Flora and Ulysses Through the Eyes of a 5th Grader

Last Saturday, our family attended the Childsplay Theatre 2018 production of Flora and Ulysses. The acting was superb and the story line followed the Kate DiCamillo book which our family recently read.  The story is about Flora Buckman, a ten year old girl who loves comic books and has a pretty typical life with the exception that supernatural activities are happening all around her – thanks to her new found friend- Ulysses a superhero squirrel. As a mother of two middle school boys (11 years old), this play was sure to captivate and hold their attention.

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Our family has attended several of the Childsplay Theatre Storybook Season presentations. It’s awesome for the kids to make the connection from the book to the stage. My youngest son had just finished a book report on Flora and Ulysses for his local elementary school. His eyes were bright and full of joy, as he saw the story, previously just in his imagination, come to life on stage. He kept looking at me and whispering what was going to unfold next- as if he was the only one in the room who knew the story.

The audience was highly engaged, laughing at all the silly antics of Ulysses the squirrel played by Tommy Strawser. Tom did a fabulous job with the multiple squirrel puppet transitions. We learned that he had four different squirrels in use during the production.

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The audience, especially the adults got misty eyed at the honesty and vulnerability of the parent/child relationships of the two child characters. Flora Belle Buckman and William Spiver both highlighted the power of our words. As parents, we are reminded that our words can hurt those we love most- our kids, especially when we say things when we’re upset. There’s always time to say you’re sorry and that parents make mistakes too.

When the play was over, the actors thoughtfully answered audience questions and engaged in dialogue about our own real life superpowers and how to use them for good in the world. When we were leaving, the staff passed out conversation questions for the drive home.  Our ride to dinner was filled with discussion about each of the characters and our favorite scenes in the play.

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When I asked my 5th grade son for a recommendation he declared, “You’ll enjoy this play because Ulysses is not your typical squirrel. He is a superhero who can fly and loves to write poetry. He does silly things that humans would do like staying up all night working on a poem and eating a bag full of cheese puffs. Yeah, that’s what a 5th grader would do.”

We really enjoyed the Childsplay Theatre’s production of Flora and Ulysses and we hope you will too.

-Lisa Sandoval- Mommy Blogger and Mother of Two.

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“Maddi’s Fridge” coupled with “Walk in My Shoes” yields unique perspective

Since our friends and acquaintances come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, we opted to see Childsplay’s original production of Lois Brandt’s 32-page story “Maddi’s Fridge.” Besides giving us a special outing to the theater, we thought it would also give us a different perspective than the one our two sets of eyes see every day.

Our gamble to the theater did not disappoint and neither will yours.

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The three young actors impressed us with their talent beyond line memorization and character portrayal. There was Shannon Phelps’ ability to expertly scale a rock climbing wall, Edward Alvarado’s and Osiris Cuen’s mastery of puppetry to animate their characters’ “Pepito” puppy, plus Alvarado’s joyful approach to doubling as a techie when he changed set design and props between scenes. My fifth-grader also applauded Holly Windingstand’s overall set design that allowed the audience a peek into the home of two families at once instead of awaiting scene changes.

Families of all sizes might also appreciate the total kid’s perspective in the play. Each kid’s mom is mentioned within the script, but never brought to life empowering the kids to be the agents of change.

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We each found something in our own lives we could relate the story to as well:

  • “Maddi’s Fridge” brought me back to reality. Shortly into the story about two young school friends and the discovery that one goes home to an empty fridge, I said to myself, “Clearly this book wasn’t set in the Valley of the Sun or she would know about organizations like St. Vincent de Paul or any of the other area food banks or community dining rooms.” Shortly thereafter I came to my senses and realized that, even if Maddi and her mom knew of such resources, humbling themselves enough to take advantage of them would have been a huge hurdle. Then came a key line from Sofia, Maddi’s faithful friend: Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re not strong. That became a central message the actors sent home with families during a brief discussion at the end of the play.
  • For my fifth-grader, she realized that the film “An American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong” offers a light comparison to “Maddi’s Fridge.” Part of the film deals with Chrissa and how she looks beyond a classmate’s temporary “homeless” status by befriending her anyway. My daughter and I have done the same thing over and over again the last several years with people we encounter at a nearby family homeless shelter.

We happened to bump into an acquaintance on the way out of the theater. It just so happened he was at work earlier that day and still sporting his black “Feed. Clothe. House. Heal” T-Shirt that St. Vincent de Paul is becoming known for. Turns out he attended the production on a whim because he was once a “Childsplay” actor himself and knew the cast of “Maddi’s Fridge.” He entered the theater not knowing the plot, but exited saying, “We deal with Maddi’s every day” at St. Vincent de Paul.

He is right. People throughout the community work daily to help end hunger, but only if they know of the need. Audiences can help by bringing a canned good or nonperishable with them to the theater. The food will support the Tempe Community Action Agency’s food relief efforts.

