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December 23, 2010

2010 Wrap: Music

As I've mentioned before, I don't feel confident that I'm seeing absolutely everything out there in kids' music, books, etc., these days, not like I did (or thought I did, anyway) when I was covering this beat for a national magazine. So a traditional "top 10" list for the year in each category seems presumptuous—I'm sure there's a ton of great stuff that came out in 2010 that I missed entirely.

So instead, I'm just going to humbly put forward a few posts of the best kids' entertainment I've seen this year. Most of it will be items I've covered previously in this blog, but a few will be stragglers I never got around to, or am still hoping to get to, if they came out recently.

I'll start with music, the easiest category for me to tackle because I've sort of done it already, as a voter in the annual Fids & Kamily Awards. I won't just reproduce my ballot here, though—the cutoff dates for that voting ended at October 2010 releases, and my best-of-what-I've-heard includes some stuff that came out after that date.

So here, in no particular order, are the kids' music CDs our family discovered this year that never seem to go out of rotation.

Underground Playground, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo. I've raved about Skidoo on multiple occasions already in this space, but I'm still blown away that anyone could manage to make hip-hop for children, well, listenable at all. And Skidoo's sophomore output (as his debut was) is far more than that; with his old-school beats and smart, sharp rhymes, he puts a smile on your face and a bounce in your kid's steps. And the other way around, too.

Mind of My Own, Frances England. She's the other artist I couldn't stop talking about this year, and her third album lived up to her first two. You know how, with a really good album by an artist you like, you gravitate toward certain songs on the first several listens, but then toward different ones after a few more, obsessing over each group in turn until nearly every track has been your "favorite"? This is that kind of album, for kids and parents alike.

The Final Funktier, Recess Monkey. This is undeniably a goofy CD, and in kids' music a little of that goes a long way, especially for parents. The difference with the prolific Recess Monkey that these guys are really good, as both songwriters and musicians. Their songs could hardly be catchier, and when you find yourself humming them to yourself at the office, you're not horrified like you are when the tune is "Elmo's World" or the map song from Dora. You just laugh at yourself for a moment—and then keep on humming.

Sunny Day, Elizabeth Mitchell. The most soothing voice in kids' music today is, not surprisingly, responsible for the standout "cool-down" album of the year. What is surprising—though really, given her previous track record, it shouldn't be—is her ability to preserve that warm, calm vibe through songs well beyond the comfort zone of the folk-acoustic genre. This CD can be the answer to a parent's craziest morning.

Original Friend, Lunch Money. I'm still planning a full writeup of this South Carolina trio's excellent third album, but suffice it to say for now that it hasn't emerged from the CD changer since we acquired it. With a sound that would fit right in on any indie or college radio station, and smart, smooth, irresistibly likeable vocals by guitarist Molly Ledford, Lunch Money is another of those special bands producing songs kids love that parents can often forget is kids' music.

Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti,various artists. This CD to benefit victims of the Haitian earthquake contains tracks by every single one of the artists I've just mentioned, as well as much of the rest of the genre's top talent, from Pete Seeger to Jonathan Coulton to They Might Be Giants to Gustafer Yellowgold to Dan Zanes...the list really does go on and on. Far and away the best kids' music compilation I've ever encountered, it's the perfect way to find out which of today's kids' musicians might be your children's (and your) favorites, and of course it serves a most worthy cause.

[Images, from top: courtesy of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo; courtesy of Frances England; Kevin Fry/courtesy of Recess Monkey; courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell; Brandon Reese/courtesy of Lunch Moneycourtesy of Spare the Rock Records]

December 14, 2010

More Zanes Holiday Music

I realized recently that a traditional magazine-style "gift guide" for this blog would be kind of redundant—it would end up being largely a repetition of most of the new products I've written about this year, and anyone can get that already by simply clicking on "new books," etc., among the tags on the right sidebar.

However, I am working on a series of best-of-2010 posts, which will include both stuff I've covered here and things I either missed the first time around or just couldn't find space for. Those should begin later this week, I hope, assuming I vanquish my own remaining Christmas shopping as planned.

In the meantime, Dan Zanes has conveniently enough posted a couple more holiday songs on his website, first a simple acoustic performance of "Silent Night" (posted up top, for you traditionalists) and then a repost of his four-year-old holiday recording for Heifer International, "Holiday Time in Brooklyn" (below, for my Kings County readership). Check 'em out!

December 9, 2010

Old School: Tintin

I remember when a friend introduced me to the world of Tintin. I can't remember exactly how old I was, probably about seven or eight, and he brought out what looked like comic books...but they were bound, and different from American superhero ones. (Basically these were my first graphic novels, though that term wasn't yet in use, and seems rarely applied to bound Europeans series like Tintin and Asterix anyway.)

I was blown away by the adventures, the humor, and the storytelling, and I also recall being a bit hypnotized by the exoticism—these were from Europe, and at the time were a little hard to find in U.S. stores. (Well, only a few stores carried them, at any rate.) I tore through them, as many of my schoolmates did the same, and there was a little competition among us to grab copies of the ones we hadn't read yet from the school library.

In the last year or so, our six-year-old has been pulling down the three or four Tintin books I still have, and so I've been rediscovering them as he discovers them for the first time. As many parents have noted through the years, they are of their times (the Belgian writer-illustrator Hergé created the bulk of his oeuvre between 1930 and 1950) in ways both good and bad. The bad causes occasional generational hubbub—I vaguely remember one from when I was a kid, and recently there was a controversy at the Brooklyn Public Library that put one early Tintin book in a locked room.

Yes, there is some offensive stuff in the Tintin books. Most of it involves a general (and typical of much European pop culture of the time, as anyone who's read Agatha Christie novels knows) patronizing attitude toward nonwhite peoples of the globe. Tintin is almost invariably defending these peoples against violently racist and venal Europeans who want to abuse/enslave/exploit the hapless third-worlders, but there is unquestionably an offputting sense of innocent, simple races that must be protected and treated kindly by their European betters. In a few of the books, Herge goes beyond this into awful stereotype. (His portrayal of a group of Africans whom Tintin rescues from being enslaved by the bad guys in The Red Sea Sharks comes to mind, in how he makes them both appear and speak).

This is a bit uncomfortable, and difficult to explain to a young child—but I also think the all-too-recent past of open racism is a subject they're going to encounter sooner or later, especially in classic literature, film, or television from the period. Tintin books are as good a way to confront it as any. Better, even, since Herge's plots often use real history as their backdrop—The Blue Lotus, for instance, is explicit about (and extremely critical of) Japan's move to dominate China in the 1930s. His drawings of Asians use upsetting stereotypes, and his "the Japanese are bad; the Chinese are good" message is obviously simplistic, but he does make the Japansese characters bad mainly because they demonstrably do bad things, not simply because they're Japanese.

