Yay Storytime!

Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Nine

By Thomas Amoriello Jr.

NAfME Council for Guitar Education Immediate Past Chair

The “Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books” series continues with article number nine as we focus on works by authors Kim Tomsic and Susanna Reich. Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World, as well as Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles, are both books that are more than just about the guitar as an instrument or being a musician. There are plenty of cross-curricular benefits related to science, culture, character traits, friendship and more to inspire young minds and will add value to the classroom.

Please feel free to leave comments on social media for open dialog or reach out to me at tamoriel@frsd.k12.nj.us to share which music-themed children’s picture books have been a success in your classroom. On behalf NAfME, I would like to thank Ms. Tomsic and Ms. Reich for sharing their thoughts with the membership.

Fab Four Friends cover Guitar Genius cover

Susanna Reich is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults, Susanna Reich has driven big trucks, designed flowers in honor of the Emperor and Empress of Japan, and done graduate work in ancient Hawaiian hula. Her honors include the Rip Van Winkle Award for Outstanding Contributions to Children’s Literature, Tomas Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, International Latino Book Award, NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor, ALA Notable & Best Books for Young Adults, School Library Journal Best Books, Kirkus Best Young Adult Books, and Booklist Top Ten Arts Books for Youth. She is Immediate Past Chair of the Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee of PEN America and lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband, children’s book author Gary Golio.


I really like how your book brings attention to the early hard work of the Beatles as they paid their dues before fame and fortune hit. I think it is important for children to see the struggle (sweat) of musicians and artists.

It’s easy to think that the Beatles became famous overnight when they appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. In fact, by that time John, Paul, and George had been playing together for six years. (Ringo was the latecomer, having joined in 1962.) Fab Four Friends shows how four seemingly average kids from Liverpool became world-class musicians. It took a lot more than talent and luck. It took years of practice and dedication. There were plenty of obstacles along the way and many moments when the boys felt discouraged, but they didn’t give up. It’s a story of determination and perseverance that also shows how the bonds of friendship helped sustain them through the tough times.

Fab Four Friends inside illustration


Your book also shows the therapeutic aspect that music has as John, Paul, George, and Ringo deal with parental loss, abandonment, poverty, and severe hospitalization. Fab Four Friends could also provide kinship with a reader or listener with a non-“traditional” family situation.

Liverpool was not an easy place to grow up during and after World War II. The city was badly damaged by German bombs, food was rationed, times were hard. John was raised by an aunt and uncle, and Ringo by a single mom. Both John and Paul lost their mothers when the boys were in their teens. “Just bashing away” on their guitars was a lifeline. Ringo spent several years in the hospital as a child. That’s where he discovered the drums. In George’s first childhood home, the toilet was outdoors and only the kitchen was heated. Readers from non-“traditional” families as well as those whose families are struggling will be able to relate.


Your book also makes use of some musical terminology as well as obscure music references such as “skiffle”?

Yes, that’s why there’s a glossary in the back. Kids (and most adults, for that matter) don’t know what skiffle is, or teddy boys, or scousers. I like to expand readers’ knowledge by including unfamiliar words and expressions, while being careful to define them, either in context or in the glossary. It makes for a richer reading experience and teaches history in an entertaining way. I hope that readers will appreciate the songs more, too, once they learn who the Beatles were and where they came from.

Susanna Reich

Photo by Laurel Golio


How has the lyrical writing of Lennon and McCartney and sometimes Harrison influenced you as a storyteller through children’s picture books?

When I write biography—or in this case, collective biography—I try to channel the subject(s) by immersing myself in their lives and work through my research. The “voice” that emerges in my writing will then (hopefully) reflect the subject. In Fab Four Friends, I sprinkle the text with mid-century British lingo, calling the boys “lads,” for example, and their mothers, “Mum.” I read many, many books by and about the Beatles in order to find fun and interesting quotes and expressions, like “the bee’s knees.”

YouTube video

The Beatles “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” performed on the “Ed Sullivan Show” on February 9, 1963


Respectfully, the legacy of the Beatles has been successfully remarketed to generations since they broke up in 1970. Most children are familiar with “Golden Slumbers,” “Blackbird” from films such as “Sing” and “The Boss Baby.” In what other ways can the music of the Beatles speak to the younger generation today and their aspirations and struggles?

