Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Still on a Blog Break: With Love and Squalor

I thought for sure by fall I'd be all unpacked, moved in to our new house, and raring to go.

And yet.

Here we are in October and most of my home is still in boxes or strewn about. I've even resorted to using the word "squalor" to describe my current emotional and household affairs. As in: "I am living in SQUALOR!" Which isn't entirely accurate (I have a lovely roof over my head), but feels awfully satisfying when you shout it in a voice filled with dramatic despair.

This all goes to say that my blog break will be a bit longer. Until I can tamp down a bit more of this squalor.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stephen Sondheim: Finishing the Hat

Last night, I attended a talk by legendary musical theater lyricist and songwriter, Stephen Sondheim. It was fascinating to hear stories about how he started writing for musicals (and TV and film) and his encounters with Oscar Hammerstein, John Ford, and Leonard Bernstein (or, as Sondheim called him, "Lenny").

Sondheim has a new book out called Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes that tells the stories behind writing lyrics for great musicals like West Side Story, Gypsy, and A Little Night Music.

Last night, I loved the story he told about bringing the first musical he ever wrote to Oscar Hammerstein. Sondheim was 15 at the time, and the play was all about little events at his high school (it included songs like "I'll Meet You at the Donut"). He told us he could hardly sleep the night he handed off the play. He was convinced that Hammerstein was going to be so excited to produce it that they'd get started right away and of course it was going to be a Broadway sensation: Fifteen Year Old Writes Hit Play! Here's the rest of the story as told to Adam Guetell:

Stephen Sondheim: Legacy Project Interview
(You can also watch a longer PBS interview with Sondheim on News Hour.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Catherynne M. Valente: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

This week, I'm back to blogging after a long hiatus from all things online. Kevin and I moved this summer so I decided to take some time off. And guess what? It can be done, people: I did not blog, tweet, or facebook for nearly three months! (Well, barely. I did log on to write a post about my ill-fated softball career for the ACLA Summer Reading blog.)

While it was good to have a break, I'm glad to climb out of the avalanche of (still) unpacked boxes and return to some semblance of normalcy and routine. And speaking of the ACLA, I'm back to my schedule of writing monthly book reviews for them as well. Hope you all had a great summer!

One of my favorite reading experiences this summer was actually not a reading experience at all. While I was pulling vintage 1980s wallpaper off the walls of what is now my new music room, I listened to the audiobook of Catherynne  M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Here's what you should know: everything about this book is remarkably endearing.

One day, a young girl named September finds herself whisked away from Omaha and into Fairyland by the Green Wind. What follows is a quest story that is full of so many unexpected and marvelous twists and turns that I hardly noticed my messy wallpaper task at all. I was completely caught up in September's new world.

Words that pop into my mind are: delightful, wonderful, joyful. But these words can be saccharine and aren't what I mean to say at all. Valente's book is filled with delight and wonder and joy in the old-fashioned, hushed sense of the words. Like a walk through the woods when the sun is slanted just right through the trees and that odd noise could be a deer, or a trick of the wind, or the strange laughter and music of an honest-to-goodness fairy circle.

Valente's Fairyland is fantasy, but it has more in common with old-fashioned Faerie stories or Tolkien than it does with the modern fantasy stories of Harry Potter and the like. It is surprising and challenging and very, very strange. Valente manages to create a sense of wonder that feels like it's from another time, and yet September is so relevant, so likable, droll, and modern, I'm certain kids of all ages and times will be able to relate.

Apparently, there are plenty of people out there who did not like this book. Well, that's why there's something for everyone, I guess. (For more on this, you can read the effervescent Betsy Bird's review and discussion of the divisive nature of Fairyland at her School Library Journal blog.) As for me, this goes into my 5-star top-ten for the year category. Hands down.

Also posted at the ALCA Youth Services blog.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Summer Blog Break

I'm gearing up for one of my busiest summers yet: moving to a new house, working on a revision of my novel, teaching Songwriting and Fiction Writing for Kids classes, and traveling across the country to celebrate a dear friend's wedding. If I have any time and energy left, I'd like to start a new garden, paint my new music room, and catch up on my reading.

So you can see where this is all leading.

I'll be offline for a good chunk of the summer. When I come back, I hope to have all kinds of new books and music to share. I hope your summer is filled with sunshine!

 Photo by Mommamia

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Sam Phillips: Broken Circle

In August 2009, Sam Phillips launched her innovative Long Play project. Fans (like myself) paid a $52 subscription fee straight to the artist. No record company, no middle man. In return, we gained instant access to her creative process. Over the year, Long Play subscribers were able to download 5 digital EPs, one entire album, and a variety of bonus songs in various stages of completion.

If you did not participate in Long Play, you're in luck! Yesterday, Sam Phillips released a full-length album of songs from the project to the public. Solid State is now available on Sam Phillips' website in digital or physical CD format. In fact, you can get three free tracks just for signing up for her email list. And at the very least, you can watch this video from one of the new tracks.

Sam Phillips: Broken Circle

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Kris Asselin Interviews Me!

Young adult and middle grade author Kris Asselin interviewed me for her blog this week. Please stop by Writing. For Real. to read all about how I got my first check as a writer, how I got my agent, and how I love Phil Collins (but if you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably already knew that last bit).

