MOUNT VERNON — In a grassy field behind LaVenture Middle School, four Mount Vernon Boys & Girls Club members took turns reading aloud from the pages of a brightly colored book.
When one read a part, the other three shared in laughter.
Ten-year-old Carmen Stanley, 9-year-old Dulce Batista, 9-year-old Maddox Wheatcroft and 10-year-old Brianna Thogerson recently did a performance of the book “The Bird and the Hippo” for their younger peers.
Traditionally, fourth- and fifth-graders participate in a literacy program each year where they read to younger Boys & Girls Club members.
With the age groups separated into pods amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the club partnered with local author Rebecca Pierce Murray to reboot the literacy program with a digital twist.
“We wanted to give them a way to do that (reading) in a COVID-safe world,” Mount Vernon Boys & Girls Club Program Director Chestene Brown said.
Over a five-week period, the four older students worked to learn the story line by line and recorded a performance of the book on video.
In mid-April, that video was shared with the club’s younger members. The performing students then led a discussion and writing exercise about the value of friendships.
“Even if you don’t know somebody, you can become friends with them pretty quick,” Carmen said while reflecting Wednesday on the moral of the story. “Or if you give somebody another try, they could be different.”
She said while doing the exercise a younger friend wrote about how she wished they could see each other in person.
Dulce said another younger club member drew a picture of themself and their mother as an adult and baby bird like those pictured in the book.
“That was a moment where we were all like, ‘Awww’,” Brown said.
For Maddox, the lesson of the story was joy — a benefit of relationships with loved ones.
All four of the performing club members said they enjoyed the story of the “The Bird and the Hippo,” as well as learning their lines and performing their roles.
“I liked doing the voice of Middy,” Brianna said. “She’s nice and kind, and sometimes she can get a little mad and overreacting — just like me!”
The four performers also said they enjoyed meeting the author of the book, who acted as director for the video.
“I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to work with kids the age I was when I wrote it?’” said Murray, who penned the story when she was 10 but only published it in 2020.
The story came to fruition in Murray’s own fifth-grade class, after her family returned to the U.S. following time spent in Africa.
“I had a teacher who read books aloud and encouraged students to write and draw,” Murray said.
After writing and sketching pictures for the story decades ago, Murray rediscovered its pages when rifling through old belongings.
Then, with society in the thick of pandemic isolation and in need of personal connections more than ever, Murray said 2020 felt like a good time to publish the book.
“The story is very simple: It’s about friendship and being nice to each other and keeping in touch,” she said.
The performing Boys & Girls Club members got the message.
During the interactive session with younger club members, they asked: Why is it important to keep in touch with friends you care about?
“It’s just really phenomenal to be a part of their growth, and seeing the kids build relationships,” Murray said of the first-time program. “They are practicing all of these real-world skills.”
Not only did the older members practice reading aloud, memorize lines and lead discussions with peers, they learned voice-acting skills and experimented with sound effects.
Maddox took the lead in developing sound effects. He crumpled paper to replicate the cracking open of eggs and, as he proudly showed Wednesday, flapped the pages of his book to mimic the beating of wings.