Monday, July 15, 2019

Nature in the heart of downtown

by C.J. Hirschfield

Did you know that Children’s Fairyland is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, licensed by the National Wildlife Federation? We were so pleased to have met their high standards for admission many years ago: “because of the owner’s conscientious planning, landscaping and sustainable gardening, wildlife may find quality habit—food, water, cover and places to raise their young.”

A large nest was discovered at Fairyland, photo by Rita Hurault

This last bit was once again brought home to roost (pun intended) when we discovered yet another abandoned and beautiful bird nest last week. Jen, Fairyland’s fearless gardener, found it just behind the big white rabbit that guards the entrance of our Alice in Wonderland Tunnel. “I thought it was trash,” she says when she came upon what looked like a mass of twigs, resting on top of some other plants. Upon closer inspection, however, it was clear that a very industrious bird (a towhee, Jen surmises) had created a masterpiece. “It was made of wondrous things,” she says, and cites them: silvery dusty miller leaves, airy and delicate seed pods from love-in-a-mist (a medicinal plant found in Tut’s tomb), fibers from the trunk of a fan palm.

Oh yes, and two other ingredients that are not plant-based: a piece of ribbon that we attach to our iconic Magic Keys, and what Jen says is the preferred material she’s found on the very interior portions of Fairyland’s finest nests — the area intended to be the softest, to protect the egg. It is hair from the tail of our mini-horse, Pixie. The strands are delicately woven together; their white color is distinctive. Lucky for the birds, this happens to be the time of year she sheds the most.

“Fairyland is a huge habitat for birds,” says Jen, who is particularly proud of the park’s organic gardening that involves no pesticides. She notes the presence of pools, Lake Merritt, and the many acres of gardens represented by both Fairyland and the Gardens of Lake Merritt across the street, which provide abundant water, seeds, insects and places to forage.

Jen has appreciated the large number of nests that she’s come across over the last few years she’s been with us. In addition to towhees, she’s marveled at the work of robins, bluebirds and insect-eating phoebes, but it is the tiny hummingbird nests that are her favorite. She even has a nest collection at home, which she protects in a display case. 

Fairyland Super Volunteer Rita Hurault and nest, photo by C.J.

So what did Jen do with our latest, and quite glorious nest? She gave it to our wonderful gardening volunteer Rita Hurault, who was on the job that day. And what a perfect person to receive it. Rita retired not that long ago, after having taught for 28 years as a pre- and after-school teacher at San Francisco’s Tule Elk Park Children Center. Rita recalls that in 1994 the school tore out its asphalt playground, and installed a natural garden for inner-city kids in its place. “That’s why Fairyland is such a perfect fit for me,” she says. “I’ve been doing stuff with nature to try to save the planet for a long time.” She describes the nest as being “very, very beautiful,” appreciating its complexity, thoughtful structure, and little touches of color throughout.

Rita got only a few steps outside of our fairy gates before she had to stop and share the nest with all the kids who were leaving the park that day. She also took it with her to a hair appointment afterward, where there were ample “oohs” and “ahhs”— coming from adults this time.

Rita, who is also a fabulous visual artist, isn’t quite sure what she will do with the nest; she’s considering displaying it in a clear container, or maybe passing it along to her teacher friend who educates kids using gardens.

Children’s Fairyland may be located in the heart of downtown Oakland, but we’ve got a whole lotta nature goin’ on.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 17 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s oldest storybook theme park.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Please welcome Fairyland's new executive director

Kymberly Miller, Fairyland's new executive director

Dear Friend of Fairyland,

Following a robust national search for an entrepreneurial, visionary, and innovative new leader of America's first storybook-themed park, the Children's Fairyland Board of Directors is thrilled to announce the appointment of long-time East Bay resident Ms. Kymberly Miller as its new executive director.

As Fairyland's Board President, I'm so delighted to welcome Kymberly here. She brings wonderful enthusiasm, deep management experience, and enormous expertise in developing and running engaging programs for children and their families. She truly understands how the programs and activities and the place of Fairyland stimulate creativity, imagination, and learning among young children, which is the core of everything we do.

