Circus acrobats. Puppeteers. Storytellers.
These will be some of the entertainers on tap for this weekend’s Children’s Alley at the Miami Book Fair International.
“Imagine a giant block party outdoors celebrating literature and different art forms,” Miami Book Fair International project coordinator Melissa Messulam says.
The activities are designed for kids from toddler to the child within. Among the highlights:
• A local circus school for children, with most of the acrobatic, clowning, contortion and aerial acts performed by the children.
• Middle- and high-school students will crank up the music of their parents’ generation, performing in their own bands to the music of Guns ‘n Roses, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix.
• Authors and illustrators will share stories of Florida and puppeteers promoting environmental awareness.
• Tropical Gardens Elementary students will perform One for All & All for One, an all-inclusive performance that calls on the talents of children with physical disabilities, a new addition to the Fair this year.
These are some of the events Thursday through Sunday at Children’s Alley. The events will take place at the Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After stages and seven themed areas on the plaza at Miami Dade College near Building 1. The goal is to foster a love of books and reading, says Messulam, who is in her second year of programming the kids’ events.
“First and foremost, the aim of programming for children is to have fun, to come and be in a space with a lot of different activities to experience and to have a great time and learn something at the same time,” she said, using a healthy breakfast as a metaphor for how she chooses from more than 20 local and national individuals and organizations who each have 35 minutes to enchant easily distracted young audiences.
“Those cereals they give kids that are fun but have a nutritional value? That’s kind of the idea and how I choose the programming. Variety is very key, I think.”
Art. Science. Health. Theater.
“The relationship between theater and literature go hand-in-hand,” Messulam says of this year’s major productions, which will include several South Florida arts groups. “I always like to have a nice mix of local and national acts at Children’s Alley. It’s a platform to give a space to our local artists … to represent our culture and our flavor.”
For instance, there’s the Rainbow Circus, a North Miami Beach-based circus school for children. The troupe will bring to life L. Frank Baum’s story of The Wizard of Oz.
“We’re going old-school literary,” says Rainbow Circus director and “voracious reader” Laurie Allen. “What some people don’t understand is that Oz started as a book first before it became a movie. Writers are my heroes. They can just make my day with one turn of a phrase.”
Last year, Rainbow Circus interpreted The Hunger Games but some adults were unfamiliar with the popular young adult series. As for Oz, who hasn’t met the wizard before or wended their way along the yellow brick road?
“ Oz is instantly recognizable for young and old,” Allen says.
The production will make full use of costuming the colorful characters like Dorothy, the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion.
Elisa Silverstein, 13, an eighth-grader at Miami Country Day School near Miami Shores, will play Dorothy while rotating across the stage from inside a cyr wheel, a large, five-foot by five-foot metal hoop apparatus. There are few cyr wheel performers in South Florida and even fewer of them are young girls, Allen says.
“I honestly love performing to audiences of younger people because I feel they have a connection because I’m young too,” Elisa says. “I hope the audience has fun with it and gets a good experience and hope they will be inspired to see what other kids can do.”
Author Gerald Hausman and illustrator Ramon Shiloh ( The Otter, the Spotted Frog and the Great Flood: A Creek Indian Story, Wisdom Tales, $14) will share a tale of Florida’s Native Americans from their latest book. Hausman’s aim is to bring his young audience into the performance. He’s been reading at the Book Fair since 1995.
“It’s always fresh and kids will want to come up on stage and I invite them to do so and I get off the stage and mix with them,” he said from his home near Sanibel Island. “If I see a particular animated face I get down there and meet them and bring them into the story so that they are telling it and I am telling it at the same time.”
Hausman, 68, started telling stories while in high school in Berkely Heights, N.J. “I found out the big kids in the bus would not beat me up if I told them a story,” he remembers, with a chuckle. “It was called bully nullification. I did that in the back of the bus and I found out some of the bullies were really great storytellers so I incorporated them into it.”
The skill has followed the storyteller later, and his performances still carry a taste of improv.
“I grew up in an Italian neighborhood and I learned the hand motions and hand signals and different ways that you told your story, by cocking your head in a certain way or shrugging your shoulders. When I moved to New Mexico, where I met my wife, I had to unlearn some of that. I lived 20 years there and the people I was telling stories to were Native Americans and they do less dramatics.”
The Book Fair’s large audience, developed over the last 30 years, always poses a fresh challenge for the storytellers.
“You don’t know who is going to come into the tent so you have to be prepared for anything,” Hausman says. “I do stories for very little ones and I’ve done stories for pregnant moms and for babes in arms, in which case you do pantomime and sounds and tell your story that way. So we are ready for just about anything.”
So is Pablo Cano, 52, who runs Little Havana’s Red Velvet Theater. He will bring his production of Musical Marionettes to the Book Fair based on Poetry on Strings (Days and Nights Books; $15), a book he wrote with co-author David Plumb.
“I’ve always wanted to do a marionette production again and this is great as we’ll have a real theater to do it in, with access to lighting and special effects,” Cano says. “I hope that the Book Fair project will inspire children to create marionettes of their own and to see the possibilities in recycled materials that I work with.”
The question and answer periods often provide Cano with as much of an education as the one he imparts to his young audience.
“I learn more from them. It’s incredible what kids do and how they think and that’s what I’ve tried to project in my work — that innocence.”