Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Seven
By Thomas Amoriello Jr.
Immediate Past Chair of the NAfME Council for Guitar Education
The “Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books” series continues here with article number seven as two authors prove that you can have a musical stage whether you are in the garden or in a jazz club. Matthew Gollub and Vicky Weber have found creative ways to reach youngsters musically by way of crafty writing that could potentially plant the seeds for a child’s love of music! Musical literacy connections covered include composition, creativity, scatting, musical staff, instruments, catchy nicknames, and so much more!
Please feel free to leave comments on social media for open dialog or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to share which music-themed children’s picture books have been successful in your classroom. On behalf NAfME, I would like to thank Vicky Weber and Matthew Gollub for sharing their stories with the membership.
The Jazz Fly
MATTHEW GOLLUB is an award-winning children’s author who combines dynamic storytelling, interactive drumming, and valuable reading and writing tips. What’s more, he does this while speaking four languages: English, Spanish, Japanese, and jazz! He helps families re-discover the joy of reading to children aloud for FUN.
The friendly characters’ names such as The Jazz Fly, Willie the Worm, Nancy the Gnat, and Sammy the Centipede all have that “name in lights” ring to them. How much time do you put into character names? Do they just come to you? Do you have a “B” and “C” list that did not make the cut?
Matthew Gollub: I’m glad the “name in lights” ring came through! Occasionally, the names of characters just come to me. More often, I need to create lists of possibilities then winnow out the ones that are too long, too hard to say, too hard to read, etc. I didn’t specifically save a “B” or “C” for names. Once I practice chanting a story aloud, I listen for the most evocative names that feel good to say. In general, I write fifteen to twenty drafts of a story, so settling on the right names can take weeks or months!
You can tell I was going for alliteration in naming the bandmates. The name “Sammy the Centipede” repeats the “s” sound but demonstrates that you can spell it with “s” or “c.” “Nancy the Gnat” echoes the “n.” But most kids don’t realize you can spell “n” with “gn.” Creativity is a major theme of The Jazz Fly, so I thought presenting new ways to spell would fit the spirit. I even wrestled with how to spell “Willie,” the worm who “inches up and down” the bass. In early drafts of the manuscript it was spelled “Willy.” But “Willie” seemed hipper and more gender neutral. (Worms are “non-binary,” after all!) And as a kid I would always read about famous athletes like Willie Mays . . .
It has been 20 years since the first installment of The Jazz Fly was published. Your travels and various language barriers inspired the scatting and word play. Do you think that your idea for this book would have arisen today in the Google Translate world in which we live?
MG: That’s a really good question. For children, I think the idea still works. But in the digital age, teens and adults often forego in-person interaction. That’s unfortunate because we miss out on a lot of cultural and linguistic richness.
A few years ago, I travelled through Japan with my son. He had just finished a summer study program in Kyoto. I was keen to show him more of Japan because I had worked and studied there during my twenties. We each had a weeklong Japan Rail pass, so off we went. He accepted that I loved practicing my Japanese with strangers. I’d ask anybody about anything—regional foods, electronic gadgets, mountain temples we were exploring. I’d ask more questions still to clarify unfamiliar words while my son, true to his generation, would reach for Google Translate.
Then there were all the times I’d ask people for directions. (The Jazz Fly is partially autobiographical, after all!) I’d even approach ultra-serious train station masters—neatly uniformed, standing still as statues—and engage them in long conversations about which narrow street outside the station leads where. You can imagine my son’s reaction to this old-fashioned approach: “Google Maps is more efficient!” But my attitude was, “Who cares about efficiency?” By speaking to people, you experience their accent, gestures, body language, personality. Those are the details that interest me as a storyteller. That said, I admit it is convenient to use apps. I rely on them for directions when I travel to elementary schools. And now that I’m trying to learn more French, I find the pronunciation feature on Google Translate indispensable!
What kind of activities and reactions related to “scatting” have you received from school-aged children related to your author visits?
MG: Informal scat activities may start the moment I set foot on campus: “Mr. Gollub! Mr. Matthew! I can say those words!” Kids, chanting solo or with giggly friends, launch into the scat choruses from the books. That alone makes me feel like there is a reason I was placed on Earth! Students may also show me their art displays on walls of the Jazz Fly or Nancy the Gnat, etc. I’ve seen schools transform their libraries with displays of three-dimensional jungle foliage adorned with scat phrases mixed with music and animal cries.
Sometimes the music teacher calls the assemblies to order with a call-and-repeat chant like “ZAH! ZEE! ZAH-ZEE-ZOH!” It’s like a cut time version of marching troops: “Left! Left! Left-right-left!” Four beats to the chant at around 96 beats per minute. After I take the mic, I may keep the chants going, adding blends or diphthongs to explore more sounds:
“SHLAH! SHLEE! SHLAH-SHLEE-SHLOO!” or
“BANG! BEENG! BANG-BEENG-BOING!”
