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Last year I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a young filmmaker named Hannah Jayanti for a documentary about the book The Phantom Tollbooth, in celebration of it being published fifty years ago. After the interview, Hannah asked if I’d write a song for the film and I was even happier to do that. The film’s premier is October 6 at the New Yorker Festival. (Norton Juster, the author, and the illustrator, Jules Feiffer, will be there for the screening.  I’ll be there, too. ) For fans of the book (and even those unfamiliar with it) it’s a delightful and insightful look at the creative process and the story behind Milo and his tollbooth.

Here’s part of my interview:

And here’s a link to the song. My pal, whistler extraordinaire Andy Offut Irwin does the whistling:

Some of you know that The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic piece of children’s literature – and it’s a classic and timeless because of its very singular and quirky nature.  Milo is a boy thoroughly bored with life and not seeing the point in much of anything. Feiffer’s initial illustrations of Milo show someone not dissimilar to the character in Munch’s “The Scream”. Passing through a tollbooth that mysteriously shows up in his apartment one afternoon, Milo embarks on a quest into a different world, and discovers a reason for being, or perhaps finds that just being is reason enough. The story is filled with language play, strange characters, and philosophical observations that most adults can’t imagine children would enjoy.

Most adults.

Most adults think…

You could begin a lot of sentences with that phrase, and hardly any of them would be complimentary to people over twenty-one years of age. Somehow, adults forget how children think. Perhaps because children have no power, they have little responsibility, and adults equate consciousness and perception with responsibility, forgetting the years and years they themselves spent as children, observing and trying to make sense of things. By the time children get to nine or ten years of age, they have become philosophers of a feral sort. Children, at the mercy of their seniors, have a lot of time to muse and consider and try and understand, more than we do as adults.

Which is what The Phantom Toolbooth is about – trying to make sense of a world in which adults don’t seem to be listening or paying attention.

Most adults doubted that children would like the book. But they have. My friend Carmen Deedy says it’s easier to publish a good book than a great one, and time has proved detractors wrong. Rereading it last year, I was struck by the depth of what it had to say, and the playfulness with which it was said.

If you like the book, you can give it some support on the Facebook fan page here.

And if you’re in New York, I’ll see you there.

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With Barbara Robinson in 2011

With Barbara Robinson in 2011

It’s been a rough week. We lost Robert Greygrass, a great Native teller, and Toshi Seeger.

And Barbara Robinson. It’s her I’m thinking about this morning. She was a writer of very distinct voice for children, and I feel lucky I got to know her and spend time with her.

Barbara is best known for “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever”, which millions have either read or seen – especially as some elementary school play production.

Her writing was pithy and honest and real. And very funny. The first line in “Best Christmas Pageant” is really one of the great openings in any book –

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” 

That line would worry adults afraid of anarchy, but it has the ring of truth. And lets you know you’re in for a good story.

I think my favorite book of hers was “My Brother Louis Measures Worms.” It’s about a quirky but functional family, and its genius is in showing children trying to make sense of an adult world that doesn’t make much sense. When the parents are too busy to take him somewhere, Louis, the eight year old drives himself. Then keeps on doing it. Strange and inappropriate relatives come to visit. Reading about the Lawsons is like a visit to the house down the street that your parents weren’t sure you should visit. But you did.

When I had decided to to write books for kids, I was looking for my voice, and coming across Barbara’s books was a godsend. She wrote the way I wanted to write about things that seemed real and immediate. Like Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume and Roald Dahl (okay – he’s a little more fantastical, but…), she didn’t speak down to children, and didn’t pull punches about how confusing life could be for kids, but still wrote with tremendous heart. Maybe her Ohio upbringing (born about 100 miles from where I was) made me feel some kinship. I’ve reread her books a number of times when I want to remind myself of how I want to write.

