Listening to the Music of Children’s Literature

In her former life as a primary school teacher, Anna Purkiss used to teach children how to read and appreciate books (amongst many other activities!) and she is now enjoying these pursuits herself by studying for the MPhil in Children’s Literature.


‘[I]magine that the lovely moon is playing just for you – everything makes music if you really want it to.’ So says the wise cricket to Gerald in Giraffe’s Can’t Dance (1999) by Giles Andreae, and indeed this thought has many echoes throughout children’s literature.  It can be seen from the rhythm of poetry and (some) picturebooks to the increasing popularity of digital books, apps and videogames that have an integral and vital musical element, not to forget films and animations as well as the many instances of musical characters and song in children’s fiction.

Music has always been an important part of my life; from learning to play the ocarina, recorder and clarinet as a child and performing in various orchestras and concert bands in my teenage years to studying Education Studies with Music for my undergraduate degree and conducting choirs in schools and communities.  It is only natural, then, that whenever I read a children’s book, any mentions of music immediately jump out at me.  Some of my favourite examples of music in children’s literature are:

Little House in the Big Woods (1932) by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Pa…took down his fiddle.  He began to play and sing.


‘Yankee Doodle went to town,
He wore his striped trousies,
He swore he couldn’t see the town,
There was so many houses.’…

Pa was keeping time with his foot, and Laura clapped her hands to the music when he sang. (p.26)

Throughout the Ingalls’ family’s journey across the American Midwest, chronicled over nine books, Pa’s fiddle playing and singing remain a constant.  From cosy nights by the fire in their tiny cabin to lively family celebrations with dancing, this adds a musical dimension that enriches Laura and Mary’s lives.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) by Road Dahl

Augustus Gloop!  Augustus Gloop!0301f422a5044f813807c07e58aa6d28
The great big greedy nincompoop!
How long could we allow this beast
To gorge and guzzle, feed and feast
On everything he wanted to?
Great Scott!  It simply wouldn’t do! (p.104)

The Oompa-Loompas’ songs that punctuate Charlie’s adventure satirically comment on the dangers of misguided parenting.  Dahl’s opinions on overeating, television, being spoilt and chasing after fame are clearly to be seen in these songs that are sung after each of the children apart from Charlie meet their fate.  These musical interludes have provided opportunities for fresh interpretation in both films (1971 and 2005) as well as the recent musical.

Enchanted (2007) by Walt Disney Pictures

Well does he leave a little note to tell you you are on his mind?
Send you yellow flowers when the sky is grey? Hey!
He’ll find a new way to show you, a little bit everyday.

That’s how you know, that’s how you know,
He’s your love.

While this film starts by following traditional Disney themes and tropes, enchanted-disney-reference-belle-runningit quickly subverts these by changing from animation to live action.  In this new environment, Giselle’s tendency to burst into song, which was to be expected in the animation, seems very out of place but leads to some of the most memorable moments of the film.  I particularly enjoyed ‘That’s How You Know’, which starts with Giselle singing on her own but soon turns into a fully-fledged musical number with hundreds of characters, who all seem to miraculously know the song!  Also, Giselle’s musical call to the animals brings bluebirds, squirrels and rabbits to her woodland home in the animated section but in live action New York instead results in pigeons, rats and cockroaches, which highlights the difference between Giselle’s two realities and provides humour.

The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010) by Suzanne Collins

Are you, are you
Coming to the tree
Where they strung up a man they say murdered three.
Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be
If we met up at midnight in the hanging tree (p.144)

Music is involved at several key points in this dystopian YA series.  In The Hun123012_1706_centivesin213ger Games (2008), Rue’s song, a haunting sequence of four notes, begins as a method of communication between Rue and Katniss in the arena and ends up as a signal for and symbol of the rebellion, together with the mockingjays who transmitted the call between the two girls.  Later in the book, Katniss sings ‘Deep in the Meadow’ when Rue is dying, giving us an insight into her childhood and paving the way for her role in the rebellion.  In Mockingjay (2010), Katniss sings another song her father taught her, ‘The Hanging Tree’, which is now forbidden, helping to further the cause of the rebellion through its use in the propos and also showcasing the musical abilities of both the mockingjays and Katniss, for whom they fall silent.

Of course, this is not a definitive guide, merely my own personal favourites, and there are many more examples I could have mentioned.  Keep your eyes (and ears) out, and see if you can spot any music in the next piece of children’s literature you read.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s