Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Two
By Thomas Amoriello, Jr.
NAfME Council for Guitar Education Chair
Since the publication of “Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part One” in August of 2018, I am proud to say that NAfME has shared the article on many occasions via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and it has received many positive comments and shares among music educators, authors, and librarians alike.
In “Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Two,” we visit with authors Ethriam Cash Brammer and Gavin Curtis, whose books focus on cultural diversity in relation to the Latinx and African American communities, with a touch of music for support. Both books incorporate elements of music literacy, ethnic pride, family tradition, folk songs, musical instruments, and even a sport—laying the foundation for a young mind to explore these topics further with a parent, an educator, or friend.
Gavin Curtis’s The Bat Boy & The Violin could encourage a child to learn more about a baseball legend such as Jackie Robinson or to try out a “fiddle” for the first time in the 4th grade, while Dr. Brammer’s My Tata’s Guitar could influence a child to look around the house for that abandoned guitar while learning about family ancestry via that instrument. Many possibilities for an open dialogue in the music classroom await the readers; additionally, the beautifully illustrated artwork within each book can lead to further learning opportunities.
On behalf of NAfME, I would like to thank each author for their generosity and wisdom for helping create this article.
My Tata’s Guitar
Ethriam Cash Brammer is a Chicano writer and scholar, of Purépecha descent, from El Centro, California. He currently serves as an assistant dean for the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan, where he also serves as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Implementation Lead and holds a doctorate in English from Wayne State University and a masters of fine arts degree in creative writing from San Francisco State University. As a literary scholar, Dr. Brammer’s research centers on the intersection of transnational U.S. Latinx literatures with translation theory and practice and is dedicated to advancing equity and social justice throughout society. He currently serves on the executive council for AARP Michigan. Brammer is a passionate advocate for the success of students of all ages. He has been deeply involved in efforts to increase children’s literacy through programs such as El Déa del Niño/El Déa del Libro and PRIME TIME Family Reading Time, two programs supported by the American Library Association. He is also the author of two original bilingual children’s books including My Tata’s Guitar / La guitara de mi tata (Arte Público Press, 2003) which is our focus.
Please share your original thoughts about developing the story of My Tata’s Guitar / La guitara de mi tata into a children’s picture book. Is this a true story from your childhood or somebody you know?
My Tata’s Guitar was originally written from a place of fantasy for me. Unfortunately, I never had a living grandfather in my life. Consequently, I always longed to have a relationship with an elder role-model figure from my own family—in addition to my father, of course. So, the inspiration came out of the need to fill that void somehow.
At the start, I set to imagine, if I did have a grandfather in my life, what would he be like? What would be the nature of our relationship? What timeless lessons would he want to teach me? Which family stories would he share? What cultural values would he want to impart on me to make sure that they continued to be honored?
Did you have the opportunity to interact with the illustrator Daniel Lechon during the creation of the book?
I was blessed to have been able to work fairly closely with Daniel. My understanding is that this isn’t always the case during the illustrated book publishing process. We never met in person, but we talked a number of times over the phone, and we exchanged many emails. He asked me about my vision for the book, and I think—in some ways—he mentored me almost like a grandfather figure during the production.
My Tata’s Guitar was my first children’s book project. And, at the time, Daniel was considerably older and an established veteran of the industry, of course. It’s funny; because, when the book was originally released, a number of people commented that the Tata character in the book appears to look a lot like Daniel. And, they say that the drawings of the protagonist look a lot like me when I was a little boy. So, I can’t read the book without thinking about the tata-nieto-like relationship between Daniel and myself at the time of the production.
“I like to make my readings as interactive and engaging as possible. So, we sing the songs. I even bring mini guitars and maracas. And, I have sombreros and zarapes for some of the children in the audience to wear.”
Were you surrounded by music as a child?
No, not at all. I think this was another part of the fantasy-fulfillment aspect of writing the book. The void wasn’t quite as big as growing up without a living grandfather, of course. And, I did learn how to play the piano and trumpet as a youth. So, I do read music and play at a very basic level. But, I always dreamed of being able to play in a band or mariachi.
In your story a boy finds an old guitar in the garage and touches upon the journey and experiences that the instrument accompanied including family traditions, love serenades, birthday and religious celebrations, and emigrating. My Tata’s Guitar / La guitara de mi tata was published in 2003. What type of feedback have you received over the years?
