Matt's Random Thoughts

A special first look at a special festival amplifying Black Women in Family Music!

(PHOTO : WEE Nation Radio/Family Music Forward)

On Saturday, April 10th, Kukuza Fest is returning! This year, it's all about Black Women in Family Music! Join me as I have a virtual round table with two of the event's featured artists, Ms. Niki's Music Class and Kymberly Stewart and the event host Joy Marille about problems faced by female BIPOC artists, how their music motivates and inspires, and what you can expect from the virtual celebration of diversity in kids and family music.

Kukuza Fest is brought to you by Family Music Forward, an organization that aims to promote diverse voices and is committed to ensure that families of all kinds are musically represented. They have been leading very productive efforts, especially in the wake of recent events such as the Grammy controversy and the spate of attacks against Asian-Americans. I am a proud volunteer for this wonderful organization, and you can learn more on how to support them here.

Enjoy the show and happy everything!

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Today, we lost one of kid lit's many luminaries who had a sense of reality that many people can identify with.

Beverly Cleary, creator of the Ramona and Henry Higgins series has died at the ripe old age of 104 on March 26th US time.

(Photo: Oregon Public Broadcasting)

As we pull up on the end of International Women's Month (or Women's History Month for our American readers), we have lost one of the many powerful and influential female writers whose stories have inspired countless authors and whose characters were loved by generations of readers around the world. I'm talking about the legendary Beverly Cleary.

I was very shocked to see her go, as I had loved her books about Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and many others. I was one of the many kids who were moved by her works as they were quite different from other books I had read before.

It was at school during a so-called "book drop" event when someone left in a book entitled "Ramona Quimby, Age 8" and I had ran into the name "Beverly Cleary" before, when one of her books was featured in my textbook materials. Then I realized that this is probably one of the most recognizable names in children's literature.

Then I soon realized that her writing style has become what makes her a household name in that field.

She was born in McMinnville, Oregon, USA, in 1916. In this piece for the LA Times, Cleary had a very wild imagination. She had read many of the literary classics of her day and was inspired to write a short piece for a school assignment. All these adventures in her world had inspired her to become a librarian. Her family began to struggle financially as a result of the Great Depression, so her library stint was her only way of making ends meet. This struggle would later be reflected in in her writing.

She would go on to spend most of World War II working in the library and would constantly get this question from kids who frequent the library: "Where are the books about us?" That because kidlit at that time was too inundated with fantasy or westerns.

LEFT: One of the many characters Cleary created was the ever-beloved Ramona Quimby, who would become the star of eight books and a feature film starring Selena Gomez

(PHOTO: HarperCollins Publishers)

To solve the problem of lacking real-life stories, she started creating her own universe of characters living in an ordinary suburb, and that suburb was also inspired by Cleary's childhood, all of them living experiences that real kids experience day-to-day, all that to help kids start their way to love reading, and to appeal to readers who have grown tired of the same old fiction.

That universe was Klickitat Street, and the inhabitants there include Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby. They both belong to two ordinary families and live in a plain, vanilla suburb. But underneath the mundane setting lie stories that have resonated for years to come.

RIGHT: Of all of Cleary's characters, Ramona Quimby is the most popular of them, spawning eight books and even a feature film

(PHOTO: HarperCollins Publishers)

What I liked about the Ramona series was that it reflected reality in a way that I had never read before. Her experiences are real but also funny.

The Ramona series reflects upon her growing-up years and all the best (and worst) life experiences as she grew up. From having a bad hair day when her class was to be photographed to following the hardboiled egg fad in her school only to realize her egg was raw and all these other shakeups in her life including losing her pet cat, fights with older sibling Beezus, having a younger baby sister, and when the family struggled as her father was unemployed, she dreamed of being in a commercial and making and keeping a new friend.

You see, the mishaps and struggles experienced in Ramona's life seem to reflect our own struggles and failures as well as how we deal with them and how we never seem to forget them. The family ties in every book are very heartfelt and they feel like your family.

A scene from the feature film "Ramona and Beezus" starring Selena Gomez.

(PHOTO: 20th Century Fox/Walden Media)

These themes have helped Cleary make a name for herself, allowing Ramona to star in several books over a span of four decades and even spawning a feature film in 2010, titled Ramona and Beezus, starring Selena Gomez in her Disney Channel heyday. It very much condensed the books into one single storyline which perfectly reflects the spirit of the books and Cleary's heart of realism.

