Smile Politely

Words in the Wind brings storybooks to life

Smile Politely: So, the upcoming Words in the Wind concert will be the fourth installment. How did the event come about originally?
Molley Delaney: My friend, Tom Mitchell, conceived the idea while attending a storytelling benefit concert for Illinois Public Media several years ago. Shortly after the concert, Tom approached me and said he’d been thinking about how powerful it would be to have talented actors and musicians take some of the best works of children’s literature and interpret then in a concert style performance. He knew about the work Illinois Public Media was doing with the Book Mentor Project, and he asked if we would be interested in working with him on a benefit concert. I love children’s books (what teacher doesn’t) and I love theatre, so I jumped at the chance.

Every year, Tom selects picture books that work well as performance pieces, matches them with specific actors and musicians, and encourages those actors and musicians to get creative. The result is extraordinary! Even familiar favorites like Green Eggs and Ham are reinvented in this process. 

SP: Proceeds from the concert go to help support Illinois Public Media’s Book Mentor Project.  Could you tell me a little more about the project and your involvement with it?

Delaney: The Book Mentor Project started nine years ago as a partnership between Illinois Public Media and Champaign County Head Start. We knew from working with Head Start teachers and administrators that children in their classrooms had very few books at home. So we developed a program to train volunteer book mentors — or readers — who go into classrooms six times during the school year to read a book and do a related activity with the children. On the day the volunteer readers visit the classroom, each child receives a copy of the book to take home. By the end of the school year, each child has added six books to his/her home library.

The project combines popular PBS children’s shows — like Dinosaur Train, Curious George, and Superwhy — with books and activities in an effort to get children excited about reading and learning. As part of the project, Illinois Public Media provides training for teachers about how to use children’s media to enhance their classroom curriculum. Teachers receive books and activity kits to use in their classrooms, as well as links to PBS online games, lesson plans, mobile apps, and other resources. The proceeds from this year’s Words in the Wind concert will be used to purchase iPads for Head Start classrooms.

SP: Do you have any favorite moments and/or stories from past performances?

Delaney: This is HARD. I have many, many favorites. Personally, I think Kent Conrad’s cabaret-style interpretation of Things I Learned In Second Grade was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I also loved Barbara Evans, Gary Ambler, and Rob Zaleski’s version of The Taking Tree. When I posed this question to my family, they mentioned Dallas Street’s performance of Big Plans; J.W. Morrissette and Cameron Cornell’s version of It’s a Book; and Cara Maurizi, Ann Marie Morrissette, and Angela Marcum singing “Alligators All Around.”

For me, one of the best things about Words in the Wind is watching the performers responding to each other on stage. Tom never has trouble recruiting actors and musicians to volunteer for this event, and I think it is because the performers enjoy the evening as much as the audience. Everyone walks away from the concert with that satisfied feeling only a good book can bring.

Side note: last year, we had a bus load of speech students from Paxton-Buckly-Loda who attended the event. Their teacher, Cindy Haile, said they discussed their favorite performances and quoted their favorite parts for weeks afterwards. A bus is coming from PBL again, and this year they are helping with one of the performances.

SP: Is there anything else you’d like Smile Politely readers to know about Words in the Wind?

Delaney: Words in the Wind is a one-of-a-kind experience. Very few concerts are this much FUN! You don’t have to be a big fan of theatre or even children’s literature to enjoy this event. Although it is a family-friendly concert, the target audience is NOT children. In the words of Tom Mitchell, “If you like to have a surprisingly good time with a bunch of really good performers, Words in the Wind is for you. Music, scary stories, funny books, moving fables … and a little craziness.” I can’t wait for Thursday night!

This year’s installment of Words in the Wind will be held Thursday, November 1, at 7:30 pm. If you’re interested, the event will be held at Faith United Methodist Church, 1719 S. Prospect Avenue in Champaign.

This year’s participants are an impressive roster of actors and musicians from local venues like the Station Theatre, Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company, and Zoo Improv.  The roster of readers and books for the November 1 concert are:

Cara Maurizi: Math Attack! by Joan Horton
Rob Ek: Do Not Open This Book by Michaela Muntean
Kent Conrad: The Diary of a Fly by Doreen Cronin
JW Morrissette: Some Things are Scary by Florence Parry Heidi
Barb Evans: What Are You So Grumpy About? by Tom Lightenheld
Steve Keen: Wicked Jack by Connie Nordheilm Woolridge
Cameron Cornell: That Book Woman by Heather Henson
Gary Ambler: Angel Girl by Laurie Friedman
Lisa Dixon: Everybody Gets the Blues by Leslie Staub
Mindy Manolakes: Oh No! or How My Science Project Destroyed the World by Mac Barnett
Barb Ridenour, Jessica Holmes and Joe Murphy: “Stand Back,” said the Elephant, “I’m Going to Sneeze!” by Patricia Thomas

With musical performances by:

Anne Marie Morrissette: “Everybody Hurts” by REM
Cameron Cornell and Kinzie Ferguson: “When Somebody Loved Me” from Toy Story II
Jeremiah Lowry: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story
Kent Conrad: “The Warthog” by Flanders and Swann

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