But none of this is the reason you'll want to read Tintin with your kids. It's because these are some of the seminal Western adventure stories, drawing on a prior generation of European thrillers and unquestionably influencing those that followed. (Reading the Scotland-set The Black Island with Dash, I couldn't help noticing how many of the story elements turn up in Hitchcock films—for instance, there's a scene in which a biplane dives to attack Tintin on the ground, just like the famous one that chases Cary Grant in North by Northwest, which was filmed some years later.) The stories are riveting, true page-turners; the characters broad but unforgettable, and quickly beloved to kids and adults alike, from the plucky hero himself to his blustery sidekick Captain Haddock to the brilliant but absent-minded Professor Calculus to the bumbling near-twin detectives Thompson and Thomson. I sense Dash is on the cusp of flying through the entire series just as I did more than 30 years ago. And I can't wait myself.

I should add that there's one more reason to be excited about Tintin right now: Steven Spielberg's 3-D animation Tintin movie is scheduled to arrive in theaters next December. Based on The Secret of the Unicorn and featuring a voice cast that includes Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies) as Captain Haddock, Daniel Craig as villain Red Rackham, and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott) as Tintin himself, it would seem to have a good shot at doing the books justice. You can bet we'll be there.

[Image: Courtesy of Little, Brown]

December 6, 2010

New Music: (Free!) Dan Zanes Hanukkah Song

I suspect that the Venn diagram of my readership and Dan Zanes's devoted audience has quite a bit of overlap, but for those outside the Zanes circle: The award-winning kids'-music giant has released a nifty recording of the Hanukkah song "Ner Li" for free download on his website. And I even managed to get the news up here before the holiday ended—still a few more days! Check it out.

[Photo: Gala Narezo]

December 1, 2010

New Books: Other Goose

I always feel like I owe author-illustrator J. Otto Seibold. Back in my Cookie magazine days, his books ended up as the last cut from our Reviews section on a few separate occasions. (My blog is not exactly a fair substitute for coverage in a national print magazine, I know, but I do what I can.) As I recall, it was Seibold's prolific nature—he seems to come out with a new book annually at least—that worked against him: We always figured we'd be able to get one of his books in eventually. Then the magazine was shut down. There's a lesson there somewhere, isn't there?

At any rate, magazine space-limitation minutiae aside, Seibold's work always stands out among the crowd of picture books. It's mostly about his illustrative style, which is all his own: seemingly retro cartoon–inspired but using vivid colors and lots of marvelously offbeat embellishments. That makes sense, because the themes of his books tend to be pretty offbeat themselves; he's probably best known for Olive, the Other Reindeer, a collaboration with writer Vivian Walsh about a dog who becomes confused by the apparent mention of her name in the Rudolph song (get it?) and heads to the North Pole to become Santa's helper. (It even became an animated Christmas movie, made by Matt Groening and starring the voice of Drew Barrymore, among other stars.)

Seibold's latest, Other Goose, joins the growing group of nursery-rhyme mash-ups and takeoffs that seems to have begun with Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka's The Stinky Cheese Man. Less deconstructionist than its now-classic predecessor, Other Goose leans instead toward the purely eccentric, refashioning the old rhyming stories into new poems that...well, change the focus a bit. Humpty Dumpty's tragedy, for instance, is now about a lost shoe.

But the real draw, as always with Seibold, is the art itself; there's not another illustrator like him working today. (I don't think there really ever has been....) And while his manic, colorful, superbusy style probably won't appeal to every kid, or parent, those who embrace it will spend hours dazzled by spread after spread of visual eye candy, as our six-year-old did.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

November 29, 2010

New DVDs: Toy Story 3

I suspect that most parents have seen Toy Story 3 by now, either in the theater this summer or on DVD since its recent release. (In the latter case, you've doubtless seen it…countless times.) Our family is no exception—Dash went with his mom when it first came out, and we've owned the DVD since a few seconds after it was available—but I myself had missed out on actually seeing it until this past weekend.

Anyway, no surprise: It's the usual Pixar masterpiece—funny, moving, playing simultaneously to kids and parents on a bunch of levels. Or at least it shouldn't have been a surprise to me, since the animation studio has been spoiling us all into such expectations for years now. But somehow, I hadn't been expecting as much this time around. My line of thinking when I first heard about the movie went something like: A second follow-up to a 15-year-old movie? Man, I'd really rather see Pixar break new ground. I guess Disney's just cashing in on the massively successful franchise. If Pixar is ever going to disappoint, this would be the one.

Well, I was wrong. Toy Story 3 offers up the same brand of ultrasmart writing, directing, and animation we've seen recently in WALL-E and Ratatouille. Once more, live-action studios could take lessons from Pixar's brain trust in matters like exposition, here provided in slightly-dark-yet-humorous form by a grizzled Chatter Telephone (playing the Elisha Cook, Jr. role) and, for the vital villain backstory, a burnt-out toy clown named Chuckles (voiced by the always brilliant Bud Luckey). And yet the bonds among the core group of toys, and between them and their now-grown owner, are realistic enough to make the film's deeper explorations of love and loss genuinely moving; Pixar's remain the only animated films at which kids often are called upon to comfort their parents, rather than the other way around.

So, Pixar: I can't believe I ever doubted you. I am so sorry. It will never happen again. Not even with your toughest test of my expectations yet, the upcoming Cars 2.

[Image: Courtesy of © Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.]

November 24, 2010

Old School: Kids' Classics (Free!) for iPad

The holiday season is upon us, and with it every parent's favorite pastime, family travel. Every generation thinks it has the worst of things, but ever-longer airport lines and the latest guessing games in the TSA circus are making the temptation for ours to lay claim to the title pretty strong. So more than ever, it never hurts to be loaded for bear several times over when it comes to keeping the kids occupied through all that waiting. On the other hand, extra books to pack are…not exactly welcome.

But for parents with iPads, there's a solution to this dilemma, assuming they plan to bring the gadget along for the trip. (If you're anything like me, you've refused to be parted from yours since you acquired it, so that shouldn't be a problem.) Best of all, it's free—ignoring the high cost of the iPad itself, of course, but if you do have one already....

I've mentioned before that tons of classic children's literature, like pretty much all classic out-of-copyright books, has long been available free of charge online, courtesy of Project Gutenberg, which has spent many years painstakingly transcribing them for public use. The only problem was that the PDFs you could grab off the website weren't formatted in a terribly friendly-to-read way.

Enter the iPad and its (free) iBooks app. In the app's store, under the "Classics" entry in the Categories tab, you'll find a library's worth of classic titles (scroll down for the "free" section), including lots of stuff for kids of any age: Alice in Wonderland. Treasure Island. The Secret Garden. If it's more than a century old, it's probably here.

When you download a title, it shows up on your iBooks shelf just as any new, purchased book would—formatted in the font of your choice, with adjustable print size, and easy to read in portrait or landscape view. There's an occasional layout hiccup with illustrations (sometimes the captions bump the regular text in slightly odd ways), but all in all, the books look great in this format. And they're all ready to hand over to your ten-year-old during that layover, or to use as bedtime reading at Grandma's house.

And those who haven't encountered these classics with their kids before may be surprised at how well they hold up—there really is a reason they've lasted this long, after all. (And as corny as it sounds, there's something about reading A Christmas Carol to your kids on Christmas Eve. That Dickens fella could write a little.)

