Making Music a Little Easier

Yes, the hills might be alive with the sound of music, but how do you teach the elements of music to small children? Teacher/author Leah Wells chooses to use the power of story to do that job in a whimsical, sure-footed manner. Song for the Birds by Leah Wells and illus by Naomi Rosenblatt

In A Song for the Birds, the first of her new picture-book series, she begins with the most basic question: What is melody? To illustrate the idea that a melody is an arrangement of notes, she has created a simple, memorable story featuring birds and a bird-watcher. Each bird sings a particular note on the treble clef: the albatross sings A, the bluebird sings B, the canary sings her C, etc. An attentive bird-watcher listens to the birds but longs for a song instead of individual notes.

When he requests they sing a song, however, the “birds look at each other with confusion.” The bright watercolor images of Naomi Rosenblatt, the author’s sister, add humor and interest to the simple plot, as she skillfully evokes the birds’ various emotions and personalities. They comprehend what the bird-watcher wants after they listen to the mockingbird’s pleasing arrangement of notes.

They provide a brief concert outside the bird-watcher’s window on a starry night. With musical notation included, this final page presents the perfect moment for families and preschool groups to burst into “Twinkle, Twinkle …” And if there’s a piano nearby, why not accompany young singers?

Rainbow Remembers the Music by Leah Wells and illus by Naomi RosenblattIn the just-released second book, The Rainbow Remembers the Music, the author and illustrator show how we can remember music by using notes on a staff. Ms. Wells introduces the treble clef as well as the bass clef and accidentals. Here, the story employs the bird-watcher again, but this time with his two grandchildren as they witness birds singing as a rainbow appears. When the rainbow disappears, how can the birds recall which notes to sing? As the granddaughter begins to draw the lines of a rainbow in the mud, she places pebbles on her rainbow to show the notes of their song. A snail makes its way over and curls into the shape of a treble clef.

Grandpa, however, can only sing lower notes, so his grandson draws another “rainbow” and places two pebbles on it. After Grandpa kicks over the bucket of worms, one crawls over the that second rainbow and settles itself beside the two pebbles. At home the children decide to put the notes on paper, and so can readers, as The Rainbow Remembers the Music provides specially sized paper at the end of the story.

Music teachers and music-loving parents will want to seek out this fresh new child-friendly paperback series, available on Amazon. Please write back if you’d like to share your experiences using these pleasant little books.


Pete Seeger’s Powerful Legacy

Thirteen years ago I sat about eight feet from Pete Seeger, as he and his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger sang for about 100 children crowded into the lobby of Westtown School, where I was the Lower School librarian. At that time he was a young 81, a string bean of a man, dressed in jeans, a denim shirt, and work boots. He fit right in with the Quaker setting. As all of us reveled in the sound of his still-strong and expressive voice, I couldn’t help but notice his well-loved banjo, which had words encircling its face. “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” it read. What a powerful message of peace, one he lived by daily.  Pete Seeger's banjo

Pete Seeger has left us his strong-as-steel songs and stories that shine with respect for all people on earth. As adults, we’re free to pass on that legacy, to share Seeger’s wisdom and grace with children in myriad ways. In this post, I’ve collected some of the best links for educators to use to invite students to explore Seeger’s work:

Lesson plan: “The Power of Pete Seeger’s Songs and Stories” from Smithsonian Folkways. Well-researched and organized, this site provides detailed elementary-school-level lesson plans based on three of Seeger’s great songs or stories: the fun, rhyming “Bought Me a Cat” (also known as “Fiddle-I-Fee”),  the witty “Abiyoyo,” from a Bantu song; and  “Ragupati Ragava Rajah Rah,” a song of peace that was one of Gandhi’s favorites.

Book Nook: Using Books to Support Social Emotional Development from Vanderbilt University. Suggests activities to nurture children’s social-emotional development.

Abiyoyo Story Arts Project from Michael Hays, illustrator of the Abiyoyo picture books. Interesting links include Pete Seeger’s story of how he came to tell “Abiyoyo,” as well as suggestions for activities relating to the book.

“Clearwater: Hudson River Rising” from WNET. See links for suggested classroom activities related to Seeger’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River.

Free Speech and Music: A Teacher’s Guide to the First Amendment from Freedom Forum, First Amendment Center. Valuable resource for high-school educators; provides overview of efforts to censor music and offers detailed lesson plans.

“Give Me the Banjo,”  by Dan McDowell, Educational Consultant. Lesson plan for high-school students includes links to videos and recordings (including those by other relevant folk musicians), discussion questions, suggested activities, and Common Core standards. Great opportunity to discuss freedom of speech and the blacklisting Seeger experienced.

