Textbooks and Novels

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a kindie manifesto, my attempt to synthesize several years of thinking about the purpose and value of music for families.  In some respects, it was a starting point for a conference presentation I've not been asked to deliver, and in that way, it is the first of a three-part series.

Part two below is something I've been pondering for well over a year.  It's me trying to state more plainly (albeit wordily) my preferences as a parent, listener, and reviewer.  Part three... well, I'm pretty sure it'll surprise you when I get around to writing it.  But there's plenty to consider (and for some of you, disagree with).


I have a (well-deserved) reputation for not taking out too much after things I consider poorly done.  It's a little frustrating to me because one of the reasons I started writing kids music reviews online is that I couldn't find much in the way of reviews that provided some gradation of quality.  Everything in magazines was uniformly awesome, even though once you listened, things clearly weren't.

Add to that my firm belief that taste is subjective and my own consensus-driven nature in many ways, and the result is not much in the way of "this is bad" kind of reviews.  I have a general rule -- totally unanalyzed, but I think it's probably pretty close to the truth -- that the top 20% of kids music albums can appeal to most listeners, the worst 20% will appeal to very, very few, and the other 60% in the middle will affect different listeners differently.  So that's 80% that some person somewhere not related to the musician will likely enjoy.

In addition, the nature of music discovery these days on the internet means that the only thing worse than a bad review is no review at all.

But I do try to provide some sense of comparative narrative when I write about kids music here.  Some albums or videos are good for certain listeners, some are good for just about everybody, and some are basically unreservedly awesome.

And on rare occasions I say something like I did about the Grammys 18 months ago, I tend to couch it in very muted terms -- "hey, this is just my personal opinion."

Still, even in that case, I got some pushback, and most of it sort of revolved around the idea that we (or I) should be more supportive of the kids music scene generally, that suggesting that some artists aren't as popular or central or whatever other comparative adjective you want to use as others is definitely not supportive. 

So here are a few words about what I like in kids music, offered not to denigrate what I don't like, but to explain why I think the music I do like it supportive of the genre as a whole.


My questions to artists is whether they're writing novels or textbooks. 

Textbook-writing is a noble profession.  Writing books or apps or whatever we're going to be writing in the 21st century is An Important Job.  My dad wrote and/or edited a whole series of computer science-related textbooks related to his work.  Textbook writers are trying to help people learn something, and what could be wrong with that? 

Absolutely nothing. 

Me, I'm a guy with a graduate degree earned in the 20th century.  I have read a lot of textbooks in my time.  And, I can tell you, while some of those textbooks must have been important to my learning as I grew up, I don't remember the name of a single textbook author, or textbook, for that matter.

Not a one. 

And you probably can't, either.  OK, maybe you can remember one textbook that totally changed your life, maybe even its author(s), but those are the exceptions that prove the rule.

On the other hand, how many novels can you remember?  How many authors did you discover when you were 9 or 14 or 20 or 26 whose reading affected you deeply, whose work you followed, maybe for 5 years, maybe for 25?  Sure, there are a ton of books you've read and forgot about before it made it back to the library, used bookstore, or donation bin (or was swiped to delete off your e-reader), but there are probably a few books you've carried around (physically and metaphorically) through thick and thin.

The choice facing a kids' musician is whether they want to be a textbook author or a novelist. 

Do they want to write and perform music who literal raison d'etre is to teach kids about a particular subject?  Or are they trying to make art that might communicate something ineffable about life, or just bring joy?

It doesn't matter how important the subject is that a musician is trying to teach -- if that is the primary reason for the existence of the music being made, then parents (and not a few kids) will sniff that out.

Note that lots of art -- kids music included -- teaches.  I'm more concerned with music that seems to be crafted to impart a lesson rather than tell a story.  The line between teaching and preaching is not easily defined, but most folks of any age know it when they hear it.  As I summarized the concept in my manifesto, "stories not messages."  I believe kids and adults retain much more the former than the latter.  I think the Deedle Deedle Dees' songs are great because they're much more in the "stories" camp than trying to teach kids essential facts about Important Historical Figures.

And parents?  We're in the dream business.  We want our kids -- and ourselves -- to be transported.   To have somebody put into words and music things that sound prosaic coming out of our own mouths.  We want, when possible, to share those experiences with kids.

Let me be clear: if someone wants to make music whose purpose is to teach a subject, I think that's great.  (Music-education basic music is another subject entirely that doesn't quite fit in this model, but we have used that a lot in our family.)  But the music that will live on in our family is most likely going to be music which reflects kids' experiences and joy.


I wrote a lot of this while traveling to New York City for Kindiefest.  Because it's such a long haul for me to get to Brooklyn, I try to spend at least a little time being a tourist.  This time I went (back) to the Museum of Modern Art.  The place was absolutely packed.  Great crowds of people looking at art made a century ago or more. Artists followed their muses, and their names are now known forever.  The people who drew the many different maps that helped me get from Arizona to MOMA performed a valuable service to me but I have totally forgotten those maps.

I hope I've been open to recognizing music made for all purposes, but when it comes to kids music, I have a preference for novels over textbooks.  This site has been an expression of that.  Kids music in the form of "novels" takes many forms here, from silly to serious to sublime.  As my own kids slowly slide out of the kindie target age range, I think the albums they'll remember will be the ones that inspired them, not lectured them.  The songs that encouraged them to find their own path, not told them what path to walk down.  The music that encouraged more questions rather than gave them the answers.

I realize that praising novelists over textbook writers will sound ironic from someone whose site has tended toward the encyclopedic and recommendation-based.  And I realize that music and programs with specific pedagogical intent may be increasingly important as funding for music within schools is increasingly directed to specific pedagogical purposes.  I am just standing up for the idea that there is another approach to making music for families -- the "dream business" -- and that that's the approach which will, over time, have the greatest impact in keeping kids music a genre to be celebrated.