Plus, if you're feeling your literary oats yourself (or, horror of horrors, you exhaust your existing airport reading), you can download Pride and Prejudice once the kids are safely asleep—or, if you're really ambitious, War and Peace! All free!

(I know that similar wonders are achievable on the Kindle, Nook, etc., but since I don't have those particular gadgets, I can't answer for the quality of the text on those. Anyone know offhand if they, too, give you the free books with the same formatting quality as the ones you'd purchase for those tablets?)

[Cover image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

November 23, 2010

New Music: The New Explorers Club (Plus, Free Music!)

As I struggle to keep up with all the good kids' music that's come out this fall, I have two reasons to go with Maine's own Flannery Brothers next. The first is that their latest album, The New Explorers Club, which was released in October, is irresistible to kids, upbeat and offbeat in all the best ways. (My personal favorite track: "Pirate or Parrot," which helpfully educates listeners about ways to tell the difference between the two; I can't restrain a smile every time I hear it.)

The other is that the Flannery Brothers are also giving away for free a second album on their website: Dance Songs for Silly Kids, a remix of their 2009 release Love Songs for Silly Things. So parents who aren't yet familiar with the brothers' work can go to the site and get a full CD's worth of tracks to test-drive before purchasing The New Explorer's Club. (I think most will.)

[Cover image courtesy of the Flannery Brothers; photograph by Anthony Arnista]

November 18, 2010

New Books: Bambert's Book of Missing Stories

You can tell at a glance that the late Reinhold Jung’s Bambert's Book of Missing Stories is something out of the ordinary for a children’s chapter book. Maybe it’s the suitably evocative illustrations by Emma Chichester Clark, done expressly for this edition of Anthea Bell’s 2002 translation from the original German (though it’s hard, now, to imagine it without them). Or perhaps it’s the title, a clue that this is a book about a book—a book about itself, in a way.

In it, Bambert, a disabled, very small man who lives as a recluse in an attic apartment in an unnamed European (presumably German) city, takes his mind off his painful existence by writing stories—stories that no one else ever reads. Eventually, he ties ten stories to separate tea-light hot-air balloons and releases them out his window, hoping they will drift to far-off places and be enjoyed by people there. He includes with each a request that the finder mail the story back to him, with the details of where and whom it’s being returned from. He also sends off an eleventh balloon, this one carrying blank sheets of paper—the final story in what will be Bambert’s book, he feels, must somehow write itself before returning home.

At first there are no responses, and Bambert becomes depressed, but finally the stories do start to come back. And as he opens them, and replaces each story’s generic location and background with ones specific to the places where each was found, we are told the stories, one by one. (There’s a twist to how and why the foreign-stamped letters are returning to Bambert, but I won’t spoil it here.)

The individual stories make use of many tropes from classic European folk tales and fables, so that while every story is completely original, it feels strangely familiar to the reader, reminiscent of everything from the Grimm tales to The Little Prince. They do not shy away from dark subjects, either; Bambert’s (and Jung’s) intent, we soon realize, is to grapple with the world’s evils—repression, injustice, cruelty, war, and even genocide come up, and not always in merely allegorical ways. As a result, they have a placid force; collectively, the stories seem to stand for art’s power to help us deal with, and sometimes heal, the pains and wounds life hands us.

This makes for a heavy book to be reading at bedtime to young kids, of course, and you’ll want to be prepared—and maybe to prepare them—for the grim realities described in some of the tales. (It’s not a bad idea to read it yourself quickly first; since it’s an engrossing 100-page read in fairly large type, it won’t feel onerous.) My six-year-old, while interested in the book’s concept, wasn’t as engaged as he usually is by chapter books, I think partially because he was a bit spooked by the stories’ increasing darkness. (I should add that the book ends on a satisfyingly happy note about a sad thing; it does, in the end, convey a positive message.)

But for kids a little older, nine to twelve or so—especially those who may be starting to consider difficult questions, like why bad things happen to good peopleBambert’s Book of Missing Stories will be a revelation, I think, unlike any children’s book they’ve read. Moving and thoughtful, and haunting in the very best sense of the word, it’s beautifully accomplished, and an excellent bridge for kids who are becoming interested in serious adult fiction.

[Cover image courtesy of Trafalgar Square Publishing.]

November 11, 2010

New Music: Mind of My Own

Sometimes I forget that not every parent is as immersed in the world of kids’ music as I am. Take Frances England, for instance: I sometimes take it for granted that now, with the release of her third album, everyone knows about her immense talent and puts her in her rightful place at the very forefront of today’s children’s musicians.

Then I remember that it took time (and often an established prior career in music for adults) for artists like Dan Zanes to build their reps—and also that parents of young kids have, shall we say, a number of draws for their attention, children’s musicians generally not being at the forefront. So for the uninitiated, here’s a quick recap of England’s path thus far.

Back in 2006, England recorded a set of songs for a fundraiser for her son’s preschool. She didn’t think of herself as a professional musician, and she didn’t expect anyone outside that circle to ever hear it. But Fascinating Creatures blew away everyone who heard it, and word began to spread. A few months later, it won the 2007 Oppenheim Platinum Music Award, and kids’-music critics (including my former colleague at Cookie, Christopher Healy, who taught me everything I know about covering this beat) were singing the praises of this out-of-nowhere independent artist.

Understandably, anticipation was high for England’s follow-up, 2008’s Family Tree. It didn’t disappoint; both CDs would end up on critics’ lists of the top ten kids’ albums of the decade. It’s a common reviewer’s tool to compare new artists to established ones, but the striking thing about England is that from the start, her sound has been all her own. She’s by no means without influences, of course, and as you listen you’re put in mind of artists like Ani DiFranco, Suzanne Vega, Tift Merritt, Neko Case, and even They Might Be Giants. But her songs never sound “just like” someone else.

More to the point, her unique sound is really, really good; England has established herself with almost disturbing ease as one of the best songwriters in the genre. On her latest release, Mind of My Own, she works for the first time with a full band, several guest artists, and an outside producer (Tor Hyams, whose credits include work with Perry Farrell, Lisa Loeb, and Deborah Harry). But she never lets that core of solid composition and musicianship get away from her—and so, for a third time, she’s given us one of the tightest, best-crafted CDs you’ll ever hear.

Mind of My Own also has a candylike appeal to kids—it’s one of those albums that goes into the CD changer and doesn’t come out for months. Our six-year-old in particular just keeps playing it over and over again, circling back multiple times to sing along with the insanely catchy “All the Ways.” As always, all the tracks are remarkably strong—there are no weak links on a Frances England album—but highlights for our family include the peppy title track (about all the great ideas kids have that their parents find somewhat less that great); the whimsical, TMBG-esque bio-song “Jacques Cousteau”; and the sweetly matter-of-fact “Place in Your Heart” (a love song from the POV of a child’s favorite cuddle toy). In addition to her massive musical and vocal talents, England has a knack for writing smart, clever lyrics that encapsulate child experiences and viewpoints from their perspective. Her songs feel true to kids, not the least bit patronizing or “talking down” to them, and not surprisingly, they like that a lot.

