Music for the Heart

Public health student writes children’s book to promote body positivity.

Research shows that children as young as 5 years old express body dissatisfaction and worry about their eating habits. When these ideas emerge so early in development, they often become tough-to-break patterns of detrimental behaviors and self-loathing later in life.

“In our modern culture, there’s an emphasis on looking a certain way,” says public health student MariaLisa Itzoe. “Little girls are frequently taught it’s better to be thin. Little boys are taught they should be muscular. I wanted to combat negative self-image forming, and if we can start at a younger age, it could potentially have great benefit down the line.”

For her Jefferson capstone, Itzoe wrote the interactive book “Tiny or Tall, Mighty or Small–Music for All,” geared for children between the ages of 3 and 8. She created 13 musical instrument characters—such as Viv the Viola, Finn the Flute and Terrance the Trumpet—to illustrate how each shape delivers a unique sound, celebrate diversity and promote body positivity.

Public health student MariaLisa Itzoe reads “Tiny or Tall, Mighty or Small–Music for All.” She recruited musician friends to play the scales heard throughout the book.

Young readers can play all the instruments as they flip through the pages, and at the end, Itzoe offers discussion questions for parents and caregivers to help spark conversations around a potentially tricky subject.

“Music is a natural outlet,” she explains. “Music is relatable across generations and ethnicities.”

Working on this project melded many of her interests. As an undergrad at Brown University, Itzoe—a harpist for 19 years—double-majored in music and psychology. She also took courses in social sciences and literature. Plus, she always had a passion for health communications, so she jumped at the opportunity to craft a children’s book for her capstone.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” says Itzoe, who’s also pursuing her DO at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) and plans to enter internal medicine. “I’ve helped write textbooks and research papers, but nothing like this. I thought it would be a fun challenge and force me to step outside my comfort zone.”

I wanted to combat negative self-image forming, and if we can start at a younger age, it could potentially have great benefit down the line.

Itzoe began research on the book in September, and soon after, connected with a PCOM classmate, Julia Burns, to illustrate the work.

A conversation with Itzoe’s mom over the holidays inspired her to feature interactive elements to further engage her audience.

“She reminded me that when I was young, I loved books with embedded sounds,” Itzoe recalls. “For example, you could press buttons and hear different animals on a farm, like a horse neighing. She asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to integrate something like that into your book?’”

With her musical experience, Itzoe could easily add the “voice” of Helen the Harp, but she needed help for the other instruments. She reached out to college friends and used her social network, and before long, she assembled a full orchestra for Vince the Violin, Ollie the Oboe, Brenda the Double Bass, Phillipe the Piccolo and more. Each musician recorded a simple ascending and descending C major scale for her to include; readers simply tap a button on each page to hear their notes.

“The collaboration was incredible,” Itzoe says. “I feel very fortunate. I couldn’t have done this without the help of many different people.”

The book cover next to a headshot of MariaLisa
For her capstone, MariaLisa Itzoe created 13 musical instrument characters, including Viv the Viola, Finn the Flute and Terrance the Trumpet. Itzoe, a harpist for 19 years, plans to enter internal medicine.

She continues to finetune “Tiny or Tall, Mighty or Small–Music for All” through market testing with children of family and friends. The pandemic scuttled any formal focus group plans, unfortunately.

When the book officially publishes online for free, she hopes her work will increase the resources available for families with young children, especially those in lower socioeconomic groups.

“As a future public health professional and physician, I really want to get this information out as widely as possible,” Itzoe says. “The idea is not to make a profit. If I could have a positive impact on one child, one family, then that would be enough of a reward.”

Dr. Rosie Frasso, director of public health for the Jefferson College of Population Health, praised Itzoe’s motivation, talent and creativity in developing this novel capstone.

“She reached into her newly acquired public health toolbox to become an expert on body positivity and children,” Dr. Frasso says. “Then, she skillfully translated the science into an engaging, interactive children’s book. Her work will make a difference, and we’re all so proud of her.”

Download the book here.

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