It could be argued by some, I suppose, that Barbara’s books are at least as much about kids as they are for them. There’s an irony and sophistication in her writing that is pretty subtle, and the stories take place in a setting that would be hard to find today – just as would Cleary’s Klickitat Street. In today’s world, the books might be viewed as nostalgic, but I know Barbara wasn’t interested in nostalgia. In Robinson’s world,  the kids roamed freely through the streets, and things seemed a little gentler, but her books deal honestly with the emotional lives of children. It’s what I try to do.

I met Barbara two years ago at the Plum Creek Literacy Festival at Concordia University in Nebraska. We had a blast together and her personality and view of the world were what I had always imagined. We traded some e-mails and letters afterwards and it made me feel like I was some part of a literary tradition reaching back to Twain.

I was glad to have known her, and very sorry I won’t see her again.

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I’m back from almost a month in New Zealand – first performing and then wandering around with Debbie. We had a great time.

When we reached Wellington, we had a nice dinner with a bunch of interesting people, organized by storyteller Judith Jones and her husband Tony. Among the great people we met that night was Anna Bailey, a puppeteer.

The next morning, at the farmer’s market on the Wellington waterfront, we sat on a bench and watched Anna give one of her shows, standing in front of an electrical junction box to shield her small stage from the gusts of wind swirling around the harbor. Children, mostly under seven or eight, sat on the pavement in front of her, with adults in a wider circle. Shoppers walked through her performance area, seemingly oblivious to the drama being acted out before them of a fisherman who catches a mermaid, then goes on a dance through the sea with her. The piece was about ten minutes long – no words, with recorded music providing backdrop. The piece, as many marionette shows are, was very lyrical and dream-like. There was a distinct narrative line, but it was up to the audience’s imagination to define that line – with no language, it was not explicit but implicit. At one point, she did roam the audience with her puppet, interacting with individual audience members, but mostly, Anna’s focus was inward, trusting the audience to come into her world, and not feeling compelled to go out and capture them, . She let the work speak for itself. Those of us who have done street performing know that there’s a choice you make about how you draw an audience to your performance – Anna, as seems to fit her personality, doesn’t seek an audience, she lets it come to her. I would say there were about fifteen of us who stayed through the whole piece. She had a little hat at the edge of the velvet blanket that served as the definition of the stage –  people dropped coins in. I’d guess she made about $30 for her work.

anna bailey puppeteer

Watching the show, looking at the venue, and thinking about the economics of the whole thing, got me thinking about the vagaries of being an artist. Anna’s work (String Bean Puppets) is not a get-rich-quick scheme. She is not very commercial – and my sense is that at this point in her work, she’s not interested in being commercial.  Her work is small, not in the sense of importance, but in the scale that it works on – how many people it will reach, how much she earns, and how well known she would become doing it.

But really, most art is small. A good number of artists will, consciously or unconsciously, make sure it stays that way for them, either through eschewing commercial success, or happily shooting themselves in the foot if it gets near. (Believe me, I know…)And while some art deserves a bigger stage than it has, there is a lot of art that is about intimacy and the people in front of you at that moment Even the ones wandering by with a bag of leeks. Anna’s puppets are not large, and if the audience were more than a hundred people, something would be lost. Keeping it small is one way to insure a connection. Using a Jumbotron so that the people in the back of the stadium could see the mermaid dance would make it a vicarious experience.  I suppose that television has the paradoxical opportunity to make it intimate – it’s just one person watching something shot in close-up. But the live performance is at the heart of it, and that, it seems to me, is destined to remain small.

So why do artists do it? The short answer is because they have to. They can’t help themselves. It gives their lives meaning. This causes havoc when you depend on it for your daily bread. As Lewis Hyde points out in his great book, The Gift, artists have a hard time living in a commodity culture in which you have to determine your worth and drive a bargain. Most artists first want to do their work, and will do it even if they aren’t getting paid well.

I’m thinking these things as both of my sons, Noah and Dylan, are trying to find where music fits in their lives, and have an ambivalence about the role of the market place in their art. Well, I still wrestle with that, too. I’ve often thought that some things I do for love, and some for money, and I’m just trying to get them to be a little bit closer to each other.