Thanks, Kris!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Over Memorial Day weekend, Kevin and I went to see Morgan Spurlock's new documentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I have two things to say:

1. Morgan Spurlock is my hero.

2. If you haven't seen his TV show 30 Days, you must. The box set is out now which means you can rent it, buy it, or even watch episodes on Netflix Watch Instantly. Barring The Wonder Years, it's perhaps my favorite television series of all time.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold Trailer

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I Wrote a Hit Song! Contest Winner: Eleanor, age 12

I'm happy to announce the latest I Wrote a Hit Song! contest winner. Twelve-year-old Eleanor from St. Paul, Minnesota wrote a hit song called "Perfect Shade of Blue."

Please visit Eleanor's song page and leave a comment to let her know how much you like her song.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Songwriting and Fiction Writing for Kids

June 1st is practically here! That means there are only a few days left to register for my Songwriting for Kids and Fiction Writing for Kids summer workshops at Bowdoin College! I'm really looking forward to helping the students channel all their creative ideas into stories and songs.

PLEASE NOTE: There are only 2 spots left for this year's Songwriting for Kids workshop! If you would like to sign up, please do so quickly!

For more information, please visit or you can email me and I will be glad to mail you a hard copy of the brochure.

July 18-22 Songwriting for Kids Vol. 1
Students entering grades K-3
Price: $135; $115 sibling rate
This is the traditional Songwriting for Kids workshop. We will learn American folk songs and use them to discover the basics of songwriting while gaining some insight into the historical context of the songs. We will focus on elements of rhythm, rhyme, melody, and above all, collaboration. Students will learn about creative teamwork and work together to write a class song. Students who have previously taken this workshop are more than welcome as songs and activities vary from year to year.

July 18-22
Fiction Writing for Kids

Grades 3-5
Price: $135; $115 sibling rate
This workshop teaches the basics of fiction writing, including Character, Plot, Revision, and Imaginative Writing. During the workshop, students will study character development, plot structure, and setting in popular children's literature and will write and illustrate their very own book.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Martha Tilton: Loch Lomond

I'm feeling a little old fashioned this morning, so I went searching for some Martha Tilton. Chances are you've never heard of her, which is a shame since she has one of the most lilting voices known to mankind. In fact, I believe some used to call her "liltin' Tilton" (clever, no?)

Best known as the vocalist who sang And the Angels Sing with the Benny Goodman Orchestra at their first Carnegie Hall Concert in 1938, Ms. Tilton and the band also tore it up with a swinging version of the old Scottish tune, Loch Lomond.

I love the Benny Goodman version of this song. Hilariously, my Martha Tilton/Loch Lomond search also brought me to a kitschy gem of a video made in 1941. The awkward hip-swinging, step-dancing bit made my day. And the two guys who have no purpose but to stand by a rock and do a brief bagpipe impression? Priceless. I'll be chuckling all morning long.

Here are both versions for your enjoyment:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Keeper and The Night-Blooming Cereus

Right now, I'm reading Kathi Appelt's new book, Keeper. So far, I haven't been completely sucked in like I was when reading The Underneath, but I'm only halfway through, so we'll see. One thing that stands out, though, is the way Ms. Appelt is able to capture a palpable sense of waiting. I put the in italics because it is not just your ho-hum pass-the-time kind of waiting. The whole book is infused with heavy anticipation, a quiet but persistent feeling that any moment now, some small, magical shift is going to change everything.

The perfect symbol of this waiting is the night-blooming cereus. Keeper's neighbor, Mr. Beauchamp, has a night-blooming cereus. This is a plant that blooms rarely, and only at night. In Kathi Appelt's novel, Mr. Beauchamp is waiting, waiting, for the plant to flower on the night of the blue moon.

So here's the truth. This is all a rambling excuse to write once again about how much I love Robert Hayden. Everytime I pick up Keeper, I want to pull his Collected Poems off the shelf and thumb through to "The Night-Blooming Cereus," a beautiful example of waiting for something magical to happen in the everyday. 

It's long, so I can't post the whole thing here, but check out these first few stanzas and then you'll have to go grab the book from your library (because the last stanza is one of my favorite stanzas of all time). Or better yet, buy the'll want to have it handy for times like these. You may also be able to read the whole poem online at Google Books.

(Also, apologies to Mr. Hayden for the incorrect formatting. Blogger can't handle poetic indentations.)

The Night-Blooming Cereus (excerpt)
by Robert Hayden

And so for nights
we waited, hoping to see
the heavy bud
break into flower.

On its neck-like tube
hooking down from the edge
of the leaf-branch
nearly to the floor,

the bud packed
tight with its miracle swayed
stiffly on breaths
of air, moved

as though impelled
by stirrings within itself.
It repelled as much
as it fascinated me...

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Concert This Weekend!

As many of you know, I recently finished up a Songs of the Civil War Era artist residency in the Brunswick, Maine school district. I visited each fifth grade classroom three times and we had loads of fun singing the songs sung on the battlefield, cotton fields, and the homefront. We saw how the changing views of African Americans began to appear in popular music well before the war, and we learned about the "new American music" that the whole world was talking about long after the fighting was over.

But the fun's not over yet!

This Saturday, I'll give a final concert along with Martin Swinger (who's been working with the 1st graders). It's open to the public, so if you're in the area, I hope you'll come!

