What makes a particular book a work of children’s literature? Is it the subject matter? The writing style? The ages of the protagonists? For every “Poky Little Puppy” or “Cat in the Hat” that unquestionably seems to fit the characterization of children’s literature, there’s an “Alice in Wonderland” where the main character wanders alone through a mysterious land, meeting hookah-smoking caterpillars on the way. While most American adults believe that works of children’s literature never deal with dark and difficult issues like illness, injustice, and mortality,¹ many of the best-known works of children’s fiction do not shy away from them. Sara Crewe of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess must overcome the death of her beloved father and a descent into poverty to retain her inner goodness. Death and struggle against inner demons constantly hang over every moment of the Harry Potter series, and then there is the Hunger Games (nuff said about that one).
So what then about children’s music? While the biggest hits like Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” and that tinkling theme to “Elmo’s World” are radiant orbs of pure positive energy, there are more than a few children’s classics that probe deeper emotional territory. There’s “Day is Done,” that intimate moment of parental consoling by Peter, Paul & Mary; “Bein’ Green,” Joe Raposo’s infinitely elegant take on prejudice and identity; “Bye Bye Dodo” and “Muhheakunnuk,” Tom Chapin’s moving ballads of environmental decay. These artful songs effectively translate hard emotional truths into a direct language for children to understand, without whitewashing those issues’ inherent complexities.
However, these childrens’ songs don’t reach the depth, darkness, and beauty of the songs on “My Life is Bold,” a benefit compilation for North Carolina’s Arts for Life organization. Arts for Life works in various North Carolina hospitals, teaching art, music, and writing to seriously ill children. All of the lyrics on the album were written by children in the Arts for Life program (all between the ages of 6 and 19), many of the lyrics dealing head-on with the struggles of illness (this is probably the first kid’s album where the word chemo is used not once but twice). These lyrics were then set to music by the jazz/folk/whateveryounameit singer-songwriter Becca Stevens, her father William, her brother Bill, and many of their musical friends in New York and North Carolina. While one might expect such a combination of richly-crafted, pro-quality music and honest, student-honed words to be woefully uneven, the songs are surprisingly cohesive and expressively potent.
Importantly, all of the singers and songwriters on the album treat the lyrical material extremely seriously. While at first it may sound peculiar to hear singer Rebecca Martin croon about Lego Bionicles in her rusted alto on “Michael’s Mind,” she delivers the lines with total conviction, making more poignant lines like “It’s gonna end up in chaos and headaches. That’s what I feel like sometimes,” drop with the weight of an anvil. The sincerity and directness of the lyrics also helps some of the jazz composers on this album temper their penchant for virtuosic complexity in exchange for a new kind of expressivity. Pianist Aaron Parks leaves his prodigious chops at home on “Who am I…?”, instead letting the young author’s similes float unencumbered for the listener to observe from all sides.
While the young writers’ reflections on their own difficulties make for an emotionally searing experience throughout, there are a few spine-tingling moments when the lyrical directness is paired with an uncommon poetic grace. In Becca Stevens’ adaptation of “Trapped Orca in an Aquarium,” the young lyricist named Michael describes his experience of being in the hospital as a wild orca living in captivity, “with kids tapping at my glass.” With the skill of a much more experienced writer, Michael is able to transport the listener to his hospital room, giving the listener an indelible feeling of the uncertainty and pain he faces each day. Armed with just her guitar and a few vocal overdubs, Stevens captures the intensity of the lyrics in her whirlwind performance.
While “My Life is Bold” has the most serious of subject matters, it is by no means a downer of an album. All of the songs are suffused with the hope of recovery, and the power that great music has in soothing even the most scarred souls. “My Life is Bold” is an ideal work of children’s art in that it does not shield children from the pain of life, but allows them to confront it in their own way and learn how to overcome it.
You can buy “Arts for Life: My Life is Bold” at reputable music retailers and directly from Arts for Life at the link below. All proceeds go to the organization. http://keepsake.aflnc.org/product/my-life-is-bold-cd
1. This came from some reputable survey presented by Professor William Gleason on the first day of his class on children’s literature at Princeton University this past February, but due to the illegibility of my notes from that day, I can’t be a good academic writer and tell you exactly what it is. But believe me, I promise it’s legit.