"Will this be used for Beyoncé's hair?" Sandra Magsamen asks.
The author fingers a strand of crystal beads at Spaeth Designs, a New York company that creates lavish decorations for department stores. She is surrounded by dozens of carpenters, painters, and electricians working to transform her illustrated children's book, "The Gift" (Glitterati Books), into holiday windows for Saks Fifth Avenue.
A few months after her book was selected by Saks, the store decided its windows would benefit Save the Music, a program sponsored by VH1 that raises money to keep music education in America's public schools. So over the past year - with a half-million-dollar budget - Ms. Magsamen's humble tale of how a kind holiday note touches all who receive it has been given a full Hollywood makeover.
The six windows are decorated to look like a classroom, in which two girls and a boy - actually animatronic figures - are busily cobbling together puppet figures of Beyoncé, Jewel, and other musicians from whatever art supplies are at their disposal. (Tiny portraits of Beethoven and Brahms also hang on the wall.)
The first five windows show the students learning to make music by imitating the puppets they create. In the last window - in a final vignette entitled "The Grand Finale" - the three schoolchildren have transformed themselves into a sequined and bewigged pop trio.
At dawn, the children in Kudi, Sudan, begin their hike down the bushy hills of the Nuba Mountains. They make the journey because they want to get to school. Inside one of the dark mud huts, they squat on straw stools and are greeted with the word "ethnicity," written on the blackboard.
What is surprising is not the political nature of the lesson, which uses a textbook written by the country's main rebel group. It is the language of instruction: English.
As the Sudan's Arabic-speaking northerners and black African southerners come close to signing a peace accord after a long-running civil war, the question of what language to speak in the center of the country remains highly contentious.
The people of Nuba, through centuries of slave trading and forced migration, speak Arabic, the official language of Sudan. But they say they are closer ethnically and culturally to the south, where English became commonly used when the region was under British control. Sudan became independent in 1956.
So the community voted two years ago to make English the lingua franca for the more than 25,000 students in areas of the Nuba Mountains held by southern rebels, a golden, sun-swept and fertile region in central Sudan.
"Is it risky? No. In Nuba, Sudan, you know that we are Africans, not Arabs. This will be the new Sudan, and we will decide our fate,'' says Simon Kalo, regional director of education for schools in the Nuba Mountains. "All of the Nuba people really wanted this shift."
From the straw-roofed tea- and brew-houses to the mud-walled classrooms, Nuba's citizens say they see switching to English as the first step in defining their new role in Sudan as separate from the north.
"Please, teacher?" calls Sanwell Aliadalian, 16, an enthusiastic student who wears a maroon suit vest over a torn T-shirt. "The words, I want to know what they mean.''
- Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service