I think jazz scat captures children’s imagination because it’s different from words they have to learn in class. It’s as if it speaks to children’s secret desire to perform, let off steam, and enjoy a communal moment. Here is a link to a scat lesson plan on my website. It shows how to encourage kids to create their own scat phrases. I consider the brief story a “Jazz Lib” (rather than “Mad Lib”).
Here is a video showing some of the ways school have used The Jazz Fly books.
Some schools, from New York City to Berlin to Japan, have even staged dramatic Jazz Fly performances like this. If teachers want to ask for permissions or borrow production assets, they are welcome to contact email@example.com. And here, here, and here are some videos of professional performances using The Jazz Fly to show what’s special about jazz.
Please tell us briefly about being a drummer and the journey that led to you be a children’s picture book author.
MG: When I was a kid, my mother sent me for piano lessons with a neighbor. Weeks would go by, and I wouldn’t practice. Finally, the teacher asked if there was another instrument I’d rather play. Drums! I told her. “Then do us both a favor,” she urged, “and tell that to your mom.”
With two sticks and a drum pad, I could focus on limited details. I practiced overtime and with joy and began to feel more expressive. I played in jazz bands and marching bands in high school and college. I played combo jazz, funk, and dance music on weekends.
Drumming affected the way I write! To this day, when I write even an email, I hear rhythm. I’m a slow reader and writer because I’m constantly listening to the words’ weight and impact. It’s a funny sensibility that, frankly, I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
After college, I worked as a copywriter and translator, mainly to support my attempts at writing fiction. Once I was assigned to travel to Oaxaca to interview the up-and-coming Mexican painter Leovigildo Martínez. He had young children and asked me mid-interview, “¿Mateo, por qué no hacemos un libro para niños?” (“Matthew, why don’t we write a children’s book?”)
Back home, I had just spent years on a novel that my literary agent was having a tough time selling. But my drafts of Mexican folktales, with samples of Leovigildo’s paintings, soon garnered offers from multiple publishers. I thought, “Why fight the universe?” I realized that I liked the tighter focus of writing picture books—kind of the way, as a kid, I preferred two drumsticks and a pad.
What would you like Pre K to 5th grade music educators to know about the benefits of the Jazz Fly series?
MG: Each Jazz Fly book is packaged with a CD and now with an audio download for your devices. (*Free download codes below!) Since the books are made to be heard, not just read, a big benefit is getting young people excited about reading and the sounds of authentic jazz. Note that the three books get gradually more sophisticated. Jazz Fly 3 is perhaps best for 3rd grade music and up.
Here’s a benefit for wiggly little guys: The energetic nature of the Jazz Fly audio invites body percussion, interpretive movement, and creative play. And the interactive chanting prepares kids for language study. English learners, by the way, really relate to The Jazz Fly! Don’t speak a lick of Spanish or French? No problema. Fun glossaries provided in Jazz Fly 2 and 3!
Music, creativity, and kindness are values that most profoundly animate the series. (Helpful in today’s tense social climate!) The fly, who speaks jazz, is like a kid. He lives in the moment. He hears music in the sounds of other critters and uses those sounds as circumstances demand.
Kids also benefit from seeing the fly remain flexible. He happily switches from be-bop to Latin jazz. Spanish words to French words? Excelente. Magnifique! His band will even shift to reggae and odd time meters. He just deals, as a jazzy insect, with prickly situations that arise. He also really values his bandmates and uses his language and rhythm to protect others.
Through the books’ multi-media nature, students also benefit by seeing the importance of collaboration. Karen Hanke (illustration/book design) and Tim Gennert (audio production) are both super creative and have worked closely with me on the series for years. I’ve also been privileged to work with fabulous musicians—including Rubén Valtierra (keyboardist for Weird Al Yankovic) who plays on Jazz Fly 3!
Finally, The Jazz Fly books have applications schoolwide. (Librarians are happy to purchase them when asked!) Librarians and reading specialists love sharing the original Jazz Fly; they say the scat phrases are great for “phonemic awareness.” Classroom teachers use Jazz Fly 2: The Jungle Pachanga for rainforest units and Jazz Fly 3: The Caribbean Sea when studying the ocean. Each Jazz Fly book also contains Author Notes which inspire use during Poetry and Black History Month, etc. Now, my question is, “How will the Jazz Fly books inspire you?”
*For those with a Jazz Fly book but no download code, click here to visit the download page. For the original Jazz Fly, enter the coupon code TPJF!! For Jazz Fly 2, enter TPJF2! The coupon code for Jazz Fly 3 already has been printed in all books.