Saturday, May 21

I'm inviting all willing fifth graders to come up on stage with me to sing for you. If you're lucky, they'll share some of the "battle songs" they wrote themselves!

And even if you don't come to the concert, you can still hear the classroom songs. Some are funny, some are touching, some are very proud! You can listen to the classroom songs in the Listening Room at Songwriting for Kids. And you can even check out The Brunswick Broadside (.pdf) to read all the lyrics.

I hope I'll see you on Saturday. Thanks, as always, to Arts Are Elementary for the grant that made all of this possible!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Frank Cottrell Boyce: Cosmic & Millions

Given my 'druthers, I prefer middle grade fiction to be laugh-out-loud hilarious. But I also want genuine, steal-your-heart characters, a thread of depth and emotion that's believable but doesn't hit you over the head, and a satisfying, sigh-worthy ending. While I'm at it, a classic case of mistaken identity doesn't hurt.

A tall order? Perhaps. But every so often, an author delivers, and that is why Frank Cottrell Boyce is my new middle grade obsession. Here are two books you really must read:

Cosmic is a story about Liam, a twelve-year-old boy who's hit a bit of a growth spurt. In fact, with the seven inches and facial hair he gained over the summer, most strangers think he's an adult. At first, this manifests itself in some funny episodes like being mistaken for a teacher and taking a sports car out for a test drive. But when Liam has a chance to take a special "thrill-ride" to outer space, that's when things get a little out of control. Cosmic is funny and clever and touching in all the best ways.

Millions (Frank Cottrell Boyce's first novel) is set in England, just seven days before the monetary system changed from pounds to Euros. Fourth-grader Damian is struggling to cope with the loss of his mother and he obsesses over the stories of Catholic saints, hoping that perhaps his mom has joined their ranks. One day, while he is in his homemade cardboard "hermitage," a bag of English pounds falls from the sky. Convinced that it is a message from God, Damian believes he must use the money for saintly purposes. His brother, Anthony, just wants to spend it. Either way, they only have seven days to figure out what to do with the cash before it becomes completely worthless. A beautiful, funny, and poignant story about brothers, family, and the true meaning of saintliness.

An interesting side note: I saw the movie version of Millions a few years ago and it turns out that Frank Cottrell Boyce actually wrote the screenplay before he wrote the book. The movie version was already in production while he was writing the novel and he says in an interview that walking around on the set helped him visualize the setting while he was writing.

Here's an interview with Frank Cottrell Boyce about Cosmic:

Also posted at ACLA Youth Services Blog.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Creature Comforts on Fears & Phobias

I haven't posted one of these in a while. I love how the animators consistently paired the real-live interviews with hilarious animation. The penguin cracks me up!

Creature Comforts: Fears and Phobias

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Songs of the Civil War Era Rerun: Walk Together Children

It's my last week of my 5th grade school visit tour de force. Phew! These last few days, we'll be talking about the spirituals and "slave songs" that were sung in the cotton fields. Here's the last installment of my Songs of the Civil War Era blog reruns, in which I get very long winded and say "um" quite a bit more than anybody should.

Songs of the Civil War Era: Walk Together Children (originally posted on December 2, 2009)

For the last post in my Songs of the Civil War Era series, I thought I'd put up one of my favorite African-American spirituals, "Walk Together Children." I love the energy and joy in this song. And the lyrics are timeless, hopeful, inspirational, and true. If we work together toward that better day, just think what we can do!

Walk together children, don't you get weary

In the concert, the talking that comes before the song goes on a little long (and I apologize in advance for all the "um's") so I separated it out. That way, if you're not in the mood for a lecture, you can head straight for the music.

Here's the talking:

And here's the song:

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: Chris Van Allsburg

Thanks to Fuse #8 it has come to my attention that there is a new Harris Burdick book coming this fall. Some of you may remember that Chris Van Allsburg's wordless The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is one of my all-time favorite books for kick-starting young imaginations.

It can also kick-start not-so-young imaginations, as it turns out. The new book, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, will feature stories inspired by the Harris Burdick illustrations. Check out the list of heavy-hitting contributing authors. Whooowie!
This inspired collection of short stories features many remarkable, best-selling authors in the worlds of both adult and children's literature: Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King, Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, Lemony Snicket, and Chris Van Allsburg himself.

Find out more at Publisher's Weekly.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Envaya, Part Four

Last week (see previous Envaya posts), Radhina Kipozi told us a few things average people can do to support the work she and Joshua are doing with the Envaya team. She wrote:
As for the average person outside of Africa... well, we would appreciate any support we can get. We are a non-profit, so even the smallest contribution will go a long way. And at the very least, it's even great for people abroad to just see and appreciate the work that community based organizations are doing in Africa. It would be really great if we could get people to visit the web pages CBOs create with Envaya, and see the efforts and accomplishments of these organizations (most of which have very little outside support).
You can explore these CBO webpages at You can sort by sector (Education, Environment, Health, Human Rights, etc.) or location, view each page in multiple languages, and marvel at all the hard work that is being done. There are groups dedicated to helping orphaned children, schools working "to empower grandmothers and children who have been adversely affected by HIV/AIDS," teams working to protect water sources from contamination.

