Search This Blog

Loading...

January 20, 2013

On Hiatus...

The lack of postings since November had probably made this a bit obvious, but I figured I might as well make it official: A job change that's much more demanding on my time and also includes some slight overlap in subject matter has forced me to put this blog on hiatus.

Time will tell whether I'll be able to simply restart things here (or perhaps somewhere else) at some point, either just as before or in some sort of abbreviated format. I'll post more as soon as I know.

On the off chance, though, that this is the end for YKFK, I'd like to thank everyone who's been reading over the last couple of years; it's been a wonderful and revelatory experience for me, and I hope I've been able to be of some use to you all from time to time in navigating the world of kids' entertainment! I am indebted to you all.

All best, and hopefully more to come in the near-ish future.

November 14, 2012

In Concert: Symphony Space's Just Kidding

Full disclosure: I grew up a half-mile from Symphony Space on Manhattan's Upper West Side (I recall going to some of the very earliest Selected Shorts readings in high school, back before they'd become an institution all unto themselves), and it will always hold a special place in my heart. (I was very sad to see last week the news of the recent death of one of the venue's founders, Isaiah Sheffer, a man who epitomized the vibe of the Upper West Side of my childhood.)

But it had been a long time since I'd set foot inside the place—enough time for it to undergo a massive renovation, in fact—until I had kids and learned about the Just Kidding series there. Turns out the series features concerts by, oh, pretty much all the children's musicians I write about on this blog: Remaining on the schedule for this season are the likes of Justin Roberts, Gustafer Yellowgold, Elizabeth Mitchell, Uncle Rock, and Frances England, and past seasons have included all our family's favorites that aren't mentioned in that list (Recess Monkey, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Lunch Money...).

There are also several other cultural shows for kids in the series, from ballet (a performance of The Nutcracker coming up in early December) to percussive dance to acrobatics; my older son and I just saw and thoroughly enjoyed philharMONSTER, an orchestral performance of Halloween-themed music by a pair of local NYC student orchestras (which was no less enjoyable for having had to be postponed until well after Halloween, thanks to Hurricane Sandy). Ticket prices are in the $15 to $25 range generally, and all of it is well worth checking out if you're a parent anywhere in the New York area.

[Image courtesy of Symphony Space]

October 19, 2012

New Music: Rabbit Days and Dumplings

When I first heard that Elena Moon Park, one of the regulars in Dan Zanes's band for some years now, was coming out with an album of East Asian folk songs of her own, I was pretty confident it was going to sound fantastic before I ever heard a track. Park has long since proved herself a remarkably skilled and adept musician on the Zanes albums, and contributions from the likes of Zanes himself (who also executive-produced) and the Kronos Quartet made the album sound even more promising.

It doesn't disappoint—in fact, if anything, Rabbit Days and Dumplings surpasses my high expectations, for two reasons. The first is Park's remarkable arranging skill. Whether she's staying close to a song's Asian roots (as in "Ti Oh Oh," from Taiwan, and the Japanese fisherman's song "Soran Bushi," which I was thrilled to rediscover years after encountering a choral version of it in college) or Americanizing it somewhat (as with the opening track, "Sol Nal," which has a Zanes-y feel to it, as well as the Beatles-esque "Summer Is Here" and several others), Park has a knack for setting a song in an especially fresh way, using a wide variety of instrumentation in the process.

The second is Park's voice itself, which is a revelation: I'd heard her, of course, singing backup on the Zanes albums for years, but I had no idea she'd sound this amazing as a soloist! Her singing is warm, clear-toned, with a surprising power and strength—and always incredibly appealing.

So I'm not surprised in the slightest that Rabbit Days and Dumplings immediately shot to the top of the list of repeated-play requests from our two boys upon arrival in our house. It's pretty much irresistible. All I can add is: Dan, you gotta let Park sing some more solos!

[Image courtesy of Festival Five Records]

October 10, 2012

New(ish) Books: Wolf Story

You'd think that at some point the New York Review Children's Collection would just run out of obscure, unknown and out-of-print kid lit that's astonishingly brilliant to reissue. But they don't. It's really a testament to both their editorial and archival skills, as well as to the vast amount of great forgotten work out there to be found and reissued for our benefit.

The latest from NYRCC might be my personal favorite of their entire canon: Wolf Story, from 1947, by William McCleery, who was a reporter, a magazine editor, and a playwright. (It also contains excellent illustrations by Warren Chappell.) It's part of—maybe even a forerunner of?—what is now a burgeoning "meta" kid-book genre, i.e., the story that makes the telling of the story part of the story, with The Princess Bride as a good example.

Here, the focus is completely flipped, so that we're mostly in the "real" world of the father who's telling the story of the book's title and his six-year-old son, Michael. (Michael's best friend, Stefan, also makes an appearance.) That story itself—about a wolf trying to steal (and, naturally, eat) a farmer's prize chicken, only to be foiled by the brave, smart, and coincidentally six-year-old son of the farmer—is really less plot than background.

Because what McCleery is really doing is describing the affectionate, sometimes frustrating, often hilarious negotiations that go on between parent and child in the storytelling process. And I've never seen an author capture it better—from the early demands, and attempts at parental resistance to those demands (the father desperately wishes to avoid yet another story about a wolf, but Michael relentlessly drives him to adapt the tale so that his favorite fearsome creature will be included), to the shared joy between parent and child of continuing and finishing a story that's become a collaboration.

