When we were kids, it was Schoolhouse Rock. As soon as a favorite cartoon came to a close, we'd rock out to Conjunction Junction (What's your function?) or cheer for that lonely old bill sitting there on Capitol Hill.
Today it's Monkey Monkey Music with Meredith LeVande. But you probably already know that from flipping on PBS when your little one watches Curious George or Sesame Street. Snippets of LeVande's music videos for the preschooler set are broadcast multiple times every day, airing on breaks during kids-show blocks on more than 100 public television stations in more than 70 markets. The tunes are catchy, upbeat and smart. The performer, LeVande, is fun and spunky with a head full of dark springy curls, an acoustic guitar strapped across her body and a spring in her step.
"These are the most magical years of life," LeVande says of her audience's age, "when kids respond to music, ask questions and say things like 'bring me upside down!' It's such a small period of life, and we should be trying to elongate and celebrate it."
Her music certainly helps achieve that. And her peppy, original songs are even more enchanting as videos that feature smiley preschoolers dancing with LeVande in front of colorful backdrops. Her first DVD, Monkey Monkey Music: The Videos with Meredith LeVande, won a NAPPA Honors Award and was endorsed by KIDS FIRST!, a program of the Coalition for Quality Children's Media.
Path to Success
LeVande, who hails from Fair Lawn, has national appeal now thanks to PBS. But she started off on a smaller, local scale with a different audience: adults.
"Early in my first year of law school," she says, "I realized I wanted to sing and make music, so I started taking private guitar lessons and writing my own songs."
For a few years she performed at colleges (while moonlighting as a university guest lecturer on the topic of women and music), but she realized it wasn't quite hitting the mark.
"My music for adults was kind of sad and depressing, and I didn't like it anymore," she says. But one day, as luck would have it, she was asked to perform for kids. "Their response was so different. They were just so into it and they loved it."
At that point it all clicked: Her music was meant for kids. So she dropped the university circuit and devoted her time to reaching her perfect audience.
"I started learning all the kids' songs," she says. "Then I tried doing weird things like going to the park and playing music for kids with my guitar. And they loved it!"
Before LeVande knew it, she was back in school getting a master's degree in music, performing at children's parties and making her first music video. As she hit her stride, she approached her local PBS station about picking up her music and videos. What she didn't realize was that she was trying to break intothe largest television market in the country.
"It didn't occur to me that I was shooting for the moon," she says. "I just thought it was my local TV station."
It didn't exactly happen in a flash. KCET, a Los Angeles station, was the first to pick up her videos, with more stations following slowly. Eventually her hometown station, New Jersey-based NJTV (which is owned and operated by the nation's largest PBS station), chose her videos to launch its kids programming block in July 2011. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now Monkey Monkey Music airs on more than 100 PBS stations across the country.
"It feels very real and right," LeVande says. "It's my biggest accomplishment, and I'm really proud of it."
The fact is that LeVande's childhood was anything but idyllic. Although she was raised in a nice neighborhood in Fair Lawn and attended its supportive public school system, her childhood years were fraught with problems stemming from her mother's severe mental illness.
"It was very frightening as a child," LeVande says. "She would have really bad breakdowns and would often run away. She was in and out of hospitals, and I was always waiting for the shoe to drop. And it always dropped."
When the mental illness worsened, LeVande's mother was hospitalized permanently. So LeVande was then raised by her elderly, immigrant grandmother, who died when she was 15 years old. Eventually, LeVande picked herself up, dusted herself off and made her way toward the future that awaited her.
In many ways, Monkey Monkey Music is LeVande's way of experiencing the innocence and wonder of a childhood she never had. And by performing her upbeat, optimistic, full-of-wonder music and videos on public television for children across the country, it's a powerful way to share her childhood ideals. "Every child deserves a childhood" is her motto, and it's a message sung loud and clear through her music.
LeVande's life has changed dramatically since her tumultuous Fair Lawn childhood. She lives happily with her husband, Craig, and their beta fish in Manhattan's Lower East Side, and she has turned into a national children's sensation. But New Jersey still sees plenty of her.
"My closest friends, who are like my family, are people I grew up with from Bergen County," she says. "I spend my holidays, including Thanksgiving, at my friends' houses."
Plus she still performs at local Bergen County venues, including the Paramus Public Library (where you can see her on Dec. 27), and regularly hits her home state to visit her mother, who resides at Bergen Regional Medical Center.
Almost always, as she leaves the big city with her husband, she gets a big smile on her face knowing that soon she'll cross over the George Washington Bridge, go west on Route 4 and cruise over to her favorite place to grab a bite to eat in the entire tristate area – none other than the Cheesecake Factory at The Shops at Riverside in Hackensack.
Here, there and everywhere!
TV: NJTV (channel 50)
ONLINE: monkeymonkeymusic.com (Check out clips of Chinatown and What are the Odds? – two fabulous samples of her cool, catchy videos.)
IN PERSON: Paramus Public Library on Dec. 27 at 2:30 p.m. (Check Meredith's performance calendar online for updated show dates.)