Thanks to organizations like Envaya, each of these small groups now has a larger reach, a stronger voice. I love this testimonial:
"With whole intentions, I would like to congratulate Envaya for accomplishing the plan which has enabled many civil society organizations to know each other, to leave behind the idea of literal distance on the earth. For the civil society organizations that have joined Envaya, Envaya has succeeded in making them closer in the real world. It has spread everywhere; North, South, East, and West. We say, Always forward. We are together." (translated from kiswahili)
-Kamtande from "Wanaharakati wa Elimu Mazingira na Afya" (Activists
for Education, Environment, and Health)
If you'd like to support Envaya, you can Get Involved or Donate to the project. At the very least, I hope this mini blog series has been interesting and inspiring. My brother-in-law is probably person can't change the world. But when one person reaches out to someone else, and that someone reaches out again...then we stand a chance to make a real difference.

Envaya's mission reminds me of my favorite Toni Morrison quote:
"...if we think in huge numbers about how to save the continent, we’re already whipped. But if you think in terms of one…you know, small things. Six people. One person. One room. One backyard...Then it works."

Thanks, Josh & Radhina for sharing your story with us. And thanks for getting out there and making a difference!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Songs of the Civil War Era Rerun: Bonnie Blue Flag Medly

I've embarked on the first week of my 5th grade school visit tour de force! I'm planning to visit each fifth grade classroom in the district...three times each. Our first session, we'll start off with Songs of the Battlefield. Then we'll move on to songs from the home front and the cotton fields and learn how each of these musical forms fused together during the Civil War Era to form a new "American" style of music. Here's installment 3 of my Songs of the Civil War Era blog rerun:

Songs of the Civil War Era: Bonnie Blue Flag Medly (originally posted on November 25, 2009)

When I was putting together my recent Songs of the Civil War Era concert, there were some areas I already had pretty well under my belt. I've been singing the spirituals and popular songs of the time (like Oh Susanna and Gum Tree Canoe) for quite a while now.

But I wasn't as familiar with songs that were sung on the battlefield. It was very interesting to research these tunes and find out how they evolved. One fascinating example was "Bonnie Blue Flag," and you can hear the whole story by clicking on the player below (again, if you're in Facebook, you might have to go directly to my blog).

If you want to follow along at home (like one of my favorite childhood shows?), here are the images: Page 2, Pages 3 & 4, Page 5.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Marianne Moore: Poetry

How in the world have I gotten all the way to the end of Poetry Month without posting one single poem? Well, this must be remedied! Quick, fetch some Marianne Moore!

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
      all this fiddle.
   Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
      discovers in
   it after all, a place for the genuine.
      Hands that can grasp, eyes
      that can dilate, hair that can rise
         if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
      they are
   useful. When they become so derivative as to become
   the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
      do not admire what
      we cannot understand: the bat
         holding on upside down or in quest of something to 

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
      wolf under
   a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
      that feels a flea, the base-
   ball fan, the statistician--
      nor is it valid
         to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
      a distinction
   however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
      result is not poetry,
   nor till the poets among us can be
     "literalists of
      the imagination"--above
         insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
      shall we have
   it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
   the raw material of poetry in
      all its rawness and
      that which is on the other hand
         genuine, you are interested in poetry.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Envaya, Part Three

Today, I'm excited to post an interview with Radhina Kipozi, Envaya's Tanzania Program Manager. [Missed part of this series? Catch up on the previous Envaya posts and interviews.]

Radhina began her career as a popular singer, currently works as an investigative journalist, and helps run one of Tanzania's most progressive civil society organizations, JEAN Media. As Envaya's Tanzania Program Manager, she provides training and support for the grassroots organizations that use Envaya and tirelessly promotes Envaya across the country. She took some time out of her busy schedule to tell me about her path from pop star to social activist and entrepreneur.

How young were you when you started singing? What was life like as one of Tanzania’s popular musicians?
I was 16 years old when I started singing in an R&B group with my two sisters (called the Unique Dadaz -- or Unique Sisters). We were one of the first all-female pop groups in Tanzania. We were (and somehow still are) very popular. In 2000 we won the Tanzanian Music Award for best video of the year. We headlined at the Zanzibar International Film Festival and were subsequently featured in “Inside Africa” on CNN. We performed across Africa, and in Europe and Japan.

It was fun being a popular singer as a teenager, I made lots of friends and I didn’t have to try hard to fit in. I remember I switched to a different high school because we moved and on my first day at the school it was crazy. All the students were looking out the window to catch a glimpse of me and they followed me around the whole day.

There were, of course, challenges (occasional media harassment, etc.) but overall it was an extremely positive experience for me. During my time as a singer I made a lot of great connections, and the recognition I get even today has helped tremendously in my work with Envaya.

What moved you to become a social and environmental advocate? Were there specific issues that you wanted to address?
Even as a singer in a girl group I did a lot of work with the community around me, by using our fame to bring awareness to different issues that affect our society. We tried to bring about some change through our music, and incorporated positive messages in a lot of our songs. We also did some projects with NGOs on HIV awareness for youth and worked with some anti-malaria campaigns. I was passionate about this kind of work, and was lucky to realize at a relatively young age that it is what I wanted to do with my life long term. I knew I wanted to dedicate my career to bringing about social and environmental change.

