Puppet Power, Part One: Let’s Make Puppets!

This is the first in a three-part series that offers ideas for families on creating your own puppet shows with Library collections. The series is inspired by the annual puppet show that had been held at the Library’s Young Readers Center the day after Thanksgiving since 2013.

This is a guest post by Leslie Long, with contribution from Sasha Dowdy.

Using puppets in storytelling can help children of many ages and abilities to develop literacy skills, such as building vocabulary, decoding, conversation, grammar, and general knowledge. Puppet shows can also help children develop their listening and participation skills. When creating puppets and puppet plays, children can foster skills in reading comprehension, adaptation of material into a different format, and collaboration.

Alice in Wonderland tea party

In 2012, the Library hosted a puppet-making workshop on the day after Thanksgiving, inspired by the beautiful puppet theater built for the Young Readers Center (YRC) by carpenters working for the Architect of the Capitol. Building on the success of that program, from 2013 through 2019, Library staffer Leslie Long and her husband Joe Mancuso added a puppet show to the puppet-making workshop. Many costumes and all set pieces were either hand-made, adapted, or upcycled, and the program was staged with the help of Library staff, interns, and volunteers. This became an annual event for both staff and local families. This year, we’re looking at ways to continue the tradition from home using inspiration from the Library’s collections and past puppet programs. To begin your puppet show planning…

Choose a Story:

A Scene from The Reluctant Dragon

A Scene from The Reluctant Dragon

Here are examples of stories we have presented in past years, but you can pick any story you love or, of course, make up your own.

  • 2013: Jon Scieszka’s The Real Story of the Three Little Pigs
  • 2014: Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are
  • 2015: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in honor of the 150th anniversary of the book’s publication
  • 2016: Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Tale of Benjamin Bunny and The Tailor of Gloucester, in honor of the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth
  • 2017: Ashley Bryan’s African and Caribbean folktales Beautiful Black Bird, The Dancing Granny and The Story of Lightning and Thunder
  • 2018: Kenneth Grahame’s story “The Reluctant Dragon,” along with our own adaptation of a traditional mummer’s play, “St. George and the Dragon,” and a sword dance performed by the puppeteers.
  • 2019: Joseph and James Bruchac’s book The Girl Who Helped Thunder and Other Native American Folktales: “How Stories Came to Be” (Seneca), “The Ball Game Between the Birds and the Animals” (Cherokee), “The Coming of Corn (Choctaw), “The Story of Tu-tok-a-nu-la,” (Miwok), and “Moon and Frog Old Woman,” (Maidu). Our finale was the picture book Turtle’s Race with Beaver (Seneca) by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Ariane Dewey.

For that program in 2019, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo provided a beautiful statement on the power of stories. It read:

“All human beings are story gatherers. We native peoples have been fed by stories we have gathered for thousands of years, long before any Europeans arrived on the shores of this country. We need stories, poems, songs, dance and art as much as we need food, clothing and shelter. We need to feed our imaginations, our spirits. We share stories by drums talking across distances, in novels and movies, and now on cellphones. We love to gather in circles around the fire, whether it’s outside at a ceremonial ground, a trash can in the forgotten part of the city, or in the kitchen around the stove–to hear. When we listen to stories together our hearts beat together. We become one.”

Puppet Power troupe takes a bow after the show, 2017

For story ideas, you can retell your favorite folktale, fable, or picture book, explore our collection of classic children’s books, or create your own. Kids can also get inspired by hearing authors and poets reading their work in online collections from the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center.

Once you decide on the story and characters, it’s time to create your puppets. Stick puppets are easy to make, and you can use some of the Library’s image collections to help you.

Make Stick Puppets:

    1. Using cardstock, draw your own puppet or you can print out figures from: coloring pages (for example, this dog owl, fox, hare from the Library’s Japanese woodblock collections), one of the Library’s poster collections (check out this hippo or panda!), images in our popular Free to Use and Reuse images, which are organized by topic.
    2. Color your puppet (if necessary) and cut it out. Add any extra decorations you would like, such as googly eyes or yarn hair.
    3. Glue the back of your puppet to a long, smooth stick. A paint stirring stick is perfect.

Next, it’s time to make your puppet theater!  Beginning in 2018, the YRC puppet show was performed in a folding puppet theater built by Michael Lamason, Director of Black Cherry Puppet Theater in Baltimore, which we could carry to the location of our show. But, for purposes of performing at home, the theater can be quite simple.

Make Your Puppet Theater:

  1. Open the ends of a cardboard box for the puppet stage. Glue or tape one of the flaps closed so that you don’t reveal the hands of the puppeteer!
  2. Paint and decorate the outside of your puppet theater anyway you want.
  3. You can even attach a curtain with double-sided tape!
  4. Cut slim holes in the side to slide your puppets through.
  5. Place your puppet theater on a table and start the show!

Afterward, you and your family can look together for stories that extend the theme of your puppet show. In the YRC, each puppet show has included at least one library book truck as part of the set design.  One year a book truck was the sea Max’s boat sailed on to reach the land of the wild things.  Another year, it was the table for the mad tea party Alice attended.  My colleagues are still finding Velcro that we attached to book trucks to keep props in place!

Joe and I thank our puppeteers, the YRC and our many supportive friends, colleagues and supervisors for helping us perform this magical public service.

Read more about how to make puppets:

  • Bryan, Ashley.  Ashley Bryan’s Puppets.  New York:  Atheneum, 2014.
  • Engler, Larry and Carol Fijan.  Making Puppets Come Alive.  New York:  Dover, 1973.
  • Kennedy, John.  Puppet Mania.  Cincinnati:  North Light, 2004.
  • Kennedy, John.  Puppet Planet.  Cincinnati:  North Light, 2006.
  • MacNeal, Noel.  10-Minute Puppets.  New York:  Workman, 2010.

Article Citations:

2 Comments

  1. Margaret M Meacham
    November 23, 2020 at 5:45 pm

    Thank you! I’ve been looking for information on puppet making for my grandkids. This perfect!

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