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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]

September 22, 2010

New Books: On the Blue Comet

Rosemary Wells’s name is familiar to parents of young children from her picture books, particularly the hugely popular Max & Ruby series. But I hadn’t been aware that she also writes chapter books for older kids until I came across her newest one, On the Blue Comet. (In fact, she’s written quite a number of them.)

It’s the story of a boy named Oscar, who is being raised by his dad, a John Deere salesman, in 1920s Illinois. Father and son alike are obsessed with trains, and they spend most of their free time working on a handmade diorama of Lionels that Dad acquires, a fully fleshed-out miniature version of America’s real passenger lines from New York to Los Angeles. It’s a happy childhood for Oscar until the Depression hits, and his father loses first his job, then the house and all the trains (both repossessed by the town’s bank). Dad goes out to California seeking work, leaving Oscar with a prim, tightwad aunt, and suddenly the boy’s life feels as empty as it had been full before.

But he soon strikes up a friendship with an out-of-work math teacher named Applegate, who not only helps him with his homework but introduces him to some other subjects, like the poetry of Kipling and even the theories of Einstein. This education serves Oscar well when, trying to escape from a pair of bank robbers after witnessing their crime, he magically leaps into his old train set in the bank lobby, and finds himself on his way to Los Angeles to find his father. He soon discovers that the magic (which seems to have some relation to what Applegate has told him about Einstein) also involves time travel. The 11-year-old finds himself traveling to World War II–era Hollywood and back to pre-Depression New York—and becoming older and younger accordingly—in an attempt to set things right for himself and his family.

Wells mixes historical figures into her tale—both a pre-politics Ronald Reagan and a 1940s-era Alfred Hitchcock befriend the boy (they’re disguised by the names “Dutch” and “Mr. H.,” but any doubts are removed by the marvelous photorealistic illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline), and back on pre-crash Wall Street, Oscar faces down the titans of Wall Street, including a hostile Joseph Kennedy. While that starts to sounds as if there’s some sort of political agenda here, it’s really more about mythological America tropes; FDR is considered a heroic figure in the narrative, and the bad guys are typical movie bankers of the Old Man Potter variety.

The addition of these real people into the narrative is cute, but in a way distracts attention from the most impressive thing about Wells’s book: She can write a page-turner, with or without historical celebrities. The pace is snappy, and while real and fictional characters alike tend toward the stereotypical, the overall effect is much that of a good early 20th-century action-adventure movie—an early Hitchcock like The 39 Steps, say!

Wells also handles the magical element of her story expertly, providing just enough vague background (the Einstein stuff) to make it seem broadly plausible, and then getting the mechanics out of the way so the story can shoot off from the premise. Which it most certainly does, like one of Oscar’s trains. And kids ranging from 7 to 12 or so are sure to get a big kick out of it all.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]

September 20, 2010

Security Blanket: Favorite Movies, Part 1

I haven’t posted much about kids’ movies since starting this blog, mainly because I haven’t felt I had much to say beyond the obvious. (Pixar is is Nick adaptations of great children’s books are, with occasional exceptions, disappointing....)

But a recent conversation with a friend reminded me that while this may all be perfectly evident to me now, I was clueless when I first entered the world of parenthood. Yes, I had heard people praising Finding Nemo to the skies, and I knew of Wallace and Gromit’s existence (thanks, annual Oscar pools!), but I’d seen almost none of this stuff myself, and certainly had no inkling of, say, Nemo’s plot-establishing traumatic event.

So this one goes out to the first-time parents who are trying to figure out which are the best movies to watch with their young children, and what ages it might be best to watch them at: one family’s favorites over the last six or so years, all available on DVD. Since there’s quite a number of them, and a good chunk are from one studio, I’m going to break it into two posts—Pixar and non-Pixar divisions.

First, Pixar: Believe the hype, if you don’t already. Its films are uniformly excellent and often transcendent, head-and-shoulders above nearly every other animated film on the market. You can’t go wrong with any of them, but these have been our older son’s—and our—particular obsessions (so far):

Cars. This was one of Dash’s first favorite full-length movies. As city-dwelling (at the time) people unfamiliar with NASCAR, we weren’t really expecting much from the predictable-sounding story of a flashy race car who learns what’s important in life after he gets stranded in a small town. But the clever writing, along with great voiceover work from Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman, Tony Shalhoub, and many more, won us over quickly. Even if this is, in the end, one of Pixar’s less profound outings, that still puts it among the better animated-film options out there.
How Tall to Ride? The movie’s relative lack of depth is directly due to its having little in its plot that’s even potentially scary or disturbing to kids, so while I wouldn’t put Cars in the Pixar time capsule, it’s a perfect primer on the wonders of Pixar. (And yes, it’s a stereotype, but most of the young boys I know took to this film right away.)