Childsplay is great at sharing “Questions for the Ride Home” and other related educational resources related to their productions, but I wanted to add a couple of more:

  • “Walk in My Shoes” exhibit at The Gallery at TCA — The title alone made this impromptu visit to the gallery after “Maddi’s Fridge” the perfect companion trip. It’s a mix of photos, words (with free giveaways and a hands-on activity) and artifacts to encourage each member of the family to consider what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, even if just for a moment. Don’t forget to skim through the free “educator workbook to help you engage yourself and your child(ren).
  • “In Plain Sight” photo exhibit and related article — It ran last summer in the St. Louis area. What caught my attention was the teacher who noticed a student from his own school featured in one of the photos taken by people who were homeless. The teenager, coincidentally named “Mattie,” was eating Spaghettio’s in a hotel room where she lived.
  • “Maddi’s Fridge” (the book) is part of a “Cultivating Compassion” book list about financial hardship hitting close to home. AMightyGirl.com put out the list last fall. Check out the 19 other titles on it.

    I think “Still a Family” will be next on my reading list. It’s about how a family is forced to split up because they apparently don’t live near one of the 200-plus Family Promise affiliates nationwide. They take in the entire family — pets included. Understandably, many shelter systems separate men and women, which in this book, keeps the dad a little bit away, but the parents still find a way to be a family.

Maddi’s Fridge Left Us Full of Compassion and Taught us New Lessons

It is often difficult to navigate social issues with a children’s platform – Maddi’s Fridge takes a prevalent problem in our society and manages to include humor and friendship to soften the subject and bring a smile to the audience’s faces.

I took my 10-year-old daughter to this play, and admittingly we had not read the story and did not know the message. I was pleasantly surprised by the thought provoking conversation that this performance sparked on our car ride home, and felt my daughter was the perfect age for this story.

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Maddi and Sofia are best friends. Every night after school, each go home to a parentless environment due to work hours. Maddi is an only child and is responsible for chores and homework on her own, while Sofia has her younger brother Luis and dog Pepito to attend to. The split set in the theater allows viewers to see how the evening unfolds for each of the characters in order to express the mindset of a family who lives with less and a family who lives more comfortably. Maddi has bread and milk to eat, as her mother is awaiting payment from work which has not come yet, while Sofia provides her brother with nutritious, balanced meals that her mother has pre-prepared for them.  She often deals with issues that many children take for granted, like her brother wasting food, being a picky eater and begging for special treats like cheesy pizza bombs.

After realizing that Maddi has no food to eat, Sofia tries to be a good friend by stealing food from her own home to help Maddi out, and more importantly, by keeping her food situation a secret, per Maddi’s request. This builds to a dramatic conclusion which ends in Maddi reaching out to a trusted adult to help.

The question to children in the audience is simple – when is it ok to tell a secret? If someone is in danger? If it’s an emergency? If you are worried about a friend and ill equipped to help on your own?

A heavy subject – yes, but a crucial one for our kids. Maddi and Sofia learn about strength – sometimes, you are stronger to admit you need help then trying to deal with a situation on your own. Friendship means guiding each other and not always keeping a secret.

My daughter left this play wanting to donate food to a local shelter and we discussed how we might help heed warning signs if someone we care about seems to be in trouble.  I think most parents would agree, that makes Maddi’s Fridge a huge success.

Family Blogger Jen says “The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats is a delight.”

In mathematics, it is said that triangles are the strongest shape. And A Snowy Day is teeming with strong triangles. There are three outstanding cast members (and only three), three main sections to the stage featuring three large projection screens and the main character’s costume changes three times as the main character’s royal blue pants creep down to show his advancing age.

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The Snowy Day and Other Stories by Ezra Jack Keats is a delight. It weaves four of Keats’ books (Whistle for Willie, Goggles!, A Letter to Amy, and The Snowy Day) into one imaginative journey using song and shadow puppets as the thread that binds it together.


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My family sat down to discuss the play at dinner that evening, and the first thing the kids noted was that the actors looked like they were having an especially good time making the play that much more enjoyable for them to watch. Being the critical thinkers that they are at ages 7 and 10, they also mentioned that they never noticed a shift between the live action and the shadow puppetry even though it transitioned several times throughout the hour-long play. They were happily along for the ride.

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While there were only three humans on stage (save for the shadow puppeteers behind the screens), the props became a shining part of the play. There was a whole scene with moody lights and choreographed moves to make the goggles part of different imaginary scenes like in an airplane, outer space, and underwater. I enjoyed the pillow snow blob that fell on Peter’s head during a snow fight.

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It really is a joy to experience the simple art of play. If you aren’t as dazzled as we were, it is certain to inspire you and the little ones in your life to bring more imagination into your playtime.

 

 

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