Kids of the boy's age and a little older are likely to find the storytelling-about-storytelling aspect fascinating (even if it's no longer as novel as it probably was in 1947). And parents will find plenty to smile sentimentally about in the accurate depictions of how we get wrapped around our kids' fingers in such situations.

But even better, both kids and especially parents will also find plenty to laugh about, thanks to McCleery's dry, charming writing style. The father—one of those dads who seems to speak to children as he does to adults, with no condescension—is both aware of and constantly bemused by his son's fierce knowledge of exactly what he wants from his story (one gets the sense that Dad also knows resistance is ultimately futile). His matter-of-fact way of establishing guidelines for the wolf tale (or trying to, anyway) is both appealing and very funny:
And the man continued: "Once upon a time there was a hen. She was called Rainbow because her feathers were of many different colors: red and pink and purple and lavender and magenta—" The boy yawned. "—and violet and yellow and orange."
"That will be enough colors," said the boy.
"And green and dark green and light green..."
 "Daddy! Stop!" cried the boy. "Stop saying so many colors. You're putting me to sleep."
"Why not?" said the man. "This is bedtime."
"But I want some story first!" said the boy. "Not just colors."
"All right, all right," said the man. "Well, Rainbow lived with many other hens in a house on a farm at the edge of a deep dark forest and in the deep dark forest lived a guess what."
"A wolf," said the boy, sitting up in bed.
"No, sir!" cried the man.
"Make it that a wolf lived in the deep dark forest," said the boy.
"Please," said the man. "Anything but a wolf. A weasel, a ferret, a lion, and elephant."
 "A wolf," said the boy.
Isn't that just frighteningly familiar and on-the-nose?

There's one more reason I found Wolf Story particularly thrilling, though, and it's one that I have to admit has little to do with any appeal to young kids. The father tells his tale in episodic fashion, mostly (after this initial bedtime scene) during a series of weekend outings with the two boys. Since the family live in downtown Manhattan, we therefore get a wonderful, personal, day-to-day view of what a dad would do with two young boys in New York City in 1947. (The whole thing is clearly pretty autobiographical—the book is even dedicated to McCreery's son, Mike!) The field trips include Fort Tryon Park, as well as Jones Beach for some autumn kite-flying (via the FDR Drive and the Triborough Bridge, oddly enough—I guess McCreery didn't like tunnels?). To someone who grew up in the city like me, this glimpse of your basic weekend jaunt of an earlier era is irresistible.

All of which is to say that, while Wolf Story works marvelously as a book to read with children, as intended—the meta magic works for them just fine—it's as much or perhaps even more a book that will delight parents, making us laugh and smile and marvel, especially those of us with attachment to New York City.

In other words, in the long run, this book is likely to end up not on my son's bookshelf, but on mine. I admit it. And I'm so pleased—and grateful to the NYRCC—to have discovered it.

[Cover image courtesy of the New York Review Children's Collection]

October 3, 2012

New Music: Grammaropolis

Since I'm on a grammar kick of late, I should mention a second source of no-really-it's-fun learning on the subject that Dash has been obsessed with lately: Grammaropolis, an album of songs about language and parts of speech. The CD came out earlier this year, but recently came to my attention on its reissue with a new iPad/iPhone app, which nicely complements the subscription-based learning Grammaropolis website.

If this sounds like a little entertainment-based-learning empire, that's because it is; former middle-school teacher and current children's-book author Coert Voorhees, aka the Mayor of Grammaropolis, devised the website—which anthropomorphizes parts of speech to show what they do and how they work, giving each its own "neighborhood" kids can explore. (It's been a real success, winning the National Parenting Center's Seal of Approval this year; it costs $3.99 a month, or $34.99 annually to subscribe.) The new Word Sort by Grammaropolis iPad/iPhone app ($1.99) adds a game to the proceedings, in which kids try to put each word in its proper category.

But its the album itself, which features both the Mayor himself and songs by kids' musician Doctor Noize, that is delighting our seven-year-old most right now. The good Doctor—known in real life (I assume) as Cory Cullinan—proves quickly to be a master of pastiche rivaling the creators of the classic Schoolhouse Rock bits (he even tosses in a few sly references to them—e.g., a repeated "hallelujah" in the backing vocals to a techno-tinged sing about interjections). Cullinan is also an alarmingly accomplished musician, not only writing and arranging the clever songs in a multitude of styles (everything from classic silent-movie-accompaniment piano to a Steely Dan homage) but also playing nearly every instrument you hear—keyboards, guitars, horns, you name it.

Most of all, though, both the Doctor and the Mayor are funny, which is really what makes the album irresistible to kids. (A particular favorite of Dash's is the song in which the supercool character Slang crashes a radio program on which the Mayor had intended to stuffily condemn nonstandard vocabulary.) And that, in turn, lets all the grammar lessons the songs are really about just seep in without really even feeling like learning. As those of us who can still recite the preamble to the U.S. Constitution mainly because Schoolhouse Rock set it to music all those years ago, it's remarkably effective.



[Cover image courtesy of Doctor Noize]

September 26, 2012

New Books: The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate

Sometimes I find myself wondering what it must have been like to read a true classic—kids' or adults' variety—right as it first came out, when no one knew, for sure, that it was a classic yet. When parents and kids cracked the binding on the first copies of Where the Wild Things Are back in 1963, or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 1998 (okay, okay, Philosopher's Stone in 1997 in the U.K., I know), was there a dawning awareness that this was something special, not just for that year's crop of books, but for a long, long time to come—forever, really?