The Incredibles. It was fated that this would be one of our family’s all-time faves. It came out the day after Dash was born, and one of the main characters is named Dash. But that’s not the only reason our son became obsessed with this movie (and remains so—it’s got the strongest staying power of any kids’ movie he’s seen). Brad Bird’s first masterpiece outshines most adult action movies by as cracklingly smart as it is fast-paced and exciting. And if its message—that it’s wrong for society to curb the abilities of the extraordinary out of notions of fairness—seems to veer uncomfortably into Ayn Rand territory at times, it’s in a way that confronts, rather than avoiding, a dilemma many parents will have to face sooner or later.
How Tall to Ride? There’s some scary stuff—the Parr family spends a good chunk of the movie in real mortal danger from a villain who has been killing off the world’s superheroes one by one. Kids generally don’t seem very fazed by that, though—most of the stressful scenes are probably harder for parents to watch (since they involve our primal anxiety about keeping their kids from harm) than for them.

Ratatouille. Bird’s second masterpiece will always hold a special place in our hearts, too, because it was the first movie Dash saw in a theater. Not that it needed that extra heartwarming aspect; this film is just stunning, probably my personal pick for Pixar’s very best work. (How does Bird follow these two?) The story of a Parisian rat with culinary aspirations is as entertaining, and as funny, as as any Pixar film, but it has a whole extra dimension: a beautiful, moving paean to creativity. The scene in which a taste of Remy’s signature dish sends Peter O’Toole’s icy food critic back to his childhood nearly brought me to tears the first time I saw it. As for Dash, he loved the movie so much that he actually tried ratatouille (well, once).
How Tall to Ride? Remy gets into some dangerous situations, as a rat in a kitchen will in our cruel world, but there’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary scary in this film.

WALL-E. I know, hackneyed, right? Everyone loves WALL-E. I remember seeing the previews and feeling a pang of disappointment that the next Pixar movie looked like an animated version of Short Circuit. (I was never much of a fan of the cute-robot genre, to be honest.) But the famous silent first half-hour of the movie is so brilliant, so wonderfully executed, that it melted my heart of stone—it’s worthy of the Chaplin films it’s a clear homage to. And from there on it had me, it had my wife, and it certainly had Dash, who was referring to himself as WALL-E for the next six months.
How Tall to Ride? The film’s premise is unrelentingly grim: Earth has been overrun by trash and abandoned by humanity, and the garbage-compactor robot hero (and his pet cockroach) are the only sentient beings left. That backdrop might give some parents a moment’s pause, but again, it seems to have much more effect on adults than on kids, for whom the upbeat but lonely robot’s cheerful actions are the focus. I haven’t heard of any kids bothered by anything in this movie one bit.

The Pixar shorts. You used to find these little gems only as extras on the various feature-film DVDs, but now you can get 13 of them on one DVD of their own. Each is its own crystallized version of what makes Pixar great. The shorts that are essentially little spinoffs from the company’s features, like the amusing Jack-Jack Attack (from The Incredibles), would be wonderful enough. But it’s the stand-alone shorts that are the most sublime: the lovely period-piece musical competition One-Man Band; the lightning-fast slapstick of Presto; and especially Bud Luckey’s little slice of instant happiness, Boundin’.
How Tall to Ride? There’s no reason not to show any of these shorts to kids of any age. Hurry up and Netflix the DVD already!

The fact that Finding Nemo isn’t even on the list just speaks to the overall quality of everything Pixar does. (We do love Nemo, too, for the record.) I admit I was momentarily perturbed that the studio seems hung up in sequel-land of late, with Toy Story 3 out this past year, and sequels to Cars and Monsters, Inc. in the pipeline. But Dash and Whitney really enjoyed TS3…and anyway, you’d think I’d have learned never to underestimate Pixar by now.

Coming soon: Part 2 of this post, the non-Pixar films.

[Photo: P.gobin, via Wikimedia Commons.]

September 16, 2010

Security Blanket: Jumpy Jack & Googily

Many picture books are what I call “concept” books, in which the author spins a tale around a specific childhood issue—say, anger over a sense of powerlessness (Where the Wild Things Are, and many others), or the anxiety of the first day of school (The Teacher From the Black Lagoon…and many others). The very best ones use the concept as an imaginative jumping-off point, successfully treating their subjects without harping on them too much.

