Julianne Moore is a wildly successful actress, well known and well respected - she won an Academy Award! - for tackling the complicated inner lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in a way that allows audiences to understand and empathize with them.
She also writes children's books.
Her work as an author for the elementary school set is distinguished by the same standard of quality she brings to performing. The Freckleface Strawberry book series showcases her uncanny knack for capturing the everyday experiences and exuberant drama inherent in the life of a seven-year-old. So, it was an incredible honor to welcome her into my first grade classroom to read those stories and discuss the writing process with my fledgling authors. Julianne joyfully interacted with the children in American Sign Language (ASL) - yes, she signs! - and happily encouraged their participation throughout the visit.
Freckleface Strawberry is a "story about a little girl who is different...just like everybody else".
It was inspired by Julianne's childhood experiences when her red hair and freckles caused some angst and earned her the nickname Freckleface Strawberry. However, as adults, we realize that our troublesome childhood problems don't seem to bother us so much anymore. The eponymous picture book is a story of coming to accept - and eventually celebrate - the things about ourselves that are unique.
Freckleface Strawberry sends the message that rather than losing sleep worrying about conforming or fitting in or wanting desperately to adhere to the perception of "normal" that children instead embrace you-ness. Of course, that is easier said than done and that's why it is up to those of us who know better to provide example upon example of the tenets of acceptance, love, tolerance and forgiveness of others...and ourselves. That message made me wonder about how it plays out in the everyday lives of my students. As Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs) how do they feel about having deaf parents in a hearing-centric society? Do they see the benefits of being bilingual? Is any of this even an issue?
To understand my current students better I enlisted the help of three former kindergarten/first grade students; Kinda, Michael and Lana. My little babies - I taught Michael for four years beginning when he was just 3-years-old in preschool - are now all grown up and attending college. I wrote each of them asking how they felt growing up as a CODA. Their responses were insightful and they all reflected that their reactions were situational (i.e., based on the community around them).
Being a CODA as a child, created very different perspectives for me at the time. When it was school related, I was always embracing the fact that my classmates and I knew American Sign Language because we were able to make the silliest jokes from across the room if we weren't able to speak at the time. However outside of school, I mostly had the attitude every kid had whenever parents wanted us to do something for them. In my case - and as well as other CODAs I'm sure - whenever my parents needed an interpreter, I was always the one to do it. It was always "Ugh why? I don't want to do it" or "Can't you postpone it?" At the time these appointments they needed me to help translate seemed so long and tiring. I nearly always complained. My feelings being a child of a deaf adult(s) really depended on the situation.
When I was younger, I never wished my parents weren't deaf, I was amongst other CODAs and so I didn't feel different, we all have had the same experiences with our parents. As I was transitioning from middle school to high school and I was in a whole new different environment and they would have parent teacher conferences or anything that involved the parents I was shy and always excluded my mother...sometimes teachers would ask, how come your parent doesn't come to your (dance) performances?
And like Freckleface Strawberry there is a "happily ever after" when our differences are woven into the fabric of who we are and the person we become...
Growing up, I learnt that being a CODA is something I'd never change. Having deaf parents has been a learning experience. It gave me a sense of identity in this world. I love the community I am a part of and I love what the culture has brought into my life.
I love being a CODA and I'm so grateful to be blessed with deaf parents.
So we teach. We teach in the classroom. We teach by example in our daily lives. We teach through writing. We teach by being role models. And we teach by sharing our own experiences with a willingness to be vulnerable, honest and open. The Freckleface Strawberry books as crafted by Julianne Moore are chock full of those moments wherein potential roadblocks for children coping with being "different" are met head on. For example, in Backpacks! the character Windy Pants Patrick is seen eating breakfast with his two moms in direct juxtaposition with Freckleface Strawberry and her (more traditional) family. On the next page the children set off to school with a big kiss from their respective parents. The focus is, rightly, on family and love and for many children with two moms or two dads it allows them to see themselves in the pages of the books they read. The effects of that are immeasurable. Brava Julianne!
Each child is different...just like everybody else.
In our first grade literacy curriculum we spend time immersed in series books. We study and write books with the same characters (e.g. Curious George) who engage in different adventures across several titles. The Freckleface Strawberry books, with their relatable characters and storylines, are a perfect fit and every first grade teacher should have them in his or her arsenal of high-quality children's books to pull out again and again, year after year to help meet the objectives surrounding the teaching and learning of series books.
It also helps when you have a guest author like Julianne Moore answering questions about the writing process. The children asked, "Do you like your books and do you ever make mistakes?" She explained that she likes stories about real people and that inclination has influenced both her choice of roles and her writing. And yes, she told them, "I make a lot of mistakes. Oh, yes! Especially when I am first writing...I read it and think, 'That's bad. I don't like it. I need to do it again.' And so I write it again and again and again until I am happy with it. You have to practice."
In an instant the faces of the little ones showed amazement and relief. It's difficult sometimes for first graders to untangle the mess that is the creative process involved with writing stories. They shared that they sometimes have trouble thinking of ideas and - God love her - Julianne expressed the importance of concentrating and focusing on your work. "But, it still should be fun because the stories can be about anything. They can be about you, about things you like to do, things you imagine. Anything you want...anything you want." That right there is some great advice.
As an added surprise Julianne gave out copies of her chapter book Freckleface Strawberry Loose Tooth!, which she brought in for all the children. The chapter books in the Freckleface Strawberry series are perfect for beginning readers who can tackle them on their own by applying their newfound reading strategies. As the children read I kept hearing, "Just like us!" because the characters engage in activities that are similar to their own experiences. Relatable = motivation to read = better readers.
After more than an hour together we all hugged Julianne goodbye but she had one last surprise up her sleeve. Shortly after her visit I received copies of all of the Freckleface Strawberry books signed, "To Gary and his class. Love, Julianne Moore" How amazing is that?
As a child I was a bit of a nerdy bookworm (just ask my brothers who teased me with the expression, "Reading is fun for mentals" ) but, like Freckleface Strawberry, I have come to embrace that aspect of myself and celebrate that I am different...just like everybody else.
Broadway Books First Class