It’s been an amazing journey with My Tata’s Guitar. I am very happy that it is available for children to read in their schools [as approved reading]. In fact, that was the real motivation for me to write it: I was hoping to write the kind of book that I would have liked to have been able to read as a child, but never had access to at school—books that reflected my language, my culture, my family values and experiences. Aside from trying to increase the number of available positive images and cultural representations, I just think it’s a fun book to read.
I am also often asked to do readings at schools, libraries, literacy events, etc. I like to make my readings as interactive and engaging as possible. So, we sing the songs. I even bring mini guitars and maracas. And, I have sombreros and zarapes for some of the children in the audience to wear. It makes for some fun readings and a genuine celebration of Mexican and Mexican-American culture. Very cute pictures for parents, too.
As a diversity scholar you are deeply involved in efforts to increase children’s literacy through programs such as El Día del Niño/El Día del Libro and PRIME TIME Family Reading Time, two programs supported by the American Library Association. Please share your thoughts.
Reading together as a family is so important. And, both of these programs do such a great job promoting family and community literacy. In the case of PRIME TIME, I was blessed to be part of the team supported by the Michigan Humanities Council to visit New Orleans and learn the model for replication in Michigan for the first time. It was great to see how the program grew in our state after all the great success in Louisiana.
And, El Día del Niño was a particularly fulfilling project for me, because it was a huge collective community effort in Southwest Detroit. Many, many social services agencies, early childhood facilities, local schools, and universities all pulled together to improve community literacy outcomes and educational opportunity for everyone—under the leadership of the Mexican Consulate. I just loved the collective community action so much. It was one of the most fulfilling professional experiences of my life—especially seeing it all come together each year, and seeing the joy on the faces of children as they received free books and learned the love for reading.
The Bat Boy & His Violin
Gavin Curtis went to college at the School of Visual Arts, where he studied cartooning with renowned storyteller Will Eisner, and even collaborated with Mr. Eisner on two covers for the school’s comic book magazine entitled Gallery. He also studied children’s book illustration and created the book dummy for his first picture book Grandma’s Baseball. When Gavin finished school, he began working for Marvel Comics where he drew and eventually wrote many stories. He also completed graduate school to get his master’s degree in education and become an elementary school teacher. Today, an educator, writer, and illustrator, Mr. Curtis continues to push himself creatively.
“One young woman wrote to me that a librarian reading the book to her class in kindergarten so inspired her that she started taking violin lessons, eventually growing to perform in a symphony traveling to Prague.”
The Bat Boy & His Violin was the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award for Peace, Brotherhood and Non-Violent Social Change. On a professional and personal level, what kind of impact did that have on you?
It’s profoundly validating to see that symbol and read those words adorning my book. Award attention and starred reviews have contributed to its reach for many years in ways I couldn’t have imagined. One young woman wrote to me that a librarian reading the book to her class in kindergarten so inspired her that she started taking violin lessons, eventually growing to perform in a symphony traveling to Prague.
Stories contribute to how children understand themselves and their place in an empathetic world. All children should be able to walk into a bookstore, library, or classroom and be positively stirred by protagonists who look like them and everyone else. Isn’t that the very embodiment of “Peace, Brotherhood and Non-Violent Social Change”?
In the dedication of the book, you state: “In memory of Mrs. Daisy D. Hooper, whose music still chases away my jitters.” Was Mrs. Hooper a former music teacher?
Mrs. Hooper was my kindergarten teacher, and the first administrator to encourage me to become a teacher myself. She was the first memory I have of being read to, sung to. She played the piano and was the director of her choir. Music permeated her spirit in a joyous, infectious way. She passed before I began the book, but I immediately knew the dedication was for her.
Did you study music growing up?
I played the French horn in middle school, but not very well. During that time, I had a cast on my left hand and fell behind in the band. I adored the instrument’s muted sound in orchestral music, but, alas, could never quite duplicate the tones I enjoyed. My real talent was for writing and drawing. Eventually, the year I sold my first picture book Grandma’s Baseball, I started working for Marvel Comics.
