Two Willamette Students Create Puppet Mania
Put together a classroom of squirmy second graders, colorfully illustrated books about their hometown and fuzzy hand puppets and what do you get? A lot of giggling - and a lot of learning.
That's what Allison Ervine and Caitlin Hansen, two Willamette University students, found recently when they brought their handmade puppets and their original children's books to eager students at Lamb Elementary School in Salem, Ore. Ervine, of Everett, Wash., is a senior majoring in English, and wrote the text for Sammy Moves to Salem and Pictures for Lammy. Hansen, of Shelton, Wash., is a senior majoring in art studio, and created the books' vibrant illustrations. Last year, the students won two prestigious Carson Undergraduate Research Grants, stipends that encourage original student work. The fruits of their labors are two new children's books, more than 60 handmade puppets and a group of young children who have a better appreciation for where they live.
The impetus for the books was Hammy, a wide-mouthed fuzzy puppet that Hansen made the previous year. "When Allison and I traveled in Europe, we took pictures of the puppet in front of all these famous cathedrals and monuments," Hansen recalled. "It was fun and became our tradition."
Ervine suggested that the puppet would make a great children's book character and their collaboration was born. Ervine would write the stories and Hansen, who has been illustrating her own children's books since grade school, would provide the illustrations. They decided to produce two books: one about Salem and one about famous places around the world.
"Educational research says that children are more excited about their hometown when they can read about it," explained Ervine.
"We wanted them to see what's good about where they live," said Hansen.
The main character of the Salem book, a puppet renamed Sammy, is an alien whose parents come to earth in search of a nice place to live. Sammy discovers and explores familiar area landmarks like the Capitol, the A.C. Gilbert Children's Museum and Salem's Riverfront Carousel.
The second book involves a puppet named Lammy who is on a world-tour, but has forgotten his camera. His friend, Sammy, tries desperately to catch up with the globe-trotting puppet, all the while shooting pictures for Lammy of famous sites like the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids of Mexico.
"Allison and I wanted to share the world with kids," said Hansen. "We wanted to open their eyes to places they might not have seen before."
Both books feature Hansen's colorful, labor-intensive illustrations, which are made from pieces of construction paper cut out and layered to form pictures. "I make a drawing onsite or from a photograph and trace the drawing onto construction paper," explained Hansen. "I start with the background and basic shapes and cut out the pieces and cement them into place as I go. Then I cut out the smaller items and place them."
The illustrative process, which is so intensive that Hansen has to use tweezers on smaller pieces, can take as long as 15 hours per illustration. "I started dreaming in construction paper," said Hansen, laughing at the memory. "I'd wake up thinking about the next illustration." The result was worth it - 52 bold, clean images that seem to jump off the books' pages.
One of the challenges for the writer was getting the text to a readability level appropriate for second graders. "The writing process was so much harder than I imagined," said Ervine. "The first draft of my story was at an 8.6 grade reading level. I had to knock that down by shortening sentences and keeping the words short."
Once the illustrations were completed and the text refined, the women researched printing options. They wanted to print 140 books, so that each child in the classroom could have his or her own copy. Their least expensive option was color copying. The result was surprisingly good. "I worried that the printing and binding wouldn't look professional," admited Hansen. "But I was pleasantly surprised by the final product. People have been really enthusiastic about the books."
Some of their most ardent fans have been the children. During their first foray at the elementary school, Ervine read Sammy Moves to Salem. The familiar places in the book generated a lot of enthusiasm in the children. "Their reactions were great," said Ervine. "They all wanted to talk at once. One child would say, 'I've been to A.C. Gilbert' and another would shout, 'Me too.' They were really fun."
After listening to the story, each child wrote and illustrated a page about where they would send Sammy around the area. Sabrina Cline, who drew a picture of Sammy on a swing set, wrote, "I would take Sammy to the park because he is from another galaxy." Ismael Vianueva drew himself and Sammy enjoying Chuckie Cheese. Nicholas Arvalo, wrote, "I would take Sammy to Hollywood Video because you can play video games." The class is planning to put the pages together to create their own Sammy book.
To make the books really come alive, Hansen made more than 60 Sammy-type puppets for the children. Each puppet features brightly-colored fake fur, a wide, happy mouth, a red nose and big felt eyes. When they returned to Lamb School with the puppets and the second book, Ervine said with a grin, "It was chaos."
Now that the project is done, both students said they've learned a great deal about producing and publishing books. They're currently investigating book publishers and other options to get more of the books printed and distributed.
Perhaps most importantly, the women have learned about themselves. Hansen, who's planning to teach Japanese and possibly art in the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) program next year in Japan, said the experience has taught her how to self-motivate. "As an art major, self-motivation is what you have to have," she said. "You must think of your own project, keep your own schedule and carry it to completion. These books have given me more self-confidence as an artist and have showed me what I'm capable of. Now I know I can do something that's self-driven."
For author Ervine, who is planning to teach elementary school, it's revealed a creative aspect of herself that she never expected. "I didn't think I was a creative person, but I was able to be creative with the stories," she said. "I also learned that I absolutely love being in the classroom. Now that's really fun."