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Sep 16, 2014

Murder, Shakespeare, and Puppets: The Story Lady

Diana BlackFor M.A. English alum Diana Black, née Ruskin (Class of 2013), life after JMU has been a whirlwind. Less than a month after graduation, she was newly married and starting a job as Assistant Children’s Programmer at the Staunton Public Library. The job interview required, among other tasks, that she sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” improvise scenes with hand puppets, and devise a craft using only plastic straws and pink napkins. It was a fitting challenge for a job that requires her to wear all kinds of hats – both literally and figuratively (“My favorite is the one shaped like a macaw”). Thankfully, she has been well-prepared by both her arts background and the rigors of her master’s program.

Black’s job responsibilities are as diverse as they are enjoyable: she offers patrons expert book recommendations, shares in collection development and weeding (“aka curating the children’s literary canon on a micro-scale,” she says with a grin), designs eye-catching bulletin boards and crafts, and, above all, is a captivating “Story Lady” for children ages 0-12. While parents appreciate her animated readings and classically-trained voice, Black is most interested in how the children respond to her: “I’m very silly during storytime, and the purpose of that is 100 percent serious. I’m trying to inspire a love of reading in these kids that will stay with them,” Black says. “I do whatever I can to bring stories to life for them.”

One way that Black enlivens stories is by using puppets, especially in the monthly plays she writes and performs in herself. Known collectively as the “Sunshine Stories” series, these puppet shows reinterpret classic tales and fables with a humorous, modern spin. In a town known for its love of theater, Black’s creative takes on such classics as Chicken Little, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and The Tortoise and the Hare offer Staunton’s youngest demographic a developmentally appropriate – not to mention fun – initiation to live theater and a jumpstart on cultural literacy.

 In April 2014, the Virginia Public Library Director’s Association recognized Sunshine Stories with an award for Outstanding Children’s Programming. The accolade drew attention from local newspapers and television stations, and “the crowds got huge.” More gratifying still for Black, children often enact their own puppet shows in the library play area, motivated by what they have seen in Sunshine Stories. They also seek out book versions of the tales: “It’s thrilling for me when kids check out the book version of the story and talk about the differences they see. They make some really sophisticated comparisons,” Black notes.

The success of Sunshine Stories prompted Black to seek out opportunities which might inspire more innovative programming. In July, she took an intensive seminar on the History of Animation at the Library of Congress. Animated film is another of Black’s passions, and she was eager to approach it from a pedagogical standpoint. Taught by the educational director of Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, the course was free to librarians and teachers, and afforded BlackDiana Black and puppets the chance to analyze films in a peerless setting: “Seeing a silent film in their theater, with a live movie organist, was unforgettable,” she notes. Black is currently at work developing a lecture series on film for the library, based around the concept of giving patrons multiple “ways in” to understanding and interpreting films.

Working in Staunton has also enabled Black to reacquaint herself with acting, a longtime beloved pursuit. In the fall of 2013, she performed at the American Shakespeare Center in a staged reading of Vortigern and Rowena, presented by local theater company Clever By Half Productions. She was then cast in the year-long run of their latest original murder mystery, HINT. Black credits English professor Marina Favila with catalyzing the events that led to her second paying job: “Dr. Favila has been incredible – she was encouraged me to act out scenes in her Renaissance Drama class, supervised my independent study on acting in Shakespeare, and gave my name to the staged reading coordinators. She really set the wheels in motion for me.”

Black also feels “indebted” to the English graduate faculty as a whole. As a master’s student and graduate instructor, she honed her writing, research, and presentation skills. Now her job rewards those experiences: “Because of my degree, they trust me to write grant proposals, lead discussions, and give lectures,” she says. “I get to advocate for worthy projects. I have immense creative freedom in my puppet scripts.” All in all, she asserts, “I couldn’t be more grateful for all the things that JMU has made possible. They really pushed me and it’s paid off exponentially.”

This October, listen for Black on NPR: she and her husband (himself a librarian at Carrier) will be on Talk of the Nation for a program entitled “Millennials and Marriage.”