Putting Picture Books into Action with Susan Chodakiewitz
October 11, 2022
Putting Picture Books into Action with Susan Chodakiewitz

We know the importance of literacy and music and the importance of getting children involved in learning through movement. What if we paired the two together, no matter the age of the students?

That’s what Susan Chodakiewitz is doing through Booksicals, creating musicals from picture books for some fully immersed learning. And what she’s discovered as a result is more confidence and more engagement from children of all levels.

Educational professionals have long tried to encourage children to build their literacy skills while getting the community involved in education. The idea that a picture book can be acted out helps children explore characters, plot, and backstory, and it allows both pre-readers and older students to work together on a common end goal. And who doesn’t love the idea of hiding some of the learning during a fun and interactive lesson?

Listen in to Susan talk about how to bring any picture book into an interactive classroom, why improvisation and acting is such a powerful way to learn, and how to bring literacy into the community. We also talk a bit about the benefits of being multilingual and how Susan got to where she is. I love the idea of Booksicles so much that I’ve invited Susan to work with us at my micro-school, LEADPrep.

About Susan Tresser Chodakiewitz:

Susan Chodakiewitz is an author, composer, and producer. She is the founder of Booksicals children’s books and Picture Book Musicals. Her passion for igniting a love of reading in children has led her to create the Booksicals Literacy Through the Arts program, an interactive performing arts curriculum where theater and the arts become a teaching tool for literacy and social-emotional learning.

Susan is the author of seven children’s picture books: The Alphabet Thief, Selah the Peach, Master Davey and the Magic Tea House, Wobegon and Mildred, Mr. Snoozle’s Exquisite Eggs, Too Many Visitors for One Little House and soon-to-be-released Mother Nature ABC verses.

Susan partners with brands and businesses to promote literacy and a love of reading and has created books and literacy projects for brands such as the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Westin Hotels Kids Club, and the Gap Kids.

Susan Chodakiewitz is a frequent author presenter at schools, museums, book fairs, and libraries and has presented both in the U.S. and around the world. She is a graduate of the Academy for New Musical Theater and a member of the New Musical Inc, advisory board.

Susan holds a degree from the University of Miami in chemistry and French and a pharmacy degree from the University of Florida. She was born in Havana Cuba, raised in New York and has lived in Florida, North Carolina, Toronto, Israel, and southern California. She speaks fluent Spanish, Hebrew, and French. All her books are available in Spanish. Susan currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and is blessed to have three sons, a daughter, and three amazing daughters-in-law.

Jump in the Conversation:

[1:29] – The power of picture books for children’s love of reading
[2:50] – Thinking about literacy alongside performance
[4:15] – Hiding the learning in play and creating
[4:38] – Books are a challenge these days
[7:04] – Why picture books work so well with theater
[8:50] – Creating a whole project gives everyone for a chance for critical thinking and collaboration
[11:22] – Learning personality traits vs. character traits
[12:41] – Bringing literacy into community through working with families
[15:46] – How to inspire youth to become readers
[17:44] – Becoming multilingual
[20:28] – Inspiring creativity in the classroom
[22:20] – Susan’s Magic Wand
[23:58] – Maureen’s Takeaways

Links & Resources



Maureen O’Shaughnessy 0:03
Hello fellow parents and educators. Thank you for joining me at education evolution, where we are disrupting the status quo in today’s learning models. We talk about present day education, what’s broken, who’s fixing it, and how. I’m Dr. Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your host and founder of education evolution, micro school coalition, and co founder of active, I consult and train with schools and leaders who are fiercely committed to changing the narrative, reimagining the education landscape, and creating learning that serves all children and prepares them to thrive. If you are new, welcome to the podcast. Please subscribe on our website to get it delivered to your inbox weekly. If you’ve been around a while, have you left a review?

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:08
Hi, Susan, it is so good to have you on education evolution today.

Susan Chodakiewitz 1:11
Thank you, Maureen. It’s a pleasure to be here. And listeners. today I’m

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 1:15
chatting with Susan Chodakiewitz, founder of books, sickles, children’s books, and picture book musicals. So Susan, we all know that our schools have to evolve so that we can serve all of our learners. I’m curious, where did this story of learning transformation begin for you?

