Such a short time ago, I just didn't know how exciting thoughts could be
Now I see for myself what I could not see when I was thinking just of me
All the things I have seen buzzing round in my being, trying to make a melody
I want to know why, I want to know how, call it curiosity
My ideas dance around, jumping up sliding down, I just have to make a sound
I finally got something to say
--from the theme song for "Songs Jumping In My Mouth"
It's so easy to do a cute kids' show," said Pamela Brooke, producer of "Songs Jumping In My Mouth," a locally produced series of 13 family oriented radio programs that combines the talents and imaginations of hundreds of area children. "It's very, very easy because kids are so cute."
But Brooke and her staff have carefully avoided turning out just another cute show for children. "Songs" is a zippy, stimulating collage of cultural traditions, family lore, storytelling, music and poetry.
"A lot of the things adults see as cute to a kid are not cute," Brooke said. "To a kid, it's reaching out for the real world, and that's the kind of distinction I've tried to make."
Eight-year-old Shubha Dhage, from Forest Edge School in Reston, is one of more than 600 children whose voices and thoughts are heard on the programs. Dhage was "discovered" after her art teacher submitted one of her drawings to associate producer Michelle Ward.
"In the fifth show, I just say, 'I like chocolate and I'd like to know who discovered it,' " Dhage said. "I learned some things, too, like the biggest, littlest word--'why?' I ask my parents 'why' a lot."
Another young local find was Kelly Smith, a serious, articulate 13-year-old from Hardy Elementary School in Northwest Washington, who narrated the programs with Arena Stage actress Yeardly Smith (no relation). Kelly Smith has performed in several shows at Howard University's Playmaker's Repertory, under the direction of Vincent Stovall, including "Words on Fire," a tribute to Washington poet Langston Hughes.
"When I was in third grade I used to talk a lot in class, so I was in trouble most of the time. My teacher recommended an oratorical contest," Smith said of his start in show business. "I got second and third place, and then when I came back to school, she told me that I should go into Howard's children's theater."
Since then, Smith has appeared on WDCA-TV's (Channel 20) "Kids Break" and "Black Reflections" and was a regular on NBC-TV's Saturday morning "Sunshine Store."
"A couple of days ago, my mother asked me, 'How would you feel about writing your own play?' " Smith said. "I would like to do it, but I'm not sure yet what I would write about."
Smith's narration provides a framework for the varied voices of the local children, who comment on subjects ranging from the time-honored "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" to "Whom do you resemble in your family?"
I look like my daddy because he has brown hair, brown eyes and sort of the same teeth . . . I look like father because he used to have red hair and I have red hair, and I look like my mother because we both have freckles . . . I think I look like my mother because I have my mother's eyes, and I think I look like my father because I have my father's fingernails . . . My grandfather looks so much like me, and he took a picture together and he has almost the same face . . . I look like my dad, my brother and my grandfather because they all have this little grin on their nose . . .
"Songs" is the brainchild of Brooke, a 10-year veteran of children's radio programming in Washington. Brooke worked in the District Schools Radio Project and won a Peabody Award and seven Ohio State Awards for her innovative programs involving recordings of Washington children.
Before beginning this project, she spent a year in Africa working with Kenyan children, which sparked some inspiration for "Songs." The whimsical title for this series was born in 1968 when Brooke met an 8-year-old boy who told her music "tasted like songs jumping in his mouth."
Although the programs are directed primarily at 6 to 10 year olds, they have been designed to involve the entire family by stimulating questions about family history, expressions and experiences. They contain a lively mixture of children's thoughts and fantasies on everything from names to inventions to frog stories to birthdays and family keepsakes.
A trio of imaginative animal characters, "Hootenanny Granny" (a banjo-playing, storytelling owl), "Fe-Fy Fly" (a tape-recording spy) and "Ndovu" (a musical elephant), guides and inspires questions and creative answers. Local singer-songwriters Michelle Valeri and Barry Louis Polisar contribute songs and music.
After obtaining major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, B. Dalton Bookseller and National Public Radio's Satellite Development Fund, Brooke and her team conducted script development workshops beginning in October 1981, visiting hundreds of area schools and community centers.
"Nine hundred forty seven, to be exact," laughed Ward, who did a lot of the field work, selecting the children who would be heard on the show. "I went through the Yellow Pages. We worked through embassies, interschool adoption programs, we got involved in every single thing in the city that could lead us to children. There were times I said, 'Don't necessarily give me your A students, give me your most outspoken ones.'
"We also brought kids to the studio to read their poems in the shows," said Ward, who sent out creative writing packages to area classrooms. In her visits to the schools, with her tape recorder tucked into her "Mary Poppins bag," Ward conducted more than 650 interviews with children. They resulted in 35 hours of tapes and many wise, often startling observations by local kids about the world around them.
"I'd just say from my experiences in the schools that most of these kids are just bursting--they want to talk--and it's a welcome change from the small talk of adults," Ward said. "They're at the beginning of those processes of creativity and discovery, and they see it all."
My mom and dad taught me how to wash the dishes . . . My mom taught me how to walk . . . My dad taught me how to ride my bike, and mom taught me how to comb my hair . . . Grandmother taught me how to make a Polish cookie called chrus'ciki . . . My uncle taught me how to play basketball and football and stuff like all the other guys . . . My mom's mother taught her manners and she taught me manners . . . My grandmother taught my mother things, like little secrets in cooking, so now she could know them and she would pass them on to her children and her children would pass them on . . . My mom taught me to try not to be scared of things . . .
"Songs" airs at 4 p.m. Thursdays on WETA-FM, and it is scheduled for national distribution in October. Brooke and her associates have created classroom study guides, writing and drawing contests and other participatory materials to accompany the program. Meantime, she is still polishing the final few programs in the series and again looking around for funding, this time for a continuation of "Songs."
"When people listen to the radio, they know they're not going to see anything, but they really tune in their ears to hear what's going on," Kelly Smith said.
"It's just like when you're doing a show when you're using your eyes to make people watch you. But with radio, you're using your mouth and how you say what you're trying to get across to the people really reaches out and grabs them and makes them listen to what you're saying."