I think there must have been, because I recently had that feeling myself upon reading The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate, a new book by Scott Nash, with my elder son. It's a pirate book, with our protagonist, Blue Jay, a good pirate captain—but the twist is, all of the pirates (and indeed, most of the book's characters) are birds, and their ship, the Grosbeak, rides not the high seas, but the winds and currents of the air.

And Nash—whose background before he got into children's books was in design and branding, including the original Nickelodeon logo—is one of those authors with the talent and imagination to create his own expansive, fully thought-out fictional universe. So the birds of Blue Jay's crew are each different types of birds, each with characteristics and abilities appropriate to its species: the hulking Chuck-Will's-Widow, for example, is one of the burly heavies of the crew, while Junco, small but fierce and scrappy, makes herself useful as the ship's navigator, and so on.

As I mentioned, Blue Jay and his crew are "good" pirates, chaotic and antiauthoritarian to be sure (the empire of the distant, unseen Thrushians is referred to as an authority of which they're particularly unfond), but essentially Robin Hood types. Their adventure begins when the captain himself decides they should rescue a particularly colorful egg from a raccoon—Blue Jay is fond of bright eggs—which eventually hatches to reveal a gosling, Gabriel.

Most of the crew is not pleased—Gabriel consumes far more food than any of the other birds, and everyone knows he'll soon grow far too large even to remain on the ship—but Jay insists that he's good luck and must remain. Which sets into motion a sequence of events that include the "sinking" of the Grosbeak; its crew's falling into the hands of a gang of, well, bad pirates led by Jay's cousin, a crow named Teach; and our heroes' taking refuge in a village of lowly sparrows (the peasants of this bird society), whom they rally to rebel against their common crow oppressors, with help from a friendly neighbor mole.

The book's characters and its language—particularly the marvelously colorful dialogue, which is grounded in classic pirate-y saltiness yet also has a bird-specific panache of its own (e.g., Jay's favorite expletive: "Crayee!")—draw the reader in from the first page, and the story flows along at just the right pace to make the book something of a page-turner. Nash's own illustrations, which resemble woodcuts, do what the best chapter-book illustrations always accomplish, filling out the characters even further, and making readers feel we really know them. In the illustrations, Jay and Teach and Gabriel come fully to life, much as Chester Cricket, Tucker Mouse, and Harry Cat will always be those Garth Williams drawings.

But it's really the whole world Nash has created that makes The High-Skies Adventures of Blue Jay the Pirate irresistible from the get-go. You get the feeling throughout that you're in good hands with this author—that he's imagined and invented a whole world of bird pirates here, well beyond the frame of this particular book and story. (And while I don't know Nash's intentions, it certainly feels like the opening book in a series—for one thing, we need to find out more about those Thrushians!) It's that, more than anything, that gives Nash's book the imprimatur of an instant classic. We loved it, and hope for a sequel soon.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]

September 25, 2012

New Books: Super Grammar

Okay, before I start, full disclosure: I make my living largely as a copy editor. And I've occasionally been accused by certain close friends and family members of being a bit, shall we say, overzealous when it comes to enforcing proper grammar. (I will spare you my thoughts on gerunds here, however. You're grateful, trust me.)

That said, even my wife—who may or may not be one of the family members mentioned above—has been disturbed at the rumors that English grammar is no longer taught in any structured manner in many or most grade schools. Our oldest is only in second grade this year, which as far as I can recall would be kinda early for discussions of dangling participles anyway, so I'm not really sure how true that rumor is. (The limited investigation I've done leads me to think there's at least something to it.)

Either way, given that Dash is a fairly advanced reader for his age, and given my profession, I had been vaguely wishing there might be a way of giving him an understanding of the basic building blocks of sentence structure and the like. Ideally, one that didn't involve my teaching him on weekends out of old, dry grammar textbooks from the 1980s. (That would not go well, I fear.)

So when I first laid eyes on Tony Preciado and Rhode Montijo's Super Grammar, a comic-book approach to basic grammar, I had high hopes. Which I then immediately tempered. After all, most attempts at making potentially dull subjects "fun," I have found, fail by leaning too far one way or the other: They're either so concerned with getting the educational points across that they aren't much fun at all, or they're lots of fun...without any real educational takeaway to speak of.

Still, I figured, leafing through the pages about superheroes (like The Proper Noun and The Preposition) and supervillains (like Comma Splice and The Fragment), it was worth a shot.
And turns out: Preciado and Montijo got the balance exactly right, at least for our kid. Dash is very much into graphic novels and comic books of all kinds nowadays (he's even starting to create his own), so Super Grammar was right in his wheelhouse thematically from the start. He saw it, picked it up, and consumed it in a day, without any exhortation from any pesky adults.

Now, Super Grammar is by no means the most complex of comics—there's no narrative as such, just a series of introductions of the "characters" and examples of their exploits (each of which serves as a grammatical example). The illustrations themselves are what I'd term "classic comic-book style," quite well executed but nothing fancy or especially artsy, either.

But the combination gets the job done marvelously. Dash liked Super Grammar so much from the get-go that it's become one of what I call his "lingering" books—it stays out on his desk or nightstand so he can read it again, and again (and again), over a period of weeks. It's even accompanied us on a couple of trips already.