Susan Chodakiewitz 1:34
Good question. I started out in many different fields. But let’s talk about the art part of the work that I that I started out in about 2006. I always was involved in theater, children’s theater, writing for musical theater. And when I hit on writing a musical based on a picture book, which is one of my favorite picture books called Mr. pines purple house by Leonard Kessler, I made it into a musical and I suddenly realize the power that picture books have to be able to get children involved with reading with books with learning. So it’s sort of migrated into the creation of books because I have woke up one morning, I go, I get it, I know what to do. I have a passion for books, I have a passion for picture books, I have a passion for musical theater, it’s going to be books, Nichols. And they’re going to be one. And that’s how it evolved.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 2:30
I love that and that you’ve gone on and created this literacy through arts program. It just seems so wonderful, interactive, I mean, performing arts, you know, kids really like engaged learning. And for so many of them improv drama is very powerful. What led you to think about literacy as you were putting all of this together.

Susan Chodakiewitz 2:57
Thank you for asking that. So when I first started, I developed it more as a performance medium. So I wrote the books, we had the books as standalone books. Then when we created the musical theater aspect, I created a repertory company and said, Okay, I’m going to provide theater for children in schools that they could interact with the characters, they could interact with the props. And we performed at schools with libraries and bookstores, that it was very, very exciting. But the element was missing where the children had the opportunity to read themselves. So they would take home the books afterwards, and parents and teachers would tell me that they would read them over and over and sing the songs from the performance. But when I would go to schools and do the actual author readings, I would realize that what they were excited about was when they could put on costumes when they could hold them prompts, when they could be the characters. And then when I started doing that interaction, I started to talk to teachers and say, What if we created a theater kit, an ability for you to be able to do this in your own classroom? And they said, Well, can you do it? And I said, Well, let me see. And that’s how it that’s how it started as a literacy component.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 4:09
I love that who doesn’t like getting to put on costumes and be a different character. And I always think we need to as parents and educators alike squish up the veggies and hide them in the spaghetti sauce. So if if learning is hidden in play in creating and drama, I think kids are naturally going to gravitate to it and I’m sure that’s been your experience.

Susan Chodakiewitz 4:33
My experience is that like this books are it’s a challenge today with TV, video shows, cartoons, animation, all this stuff that they to get kids to want to read. So it’s not only that they are some of them are behind in reading skills. They don’t want to books so how do you engage them with books. And the way that I believe is the most powerful is by having them become the books having them be part of the story and when To give a child an ability to read a story, as a script become a character, dress as a character, not only are they connecting to the book, connecting to the story, connecting to the words, which is so important to me, and to life in general, they are also getting an appreciation for that book, and then being able to see the book as a printed book and go, Wow, I was part of this, connecting that. And then the next book they read is much more of interactive, engaged, they see the character as alive. And that, to me is what literacy is all about getting them to want to read connect to the books, and also helping them put words in their mouth with expression like I call it interpretive reading, right? literacy through the arts, reading Theatre, which is one of the exercises we do as part of our programs, is be able to put on a show in script form. So each book in its own format is a book. But it’s also created as a script where children can stand in the line and read, and I was watching, when you when kids perform, they put on voices, and they move and they interacted. And they also learn how to children who are lesser talented readers, so let’s say slower reader, instead of making fun of a child, they want the show to be good. So they they help them. And it’s it’s a teamwork, and all of a sudden reading becomes something you want to be good at. That’s part of the challenge, you know, is getting them to read to want to read. Yeah, well,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 6:35
and what you’re addressing is something that so many students lament is like, When am I ever going to use this? Why am I creating this homework assignment that some teachers gonna read and score and throw away, you’re giving them a purpose, I’m a part of this performance. I’m not just reading because I have to read, I am in this story. And when we have purpose, we’re much more willing to invest. So that to me seems huge. And