To be honest, I admire Cleary and how down-to-earth her writing seems to be. No hero vs. villain battles, no alternate universes, no magical, whimsical features. Just a very pure slice of life with a touch of love and some family bonds.

This goes to prove that even just the simplest stories of life, unfiltered can be very resonant, stand the test of time, and can really help kids learn to read as they can identify with the characters and their shortcomings. We've all had an eraser thief or a cat we lost or a bad picture day at some point in our lives.

And not to mention, Cleary's endearing real-life descriptions would go on to inspire generations of writers to do the same kind of realistic stories. Judy Blume had the same kind of writing in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing about ordinary kid Peter and his mishaps and family events and the iconic Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret about a girl questioning growing up, family, and religious matters. Jeff Kinney would also do the same, making comical tales of Greg Heffley in the Wimpy Kid series and Raina Telgemier putting in real-life tales in comic form with the Smile series. All of them may not exist if it weren't for Ramona Quimby and Beverly Cleary.

She may be gone, but her books and influence on modern kidlit will never be forgotten and will always have a place in my heart.

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Two fresh new songs from two awesome artists!

This last month or so, there have been two fresh new releases in the children's music space and they have seemed to stand out from the rest of the others in terms of themes and artstry.

One reflects on the fun of the super-cold winter times and another is about how important it is to build communities and celebrating what makes you unique. Both come from Filipino-American kindie artists, Little Miss Ann and Mista Cookie Jar.

After having a very prolific 2020, these two artists are rockin' into '21 with some fresh new tracks for February.

Bright Winter Day

(Little Miss Ann feat. Frances England)

LEFT: Little Miss Ann along with her other kindie friends, Marsha of Marsha and the Positrons and Wendy of Wendy and DB.

RIGHT: Frances England has made uplifting and soulful kindie music and her "Explorer of the World" album garnered her a Grammy nomination in 2017.

Photo courtesy of Facebook page of artist mentioned above.

Little Miss Ann had a wonderful new song last Christmas called "Stars on the Island" and has won me over with its portrayal of Filipino holiday traditions and giving representation for Filipinos in the kindie field.

Now though, it seems as if she's at it again, and she called upon fellow artist and Grammy nominee Frances England to make a song about the joys and fun of winter. It is for Ann's future album coming later this spring.

In this song, Ann and Frances perfectly describe the wonders of being encapsulated at home during the very cold winter months. It shows that there are many possibilities that await when you're stuck and confined to your home and all the company with family that can await you when you spend more time inside.

As a line in the song goes: "I'm so happy to have you here", and in this case, I'm so happy that Little Miss Ann has made another cool and wonderful song that is imaginative and uplifiting.

Black Sheep Club

(Mista Cookie Jar)

After a series of big exciting hits in 2020, Mista Cookie Jar brings that energy into 2021 with his new track "Black Sheep Club"

Photo courtesy of Facebook page of artist mentioned above.

Filipino-American kids hip-hop act Mista Cookie Jar has has a very awesome 2020 behind him, that as he had a string of singles, among them namely "Kindness is the Way" and "Just Another Finger". Both songs are groovy, fun, and inspiring. Not to mention, he put together all his great works in the past two years in a powerful album, "Don't Gotta Be Cool" including other fun songs including two cool collabs, "Halo-Halo" feat. Little Miss Ann and "Rock This World" feat. Secret Agent 23 Skidoo.

This time, he had another great song, "Black Sheep Club", which I heard for the very first time on the Twinkle Time Top 20 Countdown on JUMP 105.3 Pittsburgh. (It's a fun show, btw and it's filled with acts from around the world. You can listen on-demand on her Soundcloud.)

The themes here in this song are quite resonant, especially with things like Black Lives Matter and the discrimination against Black and Brown voices. It tackles being able to stand out and celebrate the things that make you unique and special, and the importance of community support, as this song is about a black sheep that was rejected by all the other sheep, but had to start a community of his own to uplift his fellow black sheep. That too seems to be a great homage to how the children's music community have also done the same to provide venues and mediums for BIPOC voices to be heard.

Mista Cookie Jar is quite genius when it comes to his songwriting and musical styles, and his genius shows off once again, with cool grooves, funky vibes, and a joke or two. I laughed when he put in a reference to popular K-pop girl group BlackPink by saying "Black sheep in your area!" That sure had me LOL-ing when I heard it!

This is such an inspiring and get-happy tune. I'm sure you'll enjoy and it will leave you thinking.

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