Barney Saltzberg Takes His kids’ Music Around the World

Author, illustrator and songwriter Barney Saltzberg appears at Theatricum Botanicum on the heels of a tour of China and Russia.

by Michael Berick

Barney Saltzberg

L.A.’s Saltzberg with his dog Arlo, the inspiration for his book Arlo Needs Glasses. PHOTO BY EMILY KNECHT

Barney Saltzberg is a quadruple threat of creativity – an author, illustrator, songwriter and performer. The native Angeleno has written nearly 40 children’s books and recorded four CDs, including Crazy Hair Day, which features guest appearances from Jackson Browne, Peter Himmelman and Dustin Hoffman. Besides making appearances across America (he’ll be performing at Theatricum Botanicum Aug. 18), he has traveled to China and Russia as part of a State Department cultural exchange program. I asked him about performing for children at home and abroad.

What type of reaction did you receive from children in China and Russia?  

The children were fantastic, open and thrilled to meet someone from the United States. I think they were surprised to find an adult who was as playful. (I find that happens sometimes in the USA as well!)

Did you find a lot of differences between children here and those overseas?

Children are children, wherever they are. The striking difference was, while speaking in China, I would turn all the letters of someone’s name into faces and ask for a volunteer to make up a story, using some of the characters I created. In 14 days, no one was comfortable volunteering for that. Everyone was fine volunteering to write their name, but to improvise and think outside of the box in this instance was so unfamiliar to them.

What do you feel is the importance of these types of cultural exchanges?

I spoke to a group of women in China who were at the University, studying to become teachers. They talked to me about taking a test at either 14 or 16, which pretty much determines their future. If they don’t do well, college is out of the question. I explained that I didn’t discover what I wanted to do until after college. This was a revelation to these women. Sharing experiences like that helps us to understand each other more. There are clearly cultural differences between countries and sending a representative to not only speak, but sing and draw and demonstrate other ways of thinking is only going to help bridge a divide. I did have a woman ask the translator to ask me if all the men in the United States were like me. She laughed and told her, “Not all of them!”

Where do you get inspiration for your books and songs?

Every book and song comes from different places. Beautiful Oops came from showing a PowerPoint, which revealed how I turned some mistakes into art. A dog stepped on a painting and I turned the paw prints into clouds. I spilled coffee on a sketchbook and turned the stain into a face. Teachers asked if I could show how I do that in a book. Beautiful Oops never would have happened without their request. Another example of where ideas come from is a book I published called Crazy Hair Day. I saw a boy come to school on the wrong day, thinking it was Crazy Hair Day. I knew I had to make a story with a happier ending than the one I witnessed. Songs usually came from raising children: titles like “I’m Not Tired, I Don’t Want To Go To Bed” and “Where, Oh, Where’s My Underwear?” to name just two.

Do you have a specific creative process?

I have been working as an author and songwriter for so long now that my invisible antenna (as I tell children) is always up, looking and listening for inspiration. We are surrounded. We just have to be open. I do make it a point to make it in to my studio every day to sit down and work. I don’t walk around, waiting for inspiration. Sometimes it just hits me, but I have to work at this. Daily.

What is the most gratifying part of performing for children?

Having the opportunity to spend time with children is wonderful. Children are open, ready and eager to play. I find that interaction inspiring.

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