Kymberly comes to Fairyland after an 11+ year career at Girl Scouts of Northern California, where she gained valuable experience in youth development and non-profit business management. In her role as senior director, program, she was accountable for the comprehensive design and implementation of innovative strategies to serve girls, ages 5-17, and oversaw 40 staff members. She is passionate about delivering satisfying experiences and support to children and their families.

Prior to Girl Scouts, Kymberly spent almost nine years directing operational activities in a book sales, marketing, and distribution company where she addressed issues relating to office operations, HR, and IT. She brings all that experience and passion for children with her to Fairyland.

Kymberly says, "I am thrilled to serve Children's Fairyland and its amazing community. The rich history and vibrant renewal of the past decade deepened the park's iconic place in Oakland and the Bay Area, and I am excited to build on the successes while looking towards the future. I have devoted the better part of my career to supporting young people and I feel blessed to have this opportunity with the staff, board, volunteers, partners, and community, to be a part of the next chapter in the story of Children's Fairyland.

"Little did I know that after making great memories here with my own family that I would return in an altogether new and exciting capacity."

Kymberly is a graduate of Mills College with a B.A. in Political, Legal and Economic Analysis with a Minor in Ethnic Studies. She has served on two non-profit boards helping her build stronger ties to the community. After 25 years in Oakland, she resides with her family in Alameda, and is excited at the opportunity to join an organization that is supporting the well-being and spirit of Oakland and Bay Area families. She begins her new role on August 6, 2019.

With deep appreciation,

Theresa Nelson
Board President, Children's Fairyland

Saturday, July 6, 2019

I love a parade

by C.J. Hirschfield

I’ve always loved Piedmont’s Fourth of July parade. It’s just the right combination of community and capriciousness; of service and steam engines; bagpipes and balloons. And dogs. And kids. And how can you not love a parade that features “Peace and Love” in its theme, on a day devoted to patriotism?

I’d always been a Piedmont parade viewer, but this year for the first time, I was actually in the parade, driven in a super-cool ’67 Chevy convertible. It was such an honor to be recognized for leading Children’s Fairyland for the last 17 years; I was once again reminded of how many locals—both young and old—have made beautiful memories at our community’s special storybook theme park—the nation’s first. I had a ton of fun!

Fairyland’s executive director and the car she drove in as part of Piedmont’s Fourth of July Parade.

I’ve been reflecting on the parades I’ve been able to be part of over the years: Fairyland leads the Oakland Pride Parade, has represented in the Black Cowboys’ Parade, and while it lasted, the Oakland Holiday Parade.

But my very first parade was a surprise, historic, emotional, and absolutely unforgettable.

The year was 1978, and I was a twenty-something living the dream in San Francisco, and running the city’s public access channel. My childhood friend Nancy had also moved to the Bay Area from our hometown of Los Angeles, and I knew that she was part of a marching band called the Lavender Harmony Band, and that they were scheduled to be part of that year’s Gay Freedom Day Parade, as it was then called. Over 250,000 were expected to participate; it turned out to be only a few months before the assassination of gay rights leader Harvey Milk, and years before the AIDS scourge would cost us so many. The parade was political—how could it not be, with State Senator John Briggs trying to pass a bill to prohibit gays from teaching in the schools, and with Florida orange juice frontwoman Anita Bryant promising to bring her anti-gay message to California and beyond.

San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk at that city’s 1978 Gay Freedom Day Parade (Terry Schmitt/SF Chronicle)

At the last minute, one of the band’s drum majors was down with the flu, and the group was in panic mode. Nancy called me and asked if I had a jacket, and if I would take on the role. Without even thinking, I said “yes,” not knowing what to expect. That’s just what you do when you’re young.

I had no idea how large the event would be, how overwhelming the emotions, how important it would feel, and how much love lived just below the politics. And how physically and mentally demanding the job of a drum major is. I didn’t know that, because of the huge throngs of participants and attendees, the leaders of bands have to effectively communicate to their followers (without sound) about the correct speed, and turns that are needed to stay in step with the greater whole. Before long, I completely lost my resentment about the fact that my fellow drum major was far more attractive than me. He looked like a model.