Susan Chodakiewitz 7:01
you know, one of the things that I’m passionate about is picture books. I read picture books because his theatrical picture books combined the visual with the storytelling, which is what theater is, that’s why it’s such a natural medium for me. And children’s you picture books in different ways. Like some kids in second and third grade, they go, oh, you know, like we’re not interchangeable is secretly my be reading picture books at home. But one of the things that teachers that I work with teachers to understand to explore is the power of a picture book in higher grades third, fourth, fifth grade, because those picture books can be unintimidating sources for theater. So they’re easy to do, they’re easy to, to bake into a script format, they’re easy to perform. And they have pictures so children can see themselves in the in the story. And also, one of the things that I find very, very engaging, is when a picture book, when the children let’s say, in fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, they may think, Oh, this picture book is silly. But if they’re in it, and they can record it themselves have a technical component in which they’re exposed to technology. So on what I’m recommending now for the higher grades is to do the picture book as a theater, but have the had the kids who are tech, interested in tech, to video recordings, do audio recordings, do green screen recording nine, which they can manipulate, and then share on social media and create their own classroom channels. I mean, it’s the possibilities are endless. And we really kind of just launched into the theater kit, the theater kit for classrooms. So I feel that it has so much potential for all styles of learning. That’s what I’m excited to talk about.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 8:51
Agreed. And projects make more sense when we have to learn something in isolation. Okay, let’s work on vocal variety. Let’s read this passage this way. Let’s read it that way. It’s like, why, but when we get to a whole project, it not only gives it more of that purpose, but like you said, that kid that’s tech savvy, that kid that’s artsy that kid it gives everybody a chance and a chance for that critical thinking creativity, collaboration, those 21st century skills come to life come to life and when you when you have to understand to perform

Susan Chodakiewitz 9:25
yep, that’s the teachers pick the time before doing the story of performing the story. To look at the characters. Let’s examine them. What’s the really ugly like one of our books, too many visitors for one little house the neighbors hate children. They hate pets. They hate noise, but they really don’t because they just lonely and sad and they don’t have family friends. But when this new family moves on the block, they bring this whole lock of aunts and uncles and cousins and nannies and grannies, the neighbors of crabby and bet as soon as they get included. They love everything. So Of course, this Oh, too many visitors for one little house becomes never too many visitors for one little house. So you get a chance to examine character, what’s behind the character. One of the things that I’ve been doing on Instagram are teaching tips for or teachers, how to bring theater into the classroom, or using any picture book. And I give them ideas of ways to cooperate this for social emotional learning, to understand empathy to be put yourselves in the kids shoes, carry the character’s shoes, look at a picture on in a book, tell me about this character through what they’re wearing, what they’re carrying, learn about that person. And this is skills that children can utilize in everyday social situations and learn not to be judgmental, but to understand and interpret.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 10:46
Yes, that compassion, and it goes against the adolescent developmental stage. So I see this being super important even up into middle school because literally, it’s such a self centered age, you know, like, oh, everybody’s watching me, and do I look, okay, do I have the right tennis shoes, they’re so preoccupied with themselves developmentally, that to have reminders, where you’re not like, Hey, be nice to your classmate, but through a book, or something safe or third party actually

Susan Chodakiewitz 11:17
interesting, you brought up the idea of self, you know, self consciousness, one of the exercises that I recommended was personality traits versus character traits. Ooh, so you tell a lot about a person by what they were, by how they look by what they carry by, by by where their environment is. So picture books are the perfect example of understanding character, personality of a character, let’s say one of the characters I have is a is a very, like a main parking ticket monster, he walks around grumpy and, you know, and then and there’s a reason for that he’s he’s hated because he gives people parking tickets, and he makes them unhappy. But if you can understand what his personality is, versus his character traits, which are things that you don’t see externally, and these are things that you can bring out, by using picture books on any level, and you could do it in high school, you could do it in middle school. I think they’re very powerful tools. And that’s why I love working with them. Agreed.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 12:23
I’m curious, I saw that. You’ve worked on books and literacy projects, with different brands with companies like coffee bean and tea leaf Westin Hotel, kids club Gap Kids. Tell me about this collaboration.