“Guantanamera: A Poem and a Song,” lesson plans from the Kennedy Center for high-school students.Unit focuses on the Cuban folk song Pete Seeger made famous; based on a poem by Jose Marti.

“The Harry Bridges Project.” Check out links for high-school lessons related to collective bargaining and labor issues.

And don’t forget Seeger’s CDs and books:

Abiyoyo adapted by Pete SeegerAbiyoyo Returns

I Had a Rooster Laura Vaccaro Seeger with CD of Pete Seeger singing

Pete Seeger's Storytelling Book

Stories & Songs for Little Children by Pete Seeger

Birds, Beasts, Bugs & Fishes Little & Big Animal Folk Songs sung by Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger American Folk Game and Activity Songs for Children by Pete Seeger

Related links:

“Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94,” New York Times.

Many YouTube videos are available, including: “This Land Is Your Land,” sung by Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, Tao Seeger, and a youth chorus at the Lincoln Monument for President Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009. And don’t miss the YouTube of Pete Seeger telling and singing “Abiyoyo.” Let Seeger show you how to mesmerize children.


Getting By With a Little Wit

Give it up, you baby boomers. You had a favorite Beatle, didn’t you? You cherished some bubblegumBeatles Were Fab by Krull and Brewer card or poster or magazine photo because it featured John or Paul or George or Ringo. Veteran children’s nonfiction writer Kathleen Krull has teamed up with her husband, author/illustrator Paul Brewer, to bring the band back to the spotlight for a generation too young to have experienced Beatlemania in all its craziness.

“From the time they got together

as lads until they became superstars, the Fab Four made music, made history, and made people laugh,” the authors relate on the first page of The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny). That last component—the band’s sense of humor—supplies a creative spin on the oft-told history of the iconic band that blew in from Liverpool and swept the charts here, there, and everywhere.

The authors adopt a breezy, lighthearted tone throughout this spirited romp through Beatlemania. They employ a bevy of jokes and quips to show how the Fab Four used laughter to help them cope with life’s highs and lows. Entertaining quotes from each musician advance the story and reveal the quirky charm and resilience of each musician. Although adoring fans and ambitious reporters impinged on their private lives, the Beatles showed remarkable creativity in dealing with pesky people.

The authors devote a page of engaging Q’s and A’s culled from interviews with each musician. We learn, for instance, that when a journalist told John, “Some people think your haircuts are un-American,” John replied, “Well, it was very observant of them, because we aren’t Americans actually.”

When someone asked Paul, “Is your hair real?” he inquired, “Is yours?” George told a reporter if he stopped being a Beatle, he might “train elephants in the zoo.” And in response to the doltish question, “How did you find America?” Ringo quipped, “We went to Greenland and made a left turn.”

The star atop such quips is Stacy Innerst’s acrylic paintings full of personality, redolent with thick brush strokes, and rich with relevant details. Mr. Innerst, who illustrated the writing team’s Lincoln Tells a Joke, again shows what it means to be in synch with the authors’ intent.

Early in the story, Mr. Innerst shows readers a drum sporting the goofy names the band considered before choosing the one that made them laugh. As the authors describe the band’s heady taste of fame, the illustrator depicts a chunky golden hit machine with 45s popping out of a funnel, one smash hit after another. Later, on the page relating their wildly popular 1964 American tour, Mr. Innerst shows a huge black guitar case displaying the names of the cities where they performed. On top of the curvy case, the Beatles whiz along in a miniature roller coaster.

Such touches go a long way in adding crowd appeal to this confection, as sweet and as filling as the jelly beans fans flung at the Beatles. A timeline and bibliography serve to direct young fans to more substantive sources.

Reprinted with permission from The New York Journal of Books.

NOTE: I’m offering one free hardback copy of The Beatles Were Fab to a random U.S. reader! Just tweet, post this on Facebook, or become a new email subscriber, and you’ll be entered in the contest. Then leave a comment to let me know you’re entering the contest. The deadline is April 1, April Fool’s Day — but it’s no joke. I’ll announce the winner on the 2nd.

See also … my post on my favorite Beatle, John  and Yoko Ono’s site, “Imagine Peace,” with audio clips, photos, interviews, and details on Yoko’s current projects for peace. The couple married 44 years ago, on March 20, 1969.

50th Anniversary of The Beatles Album. Please ...

50th Anniversary of The Beatles Album. Please Please Me 22nd of March 1963. (Photo credit: Jimmy Big Potatoes)

A Voice Is a Many-Colored Thing

Leave Your SleepWhen I learned the dazzling Barbara McClintock had created the artwork for Natalie Merchant’s recently released Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry, I just had to experience that. The stellar combination of McClintock’s lushly detailed, pen-and-ink and colored images with Merchant’s many-hued voice has produced a rare sensory feast for all ages. Along with the rich selection of 19 poems from Merchant’s 2010 album of the same title comes a full-length CD that shows off her musical virtuosity.

