The Children’s Literature Department of Los Angeles Central Library is so vast and awe-inspiring, one of its most fascinating offerings could be easily overlooked. Displayed each year for a limited time are professionally hand-made puppets depicting the primary character from each year’s FOCAL Award-winning titles. The awards, given for the best children’s book with California content, are chosen by FOCAL (Friends of Children and Literature), a support group of the Central Library Children's Literature Department.
Every year two identical puppets are made. One is given to the award-winning author, and the Children’s Literature Department receives the second puppet. The puppets go on display around the time of the awards ceremony usually held in early December and are on view usually through January of the following year. They are then removed from display and are kept in protective storage.
Renny Day, a former Senior Librarian in the department, recalls how FOCAL and puppets first connected. “I had arrived at Central from the Western Region,” Ms. Day said, “where there was a tradition of puppet plays, and I knew they were a fantastic draw, both for children and adults. So, at first, we borrowed some puppets from the Western Region, but after FOCAL was formed, we finally had funds to purchase our own puppet 'cast.' Priscilla Moxom, then head of Children’s Services, heard about a woman in Hollywood who made puppets, so Priscilla and I headed for Carol Onofrio’s house one day to see if she could help us, and the rest is history.”
Carol Onofrio Creates the Original FOCAL Puppets
“Carol created memorable puppets to be 'actors' in the plays written, and performed, by the department staff, not only on Saturdays but during the week for class visits,” Ms. Day added. “We did shows on demand. When King Tut came to town, we had an Egyptian play ready, complete with a villain and a damsel in distress. Was the class studying California history? We had an exciting drama about the Gold Rush ready to roll. And, as always, Carol kept coming up with new puppet performers for these dramas. Although she was not among the original founders of FOCAL, she certainly became an important figure in our children’s literature department’s history.”
Ms. Day said it was FOCAL member Sandy Schuckett who suggested that the annual FOCAL award be a puppet and the main character in the prize-winning book. “I connected with Carol the next day and we were off and running,” she said. Mrs. Onofrio hand-delivered each year’s puppet in its own special basket to the awards ceremony each year, from 1980 to 2013. She died in 2014.
A Little History
The FOCAL Award was first given in 1980, to Leo Politi, Los Angeles author and illustrator, for Pedro, the Angel of Olvera Street; His book is displayed beside Onofrio’s puppet of Pedro in the first of the display cases.
Kingsley Takes up the Mantle
Since 2014, local puppeteer and artist Jesse Kingsley has created the FOCAL puppets in collaboration with his wife Moira Lael MacDonald, an instructor in theater arts and costume design. Jesse has been sculpting and creating since he was a young child and has worked with The Mystery Puppet Theater.
The first puppet created for FOCAL by Jesse Kingsley was of Katherine, the main character in The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins.
The 2018 Winner
The 2018 FOCAL prize was awarded on December 8 to Uma Krishnaswami for Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh. Set during World War II, it is the story of a nine-year-old girl who yearns to play baseball on a new team in an All-American Girls’ League. She challenges prejudice and discriminatory laws while her father, originally from India, and her mother, who was born in Mexico, struggles to keep their farm in Yuba City, California. This book, like all the prize winners, is available from the library.
The FOCAL puppet display is available to see in the Children's Literature Dept. anytime during library hours, or join us for one of our docent tours. You can also make an appointment for your school or youth group by writing email@example.com or calling 213-228-7168 to arrange a custom tour.
Neither lockdowns nor a pandemic can stop FOCAL from honoring outstanding writers and illustrators of children’s books with a California theme. All three are also represented by puppets in the Children’s Literature Dept.’s display case for you to see and, of course, all the books are available to read.
Here are the most recent winners:
Biddy Mason Speaks Up (2021) Arisa White
Todos Iguales / All Equal: un corrido de Lemon Grove / A Ballad of Lemon Grove (2020) Christy Hale
Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix (2019) Jacqueline Briggs Martin & June Jo Lee (authors), and Man One (Illustrator)
By docents Suzanne Childs, and Hannah Kramer
Special thanks to Madeleine Bryant, Renny Day, Diana Rosen, and Neale Stokes.