By Lynne Conner | OSV News
Persistence paid off in a big way for students at Aurora-area Catholic grade schools in the Rockford Diocese, thanks to the efforts of Holy Angels School librarian Diane Rodriguez.
Rodriguez was instrumental in bringing Tony award-winning Broadway star Idina Menzel and her sister, acclaimed writer and teacher Cara Mentzel, to Holy Angels School Sept. 15 for a once-in-a-lifetime presentation. The sisters visited the school as part of a tour promoting their latest book, “Proud Mouse: How a Little Sister Found Her Own Way.”
“We are so blessed by the efforts of Mrs. Rodriguez in arranging this visit by Idina Menzel and Cara Mentzel,” Holy Angels School principal Tonya Forbes told The Observer, Rockford’s diocesan newspaper. “We invited students from our neighboring Catholic elementary schools; Pope St. John Paul II Catholic Academy, Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St. Rita of Cascia, for this unique opportunity because we wanted to share the message of their book and the experience of seeing these two talented women in person.”
A long-standing relationship with Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville set the stage for the visit.
“We do our school book fairs through Anderson’s, and they send us a list of authors coming to the area for book signings,” Rodriguez explained. “When I saw that Idina Menzel and Cara Mentzel were on the list, I bid on having them come to Holy Angels. I kept emailing the bookshop, telling them we wanted to be ‘Team Proud Mouse’ and have this fantastic opportunity for our students.”
Rodriguez discovered that Holy Angels was selected this summer and set up the program while batting COVID-19. “I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way of having the students hear Proud Mouse read by its authors. It’s a perfect way to start off our school year,” she said.
Students gathered in the gym and listened to the sisters read their book. The sisters answered questions and led a sing-a-long with students.
Mentzel played the ukulele and sang “I’m Just Going to be Me,” a song from the book. When she made a slight mistake during the performance, both sisters shared a laugh, and Menzel used it as a teachable moment. “You made a mistake and learned something about yourself. Now everyone gets to see your vulnerability and desire to be human.”
Menzel’s comments reflect the theme of “Proud Mouse,” a lyrical autobiographical story about two sisters discovering their unique talents and gifts.
The sisters shared stories of their childhood and how they each discovered their vocation in life. “Growing up, I was always singing,” Menzel said. “My grandfather saw the performer in me, and we would make up songs and plays together. He would introduce me by saying, ‘Ladies and Germs, please welcome to the living room, Miss Idina!’ Then, I would pop up from behind the couch and perform. He was my inspiration. Growing up in Manhattan, my parents often brought me to Broadway shows.”
Mentzel, a teacher and writer, credits her sons for helping her discover a career path in life.
“Two of my little boys had very different learning styles. Sometimes, they had difficulty in school and making friends,” she said. “It became clear when they were in kindergarten that I could better help them if I had some education training. So, I went to school and became an advocate for my sons and then an advocate for all children, which was pretty awesome.”
“I was the older sister who always wanted to sing and perform,” Menzel said. “But when I saw Cara teaching in front of an audience of college students, I could see how intrigued and curious they were about what she was saying. That’s when I knew her talent was teaching.”
The highlight of the sisters’ presentation came when Menzel, best known for her role as Elsa in the movie “Frozen,” asked the students, “Do you want to build a snowman? Can Olaf give us some warm hugs today? Who does that sound like?” As the students erupted into cheers and applause, Menzel led a sing-a-long of the Grammy-award-winning song “Let It Go,” which she sang in the movie.
Holy Angels fifth-grader Charlotte Meyer was most interested in asking the sisters what inspired them to write the “Proud Mouse” book. “We read the book in music class, and I like how the book’s message is about finding your own voice and talents.”
Charlotte’s classmate, Matty Bianchi, said, “I think Cara is an excellent author, and the book is really well-written.”
Menzel and Mentzel concluded their time at Holy Angels by signing well over 200 copies of their book, which students had pre-ordered.
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Lynne Conner is a correspondent for The Observer, newspaper of the Diocese of Rockford.