So okay: Frances England is probably not, to this point, as well known as TMBG or Zanes or Laurie Berkner. But she should be. And with CDs like her first two and now Mind of My Own, I’d say she’s well on her way. (Check out her blog, too!)

[Cover image courtesy of Frances England]

November 7, 2010

New Books: Lots of Dots

With the latest book he’s chosen to obsess about at bedtime, our two-year-old, Griffin, seems to have an eye for design. In Lots of Dots, graphic designer Craig Frazier uses a vivid pop-art style to explore all the different dots, circles, and spheres we encounter in everyday life, from little ladybugs to skateboard wheels to scoops of ice cream to bubbles. It’s a common theme in picture books for young kids, but Frazier puts his own individual stamp on it, making each bright circle seem to jump out from the page.

And it may be because it’s fitting perfectly into his current developmental stage—as an all-too-typical dad of a second child, I haven’t stayed quite as on top of that stuff lately, so I’m not certain—but Griff was captured by Frazier’s illustrations right away. He returns to the book again and again, pointing at the dots on each page as we go through. He’s even initiated a little game on the last spread (on which Frazier has given us a collection of all the dots we’ve just seen in the book), pointing to each item in turn and asking, “What’s that?” with a little smile—because by now, he really knows all the answers perfectly well.

That, to me, is the sign of a really good basic-genre picture book—it does the same thing many others do, but in a way that’s magically irresistible to your child. Lots of Dots most certainly qualifies.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

November 5, 2010

New Audiobooks: Ferdinand the Bull and Friends

A new audiobook/CD hybrid has entered our pantheon lately—a bit of a throwback-style recording, very much in the style of Peter and the Wolf. It’s titled Ferdinand the Bull and Friends, sensibly enough given that its first and largest portion consists of actor David Ogden Stiers—probably still best-known to our generation as the pompous Major Winchester on TV’s M*A*S*H—reading the Munro Leaf classic. He’s accompanied by music written for this recording by Mark Fish, and performed by cellist Nina Flyer and pianist Chie Nagatani, which makes use of themes for characters and recurring events, much as in the Prokofiev piece. It’s kid-friendly and just plain lovely, and Stiers reads wonderfully, capturing all the passion and beauty that’s kept this story alive all these years.

Also here is Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals, arranged by Fish and performed by the same musicians alongside clever poems by Ogden Nash (also read by Stiers) that were originally written to accompany a 1949 recording of the piece. Ravel’s beautiful Mother Goose Suite finishes things off. As if that weren’t enough, the CD is packaged with a fun little set of illustrated cards, one for each of the animals in the Saint-Saëns piece’s menagerie.

The entire package feels a bit unusual in this day and age, put together with a touch of whimsy rather than the firm marketing hand we’ve come to expect in entertainment products. The effect is refreshing, but more than that, everything works together marvelously. Our boys (especially the six-year-old) were both mesmerized by the music and Stiers’s voice from the start of the recording. For some reason—and I admit this may just be a strange association of mine—it’s been our go-to-recording to put on for the kids on a Sunday morning after breakfast, a little non-force-fed culture to start off the day.

[Image courtesy of North Pacific Music.]

November 1, 2010

New Books: Built to Last

This is a new book that’s also nostalgic for me: My parents bought me a copy of David Macaulay’s Cathedral when I was eleven or so, and it more or less lasted me all my childhood. (A true ethnocentric New Yorker even at that age, I initially thought it was about the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which was a few blocks from our apartment. I don’t really remember, but I’m hoping I didn’t come across more than a couple of references to medieval times before realizing my mistake….)

All of Macaulay’s work, from the early architectural books to The New Way Things Work and the more recent The Way We Work, is nearly as fascinating to me now as an adult as it was (or would have been) when I was a child. The author is deservedly renowned for his use of illustration to clarify and explain just about anything, and the three books that make up the new compendium Built to LastCastle, Cathedral, and Mosque—established that reputation. In them, Macaulay delineates, step by step, the amazing process of construction of these three mammoth structures in the 13th (for the first two) and 16th centuries.

Children with a taste for architectural renderings or simply drawing in three dimensions will be dazzled by all three, naturally. But those less gifted in spatial intelligence—and I most certainly count myself among them—will also find a lot to love. As readers of any of Macaulay’s books know, the author is driven to analyze and explain everything about a subject, and so he delves into the historical background of these buildings as well: not just how, but why they were built, and what purpose they served in their worlds politically and socially. It’s a take on nonfiction writing for children that’s had a deep influence on a generation of authors, and for good reason: It provides an awful lot for curious minds of all kinds to latch onto.

While I can’t recommend Built to Last enough to those who don’t already have copies of the original volumes at home—the three-in-one makes a nice gift!—parents who hung on to their old childhood editions for their own kids may want to consider it as well. Because Macaulay wasn’t content to just repackage his books in one volume, in the traditional, low-effort way—instead, he took the opportunity to revisit his old classics. He’s made various changes and additions where he felt they were necessary or helpful, and he’s also rendered all of the first two books in color. (Both were originally all black-and-white.) The result is a book that feels far more integrated as one entity than most compilations of this sort do.

I’ll let the author himself have the last word, in this brief explanation of his goals for the updated, all-in-one edition of these books:

[Cover image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]

October 27, 2010

Security Blanket: Dashiell's Halloween Picks

My almost-six-year-old has, from a remarkably early age, been fascinated by all things scary and spooky, and by Halloween in particular. I don’t know if it’s an association with his birthday (which falls just five days later), or pure temperament, but it sometimes borders on obsession—he spends much of the year counting the months not till Christmas, but till the end of October, and he has for some years now had his costumes selected for every upcoming Halloween until about 2025.

Accordingly, he has a large and ever-growing section of Halloween- and otherwise spooky-themed books and videos. Seeing as the holiday approaches, I thought I’d post a list of his favorites of the moment (as of 8 p.m. on October 26, at any rate—favorites lists move fast at this age!).

The Monsterologist: A Memoir in Rhyme, by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Adam McCauley. A collection of whimsical monster-themed poems, kind of Shel Silverstein–style, framed as a series of recollections by a professional studier of monster. It’s packaged marvelously with foldouts and evocative illustrations that assist in the illusion.

That Terrible Halloween Night, by James Stevenson. A recent library discovery (as it will have to be for others; it appears to be out of print)—a fun little picture book from 1980 on which a grandfather explains why, ever since a certain Halloween long ago, nothing really scares him anymore. Stevenson, a former New Yorker writer and cartoonist who’s written literally hundreds of children’s books (What’s Under My Bed? being perhaps the most famous), displays his usual gentle humor throughout.

The Dangerous Alphabet, by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Gris Grimley. The darkest, creepiest, most macabre ABC book since Edward Gorey’s Gashleycrumb Tinies. No actual demises here, but a lot of creepy, disturbing (but very clever) imagery alongside the smart writing—Gaiman and Grimley manage to pack a remarkable amount of storytelling into the usually limiting alphabet framework. It might be a bit too disturbing for many kids of the age to be reading even very sophisticated ABC picture books. Dash, of course, took to it immediately and loves it still.