Susan Chodakiewitz 12:41
Very exciting, actually. So one of the manifestations of books of goals was to bring literacy into the community. And one of the ways to do that is not necessarily through the schools, but through brands that work with families. So when my the my first projects were with gap, we did seven readings in their in their stores, we had children coming to buy clothing, but in the end, they would see a book come alive with actors, they would meet with them, they would get a pre book, it was very exciting. That was and then it with gap with Western we did for families, rather than promoting, let’s say, giving them some water bottles or free coloring books. We gave them books, and they said any family who comes in gets a book package. And that was very exciting, because they got to say we promote literacy. And the brand that promotes literacy is a brand that stays in the minds and hearts of families. Yes, with coffee bean, it was an amazing project. They wanted to give back to the community after their 50th year and as an anniversary celebration. They they they want to do something for children because they do a lot of charity work in India and Asia where they cultivate their tea and I met the CEO, we taught them I said, you know I would love to do a book. And he goes, No, wait a minute. What I said yes, let’s do a book and he goes, Oh my God, my tea master wants to do a book and we want to do something to give back to children and be able to give to orphanages and hospitals and all over the the world where we source our tea. I said let’s do it. So we did it. And we I wrote the book in collaboration with their tea master. We went to India we went to pack we went to Sri Lanka we pick I picked tea with the tea people. We we had it was the most exhilarating experience. And we created the most beautiful book it was called it’s called Master JD at the magic tea house. David David to Candia is the tea master. So I wanted to give them something in the brand. So I let named after him. And he taught me you know, he’s certified me tea tasting and tea making and all that it was really exciting. And we made this book which was sold all over the United States and in all their stores with a tea that they made for children and herbal tea, which was exquisitely delicious, and they got to give it to orphanages, hospitals all over the world. So it was the project of my life. And I was so excited to be, and I still would love to work with brands to bring bring literacy projects to their, to whatever they want to do with it. And this is something books Nichols loves to do. I know how to do this, and it could be very exciting.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:32
Oh my gosh, that is such a fantastic story. I love that and, and who knew that that energy could go such an amazing direction?

Susan Chodakiewitz 15:41
It was amazing. Ah,

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 15:43
so how can others help us get inspired to read?

Susan Chodakiewitz 15:48
Good question. First of all, by being readers. Number one, there’s no better example, than reading at home. Whether you have one book or three books, or 10 books, you have to read at home, you have to have books in your hand to inspire your children to read, you have to talk about the books you read, you have to be excited about the ideas. And at the dinner table rather than talking about others, you talking about the books and the ideas that you’ve just discovered, oh, I just read this. Just got this great idea I learned about the cells in in the body today, or what did you learn? So at the table, ask the child, what did you learn today? Or what did you read today that inspired you? To me, that’s the number one. And there’s nothing more powerful than living by example. And secondly, is to encourage reading to children at that a small age from infancy. Even if they don’t listen, my kids, my grandchildren run around, I read them the book, I’ve enjoyed the book that play, but I’m reading the book, and they see me holding it. That’s very critically important. And for older kids, I think seeing books that also are made into movies, or made into plays, or documentaries, I think then buying the book or getting that book in the library and saying, Look, this is the origin of where it came from. And of course, final thing is having children express themselves creatively, because that’s one of the ways that books inspires us. It gives us ideas for art for for writing for music, for whatever and expose them to arts in any format.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 17:30
I agree I love those. I want to shift and get to know you a bed. And a question I have for you that I don’t usually have for others is well I’m a mom who intentionally raised my girls to be bilingual Spanish, so I’m super fascinated that you speak Spanish, Hebrew, French, obviously English. How did that wonderful multilingual background happen?

