Musical Children’s Books

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Music Therapy, Techniques

When I worked in Phoenix, I started a project where I would write some music to accompany children’s books.  The project has kind of fizzled over the years, but while I unpacked, I found my books and decided to give them a look.  I don’t have copies of the music I did (with one exception), so I’m either going to have to start again or give up on them.  I thought I’d take this opportunity to share the books I have, give some thoughts about their suitability, and then solicit suggestions for others.

The Remarkable Farkle McBride (John Lithgow) is actually the one that started the whole project.  Lithgow has actually written several children’s books, including Marsupial Sue.  The original Farkle has no music, though I know Lithgow later released a song for it.  I don’t know if this music was included in later editions.  Marsupial Sue always included a CD and score.  I wrote some music for Farkle, and this is the only song I still have since I recorded it.  It’s a good and funny book about a musical progidy who is also kind of a spoiled brat.  It’s a good way to learn the instruments of the orchestra.

Marsupial Sue, on the other hand, is all about a kangaroo who is trying to reinvent herself by joining other groups of Australian critters.  She eventually decides that being a kangaroo is not so bad after all, giving the lesson of accepting yourself just the way you are.  It’s cute, but I like Farkle more.  One thing both books have going for them in terms of writing music is the existence of a poetic form that allows for verse-chorus song structure.

Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! and Our Marching Band are two instrument themed books by Lloyd Moss.  In Zin! Zin! Zin!, you are introduced to the instruments of the orchestra one by one, learning to count as you go.  Our Marching Band introduces a bunch of kids who want to play instruments and how they form a marching band.  Both are excellent introductions to musical instruments, though Zin! Zin! Zin! is much more suitable for young children.  Neither is very easy to adapt to music.  There’s no repetition of phrases in either, which takes away a lot of possibilities for variation within the music.  Our Marching Band in particular is a little long to make into a song, though it might work in a group setting if everyone had an instrument to play when their turn came.  It would probably be difficult to get all the instruments represented exactly (unless you have a tuba, saxophone, trumpet, flute, clarinet, and trombone just sitting around).  Zin! Zin! Zin! might work with just a picture they could hold up.

Silly Sally (Audrey Wood) is a book about a silly woman going to town and the creatures she meets on the way.  It’s very much a young children book and doesn’t have too much of a point outside of being a little silly.  It’s repetitive and pretty suitable for a short song, but the audience does have to be pretty young to appreciate it.

Giraffes Can’t Dance (Giles Andreae) is about an awkward giraffe who gets mocked because he can’t dance.  I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but you can probably figure out what happens in the end.  This book is long and not repetitive at all.  The poetic structure stays the same from stanza to stanza, but this is a book I probably won’t bother with trying to write a new song for it.  A good message about not caring what other people think of you and being happy with yourself, but not all poetic books are good for songs. (By the way, I didn’t notice until just now how similar those two covers are.)

Runny Babbit was the last children’s book from Shel Silverstein, not published until six years after his death.  It’s a book of short poems, much like A Light in the Attic or Where the Sidewalk Ends.  The big difference is that every poem in this book is made up of spoonerisms (a play on words that switches letters around between words – Runny Babbit is a spoonerism of Bunny Rabbit).  It’s a fun book, but I haven’t really found a use for it yet.  You’d really have to have someone who knows language well and can understand the humor of spoonerisms for it to be effective.  It might be better to get one of Silverstein’s other poetry books – I know he himself wrote some music for his poems (Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout is one of my favorites).  Like Silly Sally, the point of most of his stuff is to be silly, but he really has a dark sense of humor – SCSS is all about a girl who never took out the garbage and ended up meeting “an awful fate that I cannot right now relate”.  You compare that with Silverstein’s poem about dropping a plate to get out of washing the dishes or the girl who wants a pony so bad that she dies out of spite and you get the picture.  If I end up using these, I really have to be careful about the audience.

Porcupining (Lisa Wheeler) is the only prose book I have in my collection.  It’s all about a porcupine looking for love in all the wrong places until (SPOILER ALERT!) it finally finds it with a hedgehog.  But if it’s prose, why am I bothering?  It’s because of how Cushion the Porcupine woos his ladies – by singing them a song.  There’s a four line verse that’s repeated (with slightly different words) several times during the book.  It’s a fairly short book about persistence and not being mean, and it’s going to make a good Valentine’s story with my social skills group tonight.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault) is a pretty popular children’s book.  It’s an alphabet book that’s mostly aimed at pretty young children.  Musically, it works since there’s onomatopoeia right there in the title.  “Chicka chicka” could be shakers, and “boom boom” could be drums.  The book kind of evokes a Caribbean feel just in the look of the illustrations.  It’s kind of fun, but again, it should only be used with pretty young children.

So that’s what I’ve got.  I’ll take some suggestions for other kid books that would be suitable for music if you have some.  It’s been a few years since I even looked, so I’m sure there’s some new stuff I might be able to use.  Thanks for reading!

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