But like I said, a lot of really good art is small, and it helps to know that and still see its value; it’s still worth doing.

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I gave a talk at the Grammy luncheon for children’s artists on February 9, in which I asked children’s artists to speak out for gun control. I’ve put the text of it here below. I’ve shot a video and am trying to figure out what to do with it – when I get home from running around the country, I’ll get to work. Until then, here’s some food for thought.

I have been, I am guessing, in over 2000 schools in my time performing and working with children. I have, I am guessing, seen several million children – I don’t even know how to begin to figure those numbers. When I first started performing for kids in school, seven year old girls were in love with Michael Jackson, then the New Kids on the Block, then N Sync, then Brittany, then – well whatever, I guess it’s Justin Bieber and One Direction now – my lps, then my cassettes, then my cds, now my mp3s have lived on the shelves and ipods alongside all those other folks. Their songs said – hurry and grow up – mine said – hey, you’re a kid and that’s okay.

I was singing in a school when the Challenger went down. I sang and told stories all day long in a school in North Carolina on 9/11. But I think the hardest day I’ve ever faced performing was on Monday, December 17, 2012, three days after the shooting in Newtown Connecticut. My pal, Keith Munslow was working in the school down the street from Sandy Hook that day. One of my dearest friends, Len Cabral, was scheduled to perform at Sandy Hook later this spring, and I am having conversations with folks in the Newton area about a series of school appearances later this year. And as many of you know, one of our own, children’s performer Francine Wheeler lost her six year son old Ben in the shooting. All of us who work with and for children feel a particular connection to what happened.

I want to talk about what the tragedy at Sandy Hook has made me think about, and what I wonder if we, as a community can do about it. But let me backtrack a little , or at least put this concern in the context of what our work is.

The work of artists performing for children is unique in the arts world. And I realize that I’m talking mostly to musicians here (reminding you that recordings aren’t just about music…) so I’ll couch it in those terms. Our work is different from most other genres in this sense – our work is about and for not just who the people we perform for are, but also about who they will become. While I believe you keep growing until you die, by and large, art for adult is not about becoming, it’s about being. With art directed at children and the people around them, we’re trying to balance being and becoming. As performers for children, we are also teachers. I actually believe that all musicians are better if they also teach, but that charge is especially true, and obvious, with those who work for children.

This makes our work an interesting mix. Because our work is not just about the way the world is, but about the way it will become.  I don’t believe you can work in children’s music without wanting to make the world a better place, in whatever way you define that. Now, most artists would say that’s what they want to do, too, but I think that in working with children, our work is particularly about growth, and about community. There is a social aspect to it that might be absent in the work of a virtuoso that performs in classical concert halls, or a punk band in the ratskellar of a pub, or the alto saxophonist performing tonight at the Blue Note. They may be about beauty, and passion and rage and hope in the moment. We are about all those things, but we are also about tomorrow.

Our first charge as artists who perform for children and families is to be absolutely the best artists we can be. We need to develop our skills to the utmost of our abilities and challenge ourselves to get better. All of us who work and perform for children have to face the bugaboo thrown up against us that performing for children is somehow less worthy, or somehow indicates a lesser talent. In my weaker moments, I believe this about myself. But this is a lie, and in our heart of hearts we know it.  We need to challenge ourselves in terms of form, and style and content – to seek new ways to reach our audience, bringing the gifts we have to our work. The people we perform for deserve nothing less, and we shortchange ourselves if we don’t be the best musicians we can be, in the context of our work. Our context will be different from others – we won’t be (very often) in major concert halls, and we won’t have reviews (very often) in major media outlets. But if we’re committed to our work, we can’t concern ourselves with that. We have to be as good as we can be.