Susan Chodakiewitz 17:56
Oh, I know. That’s one of the blessings of my life. And one of my passions is languages and words. So I was blessed to be raised in a multicultural bilingual family. My mother was born in Cuba. I’m from Jewish origin, my parents came my father’s American Brooklyn born, as you could tell by my New York accent. They all over the world can’t get rid. My mom was raised in Cuba, born in Cuba and raised me Spanish. My grandparents who came from Eastern Europe from Russia, came to Cuba when they were like, in like late 19 1718 in their 20s. Married had families. So they lived with us when we migrated from Cuba to New York. And growing up, that’s what we spoke at home Spanish and English. So I learned French in school because I I knew Spanish from home. I said, Okay, I gotta learn another language. And I have this passion for France and the sound of the French language. Yes. So beautiful. So romantic music. And then Hebrew, I learned because I lived in Israel for three years. And I studied the language. And it’s also interesting, I like I enjoy Biblical Studies, I’d like to read in the original language. And that left love to study root words because words, sometimes teacher philosophy, and Hebrew is a very philosophical language, as you study the root word, and you learn like life changing ideas. So that’s how I got into language and that’s how I speak.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:30
Oh my gosh, very embarrassing. speak

Susan Chodakiewitz 19:32

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 19:33
I speak Spanish, but I started when I was 16. So people would ask me when my girls were little because I raised them overseas. They go oh, do they have like a Latino father because they were sponging it up at two and three and I had in the United States when they were born. I had Mexican daycare for them so they’d hear Spanish all day. So they wouldn’t have a gringo accent like I have. Yeah, they just like oh, oh, it’s like oh my gosh, yes.

Susan Chodakiewitz 20:00
That’s phenomenon vanish to me is the most useful language in the world.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:04
I grade that’s the language my micro school teaches we are too small to have a variety. And that’s the one I think is just super helpful immediately. And pretty much everywhere.

Susan Chodakiewitz 20:15
I know you’re interviewing me, but I’m super interested in micro education. I would love to hear more.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 20:21
We will talk offline. Tell me one passion that you bring to theater in the classroom.

Susan Chodakiewitz 20:28
When passionate braided theater, the classroom, I think, if I have to say one word, I would say inspiring creativity. That, to me, is the most important thing I can do for another human being is enabling and helping children and adults find what they’re excited about. And follow it. So why theater for that, because theater gives them the chance to explore music, dance, movement, writing, art, all things. And if they find an art form, or a tech form that they’re excited about. It’s like a light bulb turns on in your in your brain and in your heart. And that’s probably what I bring to anything I do in education and in reading and writing is my passion to inspire others, whatever it is that they will God, whatever God given talent they have.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 21:26
Exactly. Yes. And how about something that most folks don’t know about you?

Susan Chodakiewitz 21:33
Most folks don’t know about me. Let’s see. Let’s see that I’m very klutzy and clumsy. When I get to the table. That I you know, like my dad used to hold the tables that he or she comes he says he’s got to hold on to everything on the table. Oh, yes. And if there’s pets and dogs around, I will trip over them. Yes, I’ve met one of the books that I’m writing haven’t published it yet is called klutzy Katie. It’s about a little girl who just is a klutz. And she comes from a whole line of clumsy people. So but I haven’t published that one yet. So I’m working.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 22:11
Love it. And like to end my interviews with a magic wand moment, and you don’t just talk passion, you embody passion. And I love that you keep saying helping others inspiring them to find what it is they’re passionate about. It’s not that it has to be theater, it has to be literacy. So if you had a magic wand, what would you wish for our youth for that connection with their passion to happen?

Susan Chodakiewitz 22:40
Okay, my magic wand goes a little deeper than literacy, and books. But it starts with books, okay. My magic wand wouldn’t be to make children appreciative of others, and they’re called other cultures to eliminate hate to eliminate the the ability to be influenced by those who hate and so therefore, I wouldn’t, I would throw a magic wand over all the children of the world and say, embrace diversity and embrace other people’s faiths, religions, styles, personalities, and learn about others and open your minds and, and creative thoughts to appreciating the differences among us.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:31
Yes, Boy, wouldn’t this planet be totally transformed?

Susan Chodakiewitz 23:37
I pray through that every day. Oh my gosh.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:41
It is such a pleasure to get time with you. Susan, thank you so much for being our guest today.

