JJ The American Street Dog and How He Came to Live in our House is an eye-opening short story about animal rescue. Written by first-time author Diane Rose-Solomon, JJ tells the tale of a young girl named Maya and how her family came to own a lost puppy (named JJ, of course). JJ is inspired by the true-life Rose-Solomon's, who adopted the real-life JJ. A percentage of revenue from the book—the first in a series of five—are donated to animal rescue organizations. We recently chatted with Diane to talk about her old pal JJ, her career as an author and more.
Why did you decide to write a children’s book?
It wasn’t such a conscious decision to write a children’s book. I have felt for a long time that I’ve had this information inside of me to impart to the world. I sat down one day and literally just wrote everything ou.t and I looked at it and thought "I have a story here and I think with some tweaking it could be a children’s book." I had taken a children’s book class years ago. I’m not even sure why. I guess there was some part of me that at some point in the future would write a children’s book.
How long would you say it took to be completed?
It was kind of a long process. The actual writing of the first draft was one of those stream of consciousness things where it just came out on the paper. We’ve all had those moments where something just comes out. But then the refining in the first round took weeks or months to get it into something that I thought was okay. After speaking to a consultant, he said 'no, no, its way too long' and he hadn’t even seen the book. Then I went back and edited it down again. I would say the whole process was a couple years.
Instead of designing dolls like Barbie—whose bust is so top-heavy she’d topple over if she were real—Dolls for Downs creator Connie Feda strives to keep toys honest. Feda started the company after her daughter Hannah, who has Down Syndrome, failed to find a toy that looked like herself in a catalogue, though she did find one that looked like her sister. Having undergone heart surgery at 13 months, Hannah had a scar that no doll had. Yet.
Feda’s venture gained traction when sculptor Karen Scott designed a doll that captured the spirit, not the superficial look, of a child with Down Syndrome. “She understood from the beginning that I was looking for an intelligent person, not a stereotypical, manufactured set of symptoms,” Feda says. “I wanted the personality [there].” And while Feda thought only of making Hannah happy when she first dreamed up Dolls for Downs, a cousin made her realize the idea’s potential to affect the wider world, including kids with and without disabilities.
“I think this doll is an ambassador to all kids regardless of disability or not,” she says. “The very first pre-order I had was from a woman in Kansas. She said, "I’m ordering this doll for my daughter. She has a friend with Down Syndrome. When she saw your doll, she said: Look, now my dolls can have a friend just like I do."”
Roughly $1,800 in pre-sales allows for a minimum order of dolls with a new hair, eye or skin color combination. Pre-orders are $75 plus shipping, which Feda keeps at the U.S. domestic rate, no matter where the package is sent. “Will I lose some money? Probably,” Feda says. “But that put the word out in every country. The more pre-orders I get, the more options I can create for people.” Soon, children all over the world will be able to see themselves in dolls not limited to one look.
For visitors to the Museum of Science and Industry's “Animal Inside Out” exhibit with pet cats, it’s extremely important to follow the friendly docent’s advice and turn off the part of your brain imagining plasticized felines as the prancing kittens they once were. Once convinced to view the exhibit in a purely scientific light, however, grown-up guests will find it (for the most part) fascinating. Kids, on the other hand, will be creeped out, captivated and bored by turns.
In its first U.S. appearance, the exhibit’s layout lets visitors adjust to the slightly shocking concept early on. A signboard guests read right before entry reassures no animal was harmed or killed for the exhibit; next to it, a World Wildlife Fund PSA claims, “We are all connected.” Soothing music and a darkened exhibition area keep the environment peaceful and calm. Step by step, viewers advance through different, highlighted biological systems that all animals share. And while some kids shouted, “Cool!” at a stripped-down shark in the first room, others were grossed out by up-close looks at organs and other musculature.
Dr. Angelina Whalley, designer of the exhibit, gives them more credit. “Children are usually open-minded,” she says. “They are curious to find out and children usually love animals, and to see them in this intricate way, I’m one hundred per cent sure they will gain even more respect [for] these creatures.”
There aren’t interactive elements to the exhibit (probably for good reason), but there are fascinating nuggets of info on boards next to each display that’ll keep everybody intrigued and investigating. Kids may not care about capillary systems, but they’ll be fascinated to know bulls produce around 40 gallons of saliva a day. That bull, standing ready to charge, was one of the exhibit’s biggest hits. Another highlight: the giraffe across the hall paired with a stately, cross-sectional glass-paneled version of itself. In both cases, sheer size has a lot to do with the impression made.
While the exhibit doesn’t hit viewers over the head with its messages of conservation and connectedness between animal life and human beings, they’re definitely tangible. “I tried to explain all the various bodily systems because it is really astonishing how similar this all works,” Whalley says. “We have very, very similar organs throughout the entire animal kingdom. We are one of them.”
