Clap along if you know what happiness is to you…
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do…
Don’t these lyrics by Pharrell Williams just make you want to get up and dance? It’s like you’re getting a little dose of sunshine through your ears!
Music and lyrics do that. They arouse emotion and reflection. They grab you from your seat and insert you right in the middle of trees of green and red roses, too. The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky are also on the faces of people going by…
As French lyricist, Alphonse De Lamartine, put it, “Music is the literature of the heart…”.
Music is literature? That’s exactly what some critics questioned when, in 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”* Think about your favorite songs and their lyrics. Why do you love them so much? Is it because you can personally connect to the stories being told? Or is it that the lyrics and music provide an outlet for emotions you would otherwise have a hard time expressing? Often, lyrics are repeated over and over with such familiarity that they become anthems for different generations. So why can’t they be literature? They can.
Just look at this collection of lyrical books. They perfectly capture De Lamartine’s characterization that “Music is the literature of the heart…” With all the same familiarity, pleasure, rhythm, and rich storytelling as music, these books can unlock your students’ love for literature. Moreover, they recount relatable themes such as growing up, feeling different, and facing adversity. Many are told from multi-cultural perspectives, giving students a chance to truly travel the world. They also showcase literary elements such as mood, tone, rhyme, imagery, setting, character, point of view and more—but in ways that are relatable and appealing. Students will be reading and developing a love for literature just by singing in the rain and seeing skies of blue and clouds of white.
Getting out of school, they’ll be hanging out and acting cool. They’ll get the beat. They’ll get the beat.
* USA Today, June 5, 2017
Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton
Coat of Many Colors features lyrics from Dolly Parton’s classic song. A mother sews her young girl a coat out of rags to keep her warm through the winter. The girl is teased by classmates for being poor, but she comes to the realization that the coat was made with love “in every stitch.” This heartfelt picture book conveys Parton’s lyrical positivity alongside inspiring and soft illustrations.
Teacher tip: This book works perfectly to teach a lesson about the harm of judging others by their appearances! Print out characters from the movie, Zootopia (or any beloved children’s movie!), and ask your students which ones look sneaky, kind, mean, smart, etc. Ask the students if they prematurely judged the characters, just as the young girl was judged for her coat in the story.
Every Little Thing by Bob Marley and Cedella Marley
Bob Marley’s eldest child, Cedella, adapted his inspiring lyrics from “Every Little Thing” to create this beautiful picture book. This story is about a boy who refuses to let life’s obstacles get in his way with some help from three special little birds. Students will read about this boy’s cheerful outlook on life and learn ways to smile through the rough parts because after all, “every little thing’s gonna be alright.”
Teacher tip: Ask students to reflect on times in their lives when they’ve experienced difficulties and how they got past them. Was it with optimism, like this little boy who perseveres? Reflect on the ways students deal with problems and the ways in which we can all improve our lives by adapting Bob Marley’s cheerful lyrics into our lifestyles.
Happy! By Pharrell Williams
Students will love reading this book of lyrics based on Pharrell William’s hit song, “Happy!” The lyrics are accompanied with multi-cultural photographs of children from around the world in a celebration of life that illustrates the vibrant movement of happiness around the globe.
Teacher tip: Discuss the lyrics with students in a way that enables them to relate them to their own lives. For example: “Uh, bring me down / Can’t nothing, bring me down / My level’s too high to bring me down”. How can these lyrics explain the importance of looking on the bright side of life? Ask your students if they’ve ever gotten past the bad times by looking at the world in a glass-half-full perspective! If the discussion gets heavy, turn on “Happy!” and crank the volume up to end the lesson with a cheerful dance session.
John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads by Christopher Canyon
John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been adapted into this picture book about family, hometown roots, and country living. A diverse family living in Appalachia travels around the hills of West Virginia in cars, trucks, and motorcycles for a family reunion at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The illustrations are knitted together in a quilt format to encapsulate the comfort of coming home to loved ones.
Teacher tip: Ask students to reflect and then relate these homecoming lyrics to their own experiences about coming home to their loved ones after being away for a while. What aspects of their grandparents’, cousins’, or parents’ homes make them feel warm upon returning?
Get Up, Stand Up by Bob Marley and Cedella Marley
In this picture book, Bob Marley’s song, “Get Up, Stand Up” has been adapted into a story of a young girl who learns to overcome teasing from classmates in a loving way. With help from friends and just a little love, the girl is able to make things better for herself and others!
Teacher tip: Have your students recall times that they’ve stood up for themselves or others, or create scenarios for them to come up with ideas about how they would use kind methods to defend themselves or others from bullying.
Singing in the Rain by Tim Hopgood
The classic Broadway song, “Singing in the Rain”, has been adapted into a joyful mentor text! With characters who jump in puddles, raise their umbrellas, and dance in the rain, this feel-good story makes for a perfect springtime read.
Teacher tip: Ask your students to reflect on the ways they can use their imaginations to turn dreary, rainy days into fun adventures.
It’s a Small World by Golden Brooks
Readers will travel from the Eiffel Tower to the Taj Mahal and the Egyptian Pyramids to the lyrics of “It’s a Small World” in this mentor text. Based on the popular Disney attraction, students can visit foreign lands and learn how to say “hello” in different languages in this fun and culturally rich picture book.