How did the idea for Envaya begin?
Envaya came about through the collective experiences of its founders. Joshua and I became friends in 2007 when he was in Tanzania as a Peace Corps volunteer. My family has started and worked with community based development organizations for a long time, giving me a real understanding of the challenges and needs of such organizations. Joshua and I have been talking for years about these issues, and he was always very interested to hear the Tanzanian perspective on development work. On a visit to Tanzania in January of 2010 he told me that he, his Stanford Computer Science friend Jesse Young, and Jeff Schnurr (with whom he had collaborated on a community based reforestation initiative on Pemba) were starting a technology non-profit with the aim of solving problems for grassroots development organizations, and I was very excited to get involved. The specific ideas for Envaya came about as a reaction to issues we'd all seen and dealt with in our work in Tanzania.

Have you come up against challenges that make it difficult to get your idea out there and make your voice heard?
Being a young Tanzanian woman has made it difficult at times for me to be taken seriously. Tanzania is still quite male-dominated, and age is a serious factor in how one is perceived. Sometimes I will walk into an office and the person I'm trying to address will naturally assume that my field assistant, who is a man, is the one in charge. The women in Tanzania who do have senior roles in this sector are often much older than me and they look very different from me -- I look like an average 20 something year old and most women my age in Tanzania are not in this sector. I find myself having to work twice as hard, but I have found that a firm handshake and really knowing what you’re talking about really helps people understand why I'm the program manager of Envaya. I've learned to really appreciate every accomplishment I achieve from the job, big or small.

What can the average person do to help?
The average person in Tanzania is often aware of the work their local organizations do, but does not realize that there are such organizations across the entire country. With Envaya we are working on providing tools so that individuals in Tanzania can directly engage with and contribute to these organizations. There are individual grassroots movements taking place all over Tanzania, and we're working to help these movements join together.

As for the average person outside of Africa... well, we would appreciate any support we can get. We are a non-profit, so even the smallest contribution will go a long way. And at the very least, it's even great for people abroad to just see and appreciate the work that community based organizations are doing in Africa. It would be really great if we could get people to visit the web pages CBOs create with Envaya, and see the efforts and accomplishments of these organizations (most of which have very little outside support). We're also working on ways for people to contribute or collaborate directly to CBOs through Envaya, but that is still a little ways off.

What has been the most exciting thing about working with Envaya?
Envaya gives opportunities to community based organizations (CBOs) who do great work in their communities to get exposure and connect to and learn from other organizations. I really appreciate the fact that we help eliminate the barriers between CBOs. So many of these organizations have worked tirelessly for years, and have little exposure beyond their communities. They are the ultimate stakeholders in the development sector, yet lacked a significant voice. Now with Envaya, these organizations can showcase all their achievements to the world, connect, and work together. In less than a year, we have over 350 community based organizations online, most of which before Envaya had little or no exposure beyond their communities. The rate at which we are growing and expanding is very exciting, and it's always rewarding to see the stories and great work the CBOs are doing being posted online with Envaya.

Are you still making music? Where can we listen to your music?
The Unique Dadaz are no longer making music, but you can find some of our videos online with Google. I do occasionally still collaborate with musicians in Tanzania on individual songs though.

So of course, I had to search Google for a video. How cool is this?


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Songs of the Civil War Era Rerun: Tenting Tonight

Here's the second installment of my Songs of the Civil War Era blog rerun. "Tenting Tonight" is the first song I'm going to teach the 5th graders next week, and I hope it will set the stage for the history they're learning this year.

Songs of the Civil War Era: Tenting Tonight (originally posted November 18, 2009)

I recently received some mp3s of my Songs of the Civil War Era concert/lecture at Bowdoin College, so for those of you who missed it, I'm going to post a song each Wednesday for the next three weeks.

The first is "Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground," and you can listen to it by clicking on the player below (if you're on Facebook or the like, and can't see the player, try accessing it directly from my blog).

The sound guy kindly faded this one out for me, but if you'd truly like to set the scene, picture yourself in a nice crowded auditorium. Everyone's just settled in. You've heard a little intro about what to expect during the program, and this sad, slow song begins. Now as I enter the last chorus (where the fade starts), imagine the piercing bleep bleep of a fire alarm! Just in case you were getting a little *too* comfortable. :)

All turned out fine. We got a little cold outside (in the spirit of things, I suppose) but were able to head back in and finish up. Enjoy...

Monday, April 18, 2011

Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: Gary Golio

I'm excited to team up with fellow poet and former classmate, Kelley Beeson this month. Kelley works for the Allegheny County Library Association, and she's invited me to post a monthly book review at the ACLA Youth Services blog. So once a month, I'll be posting both at ACLA and at Please Come Flying, switching back and forth between middle grade and picture book reviews. What fun!

What better way to kick off a new partnership than with some good old fashioned rock 'n roll? I teach a series of songwriting workshops for the K-5 set, and I'm always looking for good picture books about music and musicians to use during our "Seal Pup" listening time. But a book about Jimi Hendrix? Isn't that a little intense? Of course the man was a creative genius, but how do you write truthfully about someone who suffered so intensely from drug abuse and addiction and present it in a way that is suitable for kindergartners?

In Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix, Golio strikes a good balance. The text focuses on Jimi's life as a child. We see how Jimi pays attention to the sounds all around him, experiments with instruments, and finds ways to play the rainbow of sounds that exist in his head.

In this way, the book reminds me quite a bit of Before John Was a Jazz Giant, a picture book biography of John Coltrane. Both authors do a terrific job of showing how a musician can find inspiration in the world around them. In Before John Was a Jazz Giant, John gathers inspiration from "the steam engines whistling past, Cousin Mary giggling at jitterbuggers, and Bojangles tap-dancing in the picture show."