And the book does have educational impact, it would appear—Dash appears to have a better conception of what an action verb is, or what purpose a pronoun serves, than he did before, and we've noticed his use of punctuation in particular improving since the book arrived in our home.

So while I don't expect that Super Grammar will—or should!—be the end of his education on the subject (one way or another), it's serving exactly the role I'd hoped it might: an easy, low-effort primer on the basics of grammar. And that—well, that's a pretty heroic accomplishment.

[Cover image courtesy of Scholastic]

September 21, 2012

New Music: Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz

I'll admit to having been spoiled a bit by They Might Be Giants. It was hard not to be, when a band of which I had already been a longtime fan chose the period when we had our first child to make a marvelous crossover into kids' music—and proceeded to put out four instant classics, still the strongest series of albums in the genre. Even beyond the high quality and the dazzling ease of their transition (beyond subject matter, TMBG didn't really have to change that much about their sound or songwriting), there was also a personal psychological effect: Look, I thought. I'm listening to They Might Be Giants with my infant son. This parenting thing doesn't have to change everything!

Of course, I was dead wrong about that—and not only because my subconscious expectations that Husker Du, the Smiths, and Bauhaus would each reunite to put out kids' albums were never fulfilled. (I'm still holding out hope for Smashing Pumpkins.) I learned to accept that life had changed, a lot, and went on to discover a whole slew of great kids' musicians, some with a history of recordings of "adult music" I wasn't previously familiar with (Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Lunch Money), others with no professional background in music for nonkid audiences at all (Recess Monkey).

Which is why I was so blown away when I heard that L.A.-based masters of eclecticism Ozomatli had moved into the genre and were coming out with a full-length kids' album, Ozomatli Presents OzoKidz. I've been a fan of this band and its unique blend of urban sounds—hip-hop, ska, reggae, and about eight different varieties of Latin music, all fused together by a blistering-hot horn section—since their 1998 debut album. (Whitney and I even had "Cut Chemist Suite" on our wedding-reception playlist.)

Ozomatli wouldn't have been the first band I'd have expected to make the move to kids' music—their sound in their heyday had a satisfyingly hard edge, and they're renowned and somewhat revered for their raucous-good-time live shows. But while the songs on OzoKidz are as a whole a gentler than the sum effect of the band's early albums, I was thrilled to find that they're still absolutely true to their sound—the mixing and melding of musical types is still here, as are those fantastic horns (used to great effect on "Moose on the Loose" and "Balloon Fest," among other tracks).

The result is an uptempo album with suitable kid lyrical content (as the song titles I just mentioned indicate) that kids find irresistible, while retaining enough of the band's sophisticated sound to make parents happy, too. In addition, thanks to Ozomatli we have now discovered, somewhat to my wife's dismay, that four-year-old Griffin loves bachata.

OK, Billy Corgan. You're up.

[Cover image courtesy of Ozomatli]

Update: I just learned right after posting this about the OzoKidz Chalk Art Contest. In the band's words, here's the scoop:

Folks who purchase the new OzoKidz CD at participating independent record stores will receive a FREE OzoKidz chalk box, which contains a link to the bonus track "Vamos a Cantar."

Kids (and parents) everywhere are invited to enter the OzoKidz Chalk Art Contest!

Entry Details: All you have to do is re-create the OzoKidz album cover art on your driveway or sidewalk—or, for the bonus prize, create a visual representation of the bonus track "Vamos a Cantar" using the OzoKidz chalk. Send us photos of your artwork and we'll pick the best ones. Winners will receive an OzoKidz prize pack!

Send photos to ozofans@gmail.com.

When sending photos, entrants must include the OzoKidz chalk box in the photo. For a list of record stores participating in the chalk-box giveaway, please visit: http://www.recordstoreday.com/Home. Please call your local store to confirm they have the items. For more information and updates, visit www.ozomatli.com/ozokidz.


September 19, 2012

Old School: A Wizard of Earthsea


As I grew older and out of children's chapter books, all those years ago, I kept only a handful of favorites on my bookshelf. I'm not sure I knew why, exactly, even back then—because I thought even as a high school student I might want to refer back to them? Or (deep down) because I wanted to hang on to them for my own kids someday? The reason was certainly sentimental in some way, and at a certain point I stopped winnowing entirely; what survived high school stayed on my shelves into adulthood.

These were mostly venerable classics of the kid genre, even at the time—the Narnia seriesThe Phantom Tollbooth, A Wrinkle in Time—with a few relative newcomers like Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game and Walter Wangerin Jr.'s The Book of the Dun Cow. I didn't care if they were classics, though—these were the books that were in some way or another important to my childhood. I don't always remember exactly why. But these were my books—I remember the surge of feeling I had about each of them very clearly, which must have been at the root of why I kept them.

One of the series I kept about which my memory was cloudy was Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books. Another classic series, of course—being reissued in handsome new hardcover editions this month by Houghton Mifflin, in fact. The feelings I associated with these particular books years later, having mostly forgotten the plotlines, were less of warmth and affection, as I recalled Phantom Tollbooth, say. It was more like a vague sort of awe and reverence.

And those aren't feelings that drive nostalgic re-readings. So it had been many years since the Le Guin books had come down off the shelves when my seven-year-old, Dash, started showing interest in books with magical themes beyond Harry Potter. (Not, I should hasten to add, that he finds anything at all lacking in Harry Potter.) I remembered Earthsea, my memory perhaps jogged by the news of the reissues, and we took my dusty old copy of A Wizard of Earthsea down (both noticing right away that it's sure a lot shorter than a Harry Potter book).