The Song Garden
VICKY WEBER is a musician and an elementary educator with a love for children’s literature. While she has taught a variety of grade levels, primary level education is where her passion lies. It has long been a dream of hers to teach children through the magic of books, and she hopes you love reading her works as much as she loved writing them.
In relation to the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, your latest book The Song Garden covers the Musical as well as the Nature smart elements.
Vicky Weber: Yes! My goal with The Song Garden was to provide many different ways for children to feel like a part of the story, all while encouraging an appreciation for both nature and music. In the book, the town holds a showcase each year where every participant creates a song garden. The illustrations depict them as a garden with five rows and four spaces, and once a song garden is complete, it will sing its tune. For an added layer, the flower colors coordinate with boomwhackers.
The main character, Calla, is determined to create her own song garden without her parent’s help, but she finds that songwriting doesn’t come as easily to her as it does to her friends. So, the story addresses some of the real stresses and anxieties of songwriting and how to overcome them. Additionally, children are able to read and play the song gardens from the story, just as they would on a staff, without rhythm being a component.
In the back of the book, there is a blank song garden for children to compose their own song gardens. I plan to have my students have an in-class “showcase” just like the story, where they get to create and then hear their gardens “sing” with our classroom instruments. I’ve also heard from other music educators that they plan to create actual song gardens as an outdoor activity, which is amazing!
As a music educator, what void do you see musical-themed children’s picture books fulfilling?
VW: Personally, I have known a lot of amazing music teachers who have taught me how to find musical opportunities in every story. And while I love the creativity involved in that, music is also one of the few genres that is represented only on the surface level. There are lots of stories that you can sing, and there are lots of books about instruments or characters joining a musical group. But so rarely are there books that have added layers of musical concepts. There are many beautiful educational books and bilingual stories . . . since music is a language, I think there should be more of it in children’s literature.
Have you had the opportunity to “road test” your own books in the classroom?
VW: In my classroom? Unfortunately, no, due to COVID-19. But I have been able to use one of them virtually. My newest book, The Song Garden, was just released on May 26, so I am feverishly planning all the ways I can use it with my students for this coming school year. Since The Song Garden’s release, I have already had several private piano instructors send me videos and pictures of their lesson students playing each song garden on the piano as a part of their lessons, so I have been thrilled to see it put to good use, even with the school year ending.
My other book, Lazlo Learns Recorder, was published in February 2020, and because of this, I have had many teachers reach out and share their students using the book in their recorder units, both virtually and in-person. During COVID-19 closures, I have had the opportunity to provide virtual author visits and video recordings of myself reading Lazlo Learns Recorder so that students can have musical experiences virtually.
One teacher sent me this:
Please tell us more about Lazlo Learns Recorder.
VW: Lazlo Learns Recorder is my first musical picture book, which follows a lemur named Lazlo through his first day of school. The fun part is that it is interactive, and children actually learn recorder fundamentals along with the main character of the story. When I was writing it, I wanted the characters to be animals, and so I chose lemurs because they have five fingers just like humans do. My goal with the story was that anyone could pick it up and enjoy the story, but also learn how to play the instrument. My inspiration was all my special needs students who needed extra visuals, my paraprofessionals who always tried to help me teach an instrument they knew little about, and all the parents at home who wanted to help their child improve at the recorder but never knew where to begin. I wanted ANYONE to be able to pick up the story and learn.
Due to COVID-19, I created a video-book version with the help of my husband and have it available on YouTube for students, parents, and teachers to use.
Over the years, what are a few other music-themed books with which you have found success, perhaps even with an individual student?
VW: To be quite honest, my collection of books for my music classroom is quite large because I strongly believe that music and literacy go hand-in-hand. There are so many that I love! One that I always start the school year with is Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae. It is a great way to facilitate a conversation about respecting one another as we create, and we discuss how some things will be easier than others but never to give up. Throughout the year, when students get frustrated, I remind them of the end of the book: “We all can dance . . . when we find the music that we love.”
Read past articles by Thomas Amoriello Jr.:
- Guitar Class in 50 States: Coda
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Six
- From Sting to Sky: Interview with Ex-Scorpions Guitarist Uli Jon Roth
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Five
- A Grownup Conversation with Raffi
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Four
- A Conductor’s Tale: Interview with American Young Voices Conductor Francisco J. Núñez
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Three
- A Cultural Treasure: Interview with Sharon Isbin, Julliard Classical Guitar Program Founder
- The Season’s Greeting’s Guitarist: Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Al Pitrelli
- Yay Storytime! Musical Adventures with Children’s Picture Books, Part Two
- 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. 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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