Well, allow me to nominate a newish classic in the well-established “monsters under the bed” category: Jumpy Jack & Googily, written by Meg Rosoff and illustrated by the marvelous Sophie Blackall. (I clearly have a thing for illustrators who come from Australia.) Jumpy Jack is a snail, and his name suits him—he’s a nervous type, constantly worried that fearsome things may be lurking behind and under such ominous things as doors, tables, and beds.

But Jack doesn’t freak out about his fears—he simply asks his best friend, an agreeable large, pointy-toothed fellow named Googily, to investigate these potentially dangerous places for him and reassure him his worries are unwarranted. When Googily inevitably responds that his friend is very silly to worry about these things, Jack sheepishly agrees, but says he’ll feel better if Googily checks them out anyway. And he’s right; it works every time ("Phew!"), despite the reader’s growing realization that the monster Jack describes as the object of his terror has a close resemblance to Googily himself. (This sounds like it might lead to a scary moment of realization for poor Jack, but the ending goes in a different direction, turning the tables by revealing what Googily is afraid of.)

Rosoff’s clever path through each iteration is truly endearing, mainly due to the polite respect the two friends have for each other; in just a few pages, she establishes a fully fleshed-out relationship reminiscent of classic children’s-book pairs like Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad. (Googily: “That is simply too far-fetched.” Jack: “No doubt.... Still, if you would only check, I’m sure I would sleep better.”) And Blackall’s beautiful, eccentric art matches the text’s kindly whimsical tone precisely—this is the kind of picture book where you’re surprised to find that the author and illustrator are not the same person.

Upon arrival in our home, Jumpy Jack & Googily immediately joined the short list of Dash’s very favorite picture books, and it’s also among those that Whitney and I love to read aloud to him—the voices of the characters are so strong, and the light humor makes it so much fun to read. I would place it among our favorite five or six books that have been published during our kids’ lifetimes. (Hmm…I feel a future list post coming on....) In fact, I’m earnestly hoping our two-year-old soon likes it just as much as Dash did, so we get to read it regularly for years to come!

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

September 15, 2010

New Music: Lemonade School

The new wave of kids’ music has produced a number of fairly established artists by now, and parents can rely on a new album by almost any of them to be superb. My family has gone through several of waves of discovery, starting with They Might Be Giants and Dan Zanes, through a middle period of folks like Recess Monkey and Elizabeth Mitchell, and on to more recent discoveries like Secret Agent 23 Skidoo and Frances England. But at this point, a good percentage of the children’s albums I see are from musicians whose names I already know.

But as I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t lost that thrill I get from listening to a solid album by someone whose name I’ve never heard before, which by now generally means debut albums. Still, somehow I missed David Tobocman’s first CD, I Count to Ten and Other Very Helpful Songs, in 2008, and his name was still new to me when Lemonade School, his new collection of mostly folk-tinged acoustic guitar and piano songs, came out.

You hear right away that Tobocman’s influences include the likes of James Taylor, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Marvin Gaye, and the Beatles (the opening track, a cover of their “Hello Goodbye,” instantly grabbed the full attention of my two-year-old in mid-tantrum, soothing him magically). And his songs are pleasantly reminiscent of these artists without veering into the derivative.

As for his subject matter, it’s sweetly offbeat, getting beyond the surface level of kid-think to matters like their love for alarmingly creative food combinations (“Ice Cream on a Hot Dog”) and the frustrations of not being old enough to do whatever they want (the subtly funny “Soul of a Rebel,” which sounds like a kid's version of a track from What’s Going On). Tobocman even does the first Mr. Rogers cover I’ve heard, putting his own spin on the oh-that’s-why-that-sounds-familiar “It’s You I Like.”

As you listen more closely, you realize that Tobocman’s lyrics are full of interesting twists and surprising, quietly clever internal rhymes; this guy has a craftsman’s knowledge of songwriting. (Indeed, he’s a professional film and television composer.) All in all, Lemonade School is one of those CDs with instant kid appeal that at first seems merely pleasant to parents, then grows more and more appealing every time you hear it. If, like me, you weren’t familiar with its creator’s kid-music oeuvre beforehand, it’s an impressive introduction.

[Image courtesy of David Tobocman]

September 10, 2010

New Music: Wake Up, Clarinet!

In my experience, the best jazz for children is just, well, jazz. You may not want to start with Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman (most adults don't start with them either), but there's nothing even potentially off-putting to kids about most of the genre's classic big names, from Louis Armstrong to at least the early work of John Coltrane. So I've always been skeptical about jazz albums specifically aimed at children; they seem to me to be serving a nonexistent and unnecessary market.