The only bad part about being in a parade is not being able to see all of the parade. It was only that night that I heard what Harvey Milk had said to the crowds that day.

He urged his gay brothers and sisters to come out. Here’s part of what he said:

Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth!
Come out… to your relatives. I know that is hard and will upset them but think of how they will upset you in the voting booth.
Come out to your friends… if they indeed they are your friends.
Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop…
Come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions.
For your sake.
For their sake.
After the parade, I was exhausted. 
The Briggs’ Initiative was defeated a few months after the parade; it even lost in Briggs’ own Orange County, a conservative stronghold.
Bryant’s campaign to repeal the anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida and around the country was more successful. It was only in 1998 that Dade County reauthorized the ordinance, protecting individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Like I said, I’m all about parade themes that feature “peace and love,” particularly if they fall on a holiday that celebrates the founding ideal of our country: that all of us are created equal.
C.J. Hirschfield has served for 17 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s oldest storybook theme park.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Gnomes of Oakland

by C.J. Hirschfield

This is a column that originally ran on January 30, 2013, when the mysterious “gnomes of Oakland” appeared on PG&E poles all around the city. Fairyland did make contact with the anonymous artist, who told us he used walking his dog late at night as “cover” for attaching the tiny wooden canvases.

At our recent Turn the Page! children’s book authors and illustrators event, we featured one of our favorite local authors, Kamaria Lofton, and the new book in her “Kids Love Oakland!” series, “The Gnomes of Oakland.” The book tells the story of what the gnomes do at night. “They hide in plain sight and can only be seen by those whose hearts are filled with Oakland things.”

Local author Kamaria Lofton at Fairyland’s Turn the Page! children’s book authors and illustrators event reading from her new book, "The Gnomes of Oakland." 

Original column:

About a week ago, I discovered that another Fairyland employee and I shared an obsession. With gnomes. In Oakland.

There are exactly 11 gnomes between my house and Fairyland. I’ve counted. I first discovered them when I observed a young neighbor giggling in delight as she ran from telephone pole to telephone pole, her dad tagging behind. She was squealing and pointing to the base of each pole. Her dad observed my questioning look, shrugged his shoulders and said with a big smile: “Gnomes.”

My co-worker Emily first noticed them in December as she was walking to work. “My first sighting was on Park View, across the street from Fairyland,” she recalls. “Then I noticed another. And another. That’s when I became really curious and started keeping my eye out for them.”

Gnome and toadstool on a telephone pole | photo by Gene via Oakland Wiki

I did some research. Here’s what I learned.

The gnomes seem to be multiplying daily, spreading all over the city of Oakland. They are painted on pieces of what appear to be recycled wood, about five inches square. The little plaques appear at the base of telephone poles but not trees. Some of the gnomes are wearing pants; some are dressed in kilts. Occasionally there will be a drawing of a mushroom next to the gnome. The artist, who so far has chosen to remain anonymous, paints in what could be described as a folk art style, colorful and childlike.

According to rumor, the artist may have begun the project near a pizza joint across the lake from Fairyland, since there seem to be so many gnomes there. But Emily, who now goes on expeditions to search for them, is convinced that they’re on the move. “I’m so into them,” she says. No kidding.

You shouldn’t be surprised that Fairyland workers are happy about the gnomes. We follow the park founders’ credo of “a surprise around every corner” as we look to enhance the experience of our guests, and the gnomes represent the continuation of this spirit outside our fairy gates. As a matter of fact, one of our art department employees, Shannon, recently came up with a prototype for small “fairy doors” that we will be placing at various locations around the park, encouraging kids (and their adults) to engage in some interactive and imaginative play. The doors could open into gnome homes, couldn’t they? Or as Emily puts it, “Gnomes obviously fit in at Fairyland. That’s just a given.”

Which I’m sure is why, just as I was preparing to write this column, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle called me to say she was writing an article on the phenomenon. Who better to comment on the whimsical and wonderful side of Oakland than a Fairyland spokesperson?

Here’s what I told her, and what I’ll tell you now.