In Jimi Sounds Like a Rainbow:

"With every sound, a color glowed in Jimi's mind.
Blue was the whoosh of cool water, splashing over rocks.
Orange and red, the crackling of a campfire.
Green, the rustle of a thousand leaves."
In both books, the musicians learn to bring the essence of those childhood sounds into the genius of their compositions. Golio writes:
"Like no one before him, Jimmy Hendrix taught his guitar to sing, scream, laugh, and cry. He learned to use it as an artist uses paint, creating new worlds with the colors of sounds."
What a beautiful description of the creative process!

Golio leaves Jimi's adult sadness for the end papers where it can be absorbed or not at will. He briefly and tastefully describes the tragedy of Jimi Hendrix's death and includes some age-appropriate Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services resources for further reading "in the spirit of recognizing that addiction is a treatable disease, and that deaths like Jimi's can be prevented." I appreciate that he does not gloss over the issue, nor does he hit us over the head with it.

I will admit that while Javaka Steptoe's colorful paint-on-plywood collages are interesting and full of texture and detail, I'm not immediately drawn to the illustrations. But I will definitely be using this book in my songwriting workshops. It's a keeper.

And because I can't resist a video link, here's Jimi Hendrix himself playing Voodoo Child live in 1969.

Also posted at ACLA Youth Services Blog.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Envaya, Part Two

Last week, I posted about Envaya, a project designed to connect grassroots organizations with software and online technology that can empower change in local communities. [Read Envaya: Part One]

Joshua Stern is the intrepid young co-founder of Envaya, and he grew up right here in Maine. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in computer science, Joshua served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, where he worked to build computer infrastructure and provide fundamental ICT education to the communities in his region. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his experiences in Tanzania and how he got involved in this new project.

Next week, I'll interview Envaya's Tanzania Program Manager, Radhina Kipozi. She'll tell us what it was like to be one of Tanzania's most popular teenage singers, and how that experience shaped her work with Envaya.

After college, you went into the Peace Corps and worked in Tanzania. What was that like?

Peace Corps was a formative experience for me, and in many ways led to the creation of Envaya. Peace Corps service placed me in a remote village on Pemba Island, Tanzania. I was far from other volunteers and it was numbingly hot, especially for a Mainer. Nutritious food on the island was unreliable (most fruits and vegetables had to be imported by irregular boat, as the soil on the island has been ravaged by centuries of spice farming). I repeatedly suffered malaria. Electricity was frequently unavailable and infrastructure was decayed, which forced me to wire some buildings and labs myself. Despite these challenges, I built lasting relationships, and set up computer labs and connected hundreds of people to the Internet for the first time.

My arrival on Pemba coincided with a number of donations of computer labs from larger aid agencies. These donations would consist of computers, an internet dish, and a generator. These were given to a teachers training college, some secondary schools, some community centers, and teachers centers. A handful of the labs had been partially set up by the time I'd arrived, but most often equipment remained in boxes. I physically set up the computers and internet. In some cases I had to assist in wiring the labs for electricity from the generators. I am proud to have not electrocuted myself, (although I did get zapped once).

Once labs were set up I worked to train local counterparts to maintain and teach from the labs. I also taught basic computer skills to students, teachers, and community leaders. After getting through the basics of computers and the internet, many community organization leaders wanted to set up their own websites. Existing tools were far too challenging, and unsuited to the low-bandwidth connections.

Who was the most interesting person that you met [during Peace Corps]?

During my Peace Corps service, I met Radhina Kipozi, a popular Tanzanian singer and social entrepreneur. Radhina was deeply involved in social causes such as the dance4life program to fight HIV/AIDS and her social work connected her with many community-based organizations around Tanzania. She is an independent journalist, and one of the leaders of JEAN Media, a Tanzanian civil society organization that improves communication among a network of grassroots organizations working to address environmental issues and HIV/AIDS. She became one of Envaya's co-founders, and is our Program Manager in Tanzania. She has been invaluable to our success in getting Envaya off the ground in Tanzania.

Did your experiences there [in the Peace Corps] help you with your current Envaya project? What did you learn?

One of my biggest takeaways overall from my time in the Peace Corps was that most effective and sustainable development efforts and solutions begin at the community level. Grassroots civil society organizations (CSOs) play a vital role in society by advocating for positive change, developing new approaches to poverty reduction, and running projects that range from leading HIV/AIDS education programs to planting trees. Unfortunately, many CSOs lack access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) that would enable their efforts to have a greater impact. Most CSOs have no online presence and therefore have an extremely limited ability to raise funds, communicate with grantmakers, and share resources and ideas with other CSOs and communities.

And now, on, organizations with little computer experience can easily create websites to publish their latest news and share their successes and challenges. By providing usable technology that is tailored to the needs of Tanzanian CSOs, Envaya is increasing the capacity of the civil society sector to create systemic, positive change. The Envaya platform is the foundation of a digital infrastructure that can reach communities and organizations that lack an online voice. Users can connect to an online community in which they can learn from each other, plan transformative projects, and be inspired and encouraged to act.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Songs of the Civil War Era: 5th Grade Tour de Force!

