Feel the Beat in Books – Introducing Babies to Music

Music – for pleasure and enjoyment, for its role in child development, for its emotive possibilities, for its capacity to connect – belongs in every child’s life.

And books can play a part in introducing children to music, starting with their very first board books.

Think about the basic elements of music – beat (the underlying, repeating pulse), rhythm (the pattern of sound and silence into notes of different length), tempo (speed), pitch (the range of high and low notes), dynamics (the variety of loud and soft notes) and tonal colour (the quality of the sound). Now think about the way we use our voices when we read and tell stories aloud. Each of the musical elements can be – should be – present when we read out loud.

Beat (pulse)

The simplest way to start feeling the beat in books is with nursery rhymes.

If you recite ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ to yourself, you’ll notice it has a straightforward 4/4 beat: Twin (1) – kle (2), twin (3) – kle (4), lit (1) – tle (2) star (3, 4), how (1) I (2) won (3) – der (4) what (1) you (2) are (3, 4).

‘Twinkle, Twinkle, little star’ (Traditional)

Whether you say the words or sing them, feel the underlying pulse. Babies are already familiar with a regular beat – they’ve been listening to their mother’s heartbeat in the womb.

Rhythm (pattern)

Adding some variety to a steady beat introduces rhythm.

Board books sometimes adapt traditional songs to give them a localised or more modern flavour while still maintaining the rhythm of the original. Matt Shanks’ Old MacDonald Had a Farm, for example, puts a twist on the usual collection farm animals by replacing them with Australian fauna. The emu has a peck-peck here and a peck-peck there. Here a peck, there a peck, everywhere a peck-peck!

Old MacDonald Had a Farm (2020)

Some of words in Old MacDonald’s rhythm maintain a steady, even beat, but then there’s a longer note on the ‘O’ of Ei-I-Ei-I-O and plenty of shorter notes when the emu starts pecking. Now there’s a rhythm overlaying the beat.

Tempo (speed)

Let’s change it up some more by varying the speed at which the words in a book are read.

Incorporating tempo into books for the very young is not always easy, but one book that achieves it with gusto is British author, and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, an adaptation of old American folk song.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a simple ‘there and back again’ tale – a family leaves on an outing, reaches its goal and returns home – but the obstacles encountered along the way change the pace at which the text is read.

The tempo is relaxed on the outward journey although trekking through the long wavy grass is quicker than squelching through the thick oozy mud. On the way home, with a bear in pursuit, the storytelling speeds up and the text is read at a headlong, rushing pace.

The evocative travelling sounds from the outward journey, like Tiptoe! Tiptoe! Tiptoe! (through the cave), and Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble Trip! (through the forest) and Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! (through the mud) lend themselves to both slow, drawn-out readings on the first encounter and fast, rapid-fire renderings on the return trip.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (1993, 2015)

Pitch (high/low)

Adding pitch to rhythm creates the melody.

Where Is the Green Sheep?, by multi-award winning South Australian Mem Fox (text) and gifted artist and cartoonist Judy Horacek (illustrations), creates multiple opportunities for pitch variation.

When reading the text for the up sheep and the down sheep, you’ll easily recognise where to pitch your voice.

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

It’s important to ‘read’ the clues in the illustrations as well as the words in the text.

Judy Horacek’s train sheep is pictured in a carriage with an animal menagerie. Does the dog make a high-pitched, yappy sound or a low-pitched growl? Does the cat purr contentedly in a lower register or spit and snarl higher up the scale?

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

And what about the swing sheep and the slide sheep? Imagine the slippery, slide-y sound of a trombone and stretch out the words out as you read. The words swing sheep might start low and rise higher, the words slide sheep could sound from high to low, matching the sheep’s descent.

Dynamics (loud/soft)

As a music primer in board book form, Where Is the Green Sheep? truly ‘tops the charts’. In addition to its in-built melody (based on a regular, repeating rhythm and the opportunities to create pitch variation), it lends itself to choice in dynamics.

Judy Horacek’s multi-talented band sheep plays the drums, the tuba, the guitar and the xylophone giving the reader a chance to use a range of voices.

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

Perhaps the drum will be loud and thumping; the tuba low and throbbing; the guitar gently lilting; and the xylophone quietly tinkling.

The scared sheep might be read with a squeaky tremolo and the brave sheep with a booming confidence.

And, at the story’s end, the tempo slows and the text instructs the reader to Turn the page quietly. In a hushed voice, the reader closes with: Here’s our green sheep, fast asleep.

