Sunday, February 5, 2012

Book Review: A Puppet Corner in Every Library by Nancy Renfro

My last blog post has gotten me waxing rather nostalgic, so I thought I'd take another trip down memory lane, this time under the pretense of a book review (which may or may not make more sense as we go further along).

Yesterday Ez and I went to see the animals being fed at the Springbrook Nature Center here in Friendly Fridley.  They were feeding the snakes and turtles -- the snakes get live mice, ranging from newborn mice to full-size white mice, depending on the size of the snake I guess, so there was a lot of kid- and mom-shrieking going on whenever one of the mice would meet its timely-enough doom.  The Nature Center staff put a bunch of minnows in the snapping turtle's aquarium.  I saw the turtle lunge and snap at one of them: "Oh, he didn't get it!" I said, as I saw the minnow flip, slap its tail and dart away.  But then the minnow fell apart, into two neat halves, right in mid-swim.  He was like a guy in a ninja movie who thinks the ninja's sword missed him somehow, and then two seconds later the top half of his head slides off or something.

Anyway, that leads me to one of my earliest memories of puppet enthusiasm, which was going to field trips and birthday parties at the Westwood Nature Center in Saint Louis Park -- according to the Internets, it's now the Westwood Hills Nature Center.  Maybe it always was, but I don't remember the "Hills" part being in there before.  I remember thinking, as a kid, that the Westwood Nature Center might have some vague connection to the city of Westwood, the rarely (if ever?) seen home of Mayor Maggie and Chuck Aber in the Make-Believe portions of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.  There were certainly puppets in both.  I'm almost positive that every event I attended at the Nature Center featured a puppet show of some kind.  I remember that the scenery curtain behind the puppets had cut-out felt designs of trees and stuff, with little holes out of which smaller puppets could pop.  Was it always the same Nature Center staffer that did these puppet plays -- some 80's dude that was really into nature AND puppet theater?  I was at the Nature Center so often that I remember knowing the staff by name; but now, when I try to think of any of them, all I can picture is Neighbor Aber.

Chuck Aber: he and Mayor Maggie were more than just "neighbors," right??

Later on -- fifth or sixth grade? -- a bunch of us guys went to an overnight at the Nature Center.  One of the raddest activities (besides decorating our t-shirts with animal paw-print stamps and screenprinting ink) was that we could go behind the puppet booth and play with the puppets.  I don't think we were EVER allowed to do that on any other field trip or event.  Looking at current photos of the Nature Center online, I see that the puppet theater (or a new one, at least) is still there.

But even earlier than all that was a distinct memory that took place at the good ol' Saint Louis Park library.  There was (still is?) a multipurpose room, just to the left as you walked in the main entrance, where they'd have kids' programs, stories, movies, whatever -- I remember watching a lot of stop-action Paddington Bear films, in which the British accents were so thick that I had no idea what was going on.  One time there was a puppet show; a real "professional" one -- I don't think it was just one of the librarians or anything.  At the end of the show, the big deal was that you could go up and "look with your eyes and your hands" at the puppets.  I must have been pretty darn young when this happened, because my proprietary sense wasn't very developed: I had some vague hope that they meant that we could have one of the puppets.  Of course I was wrong.  (Does the empty hole left by this childhood disappointment have something to do with my current making and amassing of puppets?  The world may never know.)

What was neat at the library though -- and, after having talked about it with Amy before, this was at her library growing up too -- was that you could check out puppets, just like you could a book.  They were in hanging, transparent plastic bags; they hung by a white plastic hook at the top, and the hook could snap open or closed, to either open or close the bag.  They had the same set-up for checking out cassette tapes and things like that.  When I reserve CDs through MNLink, they sometimes arrive at my library in the same kind of bags, only smaller.

Ah, to be a child in the 80's (or at least, not now, when they don't have things like puppet-lending any more)!  When the library was as magical as a butterfly in the sky, as charming as LeVar Burton's smile!  When I started making puppets last year, and began thinking about selling them, I considered getting those same kind of bags to package each puppet.  (They're actually kind of expensive, unless you're buying them by the thousands, and I'm not sure that each of my customers would get the same nostalgia-buzz to warrant the added cost.)

So all this finally leads me to the book that I'm ostensibly reviewing: A Puppet Corner in Every Library by Nancy Renfro.
The cover of my copy (ex-library, natch)

While this book has all the usual puppet book yada-yada -- hand-drawn puppet patterns, script ideas, how to build a theater, etc. -- what sets it apart is that it's written to persuade librarians to adopt something of a "puppet philosophy" to connect with their youngest patrons.  The copyright is 1978, which means it could be the basis (or at least a link in the chain) of the puppet-lending system that I remember.  Included in the illustrations are ideas for doing just that:

Circulation card, and card pocket "attached to Monaco Hang Up bags with fiber tape"!

Suggested information to attach to puppets' bags

This whole book has a certain quality that I love about nonfiction kids' books from that era, especially the art project / "rainy day" kind of genre.  There's this fast-fading, graying-hippie bulwark quality, being set up against impending yuppie cynicism.  It makes you feel that it's perfectly reasonable to loan kids puppets for a week and expect to see them again; that you're strengthening the community by putting on puppet shows in the library's puppet corner.
I'm pretty sure my mom wore dresses just like this, and I'm very sure they were homemade.

There's a series of photos featuring librarian Marie Wilson, showing you how much energy and emotion you (as the storyteller) should put into your interactions with your puppet co-host.
I've got a great caption for this one, but I'm going to keep it to myself.

I'm not sure what to make of this guy, identified as librarian Thomas Hudson.  Now personally, I'm a puppet maker, not a puppeteer -- my "theater person" quotient is statistically near zero -- but I can even imagine myself as being far more likely a person to put on a puppet show than this guy.  "Hey, the board approved this puppet corner stuff, so I'm darn well putting on my disco shirt and jangling my janitor keys and putting on this puppet show!"
But what do I know?  His puppet plays were probably as awesome and influential as the Velvets in the Factory days.

The text describes one particular library with a puppet corner, for which one of the patrons, Irene Heiland, sewed fifty (!) puppets; her husband Bob Heiland built a portable puppet stage; and "our local vo-tech students" designed a "colorful puppet tree."  This photo is handmade puppet nirvana.  It's hard to identify all the puppets in the small black-and-white photo, but I'll try:
left side, top to bottom: eagle?, witch?, Raggedy Ann, some sort of Sinterklaas or elf, dolphin; right side, top to bottom: a very X-ish owl, clown, no idea, another X-ish owl, generic girl with hat?, cat or jack-o-lantern?, baker or generic lady with hat.

But the price of admission on this book is worth it on this picture alone.  My man is double-fistin' it puppet-style, and he's totes losin' it.  Slow down buddy, you're just at the library!  "Yeah, I'm at a library -- with a PUPPET CORNER!"

Inside back cover of my copy -- I'm not sure which of the contributors this person is, or if it's any of them, or what's going on at all.  The date stamp on the card pocket reads April 18, 1983.

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