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June 29, 2011

New Books: Hopper and WIlson


When a new children's book reminds me of one of the major classics of children's lit--Barrie, Hodgson Burnett, Sendak--well, that's high praise in my book, and it doesn't happen often. Maria van Lieshout's Hopper and Wilson is reminiscent, in the best possible ways, of Winnie-the-Pooh, both thematically, in its simple tale of two stuffed-animal friends, and visually, with its sweet illustrations of the friends' voyage to the end of the world (right down to the visible stitches on both Hopper, a stuffed elephant, and Wilson, his dear stuffed-mouse companion).

None of this is to say the book doesn't stand perfectly well on its own two feet, though; van Lieshout (like Milne, and Saint-Exupery, and Arnold Lobel) is one of those writers who find profundity in simplicity. Her story of the terrified bravery of both friends, as they encounter and overcome terrible dangers on their travels, is by no means complex, but children and adults alike will find it deeply moving and satisfying. (It certainly made its way into my two-year-old's bedtime rotation in short order.) And the general Pooh-ness only aids that, I think, giving Hopper and Wilson a soothing and familiar feel--a special feel, really.

[Cover image courtesy of Philomel Books.]

June 24, 2011

New Music: Flying!

Sting. Gene Simmons. Add to the list of schoolteachers-turned-star-musicians the kids'-music trio known as Recess Monkey. Okay, so maybe this Seattle-based group isn't as well-known as those other two, but to my mind they're among the true superstars of the kid-music genre, right up there with household names like Dan Zanes.

It's also a bit incorrect of me to use the word turned, since guitarist/lead vocalist Drew Holloway, bassist/pianist Jack Forman, and drummer Daron Henry are all still teachers; somehow they find the time to write and produce an album a year and even go on occasional tours on the side. (For their explanation of how that works, see my interview with them from earlier this week.) Even more remarkable is that what started out as an excellent kids' band back in the mid-2000s has gotten better and better with each CD. Their latest, Flying!, is one of the four or five most musically proficient children's albums I've heard.

By this point in their recording career, Recess Monkey has established its own confident sound, basically power pop with a strong 1980s new-wave bent (think the Cars, Joe Jackson, and XTC, though no single influence dominates). Their confidence level is audible, and with good reason—they're superb musicians, they know how to write a hook, and when they branch out into new territory—as they do several times on Flying!, swerving assuredly into Latin music on “Covered in Band Aids,” for instance—they do so expertly, the results less pastiche than just Recess Monkey songs with a twist. These are songs you find yourself humming in the shower before remembering they're for kids—and then keep on humming even after you do.

Of course, they are aimed at kids, with subject matter like Band-Aids, invisible friends, and a beloved pet fish (actually, that last one might not have been out of bounds for some adult acts of the '80s). But even lyrically these guys stand apart, finding subtly sophisticated angles and points of view for their songwriting—drawing, I suspect, on their jobs as grade-school teachers for a lot of that perspective. (“Bravest Kid in the World” in particular is one of the deeper explorations of what kids go through when they’re about to do something wrong you’ll find in a pop song.) It doesn't hurt that Holloway's vocals on these lyrics is top-notch; powerful, versatile, and always compelling, he gets my family’s vote as the best vocalist in kids' music today.

What I'm trying to say here—beyond, of course, that you should pick up Flying! at your first opportunity—is that Recess Monkey is one of those rare kids' bands that even parents who don't much care for kids' bands (you know who you are) may want to give a try. And parents who do, and aren't already aware of this still-not-quite-as-famous-as-the-Police band—well, you’ll want to go get the whole back catalog.

[Cover image courtesy of Recess Monkey.]

June 22, 2011

Interview: Recess Monkey

Regular YKFK readers will already know of my enthusiasm for Recess Monkey, the prolific (album a year!) and astonishingly talented band from Seattle. Simply put, they're part of the very top echelon of today's kids' music. And while they don't yet have quite the name recognition among parents nationwide that leading lights like Laurie Berkner and Dan Zanes do, well, I think it's only a matter of time.

So as my small part in making that happen, I'm devoting my posts this week entirely to Recess Monkey; on Friday I'll put up my review of their brand-new superhero-themed release, Flying!, here and cross-posted at Momfilter (but I'll leak the gist here: It's their best yet—go get it now!).