Teacher tip: Incorporate stories about travel and different cultural traditions to help students find the differences and similarities between life in the United States and life abroad! Discussions about culture can inspire young students to explore the diverse, yet small, world around them.
Forever Young by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s iconic song, “Forever Young” has been interpreted and illustrated by Paul Rogers in this tribute to an anthem about hope and happiness. Written as a lullaby for his eldest son, Dylan’s lyrics provide strength and joy to readers of all ages.
Teacher tip: Have students reflect on what Dylan may mean in wishing his son to stay forever young. What qualities of youth (boldness, creativity, and adventure) do your students wish to hold onto as they grow older?
You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis
This classic, heartfelt song is beautifully illustrated in this loving picture book for young readers. Students who remember their parents singing this to them as children will surely enjoy this read and may even sing along with it!
Teacher tip: Discuss rhyme scheme. Have students make a list of all the things that make them happy.
One Love by Cedella Marley
Lyrics from Bob Marley’s timeless hit, “One Love” are used alongside the story of a young girl’s decision to help make a positive change in her neighborhood. The positivity of the song paired with the girl’s inspirational storyline creates a warm and modern take on Marley’s classic song about unity.
Teacher tip: Ask your students to brainstorm ideas to help out the community, such as picking up trash around the parks or volunteering with their parents.
What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele and George Davis Weiss
Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” has emanated positivity since it was first recorded in 1967. Armstrong’s lyrics of hope and love have been paired with bright art featuring rainbows, underwater settings, and other beautiful illustrations that depict how wonderful our world really is.
Teacher tip: Ask students to explain their interpretations of Armstrong’s lyrics. Ex: How are the trees blooming for me and you?
Respect by Otis Redding
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” This famous song was written by Otis Redding but popularized by Aretha Franklin in her own rendition! Mutual respect is explored through the eyes of a young girl in this powerful picture book. This young girl and her family imagine a life of possibilities that will enrich and motivate students as they read and sing along!
Teacher tip: Have a group discussion on being respectful. Ask your students how they practice respect in their daily lives and ask them if it’s always easy. This type of discussion will allow students to think about how they have a choice to be respectful or not, teaching them about the easily forgotten importance of treating others as they wish to be treated.
African by Peter Tosh
Released in 1977, Peter Tosh’s “African” is a song that celebrates children of African descent. Luscious illustrations paint a picture of the lyrics’ messages of unity and diversity to draw readers in.
Teacher tip: Africa is a diverse continent, with many surprising cultural aspects within it! Discuss with your students the similarities and differences between the U.S. and Africa as described by the lyrics and illustrations within the book for a lesson on culture.
We Got the Beat by Charlotte Caffey
Based on the classic toe-tapping song “We Got the Beat”, this picture book uses the Go-Go’s empowering lyrics to inspire readers to live life by bouncing along with the beat! This book shows that dancing through life entails enjoying nature, friends, and the fun adventures around you.
Teacher tip: Play the song for your students and ask them how the illustrations and lyrics work to create a playful rhythm of living life.
We’re Not Gonna Take It by Dee Snider
This signature rock song helps tell a comical story about three defiant toddlers who aren’t gonna take it from anyone, not even their parents. On a mission to go against their parents during lunchtime, bath time, and bedtime, the unruly tots are paired with the popular anti-establishment lyrics of the Twisted Sisters.
Teacher tip: Discuss the meaning of the song and how students should stand up for themselves. This one is also good for rhyme scheme.
Footloose by Kenny Loggins
Cut loose with your students in this lyrical journey of a zookeeper who joins the animals in a dance party that lasts all night long! An elephant DJ, a rockin’ chimp, and other music-crazy animals shake, rattle, and roll to get readers moving!
Teacher tip: Discuss rhyme within a line. Have students reflect on what things they like to do to let loose!
Imagine by John Lennon
Follow a pigeon on her journey across the world to spread a message of love and tolerance to the lyrics of John Lennon’s iconic song of peace, “Imagine”. Readers will travel the world alongside the flying bird, imagining a world at peace.
Teacher tip: Have your students “imagine” their own ways to inspire world peace! Make it an interactive activity by drawing the word imagine on a big white board, and then having students come up and jot down their ideas. Discuss the different ideas with the class, as well as how we can all work to make those ideas a reality!
All I Want for Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey
The lyrics of Mariah Carey’s bestselling Christmas anthem, “All I Want for Christmas Is You”, is paired with exciting yuletide illustrations. All this young girl wants for Christmas is a new puppy!
Teacher tip: Have students make out a Christmas list.
Don’t Stop by Christine McVie
A rabbit calls her hibernating friends out of their long hibernations to join her in enjoying the glorious spring! The lyrics of Fleetwood Mac’s, “Don’t Stop” illustrate the anthem’s enduring themes of patience and optimism.
Teacher tip: Find the repetition and how it makes the song catchy and have more meaning. Discuss having a positive mindset.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game by Laura Blanken Merer
This classic is perfect for a classroom of sports lovers! These lyrics and illustrations are fun and perfect for inspiring a loud sing-along with your students.
Teacher tip: Find the rhyme scheme and repetition. Discuss sports and dreams.
May this collection of lyrical books become ‘music to your students’ ears’. See more tips and resources below. Look also for future blogs on using lyrics in the classroom!
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