A member of the legendary 1960s trio Peter, Paul and Mary, Peter Yarrow remains as passionate as ever about folk music, and is committed to sharing this genre with youngsters. Last year, Sterling publishedPuff, the Magic Dragon, a picture book of the classic song Yarrow wrote with Leonard Lipton, which features art by Eric Puybaret and has sold close to 750,000 copies. This month, Yarrow follows up that hit with the first two books in the Peter Yarrow Songbook series, Favorite Folk Songs and Sleepytime Songs, also from Sterling. Illustrated by Terry Widener, each has a 75,000-copy first printing. The books include the lyrics of 12 classic songs, guitar chords and background about their origins, and are packaged with a CD of the songs recorded by Yarrow and his daughter Bethany.

Yarrow is clearly a man on a mission—and a musician to the core. “I fell in love with folk music when I was young and it had a remarkably profound effect on my life,” he explains. “I strongly believe that folk music should be a part of children’s lives at home, at school and at camp, since it is a musical form that allows them to sense their own history. The lives of people in the past—their hopes, dreams, work, loves and tragedies—are all beautifully told in folk music.”

He hopes that the inclusion of guitar chords in his books will encourage adults to sing the songs with young readers. “When my own kids were young, I’d sing these same songs to them,” he recalls. “And I’d go into their school often and sing songs with the kids and talk about what might have been in the hearts and minds of the songwriters. When we sing these songs together it creates a sense of community and helps form an important bond between generations.”

Yarrow’s editor, Frances Gilbert, v-p and editorial director of children’s publishing at Sterling, says that she and Yarrow both came up with “wish lists” of songs to include in each volume. “I always try to think of songs that can be illustrated well, appeal to the right age group and have themes kids can relate to,” she says. “Peter wants to reach out to kids from a musical point of view, and sometimes our initial wish lists didn’t match up.”

Yarrow solved the dilemma with a musician’s logic: he picked up his guitar. “Peter would invite me to his apartment in New York, and we’d sit there all day, singing songs from both our lists,” Gilbert says. “I was very impressed with how hard he worked to make these books just right, searching to find songs that will appeal to kids today but also teach them about the American songbook. After a lot of singing and backing and forthing, we came up with 12 songs for each book that we are both very happy with.”

Considerable effort went into the series’ look as well. Gilbert worked with creative director Scott Piehl (now at Disney Global Book Group) and with illustrator Widener to give the art “a folksy, slightly naïve feel” while staying contemporary and kid-friendly. Yarrow’s extensive library of classic folk song books and record albums helped inspire the cover designs, which feature fabric spines that are numbered, much like vintage boxed album sets. “As Peter showed us his collection, Scott took lots of notes and then incorporated subtle details of those books and records in the series’ design,” Gilbert says.

Peter Yarrow, signing Puff.

Sterling will release two additional books in the series: Songs to Sing Together in spring 2009 and a fourth collection, possibly containing nursery rhymes and songs, the following spring. A picture-book version of Yarrow’s song, Day Is Done, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, is on the fall 2009 list.

This week, Yarrow packed his guitar and embarked on a 10-city tour to promote the new titles. Singing for kids is familiar territory for the musician, who has made many appearances over the past nine years in conjunction with Operation Respect, a program he founded that uses music to teach tolerance and respect to children in schools and summer camps.

“These mini concerts for kids are as precious and inspiring to me as singing at Carnegie Hall,” he says. “These songs teach children about the texture of life from the past, and when they are informed of that, their hearts grow bigger, their vision broader. I can’t tell you how proud I am to share this musical legacy, through my music and now my books.”

Favorite Folk Songs and Sleepytime Songs by Peter Yarrow, illus. by Terry Widener. Sterling, $16.95 each ISBN 978-1-4027-5961-1; -5962-8