Lifelong educator and College of Education alumna Dr. Madeleine Sherak always tries to keep in mind how children experience the world in her work. Throughout her career, Dr. Sherak has worked as a teacher and film producer. For her, respecting and understanding children’s experiences is as important in the classroom as it is on the big screen.
Now, in her recent role as a children’s book author, she’s bringing her flair for education to children through books. Her Superheroes Club book series aims to promote a positive narrative for young people and encourage them to uncover their inner potential.
“I wanted kids to have access to stories that had a positive message and focus on the goodness in the world to counter some of the negativity that exists today,” Dr. Sherak says.
Seemingly a superhero herself as a grandmother of 10 grandchildren who act as inspiration for her book series, Dr. Sherak came to children’s storytelling after many years in the public school system.
She earned a master’s degree in Foundations of Education in 1974 and a Ph.D. in Comparative Education in 1981 from the University of Maryland College of Education. After her studies, Dr. Sherak went on to be a substitute teacher in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. But it was her husband Tom’s job in the entertainment industry that moved them cross-country.
Eventually, the family settled in California, where she taught part-time in adult education at Santa Monica College. Later, she became a full-time math teacher at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, California and then served as the Math Department Chair for six years. She has also supervised student teachers at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, and currently, at Pepperdine University in Malibu.
While she taught, her husband worked in a variety of roles with numerous entertainment businesses, including Paramount, Fox and Revolution Studios. He also served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for three years and was appointed Los Angeles’ first Film Czar. For her part, Dr. Sherak read countless scripts and stayed current on the film business, taking particular interest in stories about women and young people, and always questioning what was being portrayed to those audiences through those films.
Over the years, she collected stories that she thought would make a good movie and have a positive influence on people’s lives, especially children. Eventually, she decided to leave teaching and apply her knowledge and passion for education in entertainment.
“When I left teaching, my husband encouraged me to develop some of the stories that were important to me,” Dr. Sherak says. “I just found I love the creative process of storytelling and decided to continue to pursue that with the other interests I had.”
As a producer, Dr. Sherak worked with her son on a Movie of the Week for Lifetime, called Dawn Anna, with Debra Winger. The film is a true story about Dawn, a middle school math teacher and volleyball coach overcoming life’s challenges, including an illness and the death of her oldest daughter killed during the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Dawn became the spokesperson for the families whose children were also killed, and left teaching to travel the country to talk to young people about her daughter’s spirit of kindness and caring.
“Dawn described her daughter, Lauren, who was also the school valedictorian, as ‘the kind of person who would find someone sitting alone at a lunch table and sit with them,’” Dr. Sherak says.
She also produced a feature film called, I Hate Valentine’s Day, with John Corbett and Nia Vardalos, and has in development an animated project called Harmony about two princesses from different backgrounds who live together in a blended family and learn that celebrating differences makes us stronger. She’s currently working on a project about Tanaquil Le Clercq, a prima ballerina in the 1950s, who was confined to a wheelchair after developing polio at 27, and teaches ballets created especially for her by George Balanchine to other aspiring dancers.
Dr. Sherak’s Superheroes Club book series grew out of an experience of her grandchild, Lily, who is also the main character in the series. At four-years-old, Lily attended preschool in a class where half the students had special-needs and befriended a little girl who didn’t speak. The two played together, found ways to communicate, and went everywhere together, with Lily speaking enough for the both of them.
“Lily reinforced what I already knew, and that is that young children accept each other and don’t see differences as a negative,” Dr. Sherak says. “I wanted to build on that and develop a values-based series that celebrated differences in children and encouraged kindness, sharing and caring.”
The first book of the series, starring Lily, has already been published. While Lily tells her friends, “It’s not how you look, but what you do that makes you a superhero,” other characters such as Alex, who has autism spectrum disorder and is accompanied by a service dog named Meatball, encourage children to see that everyone has a place in society. Mia, a competitive gymnast who attempts the balancing beam many times before succeeding, shows that it’s important to work hard to persevere in the face of challenges, imparting a message that, “success isn’t always measured by accomplishing something, but success is really a measure of the fact that you tried your very best,” Dr. Sherak says.
The second book, Superheroes Club 2: A Celebration of Uniqueness, is set to publish soon. She hopes the books will be used by children, parents and teachers alike to promote discussion that centers on helping kids build self-confidence and self-worth.
“I hope the books empower young people to be empathetic, confident, believe in themselves, give them the tools to be upstanders not bystanders and to believe in their own heroic potential,” Dr. Sherak says.
Dr. Sherak brings her positive message to other parts of her life, too. She spends much of her time working with philanthropic organizations, including the Fulfillment Fund, a college access and retention organization that helps underserved students go to college and complete post-secondary education, and the Tom Sherak MS Hope Foundation, which she and Tom started following the MS diagnosis of their 15-year-old daughter.
The passion she brings to her causes and professional work in part grew out of her educational experience at COE, she says.
“When I was at the College of Education, I felt that everyone really loved what they were doing and loved their subject matter. To me, that was infectious and gave me the opportunity to study areas that I was equally passionate about, and with their full support and encouragement. It’s something that I’ve carried through with my own student teachers and students in the classroom and as a parent and grandparent.”
Most of all, she hopes to inspire the superheroes in us all.
“I think we’re all superheroes in disguise and I think it’s how we choose to live our lives that defines who we are,” she says
Originally published in the College’s alumni magazine, Endeavors Summer 2019 issue. Image courtesy of Ray Joyce Photography and Cinematography. Graphic illustration by Esther-YeeSol Choi.