Kids Can Learn Sign Language, Storytelling and Teamwork with Sweet Animated Video Calvin Can’t Fly

Jennifer Berne wrote the storybook Calvin Can’t Fly: The Story of a Bookworm Birdie in 2010, and her second cousin Sarah Michaelson directed and produced a video version last year. Her 30-minute film integrates American Sign Language and voiceovers with animation to tell a story of diversity, teamwork and acceptance. The presentation is available for in-person or online screenings anywhere in the US, for kindergartners through fourth graders and their families. Starlings mock Calvin from Calvin Can't Fly, illustrated by Keith Bendis. Diane Lee animates Keith Bendis’ sweet and colorful watercolor-looking drawings that share the adventures of Calvin the outsider young starling bird. He’s born in a barn to a big family of siblings and cousins, but when they all attend flying school, Calvin buries his beak in books instead. Calvin the young starling reads everywhere in Calvin Can't Fly, illustrated by Keith Bendis His compatriots tease him by calling him a “nerdy birdie,” a “geeky beaky,” and, worse still, a bookworm. The story reminds that “when you’re a bird, being called a worm is a very bad thing.” But Calvin persists in his studies, learning about pirates and cave dwellers, volcanos and rainbows, whales and dinosaurs, and how caterpillars become butterflies. He notes that “books take him places that wings never could.” However, when autumn arrives, his flock needs to migrate south, but Calvin still can’t fly. “Ah, yes, migration. I’ve read about that,” he says. The flock has some ideas on how to save Calvin, and he is also able to repay their kindness with his own knowledge base. This tale shows how the marginalized can find purpose and strength in their special skills. Crom Saunders' eyebrows. Image courtesy The first half of the video is the story’s animation, scored with lively music by John Erickson and Kate Waters’ diverse sound effects, like worm and beetle noises plus lots of chirps. Producer Michael Herzovi provides the audio narration over Crom Saunders on-camera sign language. Saunders' engaging signing and self-described “amazing and powerful eyebrows” illuminate this story of finding self-acceptance (his regular job is Deaf Studies Director at Columbia College’s ASL Department). Crom Saunders with his eyebrows. Image courtesy The film’s final 15 minutes are an interactive sign language lesson with Liz Tannebaum, voiced by Michaelson. Tannebaum teaches viewers how deaf name signs are made, as well as showing specific story signs like jump, dance, fly, worms, dirt and water, a pivotal word for Helen Keller. Liz Tannebaum. Image courtesy American Sign Language pops up in popular culture from time to time, like with the play and movie of Children of a Lesser God in the '80s, Chicago’s Police Deaf Near Far play at the dawn of the millennium, and, more recently, in the Marvel Universe, where signing characters appear in the TV series Hawkeye and in the feature film Eternals (although not sure why near-immortal synthetic beings created by the Celestials speak American sign language). The Calvin Can’t Fly video offers sweet, succinct and participatory diversity and inclusion lessons, and is recommended for birthday parties for kids aged K-4, or at any family-friendly event. Information is available about the video project, and screenings can be requested online or via email.
Picture of the author
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.