Is it summer yet? That’s the question you’re probably asking yourself right about now. Well, if you have kids, here’s something that will make you want it to get here even faster: A visually stunning, amazingly fun hot air balloon festival with a performance from “the Adele of the preschool crowd,” Laurie Berkner.
The three-day QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning—held at Solberg Airport in Readington—will feature 100 colorful hot air balloons, kids’ activities and amusement rides, fireworks, and a live concert series that includes George Thorogood and Pat Benatar. Laurie will be headlining the festival’s first-ever kids’ concert on July 28 to celebrate its 35th anniversary.
If you have a preschooler, you probably already know Laurie. And if you don’t know her name, you will definitely recognize her music. With 11 bestselling albums and shows on Nick Jr. and Sprout, she is the busiest woman in preschool show biz. Aside from her latest album, Superhero, she is debuting her first illustrated book this month; We Are the Dinosaurs is based on her popular song of the same name. She also releases new videos on her YouTube channel every month and will be premiering her latest musical, Interstellar Cinderella, at the New York City Children’s Theater this fall.
I got to chat with Laurie—and make my own preschooler very jealous—about balloons, the surprising benefits of music for kids and parents, and what to expect at this summer’s hottest kiddie ticket in New Jersey.
Best of NJ Interviews: Laurie Berkner
Best of NJ: A hot air balloon festival seems like the perfect venue for you. What is most exciting to you about headlining this event?
Berkner: It’s always an honor to be the first to come in and do something like this for kids. And a hot air balloon festival is a pretty good place to have kids’ music. It’s a really good collaboration.
Best of NJ: Outdoor concerts have a certain magic about them, don’t you think?
Berkner: I love doing them. There’s something very invigorating about it—a freedom in the audience and the ability to move around freely. I cringe when someone comes out right before a show and says: “We know everyone wants to get up and dance, but there are fire codes, so you have to stay in your seats.” But at an outdoor concert, kids can run around and listen to the music, or lie on blankets and cuddle with their parents. They can have whatever they need that day.
Best of NJ: Your song “Balloons” fits pretty perfectly into this festival!
Berkner: Ah, thanks for reminding me! Sometimes people remind me of my songs, and I’m like, “Oh, good idea! I should add that in!”
Best of NJ: Happy to help! To me, that song is all about being happy, carefree and imaginative. What is about balloons that really encapsulates that for kids?
Berkner: The fact that a balloon floats above you, but you can also hold onto it and keep it — kids can have a little control over something kind of magical. When I was a kid, I used to think it was fun to get a helium balloon and let it go. I remember watching it drift off and get smaller and smaller. Of course nobody does that anymore. Balloons go out and birds get sick and it’s terrible. But back then, you could do it, and I remember thinking that I could go up with the balloon into the sky. And hot-air balloons [seemed] really fun for that reason. I’ve actually never been in one…but that might change at the festival!
Best of NJ: Fun! Do you come up with your song ideas by having experiences like that?
Berkner: I write my best songs by asking kids questions, listening in and eavesdropping, then taking those phrases, ideas and things that are important to them and turning them into songs. “I’m Gonna Catch You” was a dad was running after his daughter, saying, “I’m gonna catch you…” The girl shrieked with the most happy laughter, and I was like, “That’s a song. I have to go home and write that!”
Best of NJ: Can you give us a little preview of what you have planned for the festival?
Berkner: I’ll be doing a lot of the solo hits, plus new songs from Superhero. And there will be lots of dancing. Oh, and always bring an animal for your head! This is very important because you don’t want your kids to feel like that they’ve missed their chance [to participate in the song “Pig on Her Head”].
Best of NJ: You listen to a song like that — and see kids’ reactions — and you realize just how much kids love to play and be silly. Kids will always be kids, but so much more seems to be expected of them at an earlier age now. Can music help with that?
Berkner: I remember having this conversation 20 years ago. At a certain point, how far can it creep down? We all have to develop as human beings, crawl and walk and say words and understand our feelings. When we’re expecting kids to do things that are more sophisticated at younger age — thinking, processing, looking at screens — they’re not using their bodies. And that may be one of the things makes music really helpful: giving kids a chance to connect sounds with movements and their feelings.
The Benefits of Music
Best of NJ: The world feels like a pretty crazy place these days. Do you think that music can also make kids feel more in control of their own little worlds?
Berkner: Music is such a deep way to connect. When we make music in a room, there are actual physical vibrations that affect people. And then when parents and kids are having an experience that’s positive, they can take it home with them. Then they sing songs together in the car, and march and sing on the way home from school or a doctor’s appointment. All of the experiences get tied to the joyous experience of music, and they have those connections for the rest of their lives.
When I write, I want to support that and help kids find a way to connect to themselves and want to reach out to something or someone else — even if it’s just for a moment and it’s totally silly. A kid can feel really free when that happens. And if kids feel strong in themselves, it makes the uncertainty that’s around them a little less scary.
The 35th annual QuickChek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning in Association with PNC Bank runs from July 28-30. Tickets are available at www.balloonfestival.com. Check out more from Laurie Berkner at laurieberkner.com.