Vunce upon a Time, by J. Otto Seibold and Siobhan Vivian, illustrated by J. Otto Seibold. Author-illustrator Seibold’s trademark vivid, trippy aesthetic makes this story of a shy vegetarian vampire named Dagmar, who learns to face his fear of humans, memorable indeed.

Tell Me Another Scary Story...but Not Too Scary!, by Carl Reiner, illustrated by James Bennett. I mentioned this book in this space not long ago, and it’s still in heavy rotation, largely thanks to the included CD with the author’s own evocative reading of his tale.

The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s not like it was a surprise that would be one of Dash’s favorites. But we were a bit taken aback at how early in his life it happened—he saw a preview for it on another DVD when he was just three, and would not stop pestering us until we agreed to let him see it. Thinking he might be too young, we had remote in hand should anything prove too scary. But, as always seems to happen in such cases, he loved it passionately start to finish, and wasn’t frightened a bit. In what’s probably news to exactly no one, this is a fantastic movie to enjoy with the entire family this time of year; for a 17-year-old animated film, it holds up amazingly well.

The Teacher from the Black Lagoon…and More Slightly Scary Stories. An entry in the vast and excellent Scholastic Storybook Treasures collection of classic kids’s books turned into lightly animated videos, it became a go-to almost immediately. This one is an adaptation of a classic fear-of-school book, in which a kid’s worries about his new teacher turn out to be somewhat...overblown. The DVD also includes versions of Mike Thaler and Jared Lee’s several sequels (in which the same boy’s similar angst about the librarian, gym teacher, etc., is dispelled), and Dash loves them all.

Monsters vs. Aliens. This big-budget animated blockbuster from last year isn’t all that Halloween-y (though I suppose the old B horror flicks that inspired it were), but Dash insisted that I include it. It’s funny, it’s well-acted by the usual dazzling roster of Hollywood stars performing in today’s animated fare (here it’s Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Seth Rogan, and Paul Rudd, among others), and it features monsters. what’s not to like?

Thriller Mummy Doll. What can I say? We saw it in the store (I think it was Michaels), and it got us. We are suckers. I think it’s the head twitch that does it. Still makes me laugh every time:

[Photo: Whitney Webster]

October 21, 2010

New Books: Shadow

It’s a little strange, given that I’m a words person both personally and professionally, that some of my very favorite children’s picture books in recent years have been wordless, or nearly so. Last year, it was Jerry Pinckney’s resplendent The Lion and the Mouse that I was flipping over (since it ended up winning the Caldecott, I guess I wasn’t alone!). And I recently encountered its equivalent for 2010: Shadow, by Suzy Lee.

In a way, this shouldn’t be so surprising, since the first picture book I read by this South Korean–born author-illustrator was one of the highlights of my four years covering children’s books at Cookie magazine. Wave, a word-free narrative of a little girl’s encounter with the ocean, demonstrated Lee’s immense talent not just as an artist but as a storyteller. The book is downright cinematic, as clever and funny and smart as great silent films, and all the parents and kids I knew fell in love with it instantly.

In Shadow, Lee uses the same basic framework—again, the story is told through progressive illustrative variation on one basic idea. But while both titles are, at root, about playful imagination, this one has a very different, and perhaps even more ideal, setting. The book, which you read turned on its side horizontally (in other words, each page has “landscape” orientation), begins with a little girl switching on the light in a cluttered attic. You see the typical contents of such a space (a ladder, old boots, a hanging bicycle, a broom, a vacuum cleaner) above the fold, and below it, the shadows cast by each object, all rendered in charming black-and-white charcoal-and-pencil drawings.

On the next spread, the girl sees the shadows and begins to play—and her imagination starts to take hold of what we see right away. While the shading at the bottom half continues to reflect what she’s literally doing above at first—making a bird shadow with her hands, say—the dark shapes quickly start to morph on their own, the broom and ladder becoming jungle flowers and vegetation, the bicycle wheels a couple of moons, the vacuum cleaner an elephant, and so on.

Soon the “real” world above the fold starts to disappear, leaving only the girl herself, while the shadow world of play correspondingly fills out more and more, takes on color, and eventually invades and takes over both halves of each spread. The girl joins and interacts with her mind’s creations, the scene becoming more and more jubilant and wild, until the book’s only words—“Dinner’s ready!”—interrupt.

The pages immediately flash back to attic and shadows, respectively (with most of the attic’s contents in the top half in different places than they were before, and in even greater disarray). The girl clicks off the light, and there’s one black spread of complete darkness—before another click. At the end, we see the shadow creatures of the girl’s imagination—and the girl’s shadow too!—still dancing on the bottom half of the last spread.

My description doesn’t do it all justice, but maybe this will: The first time you read the book, if you’re anything like me, you will be turning each page in open-mouthed astonishment at the simple sophistication of what Lee is doing. And by the book’s end, you will be unable to repress a gigantic grin at what you’ve just experienced. Shadow is marvelous, the best picture book I’ve seen this year. And I can’t wait to see what Lee’s fertile mind and agile hand will turn to next.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

October 18, 2010

New Music: Sunny Day

A good deal of the excellent kids’ music I hear these days is uptempo, upbeat, and just generally up. Sure, Recess Monkey will throw in a slow song or even a lullaby now and then, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. And albums of nothing-but-lullabyes are often unsuitable for anything but putting actual infants to sleep, unable to hold the interest of toddlers (or their parents).

But then there’s Elizabeth Mitchell. Parents familiar with her previous three CDs, by now pretty much legends of the genre, already know of her ability to craft full albums of calm folky brilliance. On her latest release, Sunny Day, Mitchell and her family (mainly her husband, Daniel Littleton, and their nine-year-old daughter, Storey, who wrote two of the album’s 19 songs) branch out a little musically and work with some big names from both kid and adult music, without ever losing the pleasingly placid vibe that’s her trademark.

There are plenty of the traditional and original folk songs, charmingly arranged for banjo and guitar and the like, with which this artist first made her name. There are gorgeous covers in the same mold, from the Carter Family classic “Keep on the Sunny Side” (in which she’s joined by Levon Helm of The Band fame) to the 1937 hit “My Little Buckaroo” (a duet with Jon Langford of the Mekons). And then there are somewhat more surprising covers: Helm helping out again on both a properly rockin’ (yet somehow still soothing—I’m not certain how Mitchell does it!) rendition of Chuck Berry’s “School Days” that’s sung smartly by Storey, and a cool, driving version of “Mystery Train”; a warm, stripped-down take on Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day.”

The music sounds fabulous throughout, and the arrangements and instrumentation chosen seems to suit each song perfectly, some quite plain, some a lot more complex, but all just right. And then there’s Mitchell’s voice—smooth, gentle, sweet, with touches of Suzanne Vega and Natalie Merchant but really a sound all her own, it may be responsible for the most comforting vocals in kids’ music today.

