Hallee Adelman insists that she doesn’t have a crystal ball.
But the educator, author and filmmaker, who has a PhD in education, has a knack for anticipating the issues young people of all ages will face.
Last year, as the lives of America’s children went even more online, she was an executive producer on The Social Dilemma, the acclaimed documentary about the perils of social media, and the toll our increasingly online world is taking on young people.
The production company she started with longtime friend Ivy Herman, World of Ha Productions, is working on the Philly-based documentary, Our American Family, which chronicles one child’s decision to move past the addiction that has plagued her family for years.
“The work is really a lot about how can we make kids feel loved and understood when they have these really big feelings, so that it doesn’t have to feel so strange, and doesn’t have to feel like something they have to be quiet about,” Adelman says.
And long before anyone had heard of coronavirus, she conceived of the idea for Way Past Worried, her third children’s book and second in her series on big feelings. While anxiety is running high during the pandemic, Adelman has always understood that worry is a universal feeling that everyone struggles with, Covid-19 or not. And she is here to normalize it.
“For me, the work is really a lot about making kids feel loved and understood when they have these really big feelings, so that it doesn’t have to feel so strange, and doesn’t have to feel like something they have to be quiet about,” she says. “It’s not taboo, it’s not weird—it’s great to be able to learn how to manage [your emotions] so that you can be successful not just in the moment and when you have these big feelings, but for a lifetime.”
In Way Past Worried, adorably illustrated in color by Sandra de la Prada, a young boy named Brock has to attend his friend Juan’s superhero birthday party—without his brother, his usual sidekick. His costume feels too small; he worries the other kids will laugh at him for it. He’s not sure who else will be in attendance; he fears he’ll be left out.
“I felt way past worried with my heart thumping and my mind racing and my worry growing,” he says—before his dog, Pickles, makes his costume look even worse by imprinting it with muddy paws. The what-ifs invariably creep in…until Brock befriends a fellow worrier, a new girl named Nelly. Friendship, fun, and relief ensue—but not before readers of all ages are left with some important lessons, namely:
Nothing beats human connection; friendship is powerful.
Unloading—giving voice to—your fears minimizes them.
No one is judging you as harshly as you’re judging yourself (whether it’s your sub-par superhero costume…or that Zoom presentation you’re convinced you bombed).
For the launch of the book this fall, Adelman worked with independent bookstore Children’s Book World in Haverford as well as the Lower Merion Library System to hold a drive-thru book party, inviting families from many of the programs she regularly supports, like Little Learners Literacy Academy, and Wissahickon Charter School
Nearly 50 cars wove their way through the parking lot of the Belmont Hills Library in Montgomery County to experience socially distanced fun like getting superhero masks and coloring sheets, learning “power poses,” enjoying nut-free treats from Villanova bakery No Nuts Nikki, getting their own copy of Way Past Worried, and leaving with cute car magnets.
Belmont Hills Library Children’s Librarian Gwen Gatto says Adelman has been incredibly open to collaborating with the library team, going back to the launch of her first book, My Quiet Ship.
“I said I would help in any way I could, but Hallee had everything covered: goodies for the kids, oversized picture frames you could take your picture in, gift baskets. She greeted every single person and was just wonderful,” Gatto says, adding that Adelman subsequently made a generous donation to support the library as well. “She even told me that if I know of anyone who cannot afford a book, to tell her and she’d give me books to give to them.”
Adelman has two more “big feelings” books slated to debut in 2021, with more coming thereafter as well.
And the values she brings to her books are the same ones she brings to her work in philanthropy and film, including the Netflix hit, The Social Dilemma.
“With my work as an author and educator, I’ve always understood the power of story to spark important conversations,” she says. “The Social Dilemma was one of these needed conversations, so that we can all connect around the potential and unforeseen pitfalls such as those related to teen mental health and the spread of misinformation that can stand in the way of unifying people.”
She was drawn to the topic of the film as well as the creative team behind it: award-winning filmmakers Jeff Orlowski and Larissa Rhodes of Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral. “They are tireless in their commitment to inspiring a better world for future generations,” she says. “With my books, I want kids to be able to talk about big feelings, feel cared about, and find empowerment. The same is true with the films that I work on. The more conversations we can have, the more connection we can find with one another.”
As Adelman continues to work on her book and film projects, she remains a devoted supporter of many beloved Philly institutions—from The Franklin Institute to Free Library of Philadelphia and her own alma mater, Anne Frank Elementary School, née Bustleton Elementary.
“To this day I remember certain teachers—Mrs. Cohen and Mrs. Dresner—who really brought joy and creativity and out-of-the-box thinking into my life,” she says. “I don’t have all the answers, but I just want other families and kids to feel the same joy and to feel really supported when things are hard for them.”
She credits her own support system with helping her launch a book during a pandemic, like the community partners who encouraged her: Free Library of Philadelphia allowed her to create free activity kits for families to pick up from their main Parkway branch, with masks and a recipe for whipped cream, a nod to Adelman’s daughter creating a “whip your worries” video to help kids with their stress.
The Franklin Institute welcomed Adelman to teach a science and storytime class that ended in a dance party set to a “Way Past Mad” song that was sung by Elizabeth Christman, a member of the Philadelphia Girls Choir.
“I don’t have all the answers, but I just want other families and kids to feel the same joy and to feel really supported when things are hard for them,” says Adelman.
And along with her own creative endeavors in the film world, Adelman and her husband, David (a Citizen board member), are furthering their support of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office (GPFO) by donating $10,000 in honor of their friend, Philly native filmmaker Mike Jackson, the Emmy and Tony Award-winning producer and oo-founder and managing partner of Get Lifted Film Company, with his partners John Legend and Ty Stiklorius.
Their gift will go to the to-be-named grand prize winner of the“Set in Philadelphia Screenwriting Competition, an annual contest presented by GPFO, open to screenwriters worldwide who submit a feature-length screenplay or an original TV pilot-length screenplay that can be shot in the Greater Philadelphia Metropolitan Area.
“Seeing someone from our city who’s been successful in sharing stories that are meaningful and that can touch people’s hearts, it touched us to not only honor Mike for his work, but also to honor up-and-coming storytellers. It’s important work and we’re honored to be a small part of it,” Adelman says.
Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of GPFO, says that what makes Adelman’s support so meaningful is how hands-on she is about it. “Hallee wants to get involved in things that she really knows about and cares about—it’s not an arms-length kind of support,” she says. “I think that that very personal touch on her end is what makes her just such a miracle. It’s very rare to find young philanthropists who really understand their responsibility and where they can be changemakers.”
And if there is one thread that runs through all of Adelman’s commitments—to family, to community, to creativity—it is connection.
As Adelman says, “We may not all have the same lived experience, but we connect through our feelings. So as far as really important conversations that we all need to have about social justice, about the future of the country, about connecting as citizens and with the world, we need to be able to genuinely try to connect from a place of feeling, to be as open and understanding as we can.”Adelman leads a book reading at The Franklin Institute | Photo by David Evan McDowell