It only took a page or two for the vague memories to firm up. And I don't mean just the storyline, though that certainly came back, too: the journey to wisdom of a young, brilliant but arrogant sorcerer-in-training. I don't even mean just the amazing world Le Guin has created as the setting for this series, a land of hundreds of small islands and a full, rich culture that's as vivid and fully imagined as any of the best fantasy worlds of children's literature.

I mean the language itself. The Earthsea books are written in a flowing, almost Homeric style that's simply mesmerizing to read (or read aloud). Words and their power are the lifeblood of this series—the source of the most powerful magic its wizards have, in fact. In Earthsea, to know someone's or something's true name is to have power over that person or thing, and everyone accordingly has both a name they go by in the world, and a secret "true" name that they reveal only to those they trust most—the book's hero, Ged, always introduces himself as Sparrowhawk, for example. It's an old conceit that words and names hold magical power, but Le Guin weaves her whole world around it, giving it weight and even a feeling of importance, or reality. (It's one of the things that has always stuck with me from the book.)

Le Guin's is almost certainly the finest writing Dash has encountered since graduating to chapter books, and I could see the effect on him immediately—he was quietly fascinated (unusual, since his enthusiasm about books is usually more amped-up and vocal), with a sort of reverent awe that was very familiar. I think the Earthsea books may have similarly awakened me to a level of writing I'd previously been unaware of, when I first encountered them, which would more than explain their staying power on my shelves all these years. Maybe Dash will feel the same way about them someday.

[Cover image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin]

September 17, 2012

Security Blanket: The Magic School Bus videos

We always feel a bit guilty when we let our two sons sit watching videos for long periods of time. But let's face it: Sometimes it's unavoidable, when we have to be certain they'll be completely engrossed in something while we repaint the porch, or install the new ceiling fan, or figure out how the new oven's convection feature actually works.

Since all three of those examples come from recent experience, I feel our family has been a good test lately of distracting videos that don't make parents feel too guilty. And we were lucky enough to stumble over the new champion series during this period: the animated adaptations of the Magic School Bus books, which recently came out in a new box set from Scholastic. (I vaguely knew of the books themselves, but these videos were made in the late '80s—the new edition celebrates their 25th anniversary—and so hit our generation's sweet spot of ignorance: We were too old to ever have seen them ourselves, but too young for them to be current when we had kids of our own.)

The shows, for those unfamiliar even with the books, follow the adventures of the class of Ms. Frizzle, who with the aid of the wonder vehicle of the title leads the kids through all sorts of expeditions into scientific knowledge. The bus in question being magical, this often involves some improbable journeys and transformations—to learn about bats' echolocation, what could be better than becoming a bat, after all?—as well as not a few close calls, until the unflappable Ms. Frizzle calmly puts everything right again. It's sort of like Scooby-Doo crossed with Carl Sagan and Jacques Cousteau, and the fact that Ms. Frizzle is voiced by the great Lily Tomlin (clearly enjoying herself quite a bit) is the icing on top.

Our boys love every minute of the series, and now we find them talking to each other at odd moments excitedly about the facts they learned from the shows about snakes and volcanoes and penguins. We got that massive early-fall home-improvement agenda done, and got to overhear the wry Tomlin's voice rather than SpongeBob's in the process. And sure, we still feel a little guilty about all the screen time, but sometimes mitigating that guilt can go a long way toward everyone's feeling better. (Especially if you pour a few dark-and-stormies over that mitigation.)

[Box image courtesy of Scholastic Media/New Video]

August 30, 2012

New Music: Little Seed

As many public radio stations mentioned at the time, this past July 14 marked the hundredth anniversary of Woody Guthrie's birth. Among all his other great musical achievements, Guthrie recorded an album of songs for kids way back in 1947 (it's still—or, I should say, again—in print, actually!).

Modern-day kids' musician Elizabeth Mitchell, whose last album, Sunny Day, was one of our family's favorites of 2010, marked that anniversary by putting out her own collection of Guthrie's kids' songs—many from that very album, though others (like the not-actually-written-for-kids "This Land Is Your Land") are also here. On Little Seed, Mitchell as usual gives each song her uniquely sweet gentle touch (these versions have far fewer rough edges than Guthrie's originals), and is joined by family members and other musical friends on many tracks.

This is a quiet, thoughtful interpretation of what are often the simplest of songs, with titles like "Why, Oh Why" and "Grassy Grass Grass" (not actually as Ron Burgundian as it seems)—Guthrie's songwriting tended to be simple, if always powerfully so. As such, it makes for a particularly great album to listen to with infants and the youngest of toddlers, though older kids will certainly enjoy it as well. (Even if Mitchell chose, in the end, not to cover "Goodnight Little Arlo"!)

[Cover images courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways]

August 27, 2012

Security Blanket: Mad at Mommy


I don't know if Komako Sakai's 2010 picture book Mad at Mommy will be considered a classic or not, but as far as we're concerned, it oughta be. Our four-year-old has recently rediscovered it and taken it very much to heart.

In a way, the title (along with one's expectations that a picture book for young kids will generally have a happy ending) reveals all you need to know about the plot: Our protagonist, a young bunny, is angry at his mommy bunny for...well, all sorts of terribly unjust things. She sleeps late sometimes and makes him wait for breakfast. She hogs the TV for boring adult programs so he can't watch cartoons. She even says he can't marry her when he grows up. In fact, he's so mad at her that he decides to leave home. Which he does. For a minute, anyway.