If Mitchell’s previous work wasn’t also of such high quality, I’d call Sunny Day her masterpiece—but whatever I call it, it’s a parental must-have, perfect for those late afternoons and early evenings when everyone’s a bit tired and just wants some good music to laze around and unwind to. If she can get my two boys to crash on the sofa and just listen quietly together, as this CD already has on a few occasions, I’m pretty sure her magic will work on anyone…

[Cover image courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell]

October 13, 2010

Security Blanket: Dinosaur Train

For his first year-plus, it seemed as if our younger son, Griffin, had no interest in television whatsoever. This was one of those facts that was great in the abstract (“He’ll spend all his free time on reading and active play!”) but actually kind of a problem on a daily basis, at least once he started walking. You couldn’t distract him with videos or TV shows for a few minutes to cook dinner or take care of a necessary task or phone call. Since he’s the kind of kid who has the knack for finding the most dangerous item in any room to play with, this was not good.

Luckily for the bad parents in us, it was only a phrase. Griffin began watching PBS and Nickelodeon shows along with his five-year-old brother a few months back, first intermittently, then more enthusiastically. (Like the Body Snatchers, TV gets us all in the end.) He likes several of the same ones Dash is fond of, from Charlie and Lola to Super Why!, but there’s no question he has his very own favorite now: Dinosaur Train.

This program, which premiered on PBS in 2009, admittedly sounds like the cynical result of a Hollywood-style children’s-TV pitch meeting—“It’s got dinosaurs…and trains! Greenlight it, baby!” But this CGI-animation program is a product of the Jim Henson Company, and accordingly very sharp. Dinosaur Train’s main character is a young T. rex named Buddy, who has been adopted by a family of Pteranodons. He and his siblings are fascinated by the differences between dinosaur species, so each episode, their parents take them on, yes, the Dinosaur Train. The train takes them magically across the globe and through time to meet other dinosaurs from various lands and eras, allowing them to explore the entire span of the species's existence.

Kids get a basic background in the science behind each episode’s dinosaur, especially from short live-action segments with a real, live paleontologist. And the show’s writing is unfailingly informative and clever; the Archaeopteryx the family meets, for instance, has a German accent suitable to its actual dwelling place in what is now southern Germany. (The show follows this pattern throughout.)

Griffin, a typical two-year-old boy who loves both trains and dinosaurs, is this right in the forefront of the program’s target demographic; by now, he’s singing along with the theme song the moment it comes on. While watching, he is as dead to the world as any soap-opera addict; he will not be distracted from  his Dinosaur Train. And as disturbing as that may be, well, at least we can change a load of laundry without worrying Griff will scale the bookshelves before we return. Parenting is all about small victories, right?

[Images courtesy of the Jim Henson Company]

October 11, 2010

New Books: Art & Max

When you pick up a new children’s book by an author who’s won three Caldecotts, you know you’re probably in for something special. Art & Max, by David Wiesner (best-known to me for two of his winners, The Three Pigs and Flotsam), is nothing less than a picture book about the creative process itself. That might sound a little daunting for a young audience, but thanks to a savvy simplicity, Wiesner is remarkably effective at getting the message across to its intended target.

It’s a story of painting dinosaurs—the brusque, confident Arthur (clearly a carnivore) and eager but inexperienced little Max, who comes upon Arthur (whom he insists on calling “Art,” to his addressee’s great annoyance) painting a portrait and wants to try his hand at, well, art. Mainly to get Max to leave him in peace, Arthur sets him up with an easel and some paints.

Right away, Max comes up against one of the artist’s first challenges: What should he paint? Stumped, he asks Arthur, who suggests arrogantly that Max paint him. The smaller dinosaur loves the idea—and immediately starts slathering colors directly onto his friend’s body. Arthur’s reaction to this, and Max’s subsequent efforts to make things right, take the body of the larger dinosaur through a variety of vivid, even trippy combinations of color and deconstructed form. In the end, Max must break “art” down to its basic building blocks in order to put his friend back together.

There’s a giant metaphor going on here, of course, but I think the direct “Art = art” personification may be mostly for literary-device-steeped parental brains. What kids see is opportunity, at least if my two-year-old is any indication. Shortly after reading Art & Max for the first time, Griffin marched off to get his older brother’s crayons and spent an extended period of time drawing, designing, creating.... I’m generally not a believer in instant inspiration, but I can’t come up with another explanation. Griff was not much of a crayonist before reading this book; now they’re part of his daily regimen. And while I don’t know if the book will have this transformational effect on all two-year-olds, I’m certain most children will be fascinated (as my already-crayon-obsessed five-year-old is as well).

So I think Wiesner already at least one family in his corner, rooting for his unprecedented fourth Caldecott!

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

October 8, 2010

New Books: Mud Pies and Other Recipes

Every few months, another reissue from the New York Review of Books Children’s Collection comes out. And every few months, I have to rave about it here, because they’re all just amazing. This time, it’s Marjorie Winslow’s 1961 gem Mud Pies and Other Recipes, a “cookbook for dolls,” as author explains in the introduction, “written for kind climates and summertime.” (Not all kids are into dolls, true, but I find these recipes work just as well for loveys and stuffed animals.)

Winslow’s tone is studiously serious, as befits the subject matter, and children will appreciate the lack of any hint of a patronizing tone. Yet she accomplishes this while never losing a certain twinkle: “Doll cookery is not a very exacting art. The time it takes to cook a casserole depends on how long your dolls are able to sit at table without falling over.” (You can almost hear Julia Child saying it, can’t you?) The accompanying illustrations by Erik Blegvad are equally charming.

The recipes themselves range from basic appetizers (Stuffed Sea Shells: “Scoop up a shovelful of sand.... Pack this into the tiniest sea shells you can find. Sprinkle these with a pinch of dry sparkling sand and serve.”) to main dishes both spare (Fried Water: “Serve small portions, because this dish is rich as well as mouth-watering.”) and more complex (Left-Handed Meatloaf and its variant, Right-Handed Meatloaf). Desserts are not neglected (e.g., Pine Needle Upside-Down Cake), nor are appropriate wine pairings (Mums ’61, from the flowers, of course).

The whole thing is executed so brilliantly from start to finish, and is, like every NYRCC reissue, so gorgeously packaged, that this slim volume may just need to spend some time on adult nightstands as well as on kids’ shelves. (I know it did in our house.)

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

October 7, 2010

New Music: Sing a Little Song

Seattle’s Brian Vogan is one of those makers of children’s music whose songs, if you don’t listen to the lyrics, sound like they could be adult pop-chart hits from over the years. On their latest album, Sing a Little Song, he and his band, His Good Buddies, dabble in various genres, but present throughout is the influence of 1980s new wave, both the British (XTC, Nick Lowe, dare I say even Adam and the Ants?) and American (the Cars, late Talking Heads) varieties.

What that means is that while your kids will love these songs—mine were immediately asking to hear several tracks over and over, like the infectious opener, “How to Fly”—you will find yourself absent-mindedly grooving out as they play in the background of whatever vital parenting thing you’re trying to get done. The vibe is pleasantly familiar, and if the lyrics weren’t about counting and crossing the street and such, you might think you had an ’80s/’90s college-radio station on. (In fact, since Vogan doesn’t sing with a “kiddie” vocal sound in the slightest, and the musicianship and overall production are extremely tight, it’s easy to drift into such thoughts anyway.)