As for today, the band was kind enough to take time out from a hectic touring (and teaching!) schedule for an interview. (Many thanks to them for that.) Here's what (above, from left) Drew Holloway, Daron Henry, and Jack Forman had to say about their songwriting process, the Beatles, and faux facial hair:

YKFK: As I understand it, you guys are full-time schoolteachers, and at least some of you are also parents. How on earth do you find the time to write, record, and put out a great new album every single year?

Jack: It’s true—we’re all still elementary school teachers, and both Drew and I have human children; Daron has a canine child.

Drew: It takes copious amount of coffee!

Daron: Or a wormhole! No, seriously—we're really excited about the music, and working in the classroom gives us a lot of inspiration with each new album and each new song idea. We worked our recording schedule into our winter and summer breaks.

Jack: It really is true that we can’t keep up with all of the ideas that kids throw at us each day at school. I think if you were able to record every single thing that a class of kids says in a day, you’d have enough material for an entire career’s worth of albums!

YKFK: I've noticed that many of our favorite kid-music artists have been contributing as guest artists one another's albums lately, in almost a glorious chain: Molly Ledford from Lunch Money on your new album, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo on Lunch Money's last year, etc. How have those collaborations come about—meeting each other at festivals, Tor Hyams, magical brain waves, all of the above?

Drew: As a function of coming together in Seattle and jet-setting to places like Kindiefest, we’ve been able to connect with lots of different bands and musicians.

Daron: Collaboration comes pretty easy for us—we all teach in very collaborative schools, so from our first album to now, we’ve always incorporated our friends and students into the process. It just so happens now that we know more people across the country, so it’s very exciting that we get to broaden the circle.

Jack: Our schools are pretty nontraditional, and are looking for a more diverse group in the faculty than traditionally trained teachers—we learned early on how exciting a curriculum can be when you look around at talents within the faculty. That’s actually how we first discovered each other as musicians. Since forming the band, we’ve worked hard to find inspiration wherever we can. And there are tons of inspiring people in kindie music right now!

YKFK: I'll spare you the infamous "do the music or lyrics come first" question, but can you tell me a little about your songwriting process? Do the three of you write together, or do you come up with ideas separately and bring more fully formed songs to the group?

Jack: We start a new album very much the same way that we create curricula—we reflect on where we’ve been, and we set some goals about where we want to go next. That usually leads to an idea for an album theme, however comprehensive or loose that is....

Daron: The theme helps us focus on ideas that are coming at us every day. For example, when we started talking about a superhero record, I noticed that kids at camp were throwing their stuffed animals from bunk to bunk and called them “super stuffies!” [Editor's note: See the video, below.] That seemed to fit perfectly into the theme!

Jack: The theme helps us listen. So we just keep a list of ideas that fit into the theme, and talk about them. But that’s where Drew takes over.

Drew: It is very melody-driven for me, so having the brainstorm and a list of ideas helps to put words and lyrics together with the many tunes that are running through my head. Some songs are like turning on a faucet, and others are more like a trickle and require a lot of revisions and knuckling down to make progressions, lyrics, and melodies work together.

Jack: The demos are really helpful when we come into the studio, but most of these are songs that we’ve never played live when we record them. So they’re constantly changing, even from take to take. Probably the best example from the last few records is "Haven’t Got a Pet Yet"—it was very different at first, and we actually re-recorded it a little bit later in a sort of Vampire Weekend style.

YKFK: Do you feel your music has changed and evolved over the course of your…let’s see…five, six…seven CDs? Does the songwriting come easier with experience than it did when you first began?

Daron: I believe it’s changed as what we’ve listened to has changed. We continue to be inspired by all kinds of music, and as we get more connected to new kinds of music we blend those styles together and make our own sound. One thing I think we have done is that our albums more now than ever capture the energy that we bring to our live shows. I think our new records have more energy than they used to.

Drew: Through our music collections and new instrument purchases, we’re consciously exploring new ground. It influences our records, definitely, but I think at the core we’re very much still the same band that started over five years ago. It’s important to do our best work but also stretch ourselves creatively.

Jack: Each new record is very much new. We try really hard to never walk a similar path as previous albums. People all have their favorites along the way, but our favorite is always the one we’re about to start!