This is, of course, well-travelled territory for kids' picture books, with Where the Wild Things Are
the most famous example. As always in such cases, it's the author's execution that makes a take on the standard exceptional; Sakai is particularly talented at imbuing her bunny characters with emotion via their facial expressions—the slow burn of the seething kid bunny, the sympathetic-but-not-without-effort mommy bunny. The effect is to give Mad at Mommy a realistic feel—since we've all, parents and kids, been there many, many times—that brings a smile to recognition to all and, thanks to the expected turn at the end, still delivers on the warm fuzzies.

As for why Griff has suddenly taken hard to Sakai's book...well, we're just going to leave that one alone as long as we can.

[Cover image courtesy of Arthur A. Levine Books]

August 22, 2012

New Books: Get Dressed

Illustrator Seymour Chwast is renowned for his long career of, well, illustrious commercial design work. Chwast's style, once you've seen it, is instantly recognizable, both for its cultured-cartoon look and for its ever-present twinkle of humor (often dark humor, since he never shrank from topical subject matter).

So it's not surprising that a picture book by Chwast would be smart and pretty much irresistible—but just to be absolutely sure, he gave Get Dressed! flaps, too! It's a simple book for the very youngest readers—minimal text, lots of manipulation and variety of illustrations—addressing the command in the title in various situations and various times of day. In each situation, Chwast lays out all the options, presenting the reader with a sort of virtual walk-in closet, each item labeled Richard Scarry–style.

Young kids will adore Get Dressed!, and like all of Chwast's work, it'll tend to bring a smile of admiration to parents' faces as well.

[Cover image courtesy of Abrams Appleseed]

August 15, 2012

New Books: A Home for Bird


Philip C. Stead established himself as an author with a talent for channeling the charm of classic children's books last year with his and his wife, Erin's, breakout hit A Sick Day for Amos McGee. His follow-up, A Home for Bird, which came out earlier this summer—and which he not only wrote, but illustrated as well—more than upholds the standard, capturing the sweet, slightly wistful quality of a certain brand of kid lit (with roots that go back at least as far as Winnie-the-Pooh) in both his narrative and his exquisite crayon-and-gouache illustrations.

A Home for Bird is really about Vernon, an almost painfully earnest toad, who one day encounters a colorful but silent and motionless bird while he's out "foraging for interesting things." (We know Bird is silent and motionless because he's made out of wood, but Vernon merely takes him for the quiet type.) He takes Bird to meet his friends Skunk and Porcupine, explaining to them that Bird is "shy, but also a very good listener," but the continued silence leads him to suspect that his new friend is sad about something.

The three animals decide that perhaps Bird is missing his home, and so Vernon resolves to get him back to it—something of a challenge, given that he has no idea where or (even what) that home might be, and of course Bird can't tell him. Undaunted, Vernon sets sail downriver with Bird (in a teacup he's found) and finds several possible places of Bird's origin—but his friend's silence tells him he hasn't discovered the right place.

So Vernon ties their boat to a helium balloon to explore further; wondering aloud, in a moment of fear and doubt as they take off, whether this was a wise move, he takes Bird's silence in response as impressively stoic bravery. They eventually touch down near a farmhouse, where a surprising yet remarkably uncontrived happy ending awaits both adventurers.

Stead's touch is perfect throughout, his crayon- and brushstrokes lending a loose, laid-back feeling to the proceedings while also being full of wonderful details, right down to the foraged bottle-cap sun hat Vernon wears in the boat. The tone of the text matches that feel precisely; Vernon becomes pretty difficult not to love within a couple of pages, and I doubt much of this book's intended audience—or even those well outside it age-wise—will resist. (Our four-year-old certainly hasn't.)

It's a neat trick to write a fully original picture book that has all the best qualities of a classic of the genre. I think it's safe to say at this point that this author has the knack.

[Cover image courtesy of Macmillan USA]



August 6, 2012

New Books: King Arthur's Very Great Grandson

Our three-but-almost-four-year-old, Griffin, is showing some trends in the picture books he takes most interest in these days: adventure, and friendship. Kenneth Kraegel's King Arthur's Very Great Grandson hits the sweet spot, and has accordingly earned a place of honor next to Griff's bed over the last month.

The book's charmingly colorful illustrations tell the story of Henry Alfred Grummorson, who (much like Griff this week) is having a birthday: He's turning six. He also happens to be, as the title hints, the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of King Arthur, and so he heads out on his trusty donkey for some suitable adventure.

Adventure, however, isn't cooperating on this day, for everyone seems to misunderstand his challenge to do battle: The dragon he encounters just wants to see who can blow the best smoke rings; the cyclops wants to have a staring contest, and the griffin (clearly another reason Griff loves this book!) suggests a game of chess.

At first Henry is, naturally, very frustrated about all this, and keeps marching off to find another fearsome creature who will accept his more martial challenge. Eventually, though, after an accidentally frightening encounter with the Leviathan of the deep (who just wants to be friends too, of course), he realizes he's been offered something much better by all of them, and at the end we see all of them puzzling over a chessboard together.

To be honest, I'm a little surprised that Griffin, who can be on the feisty side, and doubtless shared Henry's frustrations earlier in the book, has found the book's conclusion so satisfying.

