“Stellaluna,” a book by Janell Canon, has thrilled children since 1993 with its tale about a young fruit bat who gets separated from its mother and is adopted by birds. To be more specific, a Gambian epauletted bat has a healing message by uniting both its bird and bat families to deliver a healing message, you guessed it, “so needed in these divisive times.”
Local educator Sara Shapiro Burmenko heads the educational and digital efforts for the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts and expands “Stellaluna” to a wider audience. It was among the top 100 children’s books based on a 2007 poll by the National Education Association and the top 100 picture books of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journals.
Burmenko’s parents were both educators. Father Rabbi Zvi Shapiro moved the family to Atlanta to be the headmaster of The Epstein School; and mother Chana Shapiro, an English teacher, let her find her own way in becoming a “newer age” educator.
“My journey took me from the Yeshiva High School to a kibbutz and Israeli college, then Georgia State, social work studies and early childhood education,” Burmenko said. “Initially I sought a career away from education but found my niche. As a student teacher, a professor opened my eyes to opportunities besides those in a classroom.”
After finding a home at the Center for Puppetry Arts, she initially volunteered (1999), then joined the staff by coordinating tours, writing scripts, organizing docents, and providing digital learning and educational core curriculum outreach to schools in both live and interactive social studies, language arts, and science programs. In between, she took a maternity leave for 18 months. “Our programs have been seen in nine countries and all 50 states. Some topics have been butterflies, Native Americans, and other live puppet shows.”
In both pre- and post-show experiences, Burmenko heads lessons about how bats affect our ecosystem, their life cycle, the types of bats in Georgia, and she gives an overview of the original book’s story. “I am really excited to also offer pre- and post-show experiences. We teach children how to be a good audience and let them meet the puppeteers to see them ‘unhidden,’ how the costumes work, how the set moves, and what things are made of. Also, the Q&A is very engaging.”
Bats have often been maligned in different cultures; and this story portrays them as “friendly and dog-like.” Burmenko notes, “After all, they eat harmful bugs like mosquitoes and help the environment. They are often portrayed negatively on TV and in movies, yet they are really sweet creatures.”
“Stellaluna” bridges the gap between her bird and bat families, addressing how we can be so different and yet feel so much alike. Notions of diversity, “the other” and inclusion are explored.
“It’s a classic story of finding one’s place in the world and accepting others for what and who they are,” said Jon Ludwig, the center’s artistic director. “With birds and bats as the central protagonists in the story, the book is perfectly suited to be adapted for the puppet theater.”
The challenge in this production is that the puppets will fly, resulting in a cast of bird and bat rod puppets that will be manipulated using “overt puppetry,” a style in which the puppeteers are visible. It is performed on a set that is larger than any production ever seen before at the center.
The show is recommended for ages 4 and up. Performances are through March 8, 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday.
All-inclusive ticket prices vary but start at $19.50 for members and $25 for nonmembers. The price includes entrance to the Create-A-Puppet Workshop, where guests can make, decorate and perform with their own “Stellaluna” rod and string puppet. The ticket also covers admission to the Worlds of Puppetry Museum, featuring what is believed to be the world’s largest collection of Jim Henson puppets and one of the country’s largest collections of global puppets.
Tickets are available online at puppet.org or by calling 404-873-3391. For those who qualify, Georgia Natural Gas is offering a 25 percent discount for four with code GNG25.