Talking Nonsense with Buttons & Figs Creator Pamela Rogers

The kid-powered podcast creator talks about getting kids on the mic.

It can sometimes be difficult to summarize your creative project in a couple of words. “It’s, uh, about these two characters, and they, you know, they’re trying to sail around the world, but there’s also a puppy, and their sailing trip is really the voyage of life, and the puppy represents grief but also birth, you know?” But Pamela Rogers has no such problem. What’s her podcast, Buttons & Figs, about? Nonsense. Straight up, it’s about nonsense. It follows in the footsteps of nonsense purveyors like Lewis Carroll and Shel Silverstein, where the fun lies in taking the rules of something like literature and obliterating them. And who better to smash those rules than kids?

As a children’s librarian, Pam’s M.O. is to empower kids to not just enjoy literature, but to make it. So her show hands kids the mic and lets them go to town making nonsense in the vein of, say, Rube Goldberg. The show is wholly unique and tons of fun, and Pam is perhaps the smartest person I know when it comes to connecting podcasts, education and fun. So I was excited to have a chance to chat with her about her show:

Let’s talk about the Buttons & Figs origin story. Your show is about “nonsense.” It’s funny, because if you look at a lot of the non-fiction podcasts for kids, they’re about helping them *make sense* of the world…though science, or books, etc. So how did you get started, and how did you decide you wanted to focus on nonsense?

When I decided to host my own show I knew I’d be spending a lot of hours working on research and production, so I wanted to make sure it was a topic I wouldn’t tire of and since nonsense literature is my favorite genre…nonsense it was! When I think back to how I grew to love nonsense literature I think it started with my love of words. My dad was a music teacher and he was very funny. He would always point out funny signs, sayings, headlines, conversations, highlighting the absurdity and humor in words. In looking back, I can see the path that led to my love of nonsense…from his humor, to discovering the writings of authors like Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear and Nancy Willard, to the comedy of Monty Python, to the subversive song lyrics of Tom Lehrer, on into absurdists, such as Edward Albee, with many more in-between. I love all of the non-fiction podcasts about science and our world right now, they feel vital, but I also hope there is plenty of room for podcasts about creativity and play, which also feels vital to me.

What is it about nonsense literature that is particularly important, do you think

I think nonsense literature gives kids permission to play with words. For example, when I read Dennis Lee’s short poem, “I Found a Silver Dollar” from the book “Alligator Pie”, to my 6 year old, she immediately started creating poems of her own. She must have made up another 10 poems after hearing just one of his poems! Lee combines imagery of a silver dollar, with a bent steering wheel, with a little monkey, with a sticky kiss! I believe the poem gave her a kind of permission to freely associate words and sounds. My co-host, Sarah, has the most beautiful stories about the effect of nonsense literature on her daughter, who is five. She has seen her daughter’s language soar and her creativity with words bloom. Each of our episodes is based on seeing what kids are inspired to create when exposed to great works of nonsense.

Tell me a little bit about how you work with those kids. Kids’ voices have a huge presence on your show. How do you get into an episode with them, get them to open up and embrace the silliness?

First off, kids naturally embrace silliness, but in order to harness that silliness I really trust the story, poem or song to direct or inspire the energy of the kids. Each episode is centered on a work of great nonsense and if it’s a session I’ve planned, then I start by sharing the work, or I’ll ask the kids to read a selected piece. From there, I try and use the author’s writing style and imagery to inspire creativity from the kids. I usually work with a loose outline for an episode, but once I’m with the kids it can go in a completely different direction. For example, when we shared Jabberwocky, I cut up the poem and asked the kids to read it first. Then I asked the kids what characters were in the poem and to select a character they wanted to play. The kids actually thought Gyre and Gimble were characters, so when we brought the characters to life, they added these amazing voices and acted them out as observers of the Jabberwocky slaying. I try to follow the kids’ lead to the greatest degree possible. I also try to get kids onto the microphone pretty quickly. I really love capturing their voices when they aren’t too scripted. There are very few “take twos” when recording with kids! I take what I get and I don’t get upset!

I actually wanted to ask you about the structure of the show. I imagine it’s difficult to get it set, though I think you do a good job of it. You sort of set up the premise, investigate the topic a bit, then you have a moment where the kids take control and run with it. Do you talk with kids about what you want from them?

I definitely talk about the stories we share. I ask the kids to think about what makes the story, poem or song so great and we talk a lot about what makes great nonsense great. We talk about the methods writers use to associate ideas or evoke feelings (i.e alliteration, repetition). It is from those ideas they begin creating what they will record. Sometimes I’m very specific, sometimes I give complete freedom. Each method produces very different results. As you might imagine, complete freedom can give certain kids license to work on an idea they’ve been forming, but for other kids, well, you can end up just getting a lot of farting noises! Some kids really respond to scripted pieces, while other kids will “check out” once they find out they can’t make any choices or do their own thing. So, I try a little bit of everything!

What do you think the kids get out of it?

It’s funny, here’s what I know: Many of the kids keep coming back to record. I’ve had some kids recording with me, once a week, for seven months and they are still engaged. I know they listen to episodes over and over and over again, which was also just validated by the Kids Listen survey data. I know they love the recording because they “turn on” once they put on the headphones and sit at a microphone. And, I know that kids love listening to kids. I was just asked by the library here what kids like about podcasting. Here are their answers: I like acting like a character. I like that everybody in the world is listening to you. I like being heard. I like that I’m in a podcast that I like. I like spending time with my friends. I like to record stuff I like and that I can choose my podcast. I like practicing with all of my friends. I like everything like…..recording, discussing, etc. etc.