Of course, none of that would matter if the music didn’t appeal to children. But Vogan, an early-childhood music teacher when he’s not on stage or in the studio, has that covered too. His songs may have sophisticated harmonies and a mature sound, but from the Elvis/Big Bopper ’50s rock of “A Tiny Little Frog” to “Last Thanksgiving” (a song about an escaped giant turkey, performed in a Bright Eyes–esque narrative style), his subject matter couldn’t be more on target for its intended audience. He seems to have a knack for coming at subjects from a slightly different angle, even when traveling well-worn paths like space travel and dinosaurs. There’s a refreshing quality to his tunes that keeps kids coming back again and again.

Which is great, since you’ll be happy to tap your toes to these songs repeatedly as well.

[Cover image courtesy of Brian Vogan]

October 5, 2010

Roundup: Storytelling CDs

It’s sometimes a little surprising to me that in the era of 3D television, spoken-word audio still hangs on. Clearly car trips have something to do with it, at least where kids’ products are involved (though in-car DVD players are even encroaching there). But even at home, my five-year-old sometimes decides he wants to listen to a story rather than watch something. The power of storytelling remains strong, I guess.

Audiobooks—generally chapter books read by a well-known actor—make up a large part of the selection, of course. But there are also a number of “storyteller” CDs out there, read by their own writers, who are usually professional performers of one kind or another. Dash seems to gravitate toward these even more, listening to them over and over, memorizing both the stories themselves and the way the storytellers choose to tell them.

>His favorite is probably Tales of Wisdom and Wonder, a book-and-CD combo of folk tales from various cultures interpreted and read by British storyteller Hugh Lupton (who sounds uncannily like John Oliver of The Daily Show). Lupton’s reading style has a measured pace that savors the words and style of each story, and Dash is rapt as he listens, especially to “The Peddler of Swaffham,” an English tale of magical dreams that he adores.

Another in high rotation is Tell Me Another Scary Story...but Not Too Scary!, a picture book written by the great Carl Reiner that’s accompanied by a CD on which the author reads his own story. Reiner has been a master of audio his whole career, as anyone who’s ever heard his work on the 2,000-Year-Old Man albums knows, and he has kid listeners in the palm of his hand here. It’s a basic story--a first-person narrative of a Hollywood kid who’s befriended by a neighbor who makes props for scary movies, and then must save the day when something terrible happens to his new friend. Reiner’s delivery is full of expression and dramatic pauses that fill kids’s faces with delight. And I have to say, there’s something especially gratifying about seeing a master entertainer succeed with his third or fourth generation of audience. As the title suggests, this is Reiner’s second such outing; we’re clearly going to have to go back and get the first one.

We also recently came across a new contender. I wasn’t familiar with Bill Harley, but that just shows my ignorance; the two-time Grammy winner and NPR contributor has been enthralling kids with his enthusiastic blend of music and old-time storytelling for years now. His latest recorded release, The Best Candy in the Whole World, contains a set of stories about acts of kindness, most adapted from folk tales, with two composed by the artist himself. Harley’s style is quintessentially American, and his work is a throwback to folksy storytelling my parents’ generation would have listened to as kids. Dash, who had never heard anything like it, was immediately transfixed.

My son’s enjoyment of this somewhat underappreciated medium has me looking for more options, too, so I’ll continue to pass along whatever I find. (If readers have any suggestions, definitely send them my way via the comments!)

[Cover image courtesy of Bill Harley]

September 30, 2010

New Books: Novels for (Older) Kids

To a parent of infants or toddlers, reviewing picture books comes pretty naturally. They’re short, often illustration-driven, and precisely what you spend your evenings reading to your own kids at bedtime. While you do need to be careful not to violate the old rule about books and their covers, it’s not difficult to identify standouts in short order. Early chapter books are slightly more challenging, but even there, the well-written and especially imaginative ones make themselves known as such within a few pages; also, there aren’t all that many of them on the market, comparatively speaking, so a high proportion of those published are at the very least worth a look.

Novels aimed at older children—basically the categories known as “tween” and “YA”—are another matter entirely. Thanks to the immense success of books like Twilight, dozens of them come out each season from each major publishing house. They’re for the most part far longer than chapter books for very young kids, and more complex, so finding out whether a given one is any good requires a decent time investment. And if, like me, you don’t have a kid at home who’s old enough to be interested in and ready for books of this length, on these subjects, you can end up feeling a bit at sea; it’s hard to trust your adult critical instincts entirely. (There’s nothing like a moody tween novel to make a relatively new parent realize that his or her own childhood is even more distant than the years would imply.)

For all these reasons, I’ve rarely ventured into books for this age range, both back when I was at Cookie and in this blog. But I’ve always felt a pang of guilt about that, too—isn’t this, for all the same reasons I just listed, the very category of children’s books with which parents and gift-givers need the most help?

To solve the problem, I finally got wise and enlisted an expert: a 12-year-old, naturally. Elizabeth, the older sister of one of my older son’s best friends and a voracious reader, graciously agreed to be my test reader for the ever-growing stack of tween and YA novels piling up on my shelves. With remarkable speed and insight, she separated out the best of the lot for me, and I’m going to gratefully pass along her thoughts, along with quick summaries of my own. (As long as she’s interested in continuing, I’ll make this a recurring column.)

Here, then, are some of Elizabeth’s favorites from my stack of books that have come out in the last several months:

Shiver and Linger, by Maggie Stiefvater. It’s tempting to take the Hollywood-pitch approach and describe this series (the first just out in paperback, the second a new hardcover) as “Twilight with werewolves.” That may be broadly accurate, plotwise, but it’s glibly unfair to the author, who’s written a pair (so far) of evocative, atmospheric page turners, adroitly alternating between the first-person points of view of both of the main characters.
Elizabeth’s take: Shiver is an amazing book! It has the perfect blend of romance and action. I even bought the sequel in hardcover!

Extraordinary, by Nancy Werlin. An engaging (and well-researched) story of a teenage girl from the famous Rothschild family. We learn right off that Phoebe's closest friend is not who she appears to be, but a fairy with an ominous agenda that’s compounded when her irresistibly gorgeous older brother appears on the scene. Werlin, the author of several YA best sellers, expertly doles out pieces of the puzzle to readers, always leaving them just enough steps ahead of Phoebe to keep the suspense taut.
Elizabeth’s take: A great fantasy! I really liked it. It has a great plot, and the intermittent “Conversations with the Faerie Queen” really add to the story.

The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan. The debut entry in a new series by the author of the mega-successful Percy Jackson books turns from Greek mythology to Egyptian. In it, a brother and sister who’ve been raised separately try to rescue their father from an ancient, evil being he has released into our world. As always, Riordan fills the pages with great historical and mythological detail while maintaining a blisteringly fast pace of action.
Elizabeth’s take: I did not find this book to be as good as the author’s previous series [Percy Jackson], but it is still a worthwhile read. Anyone who enjoys mythology and fantasy will love it!

