Isabel Skau sat down with Ana Gerhard to discuss her musical picture book Little Creatures: An Introduction to Classical Music, how her real-life experiences with children and music help shape her literature, and her progress on a future publication titled Little Tales.
Little Creatures was first published in Spanish as Bichos – Introducción a la música de concierto in 2018 and translated to English by Les Services d’édition Guy Connolly. The book uses illustrations by Mauricio Gómez Morin and descriptions of how bugs and animals have inspired classical music as a creative way to introduce children to classical music history. The book also includes a CD with all the musical excerpts mentioned in text. Before creating Little Creatures, Ana Gerhard studied as a concert pianist at the Mexican National Conservatory. She has also created three other books introducing children to classical music, including Listen to the Birds, Simply Fantastic, and Amazing Water.
Isabel Skau: Since you are passionate about getting children interested in classical music, what do you think is the top reason that a child starts to like classical music?
Ana Gerhard: I think that if children start listening to it while they are small, and if it’s something they do in an agreeable environment — like with an older brother or sister, aunt, mother, father, grandfather — then it’s easier. When they can share the experience with someone they love, it will be a very agreeable atmosphere, so listening to classical music will become something that they will like always. And if the parents can do it as a [routine], to put on some classical music before they’re going to bed, or in the morning while they are getting dressed to go to school — if they are used to listening to [classical music], it will be very natural for them to [like] classical music.
IS: This book, Little Creatures, features 20 excerpts from recordings by excellent orchestras. I’m wondering how you went about finding excerpts that you wanted to include.
AG: Well, I’ve been listening to classic music for a very long time, since I was studying in the conservatory, so I already knew the music that had “little creatures” in the music. And now, with the Internet and YouTube, it’s easier to find the music. The difficult part was not just choosing [pieces], because [since] you cannot expect that children will listen for 30 minutes of music, you have to choose from the piece the two minutes that are most representative of the bug or the insect… That’s why I had to listen with a lot of patience and attention, to choose exactly the minute or two minutes that are more representative of the bug. Also, to choose these 20 excerpts, what I always do is try to find a variety of instruments and a variety of different periods in music: some are baroque, some are classic, some are romantic… and also try to include a concerto but also an opera, a ballet, a symphonic piece, to show all the variety and richness of the world of classical music.
IS: You started piano lessons at age six. What led you to choose piano as your instrument?
AG: I had a grandfather who played the piano very well, and I very much liked listening to him play. So, I started playing the piano, like all my sisters and cousins, and gradually they stopped, and I continued. Then, at some point I realized that the piano was what I enjoyed the most… When I finished school, I decided to go to conservatory to study piano as a career. I really do [love piano].
IS: Do you have any advice that you would give young musicians who are also studying piano?
AG: They need to be very, very patient. [Studying piano] is really worth the while. It can sometimes be a little difficult, but it’s good to have patience and stick to it.
IS: How have your experiences as a music educator shaped you as a children’s author?
AG: I always liked children very much, and when I had my own children, I wanted to do something for them to be familiar with classical music. I started by doing puppet shows with classical music, and then I introduced them to a podcast about classical music for children. After that, I started realizing that there were some scenes in [life and literature] that were very easy for children [to understand], and that many composers had been inspired by — the birds, or the ghosts, the witches and the fairies, so I started making lists of all the music that was written about birds, for instance, or insects. That was when I had the idea for writing the [Introduction to Classical Music] books.
IS: You’ve written four musical picture books, they really help facilitate that kind of social experience, because the adult has a CD they can put on and listen to with their child before or after reading part of the book aloud.
AG: Exactly. That’s what I think, and that’s the ideal way, [compared to] if the parents buy the book and give it to their children [to read alone] … I think it’s always good to have it, but I think that it’s better if parents sit with their children and read it a little with them. And the thing that’s good about this book is that they don’t have to start from page 1 to page 30 [in one sitting]. They can pick an image that they like, so one day they can read the information about the Wasp or the Tadpole and just read that and listen to that music… and another day they can take another one and… that’s the idea.
IS: You’ve said that the most effective strategy to interest kids to classical music is to have them read about or listen to music in the company of loved ones, which will lead them to naturally like it. What do you hope kids will be inspired to do after they read your book with a loved one?
AG: I hope that they will want to listen more, and know more classical music… The excerpts that come in the CD are very short, because children have a brief attention span, but I hope that they will feel curious to know more music… and I would love to think that they would want to play an instrument — that these books can inspire them to go into the world of classical music playing an instrument. Not to become a musician, but [when you play] an instrument it accompanies you all your life and brings a lot of benefits. That’s what I would love to see.
IS: The images in the book are beautiful. Do you have a favorite illustration?
AG: Oh, yes, I like the Cricket… well, I think I love them all. I like very much the frogs that are playing violin and wearing wigs, and I love the crickets on the bicycles, and the grasshopper who’s playing the piano, and the fleas, their clothing is really nice… I’m very happy about the illustrations. The Sensemayá, the Mexican snake, is very nice also. I don’t know if you know the other books from this series — [but I think] maybe the colors are darker here. But the world of little creatures is a bit [darker-colored], like this. I think it’s nice; it stands apart from the others.
IS: I really liked the Listening Guide, because you have the overall descriptions in the main part of the book, and then the Listening Guide goes into deeper description of the actual music and how sounds represent different characters.
AG: Exactly; I think [the Listening Guide] is the most important part of the book, because you can tell the child "listen, you’re going to hear a tadpole...” And then when you have the attention of the child, you can [introduce them to the] rhythm, the melody, or the instrument, so that’s how you get children to really listen and to distinguish all the sounds… Normally, parents don’t really know the musical definitions because they haven’t really studied music, so I think it’s important that they can explain these words. That’s why we have included the glossary in the back of the book. We also included the timeline of composers so the parents or grown children reading the book with the younger kids [can] place a composer in history and in the different periods, classical or romantic or renaissance… so [kids] can recognize some of that. I think the book can be approached differently [based on age] because the little children, what interests them is the bug and the music and the drawing, but then children who are older can go deeper if they want to know more.
IS: Is there anything else you would like to share with readers of Little Creatures: An Introduction to Classical Music?
AG: I very much enjoyed writing this book. And I really hope they will enjoy experiencing it… and that’s all!