Monday, March 12, 2012

My book in February 2012

Kevin Clash - My Life as a Furry Red Monster


I practically see you staring at the picture wondering about THIS book review, but hey ... I like to be unpredictable and today that means we do not talk Nobel Prizes but ... red fur.

The story
starts more than ten years ago. At that time I used to hang out - virtually - at a message board with my international sisterhood of girl friends. It was online life before Facebook and Twitter were even invented. Internet stone age. At that board we used to goof around and created a category called "hunk of the week" sharing pics of handsome gentlemen just for fun. And I remember that one week, when we just could not think about somebody new, we shared a pic of Elmo and said "Look who is cute - it's this furry red monster."  I loved it a lot, everybody loved it and Elmo (Elmo pics and little comics) became a vivid part of the fun we had together.

Then came the day our mom got sick. As you can imagine it was a very, very difficult time and I was sad, confused and struggling. My sister and I had already lost our dad in a terrible cancer battle and facing it again was very hard. 

One day I surprisingly got a parcel - from the USA! I had no idea what that could be. I opened it and found a letter of one of my internet friends. She told me that this was a gift of her and her little daughter. They had talked about me and how sad and scared I was because my mom was so sick. Her daughter had searched her toys for a gift for me and when she heard how much I like Elmo she decided to give me hers. And there he was ... an obviously used (what makes him even more beautiful), red, furry Tickle-Me-Elmo. I cannot tell you how much I loved this gift. I was practically speechless and cried my eyes out hugging my Elmo

I have to admit, that I removed the Tickle-Me thingy from his tummy because I like him soft and silent ;), but other than that I love him so much - still. It's hard to explain but Elmo has magic powers that make you feel loved and supported. The furry little friend, that came to me from as far as Seattle, accompanied me already on many trips (Elmo LOVES Sarajevo!) although I am so NOT the Peter Pan type of adult who keeps a stuffed animal collection or collects dolls (BRRRR - CREEPY!). And when I am really, really down and feel lonely and sad then there is always a little red furry hand to hold - and it HELPS

As you can imagine now I got really excited a when I heard a while a ago that there was a book and a documentary by the puppeteer who is Elmo and  - surprisingly enough - a tall, middle aged, Afro-American with a deep male voice. His name is Kevin Clash and he indeed wrote about his and Elmo's story. I wanted to read this book, but it was not available and at a certain point I stopped looking, ... but my sister didn't! She managed to get her hands on the book and I found it last Christmas wrapped as my surprise gift under the Christmas tree. What a GREAT gift ... again given with love. 

Let's talk about the book

Kevin Clash tells his and Elmo's story not in a chronological order but following a couple of themes like love, joy, creativity, tolerance, courage, friendship, cooperation, learning and optimism.
This gives the book in some parts more the character of a psychological self-help or parental advise book and that's what I in general do not like so much, but there is still a lot of Elmo magic and very interesting background stories that I enjoyed a lot. 

At several points in the book Kevin Clash tells about his roots - his childhood in Turner Station by Baltimore and his parent's house in the New Pittsburgh Road (and NO, I did not make the name of the street up!). He describes how he was from the very beginning fascinated by puppets, started already as a school kid to create his own furry friends and began performing for his first audiences - his mom's daycare kids, kids at schools and kindergartens in the area and finally on local TV.
He makes very clear how important the love and support of his family and especially his parents was and is for his success. The Clashs always encouraged their son to go his way although skipping college and becoming a puppeteer is not exactly a so called "normal" career.

In addition to his family a couple of teachers and mentors were important influences in Kevin Clash's life like the puppeteer and creator of Big Bird and many more Sesame Street characters, Kermit Love (who's name is 1) real and no artist name 2) was not name giver for Kermit the Frog) and of course master mind Jim Henson himself, who's incredible creativity influenced the childhood of all of us and is still influencing new generations (my niece LOVES Sesame Street).
Kevin's story is one of those "Believe in your dreams and make them happen" stories I like when they are real and not made up - and Kevin & Elmo are both very real. 

I also especially loved to learn more about how Sesame Street is produced. It's amazing how much work goes into the world wide production (there are many local versions from the German one we know to the South African one) as well from a technical point of view as from the educational. I was very impressed how carefully the curriculum is put together or how they try to deal with events and situations that influence the life of the kids. Kevin Clash for example describes how the South African team developed an AIDS infected character - something that is daily reality for the kids there. They were also looking for ways to help the kids to deal with the anxiety that followed the events of 9/11, which was not easy for the Manhattan based team. 

My niece & Elmo -
They love to sing together
And  then there is of course Elmo. He was born  because Sesame Street was missing a red monster. Sometimes the greatest things in life are that simple. When Kevin Clash caught the cute little red bundle of fur he had no idea yet how much that would change his life and what a big star Elmo would become, but he immediately started to have fun with him and soon developed Elmo's signature laugh. Working on Elmo's story the Sesame Street team decided that Elmo would be a 3.5-year-old monster and see the world with the eyes of a little kid. 
Sesame Street was initially made for preschool and elementary school kids, but the latest studies brought the result that much younger kids had become a regular part of the audience and the program with Elmo should be made especially for the youngest Sesame Street fans. The concept was and is a big success. The kids love Elmo and Elmo loves the kids. 
Just like the kids his age Elmo is curious, wants to explore, learn new things and loves to play and sing and spend time with his friends. He is full of faith and the special kind of unconditional love that only comes from kids. He just loves to hug and kiss and when he says "Elmo loves you" he means it in the innocent way a child means it. 

My absolute favorite part of Kevin Clash's book is, when he describes Elmo's interaction with people - from baby to adult. You can see in his lines that even Kevin in the end cannot really explain how Elmo's magic works, but very much that it DOES work. Often he wondered himself how the kids would react, when they would meet Elmo live. The big difference is that other than on TV the tall man playing Elmo as a hand puppet is clearly visible and you should think that the kids would be disappointed by finding out that an adult plays Elmo, but that is not the fact. The kids ignore Kevin. They only see Elmo and talk to him like they would talk to any other kid their age, they hug him, kiss him, laugh and play with him. Tough kids and shy kids, rich kids and poor kids, healthy kids and sick kids - they all react the same way. Their imagination is stronger than what they might see (Kevin) or hear (Kevin's real voice when being introduced). They make Elmo real.

And sometimes, sometimes even adults let loose, push the heavy reality of being a grown up away and just put their hand in a little, furry red one for a hug, a kiss and a song - and love it. That's Elmo's magic!

If you search youtube for Elmo videos you get so easily lost spending hours and hours watching  the little dude do awesome things. 

Here are some of my favorites:

Kevin & Elmo

Robert de Niro teaches Elmo about imagination and acting

Elmo and Colin Farrell explain "investigate" - the "And you are tall and handsome" line cracks me up!

An especially wonderful version of the ABC Song with Elmo and India Arie

Or this one .... a great song, FEIST singing (LOVE), cute monsters, some chickens and PENGUINS. Counting to 4 can be so much fun and sound so good. 

And the favorite of my niece in German - Elmo and The Grouch explain the word "neben" (next)

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