“Throughout my teaching career in the classroom, I have frequently collaborated with music teachers to create experiences connected to curriculum, enriching lessons and motivating my students. Children singing strategically curated songs and then analyzing their lyrics are powerful entry points for math, literacy, and social studies.”
Your story takes place at the tail end of the Negro National League one season after the major league debut of Jackie Robinson and tells of a bat boy who helps a team (The Dukes) that his father manages overcome a slump by fiddlin’ Tchaikovsky, Bach, and Mozart. What was the creative spark that prompted your love of music, baseball, and African American history?
Artistically, I love to explore the tension and harmony between disparate elements. I was also always fascinated with how many of the lessons learned by teams of the Negro Leagues seemed to serve as a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement. Surely the very act of creating a thriving space to play baseball, barnstorming in resistance to segregation while navigating a hostile terrain until the late 1940s, must have informed Dr. King, Freedom Riders, and marchers of the 1950s and ’60s. The fictional grandmother of my first picture book was married to a player from the Monarchs, so with The Bat Boy & His Violin, I decided to delve deeper into the Negro Leagues.
You are an educator, author, and artist. Please tell us about how you use your talents to connect with students.
There is extensive research regarding the centering effects of music for managing stress and improving concentration. Reginald’s (named paying homage to Reggie Jackson) impact on the Dukes’ baseball games was my chance as a writer to explore this phenomenon witnessed firsthand as an educator. Throughout my teaching career in the classroom, I have frequently collaborated with music teachers to create experiences connected to curriculum, enriching lessons and motivating my students. Children singing strategically curated songs and then analyzing their lyrics are powerful entry points for math, literacy, and social studies.
Additionally, I’m now returning to my roots, in a sense, working on a middle-grade graphic novel. I also use graphic novels in my fourth-grade class library, and I think it’s incredible how the market has shifted and children’s publishing is embracing the comics medium.
Did you communicate with Illustrator E.B. Lewis during the creation from text to art? His soft watercolors really bring the story to life.
Publishers of picture books customarily prefer for writers not to directly communicate with the illustrators during that process, allowing for the synergy to come principally from story rather than personalities. Before we committed to an illustrator, however, I expressed my vision for a soft watercolor style evocative of baseball films like “The Natural” and “Field of Dreams.” When the editor sent me for approval a copy of Fire on the Mountain that Earl had illustrated, I knew he would be perfect!
Your references to baseball integration, segregation, historical teams (Monarchs and Buckeyes), and music-making with supportive parents opens dialogue for further discussion. What kind of personal feedback have you received from individuals that go beyond the press reviews? Is there a story you would like to share?
I’m just really humbled by the notes and emails I have received throughout the book’s lifespan. Librarians, teachers, parents, and students have shared with me how Reginald’s passion for his talent encouraged their own. One boy from Florida told me he used the book to convince his parents to support his desire to pursue sculpting. My response to him was, “Mission accomplished!”
Follow Gavin Curtis on Twitter @Gavin_Curtis.
Thank you once again to Gavin and Ethriam for their contributions to the benefit of the NAfME membership. “Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Three” will solely focus on the jazz inspired works of author and poet Roxane Orgill.
Read past articles by Thomas Amoriello:
- The Student Teacher in the Guitar Classroom
- Double Trouble: Interview with Innovative Musician Gabriel Guardian
- The Patriotic Guitarist: Master Sergeant Alan Prather of “The President’s Own”
- Interview with Progressive Funk-Rock Guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight
- Heavy Metal Guitar: Neo-Classical Style
- Heavy Metal Guitar: From Times Square to Netflix and Beyond
- Make a Sound! Interview with Drummer Michael Bland
- What about the Electric Bass?
- An Article for Jazz Educators: Interview with Guitarist Kevin Eubanks
- Hip Hop Empowers: Interview with Harlem-Raised, Boston-Based Hip Hop Artist Billy Dean Thomas
- Heavy Metal Guitar Style: Virtuoso Shred Guitar with Toby Knapp
- Adult Education: Rock Camp
- Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books
- Empowering the Musician in Your Classroom
About the author:
Thomas Amoriello Jr. serves as the chair on the NAfME Council for Guitar Education and is also the former Chairperson for the New Jersey Music Education Association. 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. 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). Visit thomasamoriello.com for more information.
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