We celebrate the spirit of whoever went to so much effort to create happiness-producing art all over our urban neighborhoods. This isn’t just about kids: My white-collar husband got just as excited as our young neighbor when he discovered the little guys. Like me and Emily, he was tickled by the mystery, and by the gnomes’ effect on his imagination. Who painted them? One person, or a team? Do they work under cover of darkness? And the most basic mystery of all: Why gnomes?

We don’t mind if the artist or artists remain anonymous. But we do want to show them some Fairyland love by offering them one of our new gold-plated Magic Storybook Keys. There’s a great knothole in an old tree just outside Fairyland’s gates. We could arrange to leave it there.

If you’re reading this, Mr. or Ms. Gnome Painter, we hope you’ll decide to take us up on our offer. And we seriously hope you keep the gnomes coming. Because right about now, Oakland can use a little more art, a little more whimsy, and a little more community.


C.J. Hirschfield has served for 17 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s oldest storybook theme park.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Citizens By Choice

By C.J. Hirschfield

Three years ago, Children’s Fairyland was approached by the federal government with an offer we just couldn’t refuse. Could we host a special citizenship ceremony, one solely for young children? Faster than you can say “happily ever after,“ we were in, agreeing to provide a day’s worth of fun for the families afterward too. Our Aesop’s Playhouse was packed with family members and well-wishers; there was music, speakers, an oath, as well as some tears, including my own. Twenty children, ages 3-9, from nine different countries were sworn in. We loved it. We repeated it the next year, and are so happy to say that we will be hosting the event once again, in July.

With Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf looking on, a new U.S. citizen, born in Nigeria, reads the Pledge of Allegiance at the 2017 children's naturalization ceremony held at Children's Fairyland.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ San Francisco Field Office explained that while adults and teens typically have ceremonies dedicated to them, it’s far less common for the younger kids to have a celebration of their own. Oakland’s Paramount Theatre holds two naturalization ceremonies for adults every month, swearing in approximately 1000 at each event. I’ve been to a couple, and they are both beautiful and inspiring.

The 2017 children's naturalization ceremony at Children's Fairyland in Oakland, California.

When I was asked last week if I would be interested in being a featured speaker at one of the adult ceremonies next week, I couldn’t say no. But I did request that a box of tissues be available at the podium, just in case.

My remarks should be less than five minutes, and should not be political. I will be speaking to immigrants representing 80 different nations. I intend to tell the story of my immigrant grandfather Morris Hirschfield, who came to America from what was then Austria-Hungary right around the turn of the last century when he was only 16. He sailed alone, came through Ellis Island, and settled in the Lower East Side of New York, which was both the center of the nation’s garment production, and a focus of its immigrant life.

Anna and Morris Hirschfield, 1923

If you’ve ever visited the Tenement Museum in New York and taken the Sweatshop Workers’ tour, you’ll see how my grandfather lived, working as a tailor. He later started his own garment district operation, and when automobiles became a thing, he made his living by selling used cars. He and my grandmother, who was from the same town in Europe, never attended college, but all of their kids—and grandkids—did. As it turns out, it was a good thing they left the old country, because in World War II they lost nearly every family member to the Nazis.

My other grandfather was born in England.
My in-laws were both born in the Czech Republic.
You get the idea.

I’m still working on my remarks, but I think I know what the ending will be like.

Oakland is one of the most diverse cities in the nation, with over 27% of our residents foreign-born.

Our diversity is our strength; what our mayor calls part of the “secret sauce” that makes our city great.

I work in a storybook theme park—I understand the power of stories. Each of you Americans by choice have a very special story; you’ve worked toward this day for years. Share your stories, your talents, and your dreams with us; we’ll be better for it. Now you can vote, serve on a jury, and even run for office—and I hope you’ll take full advantage of these and so many more opportunities that will be open to you.

We see you, we welcome you, we thank you, we love you.

(Pass that box of tissues) and congratulations!