But I'm not complaining.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]


July 30, 2012

Old School: The Bear That Wasn't

It's one of those precious delights of parenthood to share a book we loved as kids ourselves to our own children, and to relive that thrill of discovery through their eyes. But it's a completely different kind of pleasure, and one nearly as great, to discover a classic with your kids, one you somehow missed yourself in your own childhood.

I mainly knew of Frank Tashlin as a famous animator (of Looney Tunes fame) and Hollywood screenwriter and director (of Jerry Lewis movies), and hadn't been aware that he'd dabbled in children's books. Then Dash's grandmother gave him a copy of the author's 1946 The Bear That Wasn't. It's a wonderful allegorical tale of a bear who is awakened from a long sleep by humans who are convinced he is not in fact a bear, but a very hairy man in a fur coat, and that therefore he should get to work on the large factory project that's sprung up around him as he slept.

The bear calmly tries to tell the men otherwise, but is lectured over and over again, as he moves up to the highest levels of the corporate chain, that he must stop being silly and accept that he is not a bear. He heads to the zoo, aiming to get support from his fellow bears for his true identity, but even here he's out of luck: The zoo bears point out that if he were a real bear, he'd be behind bars like they are.

Worn down, he figures that maybe they're all right after all and he's not a bear, and proceeds to live life as a human, working hard in a factory every day. And it's not until circumstances lead him to solve the problem of a cold winter as a bear would that he concludes that he was right and all the bureaucrats were wrong after all, with Tashlin's sublime final sentence: "No indeed, he knew he wasn't a silly man, and he wasn't a silly Bear either."

The message of individuality, of knowing who you are and not letting anyone tell you otherwise, is certainly loud and clear in this tale—as is the criticism of those who insist that anything repeated often enough must be true. But it's Tashlin's tone throughout that really makes the book a classic, mesmerizing to readers of all ages: The bear's quiet sense of puzzlement in the face of a series of humans who are arrogantly confident in their mistakenness is both sympathetic and very funny; you have the sense that the bear is never exactly convinced of his humanity himself, but just decides it's no use arguing anymore. (And there's a lesson there, too, of course.) The humans themselves are an amusing (though not harmless) parody of wrongheadness, becoming angrier and angrier when the bear stubbornly keeps insisting he's ursine.

Dash adores this book (and I can only hope he takes its message to heart as he grows up); it's quickly become one of his enduring favorites. And I'm really glad to have discovered it myself, even at the advanced age of 42!

P.S.: When posting this, I stumbled across an animated version of The Bear That Wasn't. Apparently Tashlin didn't feel it conveyed the message of the book quite as he desired, but it's still worth a look:



[Cover image courtesy of the New York Review Children's Collection]

July 27, 2012

New Music: Spicy Kid


It's been a summer of plenty for our family when it comes to kids' music: Nearly all our favorite artists have put out new albums, and every one seems to maintain or surpass the respective musicians' previously high standards.

The most recent example is South Carolina's Lunch Money, who hadn't exactly been inactive since their last release a couple of years ago—they've had tracks on some kid-music compliations, and lead singer Molly Ledford has lent her warm, sounds-like-a-smile voice to a number of other bands' albums via guest-track appearances. (Clearly, Lunch Money understands the vital performer's art of leaving its audience wanting more.)

The band's fourth CD, Spicy Kid, gets its name from the gingerbread man of fairy-tale legend, whose point of view is the focus of the album's first track. As with most of these songs, though, there's more going on here than it seems: The album title (shared with that of the second track) serves as a metaphorical jumping-off point for an exploration of kids with attitude, as well.

And all the songs are like this—the album is really directed as much at parents of young children (among which number Ledford counts herself) as at the children themselves. It's definitely the first kids' CD I've heard to get into issues like the feeling of sneaking along the hallway to check on your sleeping child without waking him up ("Awake"), or that moment when you realize the "spell the word out so your kid doesn't understand what you're talking about" ploy isn't gonna work anymore ("S.P.E.L.L.").

Ledford's lyrics—and singing style—handle these subjects with just as much wonder and wryness as the best parent blogs do. And yet (unlike some of those parent bloggers, myself included) she never ends up merely doing the parental version of navel-gazing, either: She always finds a way to provide these lyrics, and the songs as a whole, with a viewpoint that appeals directly to kids as well. (After all, our children have their own perspective on sneaking along hallways at night, don't they?)

All the while, Lunch Money upholds its well-deserved rep as one of the just-plain-best-sounding kid bands around. In fact, between the band's musicianship and Ledford's easy, laid-back vocal style (which has already established her in my mind, at least, as one of the signature voices of today's kindie music), you might take this album to be a strong college-radio outing (with '90s influences like the Lemonheads, R.E.M., and even the softer side of Dinosaur Jr.) if you weren't listening to the lyrics too closely.

All of which is to say: For such an approachable, listener-friendly album, Spicy Kid is pretty darn sophisticated. And I know I always say this with these bands, but we already can't wait to hear what Lunch Money does next.

[Cover image courtesy of Lunch Money]

July 25, 2012

New Books: No Bears

I've said it before, but I keep finding new evidence: There's something special about Australian-born picture-book authors and illustrators. (For anyone who hasn't read my prior encomiums on this subject, the short version: Check out the work of Martine Murray, Sophie Blackall, and Freya Blackwood for starters.)