Tonal Colour (sound quality)

Darwin-based Nick Bland’s The Very Noisy Bear (part of his larger Cranky Bear series) sees Bear wakened from his hibernating sleep in the Jingle Jangle Forest. One by one, the other animals offer Bear the chance to try their instruments (on which they are, seemingly, quite proficient). Bear bangs and bashes on the drums, strums wildly on the guitar, and screeches on the trumpet.

The ‘quality’ of sound produced by Bear generates a mass exodus of animals. Eventually, sheep wonders:

Have you ever tried a microphone? It’s just a simple thing.

You only have to hold it up, clear your throat and sing!

Accompanied by the jungle band, Bear’s earlier cacophonous sounds transform into a vocal performance that leaves the audience calling for more.

The Very Noisy Bear (2016)

The Very Noisy Bear is a reminder that instruments can be played in different ways. Each one can produce sounds in a variety of tones (some pleasing; some … not so much). Reading Bland’s Bear book, you can make as many ‘unmusical’ sounds as you like. You’re limited only by your imagination.

You don’t need a formal qualification to introduce music to children. Just like Bear, if you have a voice, you have an instrument – play away!

Links and Sources

There are a number of ways to delineate the basic elements of music. I have used the elements listed by Amanda Niland in Music and Children (2015), a book written for Early Childhood Australia.

The books mentioned in this blog post are all suitable for children in the 0–3 age group. As children grow towards pre-school age, the range of music-themed books expands and the storytelling incorporates a further musical element – harmony.

Meerkat Choir (2017)

You can start exploring the harmonic aspect of music with Nicki Greenberg’s madcap Meerkat Choir (2017).

If you want to move on to orchestration and the emotional riches of music, try Clare McFadden’s Crichton Award-winning The Flying Orchestra (2010, 2017).

The Flying Orchestra (2017)

Image sources:

  • ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, from Merrily, Merrily: A Book of Songs and Rhymes. Nursing Mothers Association of Australia: Hawthorn, Vic., 1979
  • Old MacDonald Had a Farm by Matt Shanks (text and illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2020
  • We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen (text) and Helen Oxenbury (illus.). Walker Books Australia: Newtown, NSW, 2015
  • Where Is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox (text) and Judy Horacek (illus.). Walker Books Australia: Newtown, NSW, 2006
  • The Very Noisy Bear by Nick Bland (text and illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2016
  • Meerkat Choir by Nicki Greenberg (text and illus.). Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW, 2017
  • The Flying Orchestra by Clare McFadden (text and illus.). University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, Qld, 2017
  • Conga Dance by Amanda Tarlau (text) and Jane Chapman (illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2016
Conga Dance (2016)

Children’s Librarians—Igniting the Reading Spark

‘Long hours spent alone in her bedroom had encouraged in Sylvia the habit of reading … On Saturday mornings, while her father read the papers and her mother made a martyr of herself over the household chores, Sylvia got in the way of walking down to the library, unescorted.’

This portrayal of a young Sylvia Blackwell, from Salley Vickers’ 2018 novel The Librarian, could just as easily describe me (if not, quite, my parents). The ‘long hours spent alone’ in my bedroom not only included reading but also cataloguing my book collection. Like Sylvia, I was a librarian in the making. And ‘unescorted’ Saturday walks to the library were a regular feature of my life in late primary school years.

Children’s librarians – real and fictional

Cover image (trade pbk) courtesy of Penguin Australia

In Vickers’ novel, set in 1958, the youthful Sylvia Blackwell is influenced by a thoughtful and energetic librarian. In her turn, Sylvia becomes that influential guide for her young charges in the fictional English town of East Mole.

The guiding librarian of my youth was Miss Euphemia (Pheme) Tanner, children’s librarian at the Bendigo Library, Victoria.

Euphemia Catherine Tanner was born in 1914, the year her parents, May Smith and Francis Tanner, married. In mid-1915, her father enlisted for service in World War I. He was killed in action in France the following year.

Training for life

Pheme Tanner grew up in Bendigo, living with her mother and her maternal grandparents. In his 1995 publication, Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo, Jeffrey Prentice writes that Pheme had a ‘closeted childhood’ and ‘turned to reading’ for companionship. She attended Gravel Hill State School and proceeded from there to the Bendigo School of Domestic Arts.

The Arts School, established in 1916, was welcomed with gusto by the Bendigonian. The paper’s columnist wrote that ‘just as boys were able to learn trades at State technical schools, their sisters will be able to learn … everything connected with the work of a house and will fit themselves for that grand female profession – the oldest and the best and women’s true vocation and life work – the care of a husband and a home … It is safe to say they will prove prizes in the matrimonial lottery for the happy men fortunate enough to secure them as wives.’

Whether or not Pheme wished to be ‘secured’, I do not know. She did not, however, enter the ‘matrimonial lottery’.

