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Youngsters bring books to stage

When 5-year-old Ashley Rous decided to play the character of Anansi in a puppet show, she had no idea that she had signed up for the lead role. Performing in front of about 30 parents, Ashley looked as if she might run out of the room. But, her mother said, she made it through the entire performance.

The puppet show was the culminating event for Bringing Books to Life, a summer art camp offered by Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City.

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With its combination of reading, artwork and performance, the class was a confidence builder for Ashley and her classmates.

Sabrina Fu of Ellicott City, Ashley's mother, said that Ashley, who will be a kindergartner at Centennial Lane Elementary in the fall, can be shy, but enjoyed the class. "She just loves to draw and read all the time," Fu said. "I thought it would be a nice way to combine" her interests.

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The 4- to 6-year-olds in the class began preparing for their puppet show by reading about a dozen children's books.

They selected three: Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock by Eric A. Kimmel, Monster Stew by Mitra Modarressi and The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.

"We voted," said Ashley, whose character is a mischievous spider. Children formed groups based on which book they liked best and what character they wanted to play.

Then they consulted their books as they created props and puppets.

"It's really refreshing to work with kids this age," said teacher Pegg Poff. During the school year, she teaches art to special-needs middle- and high-schoolers at St. Elizabeth School in Baltimore.

The younger children are "just so uninhibited. They're so original," she said.

Love for the arts runs in Poff's family. Her daughter, Amy Poff, is deputy director of Howard County Arts Council, which operates Center for the Arts.

Three years ago, she asked her mother to fill in as a last-minute replacement teacher. Pegg Poff has been teaching summer classes ever since.

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The Center for the Arts runs Bringing Books to Life and other classes for children ages 4 through 14 during three sessions each summer. The two-week-long camps have been offered since the arts center opened nearly 20 years ago. They vary from cartooning and collage to theater and dance.

The final performance or exhibit is a key element of all of the classes. "It's really important to recognize what they've accomplished when they're here and their accomplishments as artists," Amy Poff said.

When the visual arts classes have their exhibit, artwork is everywhere in the center - on the ceiling, the bulletin boards and lining the hallways - "because they really do a lot in two weeks. In an adult sense, they're really developing a body of work in that time," Amy Poff said.

Fu said the performance element gave her daughter a boost in confidence, helping her prepare for kindergarten.

"It gives her a lot of social skills," she said, not only interacting with other children, but also "standing in front of people and memorizing lines."

One of the puppet shows, Monster Stew, was based on a modernization of Hansel and Gretel.

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"This monster, he has a cool hairdo," said Josh Schulman, 6, of Clarksville. He and brother Daniel, 5, changed the story so the monsters could be brothers like them. They created puppets by gluing fluorescent fur to old soda bottles.

"We use the illustrations as inspiration but ... you want the kids to have their own interpretation of what their character looks like," Pegg Poff said.

Josh said he liked making the puppets because "I like getting all gooey." It's all part of the "sensory experience" that is art, Pegg Poff said.

So that the artwork, such as an underwater backdrop for The Rainbow Fish, won't be intimidating for kids, Pegg Poff said she gives the campers choices or has an assistant sketch basic ideas that the children can fill in and personalize.

"We want to engage people in an ongoing, enjoyable process in the arts," Amy Poff said. "We want them to understand that about themselves, that they can be artists."


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