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. The final book in the dark three-part Hunger Games series (plunges the reader directly back into its dystopic-future version of the U.S. In it, a repressive government forces each district to send two children to battle to the death, gladiator-style, against one another. Katniss, our heroine, has managed improbably to survive two rounds of the Hunger Games now, and the rebellion is looking to her to be the public face of their revolution. But even as she agrees to this, she has growing concerns that the potential new boss may be, as ever, no better than the old. Collins has created one of those great immersive worlds here, so fully fleshed out that you feel the author has given consideration even to unmentioned details. (I knew this series had to be good when I saw fellow parents eagerly anticipating this book’s release in their Facebook status updates!)
Elizabeth’s take: Very well-written plot and characters—but you really have to read the whole series to understand it. I own all three books in hardcover, and I enjoy reading them over and over again. I highly recommend the entire trilogy to anyone who enjoys action, romance, or sci-fi.

[Cover images courtesy of Penguin USA (Extraordinary), Hyperion (The Red Pyramid) and Scholastic (others)]

September 27, 2010

Security Blanket: Favorite Movies, Part 2

Continuing from my recent post: favorite kids’ DVDs, non-Pixar edition.

Wallace & Gromit. Another case in which the hype is entirely deserved. The bumbling, cheese-loving inventor and his silent, super-competent dog companion belong in the ranks of the all-time-great comedy duos. And yes, it’s astonishing that just about everything that Nick Park (shown above) achieves in these stories is accomplished via painstaking stop-motion animation—but the real wonder is the writing, tongue-in-cheek humor that isn’t above kids’ heads yet is clever enough to keep parents chuckling, too. Dash has been a fan from the start—at two, he would watch a series of W&G mini-shorts called Cracking Contraptions (available on this DVD) with almost religious fervor. Now Griffin is getting into them as well, and they’re the rare DVDs that appeal to both boys (and their parents, for that matter!) equally.
How Tall to Ride? We’ve found every one of them appealing and safe for all ages.

Happy Feet. Dash’s all-time favorite animated-film-from-Hollywood-but-not-from-Pixar—and one of his favorite movies, period—is this dancing-penguin extravaganza. Its creators cleverly used penguins’ individual mating “songs” as the jumping-off point for an Antarctica full of birds who each sing famous pop tunes of various genres, which reflect their personalities. (Think Moulin Rouge!, except they’re penguins, and you don’t want to punch them. Or is that just me…?) Except for Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), that is, who can’t seem to sing at all—but he’s gotta dance (tapping courtesy of dance genius Savion Glover). This just “isn’t penguin,” as Mumble’s Elvis-esque father (Hugh Jackman) puts it, and the youngster is ostracized, his heresy having been blamed for a dire shortage of fish. That he redeems himself by finding the real reason for the dearth of fish—humans—is predictable, but the way the plot expresses its message of tolerance is both exciting and, ultimately, moving. Dash still comes back to this DVD again and again, and continues to bring up dancing whenever penguins come up.
How Tall to Ride? There are a few mildly scary moments; all the penguin-mating is handled quite tastefully. Nothing that seems problematic for kids with the patience for features.

The Cat Returns. Yet another case of a great reputation proving true is that of Hayao Miyazaki—though while undeniably brilliant, his movies do tend to make me feel like I’m stoned when I watch them (or should be). Their imagination and creativity are nearly limitless, and I can almost see Dash’s mind expanding when they’re on: nothing is impossible to conceive, or express. This is his favorite of the genre, a tale of a girl (voiced by Anne Hathaway in the English-language version) who casually saves a prince of the Cat Kingdom from an oncoming truck, and is thereby drawn into an adventure in that kingdom. It’s not the trippiest of the movies from Miyazaki’s studio—in fact, it’s not even directed by the master, who executive-produced it—but it’ll do, and its dazzling storytelling and visuals just knock Dash out. (It probably doesn’t hurt that he really, really likes cats.)
How Tall to Ride? A little hard to say—probably depends a lot on your child’s individual temperament. I can see certain very young kids being fascinated, and others being scared or just bewildered. Dash first saw it at around four, and loved it instantly, for whatever that’s worth.

Curious George. Not the deepest movie, but very warm and sunshine-y. The plot veers far enough from its source to fill feature length, and a great cast of voice actors that includes Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, Dick Van Dyke, and David Cross does the rest. The sweetly pleasant Jack Johnson soundtrack (songs from which hit the adult pop charts) makes it all go down even more easily for any parents in the room. A particularly good movie for very young kids, it was a very early favorite of Dash’s, and Griffin is responding to it now in much the same way.
How Tall to Ride? I can’t think of anything objectionable for kids of any age at all.

Monsters vs. Aliens. I should preface this entry with a caveat: Dash has been, almost from the first moments he could express himself, absolutely obsessed with Halloween. He is also quite partial to aliens. So this effort from Dreamworks…pretty much had him at the title. He isn’t familiar with the 1950s B monster movies it’s a nod to, but those amusing parallels are aimed squarely at parents anyway. And he responded instantly to the characterizations achieved by the movie's voice talent—another of the de rigueur all-star rosters, featuring the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Will Arnett, Seth Rogan, and Hugh Laurie. In fact, Dash spent the weeks after his first viewing insisting that he was, in turn, each of the characters. The movie is silly, even for a kids’ animated film—Stephen Colbert’s U.S. president plays the ’80s synth-instrumental hit “Axel F” to welcome aliens to our planet, for example—but a little silliness never hurt anyone, least of all a five-year-old.
How Tall to Ride? By plot necessity, there’s some potentially frightening stuff here—you know, the usual threatened-destruction-of-the-planet stuff. It’s handled lightly and humorously throughout, but younger kids may well be a little traumatized by the constant danger and especially the apparent death (I'll spoil it: he comes back) of one of the heroes.

The Adventures of Milo and Otis. Really, Dash likes live-action movies, too! There are a number he’s been into lately, in fact, with Mary Poppins a predictable-enough favorite. But this is by far his favorite, both in intensity of passion and in staying power. (He first saw it when he wasn’t talking yet, I think, and he still loves watching it to this day.) I mentioned that Dash is a fan of cats; well, he likes dogs, too, and so the story of a pug who sets off cross-country to save his cat friend is irresistible. This movie also managed to cure me of a lifelong distate for Dudley Moore, who provides marvelous English-language narration, including the voices of all the live-action animals. (I have since recanted completely, having now seen more of his great work with Peter Cook.)
How Tall to Ride? Absolutely all ages; the adorable animals are occasionally in mild danger, but they always escape from it quickly. (Since it’s live action, it can’t be that dangerous to the animals!)

I could go on—Dash, and now Griffin as well, seem to find a new DVD to get excited about every couple of weeks—but these are the ones that both stand out in my memory and have stood the test of time with Dashiell, at least. But there’s tons of room for follow-up on this subject (they do keep making more movies, for one thing)—so please feel free to leave your own family’s favorites in comments; I’ll collect them, and recommendations from other friends, for a “part 3” post in the future.

[Photo: Ferbr1, via Wikimedia Commons]