Maxine Hong Kingston, Earll Kingston join Berkeley Symphony to add bass to bedtime stories

Francesca Hodges/Staff

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There’s nothing like hearing a story read aloud, especially by a librarian or teacher. As library doors are now shut and classes forced online, it would seem that live readings are a thing of the past. However, the Berkeley Public Library has teamed up with the Berkeley Symphony to bring readings back, with even more enthusiasm and animation than before. 

Through the “Reading Is Instrumental: All-Star Storytime” program, Bay Area celebrities will be livestreaming readings of children’s books, accompanied by Berkeley Symphony musicians. The series streams every Friday at 11 a.m. on the Berkeley Public Library’s Facebook page, where past recordings may also be found. 

On Oct. 2, renowned author and UC Berkeley professor emerita Maxine Hong Kingston and her husband, actor Earll Kingston, read Carol Diggory Shields’ book, “Baby’s Got the Blues.” The couple streamed in from their Oakland backyard, a sunny scene of fruit trees and sprouting vines. Decked in yellow, the two described their close ties to the area: Hong Kingston attended UC Berkeley for her undergraduate education and Kingston is an Oakland native who also attended the university before teaching at Berkeley High School. 

The introduction was nothing short of endearing, as Hong Kingston and Kingston shared their quarantine hobbies — the couple loves spending time in their bountiful fruit garden. As for the reading, the two selected “Baby’s Got the Blues” because the illustration on the cover reminded them of their recently born grandson. 

Before the reading, Michel Taddei, principal bassist with the Berkeley Symphony, prepared to accompany the Kingstons with a jaunty blues melody. Taddei introduced the reading with a short introduction to the piece he was going to play, speaking slowly to ensure adolescent understanding. He demonstrated a short excerpt of classical music, which the Berkeley Symphony usually stays true to, before showing the different arrangement of a blues piece. 

The reading itself was incredibly high-spirited, as Hong Kingston and Kingston enunciated slowly with a curious tone. Alternating pages between the two of them, the couple read an inside view of the daily plights of a baby, written from the baby’s perspective. Writing in an alternating rhyme scheme, Diggory Shields creates a natural and playful cadence to her book, which Hong Kingston and Kingston brought to their reading. 

As each page was read, it was a pleasure to see the reactions of the other reader. Hong Kingston and Kingston both brought animated facial expressions and hand gestures to the reading, which additionally enlivened the performance. 

The accompanying illustrations were enlarged to fill the screen, which made it seem like a real-life reading, where a librarian would slowly show the collective group of students each page. Lauren Tobia, the illustrator, draws with an incredible lightness of hand; her pieces span the entire double page, creating an immersive world of detail and character. 

Taddei’s playing continued throughout the entire reading; his pizzicato performance matched the cadency of the book. It had a slow, mysterious progression that remained light and surprising — a repeating melody that still allowed space for the reading itself to shine. 

After her reading, Hong Kingston engaged further with her virtual audience by asking a few questions to the listeners. Both her and husband then promoted the series and advertised that the book may be picked up at the Berkeley Public Library for rent. 

The “Reading Is Instrumental: All-Star Storytime” series will continue through the month of October and will feature readers such as Joseph Young, music director of the Berkeley Symphony; Michael Kwende, Berkeley Public Library children’s librarian; and Marcus Semien, baseball player for the Oakland Athletics. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.