Dakota Daley (left) and Rheanna Atendido (right) from Northwest Bookshelf become Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt to bring the adventures of the Ben Clanton book to life

Northwest Bookshelf Brings the Magic of Musical Theater to the Classroom

by Victor Simoes

In February, The 5th Avenue Theatre will tour local schools with its educational show, the Northwest Bookshelf series. This series started in 1994, under the name Adventure Musical Theatre, as a way to bring the magic of musical theater out of a traditional theater environment and into the classroom. 

This year’s program, intentionally driven to support kindergarten through 5th grade audiences, is based on five different stories by Pacific Northwest authors: Alaska’s Three Pigs by Arlene Laverde, A Normal Turtle by Doug Reynolds, and Sonya’s Chicken by Phoebe Wahl, as well as two books that are part of the Narwhal and Jelly series by Ben Clanton: Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea! and Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt

In the show’s premise, four characters are students, and they need to write a book report. While in the library looking for engaging books to complete their assignment, they pull up the books and open them, and the story comes to life when suddenly they become the characters of these stories. 

Northwest Bookshelf discusses love and loss in the musical theater adaptation of “Sonya’s Chickens” by Phoebe Wahl. Pictured: Maddi Chancey. (Photo: Andrew Garrett)

In Sonya’s Chicken, for example, actors become Sonya. Approaching themes of affection, care, and loss, the story recounts how Sonya raises her three chickens, caring, nurturing, and loving them from when they were little. One night, one of these chickens disappears, and the journey to find her beloved chicken begins. The answers on the whereabouts of the missing chicken come with lessons about the cycles of nature and life, love and loss.

The 2023 edition of the show is unique because it is the first edition since the COVID-19 pandemic started; the last time Northwest Bookshelf toured was in 2019. Amberlee Joers, associate director of education with The 5th Avenue Theatre, explained that organizers carefully chose the adapted books because they contain themes of social and emotional learning as well as links with arts integration and science. 

Ariel Bradler, director of education and engagement with The 5th Avenue Theatre, told the Emerald, “One really cool thing is [that] one of the more rural schools we’re going out to, they’re going to bring their entire school, from like [kindergarten] through 12th. And the show was geared towards [kindergarten through 5th grade]. And they understand that, but they want to bring older students to it to experience the career side of things to see that there are careers in the arts that you can do; here’s an example of it.”

Actors will also offer workshops to the elementary students and a talkback with middle school to high school students. During the talkbacks, actors will talk about their lives as professional artists and how their careers developed, and will give guidance to students who wish to pursue a career in the arts. 

“We’re also going to be training all of the actors and folks that are going to be touring on it on how to do these workshops and utilize the school curriculum,” said Bradler. “This way, they’ll have a choice of if they want to be super involved in that or not at all. But at minimum, they will all have an awareness of what the tie-in and connections are to the educational learning components of the show.” 

The series is kicking off at Woodland Park Zoo on Feb. 24 and 25. The zoo is preparing to receive the theater company with a walk-around exhibit inspired by the stories. The organization will take one of the books, Sonya’s Chickens, and create a display so families can walk through the exhibit and experience the entire story. The show will offer accessibility features, with a book version in Braille and an audio recording of the story. 

South End schools included in the program tour are Kimball Elementary, Graham Hill Elementary, Lowell Elementary, Thurgood Marshall Elementary, Dearborn Park International Elementary, and South Shore PK-8. 

Tour dates are still open, and interested schools can still book Northwest Bookshelf performances. For more information on the tour’s content, access The 5th Avenue Theatre’s webpage, and fill out its interest form for further details on how to book a performance.

Victor Simoes is an international student at the University of Washington pursuing a double degree in journalism and photo/media. Originally from Florianópolis, Brazil, they enjoy radical organizing, hyper pop, and their beloved cats. Their writing focuses on community, arts, and culture. You can find them on Instagram or Twitter at @victorhaysser.

📸 Featured Image: Dakota Daley (left) and Rheanna Atendido (right) from Northwest Bookshelf become Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt to bring the adventures of the Ben Clanton book to life. (Photo: Andrew Garrett)

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