Saxophonist and clarinetist Oran Etkin's Wake Up, Clarinet! qualifies as a remarkable exception, however. The album is being released this coming Tuesday, September 14, in conjunction with the launch of Etkin's Timbalooloo brand of music classes for children, an expansion of ones he's been teaching to New York City kids. Timbalooloo aims to access and augment children's natural musicality, and while I can't really say whether this CD manages that on its own, I can say that you and your kids will get to listen to some seriously high-quality playing while finding out.

That's because Etkin is an award-winning artist outside the children's music arena (his 2009 album Kelenia, which combined modern jazz with traditional Malian and Jewish music, picked up an Independent Music Award), and because he's recruited a killer set of musicians to work with here, including drummer Jason Marsalis and vocalist Charenee Wade. The result is modern jazz that's not only accessible to kids, but designed specifically for them. In a way, it's a jarring contrast: the title track, for instance, is essentially classic instrument personification à la Peter and the Wolf, in which Etkin and the other musicians encourage kids to sing along to help wake up the sleepy clarinet. But the music, and especially the clarinet's solo when it is roused, feels unexpectedly sophisticated for such subject matter. (People probably once said the same of Prokofiev.)

I suspect that some of Etkin's patter introducing the various songs and concepts plays a little better in the directly interactive realm of the Timbalooloo classroom, but children still respond to it, and it's not overly distracting for adults. And the music is as rich, full, and pleasing as you'd expect from such an expert roster, particularly on the tracks that include Wade, whose voice just never stops smiling, or making you smile. 

[Image courtesy of Timbalooloo]

September 9, 2010

Security Blanket: Lane Smith

This post is basically an appreciation, since I suspect not too many parents these days are unaware of the Lane Smith oeuvre. Even I, trying desperately before we had kids to remain as ignorant as possible about them, had heard about The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, illustrator Smith's and writer Jon Scieszka's groundbreaking deconstruction of classic fairy tales. I also knew Smith's work from another of his collaborations, this one with George Saunders: the irresistibly wonderful The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, the incredible art for which (see the example here) managed to attracted my wife's attention and interest years before children were in the picture.

So as we embarked on parenthood, we already had more than an inkling that we'd have a family favorite here. But adult appreciation is one thing; bedtime reading quite another. With our first round of Dash's board books, we quickly learned that tedium was a serious threat, first tows, and eventually even to Dash.

Like many parents before us, we turned to the classics to solve this problem—Seuss, Sendak, Silverstein. (They didn't all start with s, I'm certain, but those were the first three names that came to mind. And Smith does too! Freaky.) Before long, we turned to Lane Smith, too, especially since Dash also took to his smart, offbeat humor right away. (Genes or environment? You decide.) Frip was a little wordy for him back then, so we started with Stinky Cheese Man, as well as a Smith solo effort we like even more, if that's possible: Pinocchio, the Boy: Incognito in Collodi. He grounds his version of the classic in his usual wisecracking, modern sensibility, in this case via a little girl who notices all the strange things this poor boy is doing (trying to talk to a cricket, going to dance on a marionette stage). Yet the story still retains the charm and even the beauty of the original.

The super-clever humor would be enough to make an illustrator great, but there's a lot more to Smith as well. He's an imaginative master, both in the structures he devises to tell stories (a storyboard-style spread in the Pinocchio book to get the reader up to speed at the start, for instance) and in his amazingly atmospheric, one-of-a-kind art itself. (The word collage always comes to mind, and then immediately seems insufficient.) There's no question in my mind that familiarity with Smith's books has broadened Dash's view of the ways one can approach storytelling. Heck, they've certainly broadened mine.

We've since made our way through several more of his books, with his typically irreverent take on the history of the American Revolution, John, Paul, George, & Ben, a particular favorite of Dash's. (The title refers to Hancock, Revere, Washington, and Franklin, and Smith's angle is that the very characteristics that made each man a bit annoying as a child—Revere's penchant for yelling, say—ended up serving American history quite well.) And to this day, I'm never more pleased, or more eager to get started, at bedtime reading than when Dash chooses a Lane Smith book. Which, happily, he does quite often.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

September 7, 2010

New Books: Air Show!, Captain Sky Blue

Okay, it’s a stereotype: Boys love airplanes. I’m sure plenty of girls love them too, as evidenced by one of the books I’ll be talking about them here. But as it happens, both my boys do appear to love planes. In slightly different ways.