Featuring an amazing range of musical styles and moods (as depicted in this Macmillan YouTube), Merchant has crafted melodies that cleverly evoke the mood of each poem. Some classic poems — Stevenson’s dreamy “The Land of Nod,” Ogden Nash’s sassy “Adventures of Isabel,” and the beloved “I Saw a Ship A-Sailing” — show up here, but pleasant surprises abound, too. Particularly delightful is her adaptation of “The Dancing Bear” by Albert Bigelow Paine: “Oh, it’s fiddle-de-dum and fiddle-de-dee,/ The dancing bear ran away with me.” Merchant’s lilting voice trips along to the playful tune performed by the Klezmatics, with their bouncy accordion, horns, and, of course, a fiddle. A few poems (“Vain and Careless” by Robert Graves and “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” by Charles Causley) might seem somewhat dark for inclusion in a children’s book, but Merchant wisely refuses to be hemmed in by traditional expectations.

In her intriguing introduction, Merchant explains this collection sprang from her experiences with her young daughter. “I tried to show her that speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession and that her mother tongue is rich with musical rhythms and rhymes. … Poetry speaks of so much: longing and sadness, joy and beauty, hope and disillusionment. These are the things that make a childhood, that time when we wake up to the great wonders and small terrors of our world.”

What a gift to be able to join her daughter in experiencing these poems by hearing them sung and by gazing at McClintock’s bounty of images that dip into exuberant ice-cream-cone licking (for Prelutsky’s “Bleezer’s Ice-Cream”) and the gentleness of a painted elephant (“The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe).

Why not start the year on a high note with this remarkable book and CD?

Related links

92nd Street Y’s K-3rd grade unit features Leave Your Sleep.

Natalie Merchant on Motherhood as Muse,” from Huffington Post.

This Land Is Still Your Land and Mine

Woody Guthrie, born 100 years ago on Saturday, rambled his way into history, writing, singing and recording the hopes and frustrations of Americans yearning for a better life, for a more just society. His influence on music and culture reverberates in the lyrics of a host of troubadours, from Bob Dylan to Tracy Chapman, from John Fogerty to Bruce Springsteen. Earlier this year, Springsteen, speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Texas, highlighted Guthrie’s core conviction that “speaking truth to power was not futile.”

That Guthrie believed people of all income levels and even ages could act on that belief is evident in the broad reach of his songs, many of which he wrote specifically for children. An easy and appealing way to pay homage to Woody Guthrie is to share the colorful 2002 edition of This Land Is Your Land, which comes with a CD of nine folk songs sung by Woody and his son Arlo Guthrie.

“This Land’s” iconic words spring to life with Kathy Jakobsen’s folk art, ranging over the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters. Double page spreads display our nation’s varied topography and landmarks — its skyscrapers, its plains, the dusty fields of Oklahoma — throughout the seasons. Many children will recognize such significant sites as the Golden Gate Bridge, Niagara Falls, and Old Faithful.

In the midst of those pages you’ll also see the man himself, always a-wandering with his guitar.

Older readers will gain insight from the forward written by Woody’s daughter, Nora; and from the tribute by Pete Seeger. I call this book a keeper for all ages, an heirloom to be passed down to the next generation … and the next …

And have you heard

Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie?
Elizabeth Mitchell’s sweet, gentle voice highlights Guthrie’s playful, clear-eyed lyrics. This compilation provides families with a lovely way to share Guthrie’s songs with children. If you’re interested, you can click on the link to buy the CD or download any of the 13 songs, including the uncut version of “This Land Is Your Land.” You can hear a couple of tunes (“Bling Blang” and “This Land …”) on the free preview provided by Smithsonian Folkways.

Work Cited

Woody Guthrie still inspires, 100 years on from his birth(

One Sparkling Lullaby

“As rain falls over the ark at night,
As water swirls in the dark of night,
As thunder crashes the seams of night,
As Noah tosses in dreams of night,
As restless animals prowl at night,
As they pace and roar and growl at night,
Naamah sings all through the night.”

Naamah and the Ark at Night is a lullaby that aims for starry perfection. Susan Campbell Bartolletti, acclaimed for her nonfiction (Hitler Youth won the 2006 Newbery Honor), has reached back in time to imagine the significant role Noah’s wife might have played. Employing the Arabic poetic structure of a ghazal, requiring couplets to end in the same word, she has created a simple but powerful bedtime poem.

