Instead of my usual Q & A with authors regarding their new books, here’s a fun post about the Fall Writing Frenzy contest I co-host with Kaitlyn Sanchez. Author Jolene Gutiérrez won with her entry, and she won a special prize: a collaboration with musical artist/writer Annie Birdd. Here’s their conversation, and don’t forget to check out the wonderful song they created together!
Jolene: I “met” Annie Lynn in KidLitLand a few years ago. If you’ve been a member of the KidLit community for any time at all, you know that it’s a wonderfully supportive and generous group. Annie is an important part of this community. She’s always cheering others on, sharing resources, and creating and sharing songs about books. When I heard the song that Annie, Megan Lacera, and Jorge Lacera created for the Laceras’ book Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies, I set a goal of working with Annie one day. And then my dreams came true when I was chosen as one of the Fall Writing Frenzy winners and learned that I’d won the opportunity to work with Annie!
Annie: Jolene, I was so happy we won each other in the Fall Writing Frenzy. Kaitlyn Sanchez and Lydia Lukidis matched us beautifully. We share some similar backgrounds in Elementary Education, but your work has been focused on students with learning differences and the majority of my students have been neurotypical. I’ve also worked with children with sensory issues for a few decades. I had toyed with the idea of writing an SEL song years ago, so the opportunity to do this now, with guidance and input from someone with current hands-on experience made this an attractive challenge.
Jolene: Annie, you are an amazingly talented musician and creator, and I’m so honored to work with you! I know you’ve been teaching yourself the banjolele because you felt this song called for that specific instrument. How often do you push yourself to learn new instruments, music genres, or technologies?
Annie: Thanks for those kind, enthusiastic words, Jolene, and the honor is mine as well. I feel like I won the lottery, with your education and writing credentials!
About the banjolele…..I actually bought it with my part of the Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies commission. The reason I wanted to use it was because it was a new sound. I wanted to start including it in writing and recording. Because it’s portable, it’s a great choice for when I perform. I’ve been teaching myself ukulele the last four years, and when I found out the banjolele had the same string formation as the uke, I was attracted by the fact that I could immediately play it fairly well, right out of the case. I enjoy learning new instruments, and the ones I take to right away (harmonica, pan flutes, ocarinas) seem to have ties to piano, my first instrument, and I can play them almost immediately by ear.
New technology for me is learning how our mixing program Pro Tools works, learning about loops, and learning what NOT to ask the Recording Engineers to attempt to do, lol. My husband, Walt Wilczewski, does most of the physical recording as well as mixing, and can also be found playing tasty leads on specialty guitars. Our Lead Engineer, Chris Arms is responsible for the final mix, production, and any killer guitar sounds.
I especially enjoy when our Engineers let the kids try mixing their own voices on the computer. Their looks of wonder and magic are heart swelling. Nothing like an impromptu STEAM lesson! While we’re discussing STEM and STEAM, how did you end up writing a STEM book, and then an SEL book? Did you feel confident taking on STEM writing for children’s books?
Jolene: That’s a great question, Annie! My SEL book, Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader (illustrated by the amazingly talented Heather Bell), came naturally because of my teaching background and because of neurodiversity within my own family, so writing about personal space and friendship felt like I was drawing on my own expertise, kind of like your comfort with instruments with ties to the piano. My STEM book, Bionic Beasts: Saving Animal Lives with Artificial Flippers, Legs, and Beaks, took more work. I can’t say I felt confident when I started, but I was writing about something I’m passionate about: helping animals. I used my librarian researching skills and immersed myself in the science and engineering–all of that was a big learning curve for me, but it was so inspiring to learn how people are using science to help animals. And since you mentioned science, can we talk about the science of music? Our classroom and parenting experience has shown us firsthand how music helps kids remember things. Can you speak about this?
Annie: You’ve touched on one of my favorite topics, Jolene…(Annie inhaling deeply and smiling). There are now many positively documented studies showing the clear links between Music, Singing and Literacy. Obvious connections are singing and memorization of content, and development of auditory processes, which includes elements of literacy, including phoneme awareness, discrimination between siimilar auditory elements, speech signals, auditory memory and more. Here’s a little graphic I made from one of my favorite articles on the subject of Music, Art and Literacy, by LiteracyMN.org.
Music has been shown to increase social skills, so I liked the idea of coming up with a song that could teach all students who were beginning to learn social skills, not just kids on the Autism spectrum. I didn’t want it to sound naggy, and I was so happy to realize that you and I were both fans of positive reinforcement and listing action points as “To Do” more often than “Not To Do.”