Let’s face it: John Lennon and Paul McCartney were genius songwriters. George wrote some terrific songs, too. Their music is classic; it’ll never go out of style. And listeners can grow with it: from the early songs that are simple pop tunes (albeit with some unusual chords), to some of the later music that’s more complex and experimental. The lyrics appeal to people around the world because they’re universal. Just look at “Nowhere Man,” “Hey, Jude,” “All You Need is Love,” “In My Life,” or “Let It Be.”


Guitar Genius inside illustration

Kim Tomsic is a word wrangler, gesticulator, and exclamation point abuser! She was born on an American military base in Italy and has lived in various parts of the United States, thus forcing her to find her way as the new kid at many schools. Now, she is a declared extrovert and enjoys helping others connect. Although Kim admires nice shoes, she’s super-awkward in heels and can usually be found in flip-flops and on her way to a yoga class. She is active with the SCBWI and also serves on the Board of Directors for the Friends of Haiti, a 501(c)3 charity organized to provide Haitian students the opportunity to go to school. Kim claims two super-powers: parallel parking and fierce loyalty. She has one husband, two children, and one dog—all keep her laughing.

Kim Tomsic

Photo by Tina Garbe


Your story Guitar Genius is so much more than a story about the guitar. How can your children’s picture book benefit the non-guitar educator as well as students?

You are correct, Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World is about more than just Les Paul’s engineering wizardry. It’s a story about perseverance—facing criticism and failures and yet never giving up!


You dedicated the book to your “guitar hero” son, Cayman, and the illustrator Brett Helquist’s dedication to his guitar teacher Woody. How important do you feel this instrument is to society?

First, I’ll answer with this blanket statement: Music is transformative and nurturing for the soul. The guitar is an exciting instrument to listen to—be it jazz, rock, classical, progrock, progmetal, hillbilly, country, blues, etc. And its various visual forms are often artistic wonders—enchanting or at least intriguing to the senses. Furthermore, the instrument affords a musician a way to express their “voice” and say something, and it provides a path for listeners to experience feelings in a way that is different than what reading or conversation can offer.

Second, though I’m no psychologist, I understand that music therapy has been successful for reasons beyond what a novice like me can ever know!

Thirdly, I’ll throw in some brain science: Guitars are genius-makers (IMHO), because music engages all parts of the brain—the temporal lobe (auditory cortex), the amygdala (responding to a loud or abrupt sound), the hippocampus (when a song triggers a memory), and then the occipital lobe when a mental image from that memory activates it. I could go on, but one of the more interesting findings to me is how closely related music theory and mathematics seem to be. Okay, maybe I’m biased, but shout-out to my “guitar genius” son, Cayman, who is using his COVID stay-at-home time to go to coding school (online, of course).

For more about “The Brain on Music,” please visit this page.


If you were a music educator, what type of lesson plan would you envision to present to your upper elementary students utilizing Guitar Genius?

If I were a music teacher, I’d click on the “Teacher’s Guide” for Guitar Genius which was created by literary specialist and classroom educator Michele Knott. Inside the guide, you’ll find vocabulary sorts, craft activities, video links, social-emotional learning suggestions, Common Core engineering goals, discussion questions, and makerspace ideas to tinker and create! Here’s the link.


Words that caught my attention that you use to describe Les Paul and which could inspire students included curiosity, ingenuity, and perseverance. Also, problem-solving and tinkering are overriding themes that will resonate with students. Your thoughts?

I couldn’t be happier that perseverance and curiosity are words that stood out to you. I spent two years communicating with Sue Baker when I was writing this book. Sue is not only the program director for the Les Paul Foundation, but she was also one of Les’s closest friends during the last ten years of his life. The number one thing Sue wants kids to know when she talks about Les is his dedication to hard work and perseverance. I’m thrilled that his grit shined through in my telling.

As you probably saw, I couldn’t resist including in my author’s note at the end of the book that when Les shattered his right arm in a car accident in 1948, doctors wanted to amputate, but in the can-do attitude he had all his life, he convinced them to set his arm at a right angle, so he could keep whipping out licks on his guitar. There are so many more examples of his doggedness peppered throughout Les Paul’s life.