Second, we have to respect our audience. And never has an audience been more maligned, patronized, or shortchanged than children and families. I am often approached by people who talk about writing books for children, or singing for children as something they are thinking about doing, with the subtext that it isn’t all that hard. But they’re wrong.  It’s hard to do well, though, and specifically, I think it is hard to get the emotional tone right – to speak to children in a way that they can hear, that they know you understand them, and in a way that they know that they are not being patronized. The truth is, being a kid can be a pretty difficult experience. Adults forget. One of the things that adults do most is forget. In my work, I often ask myself if I am respecting children and honoring their emotional lives. Many years ago, I met a great children’s bookstore owner who said that the question he asks about every book that came into his store was, “Does this honor children?” It’s a good question. As far as that goes, I would ask all of us to work towards being more descriptive and less prescriptive in our work – identifying situations that are part of being human, and affirming that that children’s experiences are valid. In doing this, I think we show a trust in their ability to find their own course in life, rather than telling them what the course should be. For I believe that people will find their own way if they have a safe place to take chances – and taking chances is how we learn.

Which brings me to our last charge, and the purpose of this talk – as adults who work and care for children, we not only have a responsibility for the content that we offer but the context in which we offer it. A safe environment for children to make mistakes and grow. Here, our work is less about what we say to children and families, but more how we can speak for them. While it may not be apparent on the face of it, the most influential ideas in my life’s work are based on non-violence, and the thought and work of Gandhi and King. One of the reasons I work with children is that I wanted to give a voice to the least. And so, while we speak and listen to children, I think that we need to, with care, speak for them, since they are too often voiceless. And we need to be careful, since every legislator and politician and adult thinks they know what children need. We must be better than that, and true to our audience.

With my audience of children and families, my content is not about the national political scene – if my work is political, it is so in an intimate, personal and immediate way. I don’t need to talk about gun violence with an eight year old – that is best left to those around the child that knows her – whom she trusts. My work with my audiences is immediate – about how we treat each other and what is fair – in the faith that a grounding in those experiences will influence who they become and how they see the world as they grow up.

But on another stage – in the adult world – I believe that people who work with children have a responsibility, too. It’s not just the songs we sing. If we don’t speak up about the world that children are growing up in, I think we’re failing as artists.

It is very hard to face the fact that we live in a violent society, but we do. Somehow, we have allowed guns and violence to become warp and woof of American culture. You’ve seen the endless statistics, and we could spend half an hour doing that. But, just as an example – in one year, guns murdered 17 people in Finland, 35 people in Australia, 39 people in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 194 in Germany, 200 in Canada, and 9,484 in the United States.  Or – since Newtown, not even two months ago,  over 1600 Americans have been killed by guns. Everywhere we turn, we see the glorification of guns – in our movies, in our literature, in our video games, in our foreign policy. Somehow, we have managed to convince ourselves that the ever-continuing arming of a population makes it safer – when in fact, it makes us less secure. If Newtown doesn’t prove that to us, then we are as blind as bats.

I say we have convinced ourselves we need guns, when of course most people in this room don’t believe that. Most of us are saying , “That’s not who we are.” But we are at a point now, especially with the slim opportunity offered to us because of the tragedy of Newton, where it is not enough for us to think this isn’t who we are – it’s time for us to say it, and say it in a way that other people will hear us. I think because of the nature of our work, it is part of who we are to speak out for the banning of semi-automatic weapons and large magazines, and demand background checks for all gun purchases. These are common-sense things, no-brainers,  but they won’t happen unless people speak out.

We are insane, and someone needs to speak out. Shall it be us?

I’m planning on shooting a short video in the next two weeks in which I’ll say some of the things I’ve said here, and will put it up on youtube. I wonder if we, as a community, can find some kind of common response to this. I know we’re all busy. And honestly, I know that we would just as soon that someone else could do this – someone who could do it better, and could better handle any fallout. I don’t really like speaking out – I don’t like people to be mad at me. There are people who like my work who will not like me saying this. People I know.  I wish someone else would do it so I didn’t have to. But then, all I have is me. All you have is you. And all we have is us.