YKFK: I threw open a round of questions to my family, so...from my wife, Whitney, a dream/reality question: Which pop or rock stars of our youth (or today, if you prefer) did (or do) you each wish you could be? And which do you honestly think you're most like?

Daron: I’d like to be Prince before hip surgery. He’s an amazing musician, and pre–hip surgery he had all of the moves. In reality, I think I’m the child of Ringo Starr and George Harrison: a little bit goofy, a little bit mystical.

Drew: I think I fit the profile of a songwriter pretty well. I don’t know if I’d want to be Andy Partridge or Brian Wilson, because there aren’t always great moments along the way.... Maybe I could take the highs but not the lows? For all of my genre-hopping, I’m probably Paul McCartney—especially, as John Lennon said, with all of the "granny songs.”

Jack: Interesting that we think in reality that we’re the Beatles! Sticking with that theme, I wish that I were Paul McCartney, but I think I’m probably a little bit more like John Lennon...with a dose of Weird Al and maybe a hint of Burt Bacharach.

YKFK: From my six-year-old, Dash (who is obsessed with your album art for Flying!): Could you talk a little about your various superpowers?

Jack: With pleasure! My superpower is being able to put on a fake mustache in public. I keep half a dozen in the glove box in my car for unexpected mustache needs. My last mustache was used in our “Ice Pack” video!

Drew: Think a moment isn’t wistful or corny enough? THINK AGAIN! Super Cheese is here to lay it on thick! “Haven’t I heard that pun before??? YUCK!”

Daron: Not sure if that T-shirt matches those shorts? Up in the sky! It’s...PROFESSOR PINSTRIPE! Whisking you away on a fashion holiday!

YKFK: Finally, from my two-year-old, Griff: What does Mayor Monkey play?

Jack: He plays a band manager, and the cash register. In reality, he doesn’t do much beside print 8-by-10 glossy photos...of himself!



[Photo: Kevin Fry, courtesy of Recess Monkey]

June 17, 2011

New Books: A Traveller in Time

I'm not much of a reader of modern fiction (and if you're wondering what this has to do with children's books, bear with me—I'll get there). Given the limited time I have for reading at this parenting-laden time of my life, I want to be sure that when I embark on a novel, I really, really love it. And the chances of that always seem higher if the book's provenance goes back past last month's New York Times Book Review. (It's not that there isn't great stuff being written constantly—it's just that more of the mediocre stuff from ages past has fallen away; I'm increasing my odds.) So I mostly read a classic novel I somehow missed in all those high school and college classes—there are an alarming number of them!—or I stick to nonfiction.

Children's books, though, don't seem to work this way; if anything, there's an even greater focus on the present. There are classics here too, sure, but fewer of them, and I've tended to cover them with my kids quickly or not at all. To be fair, children's lit as a reputable field for "serious" writers has a relatively short history, so it's not entirely surprising the canon isn't quite as large—but I've been unable to help feeling there must have been more back there somewhere, lost in the mists of time.

Which is where the New York Review Children's Collection comes in. I've written before about its lovely editions of classic and largely out-of-print kids' classics—a few fairly well-known, but most under the radar, at least to me—but I never feel I manage to express quite how wonderful the whole enterprise is. (It's reached the point that when I see the NYRCC has something new out, I feel, a bit absurdly, rather like I did as a child on Christmas morning.)

The latest NYRCC rediscovery is Allison Uttley's A Traveller in Time, originally published in Britain in 1939. It's a cozier read than its title makes it sound—this is more Sir Walter Scott than Jules Verne—but it's nonetheless an adventure story. It's also a ghost story of sorts, in which young Penelope, sent with her siblings for the winter from London to an old family farmhouse in the English countryside, finds herself stepping through doors into the house's own past—an eventful one. She finds her own 16th-century ancestors involved in a plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots, from her imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth, but her own 20th-century knowledge of how badly this was to turn out for all concerned is of little help in persuading her forebears to alter their course, as events move inexorably toward their bad end.

The writing is certainly British old-timey in many ways, and probably was even in 1939, but Uttley— in her own time something of a noted children's-book author, with more than a hundred titles to her credit—slowly and expertly draws the reader into a tale that proves to be as much about free will, loyalty, courage, and fatalism as about time travel. She also uses the constant and largely unchanging setting of the old English farm to illustrate Penelope's realization that whatever happens in the affairs of mankind, life goes on around us all. What appears at first a simple adventure tale turns out to have quite a lot of depth.