The most recent example is a new favorite of our three-year-old's, No Bears, written by Meg McKinlay and illustrated by Leila Rudge, in which a girl named Ella—one of those matter-of-fact, feisty girls Australia is apparently full of, given how perfectly the nation's authors capture the type—tells us about the book she's writing. It's an adventure story about a princess, but this narrator wants to make things clear from the start: There will be no bears in this tale, because "I'm tired of bears. Every time you read a book, it's just BEARS BEARS BEARS—horrible furry bears slurping honey in awful little caves. You don't need BEARS for a book."

And she goes on to prove the point: Her princess is kidnapped by a terrible monster, then rescued by a fairy godmother, without a bear to be seen. Well, except for that one outside the "frame" of the illustrations, who seems to be helping Ella create both the story and the art. And who also seems to step into the story herself momentarily to save the day when that fairy godmother has misplaced her wand. And who can be seen at the end telling all Ella's characters what really happened. But other than that, nope, no bears here at all.

No Bears is sweet, it's funny, it's clever, and it's visually imaginative. In other words, it's everything I've come to expect from a picture book from Australians!

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]

July 23, 2012

Security Blanket: Lego Harry Potter for iPad

Well, I had intended, in advance of our family's recent vacation in western Ontario (where, I was warned by my in-laws, Internet service might be spotty at best), to bank a number of posts to be automatically posted while I was gone. But amid the frenetic planning that always precedes family vacations, those intentions fell by the wayside, and the result has been a long gap between posts, even by my fairly laid-back standards.

So I'm going to be posting a little more frequently than usual for what remains of July, to try to make up for that (as well as to get my total posts for the month in the column on the right to a slightly less embarrassing number). I'll plunge into the new stuff—of which there's plenty to catch up on—a little later this week, but today I'd like to simply express my gratitude to a video game.

You see, thanks to the joint efforts of our original major airline (which canceled our 6 a.m. flight at about 11 p.m. the night before, well after we'd gone to bed in preparation for a very early trip to the airport, and thus too late to notify us in time to prevent us from getting up at 3 a.m.) and the other major airline we were then transferred to (which, after several hours of weather-related delays, boarded us onto a plane that, as the pilots discovered while taxiing to the runway, had a mechanical problem that required another couple of hours to fix, and apparently had no other planes on hand that could be substituted for it), we spent a bit over 10 hours in the Minneapolis airport before finally taking off in a functioning aircraft. (I leave the major carriers nameless because, let's face it, these days it could have happened—does happen, routinely—on any of them.)

All of which, with a seven-year-old and a three-year-old in tow, could have been a complete nightmare—but for my iPad and the LEGO Harry Potter game I'd loaded onto it a while back, for just such occasions. It kept our older son mesmerized for most of those hours, and our younger one (mostly just watching!) for a decent number of them as well. It was still not exactly a fun day, of course, for any of us, but it could have—and not that long ago would have—been far worse. And for that, makers of Lego Harry Potter (ooh, I see the second game in the series has come to iOS now as well!), we cannot thank you enough.

[Image courtesy of TT Games]

July 2, 2012

New Music: Science Fair


I guess the first big wave of all-star music compilation albums for charity came in the 1980s, coming off the high-profile all-star singles of Band Aid and USA for Africa (though really George Harrison's Bangladesh concert in the mid-'70s probably inaugurated the general concept). Following the premise that whatever was big during the childhoods of those of us who are now parents will become big anew in children's entertainment, it's not shocking that we've started to see some great all-star kid-music compilations of late. The great thing these—besides the no-longer-even-remarkable fact that the genre indisputably has more than enough leading lights to fill several such CDs—is that the best ones give kids and parents a chance to sample the genre, and perhaps even find some new favorite artists.

The very best compilation I've come across is 2010's Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti, which raised $50,000 for relief after the Haitian earthquake, and now the label behind that album, Spare the Rock Records, has its second release. Science Fair was created to address the continued underrepresentation of women in science-related fields—all its net proceeds will be donated to Girls Inc.'s science-education program—and accordingly, it features songs about science written and performed by many of the kid genre's top female artists. (It's even co-produced by two of them, Elizabeth Mitchell and Lunch Money's Molly Ledford, along with Bill Childs and the ubiquitous Dean Jones.)

Many of our family's favorite artists are here with typically top-notch contributions—the aforementioned Lunch Money and Mitchell, as well as Frances EnglandBarbara Brousal (whose name may be unfamiliar, but whose gorgeous voice is unforgettable to any parent who wore out Dan Zanes's first several albums), and Secret Agent 23 Skidoo (here backing up MC Fireworks, aka his daughter, on the ebullient "Rocket Science"). A couple of bands known for their non-kid music make an appearance as well: '90s Brooklyn rock band Babe the Blue Ox with the dissonant, new-wave-y "Surfin' Minnesota" (which our three-year-old has dubbed his top pick on the album); and Mates of State with a fitting cover of Guided by Voices' "I Am a Scientist" (the video for which is below!).

And yet, the tour de force of the album, by vote of all four members of our family, is the somewhat lesser known—at least on the East Coast!—Lori Henriques's lyrically adept "Heisenberg's Aha!," in which she somehow manages to explain the uncertainty principle in the style of Kurt Weill. (And it's catchy—our seven-year-old pressed "repeat" several times after the first play!)

It all adds up to another top compilation from Spare the Rock that makes contributing to a good cause a doubly pleasurable experience.



[Cover image courtesy of Spare the Rock Records]