Thanks to a generous grant from Arts Are Elementary, I am gearing up to visit every 5th grade classroom in our school district. Which translates to: thirty classroom visits in two weeks! I've still got a week and a half to tune up my guitar, print handouts, and hydrate!

The fifth graders here in Maine have been learning about the Civil War and I am planning a curriculum for them based on the Songs of the Civil War Era lecture/concert I gave at Bowdoin College a couple years ago. Since my life is going to get exceedingly busy very soon, I thought I'd post a few reruns of highlights from that lecture over the next few weeks. Here's the first installment, starting with a great MPBN radio piece by Tom Porter.

Wish me luck on my school-visit marathon!

My Concert: Songs of the Civil War Era (originally posted on November 11, 2009)

My lecture/concert "Songs of the Civil War Era" ended up in the news a couple times last week!

First, Daisy Alioto wrote a very nice article in The Bowdoin Orient. She starts with:

"Josephine Cameron '98 sat center stage in Kanbar Auditorium strumming her guitar and letting her melodic voice soar sweetly around the room on Tuesday. She sang "Tenting on the Old Campground," the first piece in a program of Civil War-era songs that offer insight into the popular culture of the era. The song, a song of peace sung by war-weary soldiers, Union and Confederate alike, was truncated mid-verse by the piercing shriek of the fire alarm. The audience, slow to react, could hardly conceal their disappointment as Josie's voice still echoed in the rafters."

You can read the rest of the article here (how's that for suspense?)

And then Tom Porter from Maine Public Radio did a great spot on Maine Things Considered. You can listen to the whole thing here:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pop-up Books: They're Not Just for Kids!

This semester, the Bowdoin College library is hosting an exhibit of more than 150 books from their 1800-volume Harold M. Goralnick Pop-up Book Collection. If you're not lucky enough to live right around the corner like me, you can still get a glimpse of the stunning artwork on display. There's everything from The Little Prince to Andy Warhol to a full pop-up replica of Fenway Park.

Pop-ups! They're Not JUST for Kids

Pop-ups! They're Not JUST for Kids from Bowdoin College on Vimeo.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Envaya, Part One

When I was in high school, I had a brother-in-law who was fond of telling me that one person can't change the world. I like to think that what he was really driving at was that it takes many individual actions, bound together, to create true change. No, one drop isn't going to fill the bucket. But millions of individual drops, joined together? Now we're getting somewhere!

I've been reading a lot about an interesting organization called Envaya that is trying to make a real difference in the third world by simply connecting people who want to create change. There are so many individual organizations doing good work on a local level. Yet if they could connect with others in their regions and in the world, if they could access grant money, share resources and best practice advice, and work together toward common goals, just think about how much the world could change.

Envaya, at it's core is a simple idea. It's an organization that develops online and mobile tools that allow civil service organizations (CSOs) in the third world to connect to the internet and set up simple websites. Through Envaya's digital network, CSOs can communicate, raise funds, and share resources to work on big problems like special needs education, deforestation, or clean water. According to a recent article, "Even people who live hundreds of miles from a cable, a phone line, or a paved road, and who subsist on a few dollars a week, can use Envaya’s ultra-light platform to establish websites."

So here's the cool part. Envaya was co-founded by 27-year-old Joshua Stern. Josh grew up here in Maine and both he and Radhina Kipozi (Envaya's Tanzania Program Manager) have agreed to do a couple blog interviews here on Please Come Flying. Their story is fascinating. Joshua worked in the Peace Corps after college and Radhina was one of Tanzania's most popular singers as a teenager. They'll tell us a bit about how they met, and what inspired them to begin the work they are doing with Envaya.

Throughout April, I'll post pieces of Joshua and Radhina's interviews. Next week, Josh will tell us a bit about his work in the Peace Corps and what he experienced there that gave him his big idea to change the world...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Raphael Saadiq: Good Man

Here's a find from KCRW's In Studio sessions. They've had all kinds of great musicians over there recently (Moby, Badly Drawn Boy, Lykke Li) and I was glad to come across this video of Raphael Saadiq. I've never heard him before, but apparently his new album Stone Rollin is one of KCRW's favorites for 2011 so far. I can see why. What a voice!

Raphael Saadiq: Good Man

Monday, April 4, 2011

Battle of the Kids' Books Big Kahuna Round: And the winner is...

It's a rainy, gray, hectic day here in Maine, so I will keep this post brief. Just one tiny little public service announcement:

The Battle of the Kids' Books victor was crowned today! The final three books to battle it out were

  • The Ring of Solomon
  • A Conspiracy of Kings
  • Keeper

Can you guess who the winner is? Go read the results...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Angry Birds (The Movie)

This morning, the universe is playing an April Fools joke on my daffodils. The poor little things were just starting to emerge and soak up the sun and now this:

In honor of the fake-things-are-funny day, here's a terrific "movie trailer" based on the iPhone app Angry Birds. Have you played this game? The basic idea is you have to destroy fortresses where pigs live by shooting angry birds with a slingshot. For real. It looks like this:

You get the picture. The brilliant folks over at RoosterTeeth imagined what Hollywood would do with such rich story material. I love it:

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lukas and Willie Nelson: Floodin' Down In Texas

Last week, my sister Anna wrote a great article about Willie Nelson's son, Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real. And then my brother Alan sent us this excellent video of Lukas and his dad floodin down in Texas. I'll post both here so you can share in all the family fun:

Anna's article: Out on his Own

Live performance: Willie Nelson and Lukas Nelson: Floodin' Down In Texas:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Battle of the Kids' Books 2011

I have fallen so far behind in my internet reading that I completely missed Round 1 of the School Library Journal's 2011 Battle of the Kids' Books! What travesty!