Bartoletti’s lyrical work comes to life with the bright collages of cut paper and watercolors by Holly Meade (winner of a Caldecott Honor). Meade’s sense of movement echoes the gently rocking, repetitive nature of the author’s text. She infuses the book’s large pages with interesting perspectives, humorous details, and a sense of life’s harmony. Two by two, the owls nestle, the monkey curl their tails symmetrically, the zebras rest their heads on each other’s backs.

The author notes how, as a child, she would play with a wooden Noah’s ark whenever she visited her grandmother. As beloved as that Bible story is, the role of Noah’s wife has been overlooked. Rabbinical legends, though, tell that his wife was called Naamah (pronounced with three syllables as “Na-ah-mah” or “Nay-ah-mah”), a variation of Naomi, which means “sweet” or “pleasant.”  Some legends describe another Naamah, whose name meant “great singer.” Those interpretations, Bartoletti notes, led her to imagine how the woman could have inspired and comforted those on the ark.

Winner of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award and the Charlotte Zolotow HonorNaamah and the Ark at Night is a remarkable little beauty.

Also see …

Ashley Bryan’s Bright and Beautiful Books

Ashley Bryan deserves a special valentine for bringing so much joy to the realm of children’s literature. From his witty, rhythmic retellings of folktales to his bold and beautiful paintings, woodcuts, and collages, Bryan has enriched the lives of countless readers around the world. You can meet this beloved author/illustrator by opening Ashley Bryan: Words to My Life’s Song (Atheneum, 2009). This engaging autobiography shines with light, color, and love. Bryan, 87 and still thriving, invites us to hear his story, enlivened with his own poetic language and with a potpourri of photographs that reveal his childhood world, his family, his artwork, his Bronx neighborhood, his parents’ home back in Antigua, as well as his life on Little Cranberry Island, off the coast of Maine. We get a sense of how he evolved as an artist; one touching painting shows him as a wide-eyed child, book in hand, staring out the window at night. Images of birds — which filled the family’s living room — and the echoes of his mother singing will pop up in Bryan’s books, as shown in the illustrations reproduced in this book. Bryan’s childhood was punctuated by drawing, painting, reciting poetry, and listening to the Bible stories his mother read to him and his siblings. He recalls how they were the first black family to join the pretty St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church — where he would one day design a stained-glass window over the altar, showing a magnificent, dark and honey-hued image of Jesus rising from the tomb. After high school, he went, portfolio in hand, to a prominent art institute. A representative there told him his artwork was the best he had seen and that “it would be a waste to give a scholarship to a colored person.”
Bryan persevered. He was accepted at the Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, and his world widened. After serving in WWII and graduating from Columbia, he taught art (from prep school to Dartmouth), and eventually made his way to the peak of children’s book illustrators.  This autobiography does not brag about Bryan’s multiple awards; instead, it beams with his humble, respectful and indomitable creative spirit. It invites us all to reach inside and listen to that still, precious voice … and to celebrate life while we can.
Note: Bryan will speak March 16th at the Virginia Festival of the Book. If you’d like to read more about him, see this fabulous 2009 interview in Horn Book.

Of Ashley Bryan’s nearly three dozen books, which do you like best? One of my favorite read-alouds for children ages 7-9 is Beautiful Blackbird.

In Bryan’s rousing version of an Ila folktale from Zambia, all the birds have solid-colored feathers, with no patterns or specks of black. Only Blackbird has black feathers that “gleam all colors in the sun.” Generous Blackbird stirs up a brew in his medicine gourd, and then gives the birds their own splash of blackness. Bryan’s gorgeous cut-paper collages show the joyous birds with their now-striking patterns and designs. It’s unanimous: “Black is beautiful, UH-HUH.” This books offers caring adults and their children a fun way to celebrate the many hues of humanity. Oh, what a wonderful world it would be if we all opened our eyes and marveled at that variety! 

More Beauties by Ashley Bryan:

All Things Bright and Beautiful. Atheneum, 2010. All ages. Bryan’s cheerful illustrations make this lovely old hymn by the Irish woman Cecil F. Alexander come alive. The vibrant cut-paper collages celebrate the diverse people, animals, and plants that fill our multicolored Earth. An illustrator’s note and musical notation are included in this richly rendered interpretation, which should be considered the definitive version of the several children’s editions that have been published.
Bryan’s rhythmic retellings of African folktales are must-re ads. This compilation includes 14 stories from previous collections. Highlights include “How Animals Got Their Tails” and “The Foolish Boy,” a touching story about a boy harshly judged by the villagers. His loving, patient parents, however, take time to teach Jumoke well and have faith that he will learn from his mistakes. He shows them how right they are when he outwits that crafty Spider Ananse!
This winner of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award includes the lyrics to “This Little Light of Mine,” “Oh When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Energetic, brilliantly colored cut-paper collages evoke the love and faithful spirit of these popular spirituals, created by slaves and now sung throughout the world.

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