we were in the middle of checkout and looked like a school class. When we realized the book the librarian was reading was Philomen Sturges' delightful retelling, The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza), we happily joined the audience.

The librarian read with great expression and showed the witty collage illustrations by Amy Walrod to the kids. Even better, one sitting "onstage" to her right held a big stuffed hen (actually, it might have been a rooster), and to her left sat two girls and boy with stuffed animals representing the Little Red Hen's friends who can't be bothered to help her make the pizza: the duck, the cat, and the dog.

There was a (low to the ground) table with three adults nearby, and we supposed they were teachers or parents, and another man with the class was also present.

We liked the audience participation part and the kids onstage playing their parts, saying "Not I," "Not I," "Not I" to the queries about helping to shop for mozzarella and pepperoni (this green-thumbed red hen grows her own basil in a pot on her apartment balcony) and helping to do the baking, etc.

As The New York Times Book Review noted:
Sturges likes to play with recurring jokes, so whenever the Red Hen realizes she is missing an ingredient, she cries out ''Cluck!'' There's also a running gag about pickled eggplant. As with Bugs Bunny and the Simpsons, this story is at work on more than one level: a grown-up will have just as much fun reading this book to a child as a child will have being read to. In the original, each time the Little Red Hen asked who would help, the animals replied, in turn, ''Not I.'' But this time, when the pizza was finally done, ''it was lovely, but it was not little.'' So the Little Red Hen calls out the window to see if anyone wants some.

Instantly, the story of the Little Red Hen has been transformed from a story about holding a grudge to a story about sharing, even if the cat does scrape most of the toppings off his piece. And here's the kicker: when the Little Red Hen asks, ''Who will help me do the dishes?'' Sturges writes: ''Now can you guess what the duck, the dog and the cat each said? They each said, 'I will.' 'I will.' 'I will.' ''And they do.

It's a great kid's book and it was a great reading. The kids who performed as the hen, duck, cat and dog took bows, and everyone applauded the reading and appreciated the use of extra virgin olive oil in the story.

On our way out, we caught an exhibit on the Leonard branch as the library that inspired young Betty Smith to be a writer back in the day when she was a little girl like these kids, living nearby.

There's that wonderful scene in the film version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when Peggy Ann Garner as Francie goes into the library and the librarian (Lillian Bronson), despite a stern demeanor, is helpful in suggesting books to the kind of girl systematically working her way through authors from A to Z. (It's very different in the novel, where the branch librarian is a monster who detests children.)

The Brooklyn Public Library was a really special place in our childhood, too. Our story, "Branch Libraries of Southeastern Brooklyn," was one of ten finalists for the 2005 Million Writers Award for best online fiction; one critic called it "a boy's love letter to the library." Like Betty Smith and us and the kids listening to the (updated) story of the Little Red Hen today, every child in the borough lives within half a mile of a neighborhood branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, something for which we're really, really grateful.

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