Opportunity did not show up for him on a silver platter; Les made his opportunities. He worked hard, for example, he made 500 copies of his song “Lover” until he felt it was right. And as far as tinkering—if Les had a problem, and the solution wasn’t already invented, then he invented it. Les holds many patents. At the end of his life, he was still inventing and created a guitar pick so that his injured right hand could grasp it a bit more easily.

Guitar Genius inside illustration


As a virtuosic musician, Les had performed for President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the age of 24 and could have just stopped there, but he was constantly dreaming to enhance the sound experience, whether his work with multi-track recording or mic placement techniques. His mother did not interfere with his wild whims of taking household items apart. Hopefully, a young reader will be inspired to discover the next technology.

I hope a young reader will be inspired to create the next big technology discovery, too! Les was a curious child. As a boy, he would tie a string to his big toe and dangle it out his window with a note attached to the other end that essentially invited friends to give it a tug if anything interesting was happening. He couldn’t stand the idea of missing out on a chance to experience something new!

Les chased after “sound” from an early age. As a boy, Les would walk eight miles to the Waukesha Beach Amusement Park, so he could sneak under the tent and hear musicians play. Not only did his mother not scold him for that, she absolutely believed that anything that ignited his curiosity must be worthwhile. His shenanigans included but were not limited to taking apart phones, radios, and the family’s player piano—and like I said, his mother encouraged his tinkering. I often ask kids during school visits what would happen if they took apart their family phone, dishwasher, or iPad. I usually get an answer like, “I’d be grounded for life!” But I wonder if parents were in the audience, would they have a change of heart about tinkering?

Les cared about sound and engineering all the way up to his nineties. In the final years of his life, he spent time working on designing better hearing aids.

YouTube video


For more information on Les Paul and free educational resources including articles, activities, and posters perfect for the classroom, visit the Les Paul Foundation.

Any final thoughts that you care to share with the NAfME membership regarding music and literacy?

Yes, in Les’s words, “Keep on pickin’!”


Read past articles by Thomas Amoriello Jr.:

About the author:

guitar educator Tom Amoriello with electric guitar

Photo Credit: Jon Carlucci

Thomas Amoriello Jr. is the Immediate Past Chair of the NAfME Council for Guitar Education and is also the former Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association (NJMEA). He has had more than fifty guitar and ukulele advocacy articles published in music education journals in Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, Illinois, Rhode Island, and New Jersey. Tom has taught guitar classes for the Flemington Raritan School District in Flemington, New Jersey, since 2005 and was also an adjunct guitar instructor at Cumberland County College, New Jersey, for five years. He has earned a Master of Music Degree in Classical Guitar Performance from Shenandoah Conservatory and a Bachelor of Arts in Music from Rowan University. His primary teachers have been Alice Artzt, Glenn Caluda, David Crittenden, and Joseph Mayes. He has performed in the master classes of Benjamin Verdery in Maui, Hawaii, and Angelo Gilardino and Luigi Biscaldi in Biella, Italy.

During his time on the NJMEA board he has directed guitar festivals and drafted the proposal to approve the first ever NJMEA Honors Guitar Ensemble. Tom is an advocate for class guitar programs in public schools and has been a clinician presenting his “Guitar for the K–12 Music Educator” for the Guitar Foundation of America Festivals in Charleston, South Carolina, and Columbus, Georgia; Lehigh Valley Guitar Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Philadelphia Classical Guitar Society Festival, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; NAfME Biennial Conferences in Baltimore and Atlantic City; as well as other state music education conferences in New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. He has twice been featured on episodes of “Classroom Closeup–NJ,” which aired on New Jersey Public Television. He is the author of the children’s picture books A Journey to Guitarland with Maestro Armadillo and Ukulele Sam Strums in the Sand, both available from Black Rose Writing. He recently made a heavy metal recording with a stellar roster of musicians including former members of Black Sabbath, Whitesnake, Ozzy Osbourne, Yngwie J. Malmsteen’s Rising Force, and Dio that was released on H42 Records of Hamburg, Germany. The record released on 12-inch vinyl and digital platforms has received favorable reviews in many European rock magazines and appeared on the 2018 Top 15 Metal Albums list by Los Angeles KNAC Radio (Contributor Dr. Metal). His next recording is a 5-track EP called “Dear Dark,” which will be released by Ice Fall Records on cassette in March 2020 and features former members of Megadeth, King Diamond, TNT, and Dokken. Visit thomasamoriello.com for more information.


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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

October 29, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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