The Monday after the Newtown shootings I was met at the door of a school by teachers and administrators who said “We’re so glad you’re here. We know you’re going to help us through this.” All of us were wounded, but we had work to do.

These are my people. I have spent a large part of my life standing in front of elementary school children like the ones who were shot, watching them listen and laugh and sing with me.  As I stood in front of those three hundred kids that Monday morning, their faces lifted up, smiling and singing, their teachers breathing sighs of relief, for at least a little while, I realized that I had a bigger job to do. I don’t want one more kid to die because we won’t do something about this pointless violence.

In that moment, standing in front of those kids – our future, and my reason for being – I promised myself I would speak out and say enough is enough – that we’re better than this.  As a musician and a storyteller and children’s author, as a person who has spent his life helping children grow up to realize their dreams, I also know it’s my job to make sure they grow up at all.

Which is why I’m speaking out for gun control. Enough is enough.

What is our job? A number of years ago, I reread Catcher in the Rye, and there I found a description of who I wanted to be, and who I think we all want to be in our work. I’ll leave you with this.

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

Can we, as a community, be a whole group of catchers in the rye? I would like to think we could, and I would like to think we could start that right now.

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Last summer I gave a keynote at the National Storytelling Conference in Cincinnati sponsored by the National Storytelling Network (NSN). For various reasons (which I’ll go into in another post), I’ve held off on making it available until now – apologies to those who asked a while ago. The wheels grind slow, but they do grind.

I know that NSN is planning on making the audio of this available, as well as other sessions at the conference. You can look at their web page (www.storynet.org/)

Because it’s a long talk, I’ve embedded it here as a pdf you can download. There are probably typos and grammatical errors in it – it’s a draft of the talk I gave and I went through it, but I have a noticeable inattention to detail on things like this. I’ve already gotten a bunch of comments from people after the speech, and there are things to quibble about in it – but I’m including it warts and all.

In the talk, I challenge all parties at the storytelling table to do a better job – our national and regional organizations as well as individuals. I do believe we are at a crossroads in how storytelling as an art form will be viewed in this culture, and we can make choices about how we want things to be. I’m particularly interested in how storytelling is viewed in the arts world, and propose that we see storytelling as a “seed art” and make an attempt at defining what that means more clearly. Were we to gain some recognition by arts organization about our value and legitimacy, I think it would really help in the development of storytelling excellence.

I’m not going to write anymore here – there’s enough in the speech. Enjoy.

Click Bill Harley Keynote NSN 2012 for pdf of speech

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Last month I was out at a dinner with a presenter. The Russian rock group Pussy Riot came up in conversation. You probably know this is the group of young women who went into a church and recorded a video of their song protesting the Putin government’s connection with the Russian Orthodox Church. You also probably know that they got sentenced to two years in jail for the escapade. You also probably know that there was an international firestorm of support for them, and that many people across the Western world had a hard time saying the words “Pussy Riot” – especially news anchormen.

I said to her, “What a great thing to write a song about – their name is so great!”

The presenter, who runs a great family series, looked at me and said, “Don’t you dare sing a song about Pussy Riot at my concert.”

I understood, but I got an idea. It got me thinking about words – what you can and can’t say. Corruption is okay, but the name of a rock group presents problems.  So I wrote this song, which I probably could sing anywhere (except in Russia). Since they’re a punk band, I plugged in the electric guitar and pushed the distort pedal. It needs a caffeinated drummer. And if ANYONE wants to make a video of it, capturing pictures from the internet of the band and the ensuing madness, let me know.

Here’s the song –

If you like the song, you can download it here: billharley.bandcamp.com/track/puddy-wiot

Here’s to Puddy Wiot. Cwazy guwls.

