The Ultimate Fishy Story
Luann Adams masters the art of childrens storytelling.
By Christopher Ditto
March 26, 2002
Walking walruses, roaring sea lions, and squids-a-squeezing are just three of the sea life images that Luann Adams uses to captivate young children at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island. Three times a day, for the past four Sundays, Adams has used hand puppets, musical instruments, and her delightful theater-trained voice to spread the museum's message of conservation and respect for aquatic animals.
"I need actors for the next story," announced Adams to a room crowded with more than seventy-five parents and children. She added a smile as she scanned the crowd for volunteers.
"I'm a good actor," announced one hopeful little boy.
"I'm a great actor," said a little girl, yelling the word "great" while waving both hands above her head for attention.
Both children were picked to stand at the front of the room, helping to provide sound effects for the stories told to the capacity crowd.
Adams, to put it mildly, is catnip to young children. Throughout one of her half hour performances last Sunday, the thirty children in the room clapped, cheered, flapped their arms like birds and wiggled on the floor like slippery eels. One little boy, to the dismay of his mother, giggled uncontrollably, even during the rare moments of seriousness.
Her show includes more than a dozen animal hand puppets and she adds sound effects with gongs, a xylophone, and a bell. The stories always include a theme, such as bravery, peace or animal wisdom. Her March performances at the New York Aquarium focused on marine life, teaching children about animal behavior while conveying a message of conservation.
"This part of a stingray in made of cartilage," Adams explained to her audience. She pointed to the wings of a stingray hand puppet as she moved it back and forth slowly across her lap as if it were swimming. "Now feel your nose. It's made of cartilage too."
Just ten feet behind Adams, cod, skate, rainbow starfish and spiny orange sea stars could be seen in an aquarium display tank. A window on the other side of the room, normally showcasing the underwater section of the walrus tank, was covered over with paper.
"When the walruses are here," explained Adams after the show, "you could be stark naked and nobody would notice you." But despite aquatic distractions, like a tank full of powderpuff anemones and Jonah crabs, the audience was captivated by Adams's Sunday show. All of the children, most of who were wearing paper headbands adorned with fish cutouts supplied by aquarium volunteers, sat at the front and participated in the stories with hand gestures and by repeating phrases when asked. The parents, who sat on chairs behind the children, participated with smiles and laughter.
"I love performing at the aquarium," said Adams, "and Coney Island is such an eclectic place. I love being near the water"
Adams half hour story telling sessions at the aquarium usually consist of four stories that include creation myths and parables of native cultures from around the world. One story told last Sunday explained how a long time ago turtles changed from being very talkative to very quiet. Another story, which Adam's explained was from India, included a clever monkey who outsmarted a very hungry crocodile that wanted to eat him.
"The children love stories about crocodiles and sharks and whales and things like that," said Adams. She explained that it is important to be accurate because the children are often surprisingly knowledgeable about animals.
"Some of them even know the difference between an orca whale and a beluga whale," said Adams. "I'm often blown away by what they already know about the animals and how they can pronounce words."
Adams's next performances at the New York Aquarium will be on April 21st for Ocean Day when she will tell stories about "things that live in the sea." She is also scheduled to tell Russian sea stories during the Aquarium's Russian weekend on XXX, and "Tales of the Caribbean" sea stories in August.
Linda Corcoran, Assistant Director of Communications for the Wildlife Conservation Society, explained that the WCS is always delighted to sign Adams up to tell stories because she "always engages the groups, always." The WCS operates the New York Aquarium as well as the Bronx, Central Park, Queens and Prospect Park zoos.
"She inspires people to care about wildlife and wild places," said Corcoran, "She is a wonderful showman and gets our conservation message out to very young children."
Adams also performs throughout the East Coast and Midwest in schools, hospitals, theaters, museums, libraries, and zoos.
"The kids love her very much," said Burt Goldstein, education director of the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where Adams performs frequently. "She's like everyone's favorite aunt when she comes to visit." Goldstein helped Adams organize a recent school tour in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, which included performances at 10 schools in one week to approximately 2500 children.
"Not only is the quality of her storytelling first rate, she's funny," said Goldstein. "I think the kids respect her because she respects them. The better people in this end of the business now how to do that and Luann knows how to do that."
As the oldest of six children, Adams said that she first started storytelling as a way to control her siblings while babysitting. She remembers making her socks talk to her two sisters and three brothers during the long cold Minnesota winters.
But Adams began her professional career with adults in mind as an actor in regional theater. She also played small parts in the daytime television show "One Life to Live" before switching to storytelling fifteen years ago.
In addition to her live storytelling performances, Adams has recorded two story collections, which are available on CD and cassette from the Amazon.com Web site. "Brave Little Red & Other Tales," which won a Gold Award from the National Association of Parenting Publications in 1999, includes a rap rendition of "Little Red Riding Hood." "The Tricky Caterpillar & Other Tales" won the Parent's Choice Silver Award in 2001 and was described in the School Library Journal as "a perky treat." Adams expects her next collection of stories, "Jaws, Paws and Claws; Animal Wisdom Tales" to be available this fall.
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