C.J. Hirschfield has served for 17 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s oldest storybook theme park.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Stamp of approval: The World's Smallest Post Service meets the country's once-smallest post office

By C.J. Hirschfield

She runs "The World’s Smallest Post Service." I run a park that contains what used to be the country’s smallest post office. We’re both in Oakland. Clearly, our paths were destined to cross, and they did last week. What may come of our meeting might just get more kids writing letters — real, live letters that generate love and joy — and that would be a good thing on many levels, we both believe.
That penny proves that Lea's tiny mail really is quite small!
Artrepeneur Lea Redmond says she started the World's Smallest Post Service (WSPS) on a whim back in 2008, locating it out on the corner of Sweet Adeline’s Bakeshop in Oakland. Dressed in a postal uniform she made herself, she transcribed tiny letters for passers-by seated by her miniature wooden rolltop desk. People loved it. It eventually became so popular that she started a website offering a handful of tiny mail items to be shipped inside slightly-larger boxes so they don’t get lost. To date, her tiny mail has charmed tens of thousands of both senders and receivers. 

Lea grew up in Seal Beach, California, and spent much of her time as a kid at The Desk Drawer, a local stationery store where she was delighted by the stickers and paper. She was always into letter writing, which she says was normal to her as a kid, but now, with smartphones and emails, “tangible letters seem all the more meaningful to both the writer and the receiver.” She believes that people want to slow down, to reflect, and to appreciate each other. “Tiny mail offers one small way to do just that,” she says.

Lea also created a “Letters To My:” series of charming interactive books (Letters to my Future Self, Letters to my Grandchildren, Letters to my Baby) which was picked up by Oprah as one of her favorite things. The resulting financial success, Lea says, “is why as an artist I didn’t have to leave the Bay Area.”
With the Tiny Mail Stationery Kit, you can make your own tiny letters and packages. It's like the DIY home version of the World’s Smallest Post Service.

What kinds of tiny letters do people send? Love letters, birthday greetings, notes from the tooth fairy, wedding invites, letters from fairies, mice and Santa’s elves—even wedding proposals. And what do people write? “They are so heartfelt and creative,” Lea says. To send tiny mail, you type out the info for your custom tiny letters and packages through the company website, add real-world shipping addresses, review your order, and go through checkout. What then? You can either think of a magic wand turning it into a tiny version, or you could imagine a careful process involving a fancy laser printer, very steady hands, and excellent craft skills. Of course, your mail is sent with a magnifying glass so your recipient can actually read it…

Lea’s business, run by herself and three part-time helpers, also provides tiny letter kits, as well as tiny packages, that can include items like bouncy balls, compasses, and tiny flower arrangements.

Lea visiting the antique postal counter that she found on Craigslist.

And thanks to a recent -- and fully realized -- crowdfunding campaign, Lea will soon be opening a brick-and-mortar studio/workspace/storefront on 15th and Webster in Oakland where folks can buy and send tiny mail, even handcrafting their own. She has purchased a beautiful antique oak post office counter to add to the experience.

“We want to make a place, a magical coordinate on the globe where people can count on wonder and kindness,” is how she describes her vision. 

In 1954, young "Queen" Connie Quackenbush mailed the first letter from Children's Fairyland's on-site post office, the smallest one in the U.S. at the time.
When Lea learned that Children’s Fairyland boasts what used to be the smallest (“child-sized”) post office in the U.S., she knew we had to connect. Opened in 1954, the post office operated for 21 years with a hand-cranked cancel machine that printed “Fairyland Station, Oakland, California 94612,” and a real, live postal employee. Inside the fanciful domed building are whimsical paintings of letters addressed to animals, and other inhabitants of the park. There used to be both a model airplane and a mini train that circled the interior dome of the structure. Kids were encouraged to write and post letters that they created on little desks outside.

Decommissioned in 1976 by the federal government due to budget cuts, the building is now used on weekends for arts and crafts activities.

But, what if…?

Lea and I brainstormed about how we could bring back the post office on select weekends. Imagine how fun it will be for kids and their adults to work together to write (or draw) a letter with tools, rubber stamps, stickers and envelopes, and imagine how special it will be for friends or family members to receive!