Now, the style and pace of Uttley's writing certainly won't be to the taste of every modern reader, child or adult; there's a lot that's dated about this book (in fact, in a way, being dated is kind of the point of this book). But I think tween-age readers (as well as those a little younger than that) in search of a compelling story with a female lead character, and patient enough to allow it to unwind on its own, bit by bit, will find A Traveller in Time exceedingly rewarding.

[Cover image courtesy of New York Review Children’s Collection.]

June 15, 2011

Security Blanket: Franklin's Big Dreams

It seems all our two-year-old's favorite books right now are about dreams. (It's really kind of fascinating.) Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen—always a favorite of mine back when I was around his age, too—has become a nightly event before bedtime, along with another similarly magical book that came out last year: Franklin's Big Dreams, by David Teague, with illustrations by Boris Kulikov.

It's about a young boy who, upon going to bed one night, is confronted with a construction crew (shades of the opening of Time Bandits, though with more purely benign results). He's understandably surprised, but the workmen ignore him and proceed with their work laying tracks; when they finish, a train roars through the room. After it passes, the crew disassembles the track and our hero is left to dream of trains. The next week, it happens again, this time with a runway and a plane, and the following week it's a canal and a cruise ship. Each time, Franklin notices familiar figures on the various vehicles that he can't quite make out, including one very familiar one. Finally he gleans what's happening and is able to use the mysterious occurrences to go somewhere he's always dreamed of going.

Teague's text and Kulikov's suitably dreamy art work together marvelously. The words are as simple and matter-of-fact as dreams usually are in tone (that feeling that even when nothing makes any sense, everything is also somehow normal), while the illustrations are warmly dramatic and mysterious, full of possibility. There's a magic to Franklin's Big Dreams that's spot-on for this subject matter, and as with Sendak's classic, Griffin clearly finds that invigorating, asking for it to be read to him over and over again before settling in for his own evening of dreamscapes.

[Cover image courtesy of Hyperion Books.]

June 10, 2011

Security Blanket: Audiobooks for Your Kids

The categories of kids' entertainment (as of all entertainment, I guess) are blurring these days. I've covered audiobooks before, and I've covered the amazing variety of out-of-copyright (and thus free or extremely inexpensive) online books, and I've covered iPhone/iPad apps. Now there's a product that combines all three: Audiobooks for Your Kids, an $0.99 app that provides audio versions of public-domain classics, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to The Secret Garden to The Jungle Book.

All are read by volunteers from around the country (via the LibriVox project—if you find yourself so motivated, you can join in and do one yourself!), and while none of them will be mistaken for Patrick Stewart, the ones I’ve heard so far are all perfectly solid. And especially for parents traveling this summer, the price (the aforementioned 99 cents for everything, all 30 books, with more promised) and the accessibility (anywhere you have a consistent enough 3G signal for moderate streaming) can't be beat.

[Image from the 1895 edition of The Jungle Book (in the public domain) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

June 8, 2011

New Music: Love Me for Who I Am

I admit it: I hear alarm bells go off when I see a note on a kids' album stating that its songs were "inspired by the students at...a school for children with alternative learning styles, many...affected by autism, Asperger's syndrome, or related conditions." Not, I hope, because of any issue with these children or the idea of an album dedicated to them, but simply because such a high percentage of music of this kind turns out to be very well-intentioned and earnest, but...well, not very good. You buy the album for the good cause, but then you never want to listen to it.

But Love Me for Who I Am, the latest CD from Grammy nominee Brady Rymer, has taught me a lesson about not judging books by covers (one that fits in very neatly with the whole point of the album, in fact). Because it’s one of the best kids' albums I’ve heard this year, featuring wall-to-wall great songs that do use the kids at New Jersey's Celebrate the Children as inspiration—in the very best sense of the word. (Five percent of the proceeds from CD sales go to Autism Speaks, and additional amounts go directly to Celebrate the Children.)

Like the kids themselves, Rymer isn't primarily interested in generating sympathy here—this is sharp, smart point-of-view songwriting, with titles taken directly from true-life statements, from the title track to the on-point "I Don't Like Change." And he and his band also happen to be crack musicians—truly, one of the tightest-sounding groups I've heard in the kid genre, which these days is saying something. (P-Funk keyboard wizard Bernie Worrell—long a personal favorite—even makes a guest appearance on the "Tune Out.")