Susan Chodakiewitz 23:47
Thank you Maureen it’s a pleasure.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 23:58
While Susan is focusing on the elementary grades, creative arts and drama are a wonderful way to increase literacy in secondary students as well. In fact, Susan is working with our middle school English language arts teacher. Our micro school is going to do a reader’s theater using one of the books sicko kits, we will film it and make sure to share it out. With literacy there is the possibility of increased awareness and the compassion. Susan’s Magic Wand of helping kids appreciate other cultures and eliminating hate ties into exposing students to a broader world and different perspectives. Books have always had the ability to take us far beyond our present reality. We want to embrace diversity and be curious about other cultures and ways of being. And I bet we can all do more to share from What we’re reading and inspire enthusiasm and curiosity through literature. Books are a technology that is timeless and priceless. So let’s look at how we can use literature to broaden everybody’s world, and our minds and our hearts. As always, thank you for being a part of the education evolution.

Maureen O’Shaughnessy 25:31
I know how challenging it is to make changes inside your own school or community. I’ve spent years working with schools around the world on creating learner centered programs. And it always struck me how much schools were able to get done with the right tools and guidance. If you’re ready to make changes like this in your own school, let’s talk and put together an action plan. Visit educationevolution.org/consult for a free 15 minute call. And let’s see if we’re a good fit for more work together. Thanks again for listening. To support the education evolution. Subscribe so it lands in your podcast app and gets out to more decision makers. Then rate and review it. For more information in shownotes go to educationevolution.org education evolution listeners, you are the ones to ensure we create classrooms where each student is seen, heard, valued and thriving. We are in this together and we need you. Let’s go out and reach every student today. Thank you for listening, signing off. I am Maureen O’Shaughnessy, your partner in boldly reimagining education

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

Latest Episodes

Unlocking the World of Literacy with Marnie Ginsburg

Reading is simple, right? Not for everyone, and it’s especially challenging for those who don’t have access to all the tools and resources they need to be successful. This week we hear from Marnie Ginsburg, founder of Reading Simplified, who has dedicated her career...

Leading Like a Teacher with Miriam Plotinsky

The further away administrators get from their roots as teachers, the more they forget what it’s like to be in the trenches. The result is often either a real or perceived lack of empathy for teachers. Both teachers and administrators have vital roles in the school,...

Following the Evidence for Effective Policy with Darleen Opfer

We all want what’s best for our learners, but oftentimes biases get in the way of having productive conversations about what learning should look like in the classroom. Instead, we need to have evidence- and research-based conversations that support what truly works...

Latest Blog Posts

Why Isn’t Educational Change Happening?

School change is so much harder than I thought! When I did my doctoral research on school innovation and created a hands-on learning school-within-a-school in the 90s, I had no idea that I’d spend the next few decades making tiny changes. Changes that often...

Instilling a Practice of Gratitude in Uncertain Times

Thanksgiving looks different this year. Traditions are being shattered in 2020 and new realities are emerging. Thanksgiving is no exception. After Canada’s Thanksgiving in October, COVID statistics jumped, reminding us that, sadly, the pandemic isn’t taking a break...

Building Interdisciplinary Learning into Traditional Classrooms

A traditional classroom setting is just that...traditional. Teachers must teach specific subjects for a required amount of time, often using prescribed curriculum materials that may be a decade old. There’s little consideration for the individual learner--their...

Coming Soon!
Listen to Education Evolution on Apple Podcasts
Listen to Education Evolution on Spotify
Listen to Education Evolution on Stitcher
Listen on Google Play Music

Related Posts

Leading Like a Teacher with Miriam Plotinsky

Leading Like a Teacher with Miriam Plotinsky

This week on the podcast, we’re welcoming back author and educator Miriam Plotinsky. She’s sharing about her latest book, Lead Like a Teacher, and talking about what school leaders can do to build more trust and a more collaborative school environment.

Sign Up for Podcast & Blog Announcements
and Get our Free Guide:
Five Interdependent Hacks to Lead the Creation of a Learner-Centered Culture!

By providing your email address you are agreeing to receive email communications from Education Evolution.
You can unsubscribe at any time.