Deep into round two, there has of course been much excitement and upset. Two of my favorite books of the year were mercilessly booted after only *one* match! Seriously, people? The Dreamer lost to The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie, a non-fiction book about the history of Barbie. One Crazy Summer lost to a graphic novel version of The Odyssey.

I haven't read the Barbie history or the graphic novel, so I can't cry foul. Both are acclaimed to be excellent works in their own right. But what about the beautiful, poetic portrayal of young Pablo in The Dreamer? And the fascinating subject matter and honest characterization in One Crazy Summer? Argh! See what this silly game does to me? I'm all kerfluffled.

Two books that have been added to my to-read list after the first round:

The CardturnerThe Cardturner by Louis Sachar. I love Louis Sachar, but was a little reluctant to pick up a book revolving around the game of bridge. However, the book has made it through two rounds with ease. I've been swayed.

Hereville: How Mirka Got Her SwordHereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch. Hereville lost the book battle in the first round, but a book with "Yet Another Troll-Fighting 11-Year-Old Orthodox Jewish Girl" on the front cover? I must read.

Okay, quit reading this and head over to The Battle of the Kids' Books before Round 2 is over already!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Is it Morally Wrong to Give Strawberry Shortcake a Makeover?

A few weeks ago, in a fit of procrastination-induced nostalgia, Kevin and I did a little e-bay searching for a once-loved toy of mine. (Man, I loved that it was portable so I could set it up anywhere in the house and rock out to "Sugar, Sugar, oh Honey, Honey, you are my candy GIRL"...which I totally thought was a song SS and the gang had stolen from The Archies. My first foray into the world of music licensing. But that's a story for another day.)

Anyway, in our search, I found out that my dear Miss Shortcake has undergone quite the makeover in the last few years:

Poor Kevin had to witness quite a tirade. I was completely appalled. Does Strawberry Shortcake really need to be all glammed up like a teen Disney star with glossy long locks and that RIDICULOUS pageboy hat? Isn't this just one more step along the slippery slope of pushing young girls into sexualization at a younger and younger age? When Strawberry's makeover came out, the blog Shaping Youth, in fact, wrote up a very similar response.

This kind of thing makes me crazy. Take Dora the Explorer, for example. The whole reason we all love Dora is because she's a regular, albeit bilingual, kid. So why do we need tween Dora? Do we seriously want to teach girls that being a normal kid is okay as long as you eventually "blossom" into a thin, pretty kid with stylish clothes? (Below image from AboutFace):

Or is this all simply marketing common sense? Dora lovers grow up and and voila! a new product line now awaits. I can admit the old Strawberry Shortcake was outdated and frumpy and her shoes looked like potatoes. But still.

I had blissfully pushed this all to the back of my mind until yesterday when I followed Fuse #8's link to Peggy Orenstein's post about the new Trollz. The TrollZ, you ask? With a Z? Oh, yes.

These little guys:

Have been transformed into Trollz:

Sigh. What do YOU think?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Songwriting and Fiction Writing for Kids: Registration is Open

It's that time of year again. The snow is quickly melting from my yard, so I'm shedding hat and mittens and daring to think about summer again!

One of my favorite parts of summer (besides gardening and moving my writing spot out to the swing in the backyard) is getting to meet all the creative kids who sign up for my writing workshops. I've already got a handful of registrations in, and I can't wait!

Do you know any creative kids in the Maine area? This year, I'll be offering Songwriting for Kids Vol. 1 for grades K-3 and Fiction Writing for Kids for grades 3-5 (Vol. 2 and Poetry will be offered in 2012). To read more about the programs, or to register, please visit Please pass the information on to anyone you know who might be interested.

You can also visit the Listening Room to hear all the songs that students have written in past years. They're fantastic! To give you an example, here's last year's song, "The Moon Shines Bright On the River." I thought the class did a great job.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Grab Bag Friday: Splish Splash! Book Giveaway

Hooray! Intrepid illustrator Amy Schimler has a brand new book out. Splish Splash! is an interactive "touch-and-hear" board book all about the sounds of a river. As usual, Amy Schimler's illustrations are bursting with color and whimsy certain to delight readers young and old.

To make things even more exciting, Amy is hosting a book giveaway on her blog. Stop by Red Fish Circle before March 20th for a chance to win a hot-off-the-presses copy of your own!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Another Step Further

DystopiaMy cousin Keane is in a band! How cool is that? He and four of his pals from St. Charles North High School have been rocking it out from St. Charles, IL to Milwaukee, WI and now they have a brand new album to boot. I love intrepid teens!

Dystopia, the 7-song EP from Another Step Further is an energetic force influenced by old-school rock like Bad Religion as well as new millennium hardcore/pop bands like Rise Against and Alkaline Trio.

Here's a clip from the first track, Starlight. Keane is on guitar and backing vocals. Pretty good, huh?

Monday, March 14, 2011

William Carlos Williams: Winter Trees

One last, lovely winter poem before everything turns to slush...

Winter Trees
by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

 Photo by looseends