Temecula resident teaches children kindness through storytelling

Arlene Yates shows off a puppet of Haja, a character she created to teach students anti- bullying messages. Valley News/Will Fritz photo

A Temecula resident is using her artistic and musical talents to educate children about diversity and acceptance. 

Arlene Yates, who lived in Fallbrook for close to 30 years, is a professional musician, songwriter and recording artist with more than four decades of performing experience.

In recent years, she’s taken her skills and put them to use teaching children to be tolerant and kind and not to be bullies through her character Haja, a boy who is teased by his peers for his unusually long arms.

After publishing books about Haja that are aimed at children who are just learning how to read, Yates got the attention of the Murrieta Valley Unified School District and performed for their elementary school students. Recently, she was hired as a teaching artist for the district.

Yates said while she started her musical career playing in an all-girl rock band, she’s had a long-running interest in writing and performing for a younger audience and wrote her first story for children in the early 1980s. She said she initially wanted to take old nursery rhymes – many of which can be negative and off-putting when their true meanings are analyzed – and turn them into positive stories for children.

For instance, in the original Jack and Jill nursery rhyme, Jack breaks his crown and Jill goes tumbling after.

“I bandaged him all up, and he got well and happy,” Yates said of her version of the rhyme.

And instead of Little Bo Peep who lost her sheep, Yates wrote a song about “Little Bo Peep who found her sheep.” 

“So it’s all kind of really positive and fun,” she said. 

Those songs were something she wrote for years while her children were growing up, Yates said.

It would be two decades before Yates got the idea for Haja while she was operating a restaurant she used to own in Vista, she said.

“In about 2005 or 2006, I went on my lunch break to the Goodwill,” Yates said. “I picked up this doll with its arms down to the floor, and I put it back.”

At first, she said she thought the doll looked quite odd and was almost repulsed by it. But then some ideas started flooding into her head.

“I grabbed him back, and I just had this fabulous story about this little boy. His name is going to be Haja, and the kids are going to tease him,” Yates said.

With that idea, Yates got started working on stories about Haja and the Garden of Tomorrow, which is the setting for all of her stories.

Fallbrook artist Brett Stokes illustrated all three books about Haja, including “Haja,” “Haja Plays Basketball” and “Haja Picks Apples,” which is due out in February. Helping Yates with the publishing process is Jack Kovic of GOT Publishing in Fallbrook.

“The Garden of Tomorrow kind of represents our youth, so there’s the law of the harvest, what you sow is what you reap,” Kovic said of Yates’ stories. “The current harvest we’re reaping is kids who bring guns to school … so where do you start to create a new generation planting the next garden, you know? What’s it going be? It’s going to be kids who respect others and (have) good citizenship.” 

Later, Yates had her own puppet of Haja made. In addition to her books, she writes songs and makes videos about Haja, which can be found on her website, www.ladyarlene.com.

Kovic said the idea behind Yates’ stories is to get teach children not to be bullies early on, while they’re still learning to read. 

“That’s the whole gist here is, let’s get into the preschools and the elementary schools and we’ll start good habits,” Kovic said.

In 2018, Yates said she spoke with the Murrieta Valley Unified School District’s visual and performing arts coordinator Carol Hernandez to see about possibly bringing her lessons to students in the district.

“She had made an appointment with me, and she came in and showed me her wonderful books on her character Haja,” Hernandez said. “I was very impressed by the book, and I thought it would be perfect for her to come into our transitional kindergarten classes and present the book.”

Hernandez said she arranged to have Yates come into a class at Lisa J. Mails Elementary School. It was there, Hernandez said, that she was impressed by Yates’ performing talents.

“It’s truly a performance; she’s truly amazing,” Hernandez said. “She’s not only an author; she’s a ventriloquist. In a half-hour, she did a complete performance; the kids loved her.”

After that, Hernandez said parents asked her where they could find Yates’ books, and she decided to continue bringing Yates into classrooms as part of the school district’s Horizons Unlimited program, through which the district connects artists with local students.

Then, Hernandez said, the district decided to hire Yates to work with students for Our Town, a new program in which the school takes community leaders to third grade classrooms to teach students how to be citizens in their communities.

“She’s going to be one of six people going into the classrooms and talking a little bit about themselves and how they ended up in Murrieta,” Hernandez said.

And of course, Yates will be performing too, Hernandez said.

Apart from that, Yates said now that her third Haja book is finished, she will be taking a break from him and begin working on a new character, Mindy Mermaid, who will teach children not to steal in her first story.

Will Fritz can be reached by email at wfritz@reedermedia.com.