57th St and Lake Shore Dr (773-684-1414, msichicago.org). Mar 14–Sep 2. Tickets are timed entry, $27 for adult Chicago residents; $26 for seniors and $18 for children 3–11.
This is my favorite thing on the Internet today: Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti has taken photos of kids from around the world, standing with the things they love most. The photos are beautiful—if I had to pick a favorite, I'd say the girl from Botswana rules—and speak to a certain universality of childhood. In other words, my son could easily be best buds with the kid from Costa Rica.
Assembled from interviews with dozens of Chicago residents, from teenagers to caregivers to rooftop camper Pastor Corey Brooks, How Long Will I Cry? is among the latest attempts to untangle Chicago’s epidemic of youth violence (see also Collaboraction’s current Crime Scene: A Chicago Anthology). But Steppenwolf’s piece, part of a larger initiative dubbed Now Is the Time, is explicitly aimed at young audiences. Journalist and first-time dramatist Miles Harvey assembled the script from interviews conducted by his students at DePaul, with able assistance by verbatim-theater vet Kelli Simpkins and director Edward Torres. The result feels honest and affecting.
Harvey uses the 2009 shooting death of DePaul student Frankie Valencia as a touchstone, drawing from writings and videos the young man left behind as well as interviews with his mother (a devastating Tara Mallen) and a friend (Shannon Matesky) who survived the shooting. There’s also a narrator (Mark Ulrich) who speaks in Harvey’s voice—a framing choice that feels necessary to explicate the play’s context but also somewhat distancing; despite the ensemble’s terrific work, the piece can feel at times like an enhanced lecture.
Working on the same long, open traverse stage that’s concurrently home to Steppenwolf’s production of The Birthday Party, scenic designer William Boles outfits it with tall, narrow walls at each end that serve as screens for video projections, showing everything from old Chicago Defender headlines chronicling the rise of gang activity in the ’70s to the cell-phone video of Derrion Albert being beaten to death. The effect suggests Millennium Park’s Crown Fountain, if it displayed a more painful view of the city’s life.
“My first encounter with Shakespeare was pretty horrendous,” says GQ, one half of Chicago’s Q Brothers, recalling his teen years struggling with a reading disability that hindered his enjoyment of the Bard.
With brother JQ—the initials stand for Gregory and Jeffrey Qaiyum—GQ, 37, has spent much of the last 15 years reimagining the works of William Shakespeare through a hip-hop lens, gaining international acclaim with The Bomb-Itty of Errors, Funk It Up About Nothin’ and their most recent “ad-rap-tation,” Othello: The Remix, which makes its Chicago debut this week. (Because of adult language, Chicago Shakespeare Theater recommends the show for “mature audiences.” We're betting it's not anything your teen hasn't heard before.)
GQ’s opinion of the English scribe changed during his time at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, where he studied acting while pursuing a passion for rap. “At one point something clicked, and I was like, oh my God, this is music. These are musical notes,” GQ says. “That’s when they came together. Something about the inherent musicality of the language of Shakespeare felt so much like the rapping we were doing.”
Star Wars has taken over LEGOLAND Discovery Center in Schaumburg, just in time for adult fans of the original three movies to take their school-age kids. Understandably, however, the focus of this new exhibit is on the later movies—Episode I: The Phantom Menace, specifically. Sorry, mom and dad, you’ll have to make do with the giant Lego Darth Vader or R2D2. Or you can scavenger hunt around the Mini Chicago display for Obi Wan brandishing a light saber somewhere near Navy Pier—all very satisfying, mind you. The exhibit itself recreates three scenes from Episode I in pretty spectacular detail, and the kids will ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ despite it being a bit tight in the space (go early or during off hours!). Another slight disappointment is the promised “interactive” features—a couple of buttons to stop and start a clunky pod race or shoot marbles at droids quickly bores the younglings. It’s an entertaining way to spend a morning or afternoon, but don’t plan on filling an entire day.
On Saturday night, Young Chicago Authors sold out the 2,200 seats in the Cadillac Palace Theater for the annual Louder than a Bomb youth poetry competition finals. Though its profile raises every year, the annual LTAB still feels underrated to me. I've had the pleasure of serving as a judge a couple times in the past, and what's always impressed me about it is the effort. The talent and the skill are there, of course, but it's always cool to see how much work and passion these kids pour into their pieces.
Congratulations go to Emma Coleman from Northside College Prep, who won the individual finals, and the team from Clarendon Park arts org Kuumba Lynx, who got first place in the Team Finals.
Even if the good people of the South Side couldn't stop it from raining on their parade, it appears that they didn't let it bother them. The South Side Irish Parade is one of the city's great traditions, and we're glad to see it going strong. Anyone who thinks that a St. Patrick's Day Parade isn't family friendly need only look at the photo of the kid with the green mustache and change their mind.