My daughter’s last year of co-op preschool just came to end, but we parents weren’t let off the hook without attending one final evening meeting. We do this regularly in late spring, gathering to talk school business, elect board members for the coming year, and listen to an expert give us advice about child-rearing.
This last part can be a demoralizing experience, as the speakers often cover topics like proper discipline and sex ed, the kinds of subjects that remind us how easy it is to get things wrong and scar our precious lambs for life. On this occasion, though, we had a good time. By pure coincidence, our guest expert was a very familiar face, a frequent visitor to Island Books who never fails to bring fun with her when she comes.
Nancy Stewart is a singer-songwriter who’s been performing for children for far longer than you’d believe to look at her. As such, she knows all there is to know about music and how it affects the very young in very positive ways. The benefits are myriad, but her presentation focused on how singing bolsters literacy, a topic that’s obviously near and dear to my bookseller’s heart.
Even more appealing was that the sample songs Nancy shared all came from picture books, and I was pleased to see that many of those had come from the shelves of Island Books. We didn’t know what it was for at the time, but a few years ago, she asked us to help compile a collection of sing-along books that she could recommend. In turn, she encouraged us to create a special section for those titles to make it easier for future vocalists and budding musicians to find inspiration. We were happy to oblige, and I’ve since noticed a number of other indie stores doing the same thing. They must have had the same great idea before we did.
Her favorite of those books was one I picked out for her, but I don’t take credit for it. It came to me through a chain of my predecessors. At one point almost a decade ago I was bored with the children’s books I’d been reading and selling, so I went to Seattle’s late, lamented All for Kids bookshop looking for novelty. I was briefly that awful customer who says, “I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s not what I’ve been seeing. Show me something new.” Bang, the clerks came up with Hush, Little Dragon by Boni Ashburn and Kelly Murphy. It’s a modern twist on an old ditty, warm and friendly yet cool and witty, and it was exactly what I was looking for.
But back to the presentation: Many of the points Nancy made seemed familiar and obvious in the moment, but I realized afterwards that I hadn’t thought of them before. They were just so simple and convincing that they seemed to have existed in my head all along. Such as? Well, songs help teach letter sounds and phonics by breaking words into their component parts. Each syllable generally gets its own note, so kids who listen to their parents sing are learning the basics of how reading works.Traditional tunes also build vocabulary like nothing else. I hadn’t realized it until that night, but I almost certainly learned the meaning of the word stout from the song “I’m a Little Teapot.” Likewise, if not for “Jingle Bells,” how would kids know what a sleigh is, or understand how dynamic speech can be when you say you’re “dashing” through the snow?
Nancy makes most all of the material she covered that night available through her Sing With Our Kids website, an entirely free resource that shares song lyrics, streaming music, tips for educators, book lists, and a whole lot more. I especially like the printable pages that kids can fold into their own mini-songbooks. It’s all designed to remind you how simple and important it is to–you guessed it–sing with our kids.
I put some of her techniques into practice by accident the very morning after her school visit. I was smack in the middle of doing all those things that somehow have to get done at exactly the same time before the family gets out the door–getting breakfast ready, finding clean clothes, making sure binders were in backpacks–when my daughter implored, “Daddy, read me a story.” Much as I’d have liked to, I couldn’t drop everything to curl up on the couch with her right that minute. I saw that the book she had in her hand, though, was a copy of Hush, Little Baby with Marla Frazee’s amazing illustrations. “Turn the pages, honey,” I said, “and I’ll sing the words to you.” She did, and I did. I’m not saying it was a performance worthy of being recorded, but it was a wonderful few minutes.