So as it turns out, Love Me for Who I Am is a CD without a weak spot, really. Its also one that your kids will want to play over and over—and it sounds so good that you’ll be just fine with that.

[Cover image courtesy of Brady Rymer]

June 6, 2011

Security Blanket: Pictures from Our Vacation

There are kids' books that you just know are going to be family favorites from the get-go, the ones whose covers grab you and never let you go. Then there are the quiet ones that get into the inner circle gradually, hanging on for renewed wave after wave of bedtimes as your kids get older, remaining favorites even as they lose interest in the rest. These are the survivors, and like old teddy bears, they become the most treasured items your kids' rooms.

For our family, Lynne Rae Perkins's Pictures from Our Vacation is one of those. It's a picture book (naturally), narrated by a girl whose nuclear family is heading off to an old family farm in the Midwest via multiday car trip for its vacation. The conceit is that the book we're reading is her diary of sorts from the trip, containing her own drawings and Polaroids (though they're really illustrated too) of her experiences. It works marvelously, lending the story a realism that escapes most picture books.

And Perkins captures the voice and point of view of a child on such a journey perfectly—the boredom interrupted by sudden flights of imagination, the mostly here-and-now perspective. (We don't find out until quite late in the book that part of the reason for the the trip is a memorial service for a remarkable great-aunt. since our narrator only mentions it herself right before it's about to happen.)

The whole structure of the book—the framing mechanism, the narrative voice, the art—works together to create a vivid, fully developed portrayal of the whole family. It's a warm, gentle sort of read, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, without actively trying to be. (Very Midwestern, I suppose.)

And that's a big reason our six-year-old son keeps bringing it back into the bedtime rotation, I'm sure, but there's another: Perkins's flashes of unforgettable imagery. At one point near the book's end, for example, the girl looks out the car window and sees a line of huge metal power-line towers. She whimsically imagines them to be giant robots walking through the countryside, and in an illustration, we see them transformed into just that. It's a great channeling of a child's creativity, and the image has stuck with Dash since the moment he first read that page. (To this day, we casually refer to those towers, when we see them on drives of our own, as giant robots.)

In short, Pictures from Our Vacation is a magical book, in its understated way. I think we'll have it on the shelf for years.


[Photos: Whitney Webster]

June 3, 2011

New Music: Wanna Play?


Today's children's music is more and more geared toward a sound that both adults and kids will enjoy. And with an ever-increasing number of established adult musicians delving into the kid genre (from They Might Be Giants to Barenaked Ladies to The Verve Pipe), it was probably just a matter of time until someone recorded the first "accidental" crossover.

California duo Sunshine Collective may get the honor with their first full-length album—and not just because its title, Wanna Play?would fit in nicely among the Justin Roberts and Frances England CDs. The 12 tracks of sunny pop music weren't recorded specifically for kids, and wouldn't feel out of place on any playlist of modern-pop singer-songwriters. But the crossover appeal of the second track, "I Just Wanna Play," got it some play on family-music radio this year—which led to the discovery that the entire album is not only accessible to kids, but enthralls them. (My two sons, especially the six-year-old, now insist on hearing it over and over.)

That's in some part because, not having been aimed at children particularly in the first place, Sunshine Collective’s songs don't pander to them in the slightest, and kids always appreciate that. But it's mostly because Stephanie Richards and Brian Arbuckle have a knack for writing upbeat, catchy songs that you’re happy not to be able to get out of your head, from "LA (Beautiful Day)"—which sounds like the pop song Bob Mould never wrote for Katrina and the Waves—to the Indigo Girls-esque "This Day” and the jaunty, Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli-tinged “Love Makes Life So Sweet.”

And even though these are songs written for adults, the happy themes keep anything objectionable out of the lyrics—even the playful innuendo in "Love Makes Life So Sweet" is more innocent then what you hear on Norah Jones albums parents play around their kids all the time. Add the appeal of Richards’s vocals, which put you in mind of everyone from Shawn Colvin and Feist to Joan Osborne—she has one of those voices that seem to come with a permanent smile—and you have perhaps the most pleasing-to-the-whole-family album of the year. (It’d be a great soundtrack for summer road trips!)

[Cover image courtesy of Sunshine Collective]