After a stint working as a domestic, she became the part-time librarian at the Legacy Junior Library in Bendigo. That library closed in 1944 and its 600 books and furnishings were donated to the Bendigo Children’s Library. Pheme was appointed librarian there in 1946.

A career in books

Pheme’s experience as a children’s librarian parallels that of the fictional Sylvia Blackwell. In Vickers’ novel, Sylvia’s initial survey of the children’s section of the East Mole Library ‘revealed an outdated collection, much of which would hardly pass for children’s reading in the twentieth century’. Likewise, when Pheme Tanner scanned Bendigo’s children’s collection in 1946 she saw it was ‘in a sorry state with some of the 8,000 books not suitable for borrowers and many in disrepair’ (Prentice, 24).

Another link between Pheme and Sylvia is their approach to drawing children into the library building. Both solicited the help of local schools, inviting classrooms of children to come to the library and sample its wares. Pheme Tanner went one step further. She invited interested school children to ‘work’ at the library on Saturday mornings.

RAECO book slips and pockets

So it was that, twenty years after Miss Tanner took up her position as children’s librarian, I began my ‘career in books’. On Saturday mornings, I took my unescorted walk to the Bendigo Library. Once there, I stamped ‘Date Due’ slips, slotted the borrower cards from returned books into their rightful back-of-book pockets, and gathered up higgledy-piggledy piles of books for re-shelving in their proper Dewey Decimal home.

Miss Tanner permitted her gaggle of volunteers a mid-morning break. We gathered in an airless, bookless room for a few minutes to slurp on free icy poles. (Although the job of purchasing the icy poles was a coveted one, it never appealed to me. Why would I want to leave the company of books?) At the library’s midday closing, I departed with my pay (10c) and a bundle of reading for the coming week.

Cover image from Jeffrey Prentice’s Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo

Pheme Tanner, one of the first full-time children’s librarians in Australia, continued in her role at the Bendigo Library until 1979. I have no knowledge of her personal feelings towards the thousands of children who passed through the doors of her domain. I suspect she might not have shared the gushing sentiment of Sylvia Blackwell who ‘at times, experienced surges of overwhelming love for her little customers’, but she would have shared Sylvia’s delight in observing those children ‘prospecting the shelves for new finds, or sitting spread-legged on the floor, absorbed in exploring the varied kingdoms to which the books she had chosen for them had opened doors.’

What Did Pheme Read?

Mt Alvernia Hospital, Bendigo, 1965. John Collins, photographer.
Copyright, State Library of Victoria.

But what of Pheme’s own reading life? Sadly, no clues about her non-professional reading remain. Apparently the retired librarian destroyed most of her personal papers shortly before her death, ‘in lonely circumstances’ at Bendigo’s Mt Alvernia Hospital (Prentice, 10). Her ‘personal library of reference books’ was purchased by children’s literature specialist Jeffrey Prentice who was intrigued to discover ‘a fine and informative’ collection on ‘children’s literature, library practice, bookselling and printing’ (Prentice, 5).

Living different lives

Salley Vickers, whose novel The Librarian was inspired by her own experience ‘as a young girl with a superb local library and a remarkable children’s librarian’, told a Perth Writer’s Festival audience: ‘I think all my characters are based on myself, but not my life. I write in order to live those different lives. I don’t regard those as less lived than the real life.’

My hope is that, within the physical confines of the Bendigo Library and among the pages of so many books, Euphemia Catherine Tanner lived ‘different lives’. Lives no less lived than her life as a children’s librarian, and certainly more expansive than her pre-ordained role as a prize in the matrimonial lottery.

Links and sources

Cover image (pbk) courtesy of Penguin Australia

In her author’s note for The Librarian, Vickers writes that the real-life Miss Blackwell of her youth ‘had a fierce dislike of Enid Blyton and I have given this prejudice to her namesake [Sylvia Blackwell]’. Pheme Tanner shared this disapproval (Prentice, 29). I suspect, too, that Pheme and the Miss Blackwells (both real and fictional) would have found common ground among the book orders for their respective children’s libraries. Vickers includes a list of ‘Recommended reading from East Mole Library’ at the end of The Librarian. It includes two Australian authors: P. L. Travers for her Mary Poppins books and Norman Lindsay for The Magic Pudding.

Footnote

After Pheme Tanner’s death in 1993, La Trobe University (which has a campus in Bendigo) established the biennial Pheme Tanner Award ‘for outstanding personal contribution to children’s literature’.

Recipients include authors Craig Smith (2011), and Christobel Mattingley (1999), illustrator Noela Young (1995), and librarian and former president of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Bronwen Bennett (2008).

Pheme Tanner, c. 1938. Image from Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo (1995) by Jeffrey Prentice