It was a typical Tuesday in Ms. Herron’s first grade class at Whittier Elementary in Oak Park. Until Justin Roberts walked in.
Maybe it was his teal pants. Or the Taylor acoustic guitar he pulled out of a case. Something out of the ordinary was happening. The first graders eyed the stranger wearing quirky glasses and bold pants with intrigue, curiosity and a little suspicion.
The Chicago musician, who is 53, offered only a quick introduction and got down to the business of song.
“I’m going to say Willie,” he told the class, “and you’re going to say ‘whale,’ and you’re going to make a W, like this.” He flung his arms up in the air.
The students grinned, and a wave of crooked Ws flew up in the air. Roberts — who across 25 years and 16 albums has become one of the world’s best-known children musicians — started to sing.
The day before Roberts was set to fly to Los Angeles and attend the music industry’s biggest awards night, the five-time Grammy nominee visited Whittier at WBEZ’s invitation. We wanted to get an unfettered take from some of the toughest critics of children’s music: kids themselves.
Roberts has never won a Grammy but he is about as popular a children’s musician as it gets, with songs that are written for children but appeal to adults with their deceptive sophistication.
Still, the age of streaming has children’s musicians competing for attention with every other performer on the planet. And many of the children in Ms. Herron’s classroom had never heard Roberts’s music.
Eva, 7, and Jane, 6, were in the audience. They like Beyoncé, Lizzo and Taylor Swift.
The whale song ended in a flurry of wiggles and hand motions. Before launching into his second song, Roberts gave the class a scientific quiz.
“How many atoms are in the human body?” 72, a student guessed. More guesses: 180. 1,095.
The answer: 7 billion billion billion. “Can you imagine how big that is,” Roberts said to his now rapt audience of 17 first graders. An enthusiastic call-and-response biology song followed.
By the third song, about unicorns, the class was singing, waving their arms about and hypnotized by every note. As the music came to an end and Roberts moved to pack up his guitar, he took a few questions from his newfound fanbase.
How long have you been playing instruments?
Roberts: “I started playing piano when I was about 7; I didn’t start playing guitar until about 14.”
What inspired you to play the guitar?
“I had some friends who were in a rock band in junior high … One of them loaned me one of his guitars and started teaching me really simple chords.”
Do you know any songs about dogs?
“Yes! I have two songs about dogs. One is called ‘D-O-G,’ and it’s about wanting a dog. The other is called ‘Every Little Step,’ and the dog is talking to the human.”
Why did you pick out the songs you played today?
“I picked out songs today thinking they were very interactive.”
Speaking later, Roberts said the last question surprised him a bit in its maturity.
“The thing I learned early on is you never can know what kids are going to like and what they’re not going to like,” he said. “And they always surprise me with just their thoughts about the songs and how deeply they’re listening to them.”
His professional music career started accidentally, when he was a 20-year-old preschool teacher and a friend recorded the songs Roberts wrote for his Montessori students. He’d eventually made an album.
The Ohio native moved to Chicago for graduate school — religious studies, not whales and unicorns — but demand for children’s albums kept pulling him back to the guitar.
Sixteen albums later, he challenges himself to make each project sound distinct. The birth of a son in 2018 inspired a quieter, contemplative album. He followed that with Space Cadet, a bolder pop record with his full band, the Not Ready for Naptime Players, that nabbed his fifth Grammy nod.
Parenthood, he said, has given him fresh ideas. One of his favorite songs on Space Cadet, called “Gimme a Fire Truck,” is based on taking his son, Eli, on a walk one evening when the youngster was in a bad mood.
“A firetruck came out, and suddenly his face lit up from excitement.” Roberts recalled. “His mood was totally changed. I started thinking like, Oh, we all have these things that are little firetrucks in our lives, it’s other people or, or things that will just snap us out of our own thought process.’”
That’s the beauty of children’s music — ideas can come from everywhere and anyone, and the genre has opened unusual doors for Roberts, who also is a children’s book author and recently penned his first musical theater project. “I wasn’t thinking I was gonna be a kids musician. Like it never occurred to me. It’s been kind of a wild ride to be something that you weren’t ever thinking you would be.”
Then he picked up his guitar and went home to pack up his trusty tux for the Grammys, where he’s on a long list of nominees that also includes Beyoncé, Lizzo and Taylor Swift.
Cassie Walker Burke is WBEZ’s external editor. Follow her at @cassiechicago.