So, I started the song off with positive words and chorus… and that was where I stopped. I ALWAYS get stuck after the first chorus. This was where MY dreams came true. Jolene… a real lyricist jumped in, continued in the same vein, but improved it, added a blueprint for what to do when someone invades your personal space, and did it all with humor and grace, two words that describe you, Jolene. The first time I read your soon to be famous, now whispered line in Verse 3, I spit ginger ale. I wasn’t expecting this song to be THIS much fun.
One fun experience I had with this song was envisioning dance moves for it; your descriptions inspired me. I’m looking forward to us making a music video of these moves so students can use this song for Phys. Ed. as well as music and SEL lessons. When you were writing the lyrics, where did you get the exact suggestions for dealing with personal space, and the descriptions?
Jolene: So fun! I think this song can be used in so many ways, and I love the thought that PE teachers could use in their classes, too.
In writing Mac and Cheese, much of the literature around teaching personal space skills to students mentioned keeping about 18” between people. Some teachers and occupational therapists help kids envision this space by wearing a hula hoop (like Oliver tests out in my book) or by spreading their arms out. So I knew I wanted to mention a space bubble in the lyrics and teach kids how to create their own personal space bubble. I also knew I wanted the lyrics to show kids that they have the power to control how they interact with others, including speaking up if they feel their personal space is being invaded.
I think many of us have had experiences with people who invade our personal space. Some of these people may not even know they’re doing so–like the aunt who kisses your cheek, the friend who comes in for a hug, or the person who stands close to you when talking. And some people do it intentionally. I wanted to address all of these awkward situations in order to help kids learn to both respect others’ personal space and empower them to speak up and defend their own boundaries.
But these lyrics came from various meetings we had and lots of research. You created an amazing framework for the song, Annie, and then we discussed other important topics we wanted to include. Do you remember one of the first facts we uncovered when we were looking for how to approach writing songs that would consider the needs of both neurotypical and non-NT students? Also, how did you settle on a call-and-repeat-song?
Annie: One thing I think surprised us was learning about kids on the spectrum… almost thirty three percent of non-verbal children enjoy singing. Language is accessed by the left part of the brain, but music is accessed by the right brain, so this may explain the increased participation.
Call and Repeat (a.k.a. Echo Song) is one of my favorite kinds of songs to write, because the students can participate immediately, by repeating back what the leader sings. It’s a useful teaching tool in that students have an opportunity to listen and imitate, and gain confidence in their singing. Singing promotes language acquisition, listening skills, memory and motor skills.
The video you’re about to watch at the end of this post is a typical Lyrics Video that I use to teach a new song to students. They learn at home, and come in ready to sing.
Jolene: Oh, I can’t wait for the unveiling of the video!! And it sounds like music should be utilized in every home and classroom! One thing I noticed about our Space Creator song is that while it touches on personal space, boundaries, and consent just like my book Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader does, Space Creator is general enough that it could be used with any book that ties in to personal space and body autonomy. Is there a way that publishers or authors could get permission to use Space Creator?
Annie: We wrote this song as generally as possible, addressing several body autonomy preferences in order to accurately accommodate the largest amount of users. We know there have been a number of personal space SEL books published recently–click here for the list of the titles we’re currently aware of. Reach out to Annie or Jolene through social media or their websites if you have a book you’d like included on the list (contact info is at the bottom of this post). If you have interest in using this song, please contact Annie Lynn at firstname.lastname@example.org . This song is also available for school licensing.
Jolene: Wow, music sounds like the ultimate way for publishers and authors to advertise their books and help students have fun and learn new content!
Annie: I love that Kidlit songs have so many applications: for Teacher Guides, Book Trailers, School Visits, radio broadcast, podcast…and the best reason of all….to remember the book and its song, for many years to come. I love leaving songs behind for students to continue using, enjoying and learning.
A quick thank you to Lydia Lukidis for having us on her blog today and sharing the release of “Space Creator” as well as teaming up with Kaitlyn Sanchez to unite a Kidlit Author with a Children’s Songwriter. We appreciate the time you took to make this match. Also we’d like to thank Tara Lazar, for creating and leading the magical Kidlit event, Storystorm. It was both helpful and exciting to read her blog as well as other guest posts, as we worked on this song, throughout January. We’re grateful and feel very supported and encouraged from both the Kidlit and Educational communities.
And now, the SEL song you didn’t know you needed (but now you do!)
**Before enjoying your first “song tasting,” please grab your 🎧 headphones so you can experience both treble and bass.**
“SPACE CREATOR (Not a Space Invader)”
To connect with Annie: www.annielynn.net
To connect with Jolene: jolenegutierrez.com