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I have been away. In many ways. Let’s see if I’m back. Here’s something:
I’ve been reading Liz Lerman’s really great book Hiking the Horizontal – Field Notes of a Choreographer. I’ll write more about it in another post. The book has made me think a lot about my work. Her discussion about site-specific dances (designed for a particular space) got me thinking about performance spaces.
Performers are confronted with many different kinds spaces, and many are not initially conducive to good performances. For artists who do a lot of community work, sponsoring organizations often aren’t in the business of presenting performance and only have a vague idea of what’s involved. They don’t know that the space is important. Hey – it’s big, it’s open, there are some chairs, here’s a platform! No problem!
And the truth is that the environment a performer works in has a HUGE influence on how successful the performance goes. Yet, it’s often the thing that is last considered in community performance. One mark of good performing artists is that they take care to make the space as welcoming to the audience and conducive to the performer’s work as can be.
For storytelling and solo performance, here are some things I try to keep in mind:
The performance space is my home – people are coming to my place to see me. I try to get there early and walk around and know the place. I like to do at least a fifteen minute sound check, even with a simple set up – not just to make sure the sound is all right, but to get the sense that the stage is mine.
How close is the audience? For solo performance, I want them as close as I can get them. It’s ironic that many theaters don’t put the audience where they need to be – I hate high school auditoriums with the first row twenty-five feet away. That is a physical and psychic distance that needs to be bridged and it’s not easy. (Not to mention, for family performers, the danger of kids just running around in front of you, unattended…). There’s a lot of wasted energy in those places. I often ask if there are chairs that can be brought in to bring the audience closer.
How close are audience members to each other? An audience is a living, breathing thing, and in order for it to be alive, it must be a group, not a scattered assemblage. Open seating in a large auditorium that won’t be filled presents a real problem. People sitting in the back in ones or twos while the first three rows are empty can kill a good performance. In one nightmare performance venue, the sponsors brought in inner city kids and in the first show demanded that there be a seat between each child so that “nothing bad” happened. In a fit of weakness, I allowed it. It was horrible. Death on wheels. Nothing happened. Good or bad – a completely dead show. The next show I insisted they be brought together. All were amazed at how good the show was. No one was hurt. Maybe they learned a lesson. I know I did.
Is the audience comfortable? Do they feel cared for? While a lot of this is out of control of the performer, I try to do everything possible to make sure that the physical comforts of the audience are taken into account. In a school show, I insist that chairs be brought out for the teachers (some teachers, god bless them, sit on the floor with students) – I’ll wait until they’re there, because I don’t want teachers standing for forty-five minutes. I will close off portions of a space if the sight lines are bad. I try to make sure there’s some music playing when groups walk in (not always successful) that sets some tone – I have a couple of playlists on my ipod that I feel set the tone. And under some conditions, if it seems appropriate, I’ll talk to the audience before hand in the aisles – (Sometimes not appropriate – the magic of someone appearing on stage when the lights dim is a potion, for sure).

Sometimes to shake things up I will change the rules about how people sit. In a school where the kids always sit in the gym one way, I’ll have them face another wall. “What’s this?” they say. Something different? And I do everything I can to get the blowers turned off and will pull the plug on the cooler holding the milk boxes if it’s making too much noise. White noise is very tiring to an audience. And the performer.
While school gyms don’t allow much adjustment, elsewhere, lighting matters – the focus should be on the stage. While storytellers like to see the audience, a darkening of the audience shifts the focus towards the stage – we’re so easily distracted that it helps to give people some place to naturally have their attention drawn.
What’s all this mean? Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. And don’t be afraid to make changes to a space that haven’t been made before. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a reasoned argument, it’s an excuse, and it’s worth fighting it.
I believe, in the end that performance places ought to be sacred spaces, if only for the time the show is taking place. Aside from street performers (who create sacred spaces nonetheless), we need to try to make our theaters a place where people feel lucky to be. I will never forget the feeling of walking into Clowes Hall at Butler University to see Louis Armstrong when I was ten years old. The carpet was lush, the seats were comfortable and you could bounce on them until your parents stopped them, and when the lights went down and Louis Armstrong came out and started to play “Hello Dolly” I thought I was in another world.
I would like my show to be a little (just a little) like that.

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