Is this town big enough for two tiny post offices? We sure think so. Because you just can’t have enough whimsy, love, and joy in the world.

You can check out all of the offerings of Lea’s World’s Smallest Post Service here:


C.J. Hirschfield has served for 17 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s oldest storybook theme park.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Transgender kindergarten teacher to curious students: "I’m not a girl and I’m not a boy, but I’m both"

By C.J. Hirschfield

Berkeley kindergarten teacher Lourdes Rivas is used to answering all sorts of questions from their endlessly curious kids in the classroom. But early on in their five years of teaching, one question kept coming up: Are you a girl or a boy?
Lourdes reading to a class of second graders at Rosa Parks Elementary in Berkeley, where they were invited to do an author talk.

Lourdes found themself telling and retelling their story of being transgender to their students every year, explaining why they use non-binary pronouns, why they say they’re not a girl and not a boy, but both -- or how is this even possible? So, Lourdes wrote it out one day and decided to pursue its fruition into a full-on children’s book.

“I needed books that represented who I was, and I wasn’t finding any,” says Lourdes. The path to creating their new bilingual (English and Spanish) book, “They Call Me Mix” was not an easy one. But, we’re happy to report that Lourdes and their book will be featured at Fairyland on May 18 as part of our annual Turn the Page! children’s book author and illustrator event. Geared towards five to seven year olds, the book explores what it means to be a transgender person of color. Lourdes notes that, while there are many young adult literature books that center on transgender and gender nonconforming characters, very few options exist for younger readers.

Author/educator Lourdes Rivas will be featured at Fairyland’s upcoming children’s authors and illustrators event, with their new book “They Call Me Mix.”
When Lourdes first decided they wanted to write the book, they reached out to the San Francisco-based Online School of Free Minds, which offers courses and programs that “offer a holistic approach to creating & publishing children's books as well as aid in expanding the mind and reclaiming our creative, intuitive, cooperative human nature.” But taking a course load while teaching full-time was daunting at best. And this was five years ago—Lourdes’ very first year as a teacher. It was too hard to keep up with the homework, so the book went on hiatus as Sylvia Mendez Elementary School remained their focus. Years later, Lourdes went back and completed their course online; the book was guided by the curriculum. The school’s founders, Maya Gonzalez and Matthew Smith became mentors as the book came together.

Even before identifying an illustrator, Lourdes knew they had to begin the process of fundraising; money that would be used for writing, editing, translating, illustrating, designing, obtaining an ISBN number, publishing, distributing, and shipping. “Kickstarter was exciting, but scary,” they recall. “I had to step out of my comfort zone to make an on-camera pitch—I was really nervous on the first thirty takes…” They say they then felt courage and love, and this evidently resonated with the many funders—so many that the financial goal of $10,500 was exceeded by $2,000.

Lourdes’ search for an illustrator ended on the dance floor, where they encountered Breena Nuñez, a working cartoonist, musician, and youth arts educator, whose work Lourdes had admired on Instagram. Breena was on board, but another pause occurred as the illustrator completed an MFA program.

Lourdes also learned how long it takes to do the layout. “The alignment of images and text was super meticulous,” they say. “It was a breeze from there.”
“They Call Me Mix” is a new children’s book that explores what it means to be a transgender person of color.

Finally, on January 19, a book launch party was held in the Fruitvale District, with about a hundred people present to celebrate. Visits to Seattle and Tacoma to do readings then followed.

And on May 18: Fairyland’s children’s book festival. Lourdes has attended the event for the last three years with their two nieces, but not as an author. A collector of children’s books, they see them as powerful tools. “When I read it to my kindergarten class kids and they say ‘That’s you in the book!,’ it’s the most engaging I’ve ever seen them,” Lourdes says.

They are “thrilled” to be a featured author this time around, where their own book will be available for sale and signing. “I’m excited to meet kids, parents and educators,” they say. “I’m such a fan of the event!”

And we’re sure that Lourdes will find their own fans this time around.

Turn the Page! will be held at Children’s Fairyland on Saturday, May 18 from 10-4; adults will need to be accompanied by a child to attend.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 17 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s oldest storybook theme park.