My younger son, two-year-old Griffin, has the more traditional-boy visceral reaction to them (and to anything with an engine). He loves the size, the noise, the physical power. And so he loves Air Show!, written by actor Treat Williams and illustrated by Robert Neubecker. (It joins the small but growing list of worthwhile picture books by celebrities—the author is a commercial pilot and flight instructor himself, and his enthusiasm for flying is evident on every page.) It's about a visit by a brother and sister with their pilot father to, yes, an air show, where they are thrilled to see dozens of classic planes, and the girl gets to take a ride with a (female) stunt pilot. It’s stuffed full of vivid images of World War II fighter planes and flashy red stunt planes, as well as helicopters, flying boats—you name it. And it gets across marvelously the excitement the kids—and the adults—feel at both seeing all these amazing machines and actually taking flight in some of them. The look in Griffin’s eyes as we read it to him is, to be honest, a little alarming.

There’s plenty of flight jargon in Air Show!, but it’s of the practical variety: It takes you through the various pilot-copilot checklists before takeoff and landing, for example. Veteran illustrator Richard Egielski (The Tub People) uses pilot terminology in his new Captain Sky Blue as a main feature—it conveys the action and even in some ways drives the plot. Egielski’s typically vivid, stylized art tells the story of the pilot of a young boy’s toy plane, whose aircraft is struck by lightning (“Mayday!”), leaving him to take a “nylon letdown” to safety far from his owner’s home. Determined to find his way back, he eventually makes his way to a familiar place—Santa’s workshop at the North Pole (“Now I’m spooled up!”)—and devises a clever plan to end up back with his boy. The book helpfully includes a glossary, so kids and parents can figure out what Captain Sky Blue is talking about. And since wordplay and language are always going to be the road to the heart of my five-year-old, Dash, Egielski has put one right in his wheelhouse.

So there you have it: Two great new airplane books for two entirely different temperaments. Of course, occasionally each boy will sneak over and grab the one that’s supposed to be the other’s favorite, so maybe I should just leave it at “two great new airplane books.”

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

September 3, 2010

New Books: Ivy Loves to Give

I’ve already written about a number of my favorite active picture-book artists, and one of these days I’m just going to have to come up with a definitive list. Prominent on it would be Australian illustrator Freya Blackwood, whose work has always just leapt out from the crowd for me.

I first encountered it in the wonderful Half a World Away, by Libby Gleeson, in which best friends separated—and, at first, crushed—by one’s across-the-globe move still find a magical way to communicate via imagination. It’s hard to imagine a better fit for the themes of this story than Blackwood’s watercolors: soft and lovely, they capture every aspect of childhood joy, sadness, and imagination. Her art was also the perfect complement to Roddy Doyle’s typically beautiful, haunting tale Her Mother's Face. Blackwood has the rare gift of being able to illustrate emotions of all kinds sweetly; even the sad moments bring a bittersweet smile to your face as you read. Both books quickly became favorites of our older son, and have long since entered his personal canon.

So I was eager to get my hands on the brand-new Ivy Loves to Give, the first book I’ve seen that Blackwood has both written and illustrated. It’s an endearing little slice of a toddler’s life: Little Ivy indeed likes to bestow things on members of her family, as well as the often unsuspecting animals who live with and around them, but she has a little trouble giving the right thing to each one. So a chicken gets Mom’s cup of tea, the (very perturbed) cat gets the baby’s pacifier, and the dog gets Grandma’s glasses. No problem—Ivy eventually sets everything right. And when her older sister lets her hang onto her tutu, which she’d originally presented to a goat, Ivy gives her "the best gift of all": a hug.

The simplicity is a big part of the charm, as is the quiet but ever-present humor. (On each page, as Ivy moves on to her next “gift,” you also see the real owner of her previous one in the background, looking puzzled.) But it’s the tone Blackwood maintains that’s most remarkable: again, you always have that smile on your face as you read. And the “awww” moment at the end, which would have been predictably over-the-top in many picture books, instead hits the mark perfectly—not too obvious, not too sappy. There’s nothing earthshaking about Ivy Loves to Give, but it’s among the most satisfying picture books you’ll read to a young child.

[Image courtesy of Arthur E. Levine Books/Scholastic]

September 1, 2010

Security Blanket: Music Over Manhattan

Some of my friends call them “loveys”—the especially beloved items that can calm young children when nothing else can. Traditionally, they’re stuffed animals of one kind or another—those endearingly well-worn ones whose dilapidation is almost unbearably cute to all parents. (We know what it signifies, after all.)

Dash, our five-year-old, had (and even still has) traditional loveys, of course, but back in the day, the go-to was a picture book. It was one of his first books, actually, a gift from my sister-in-law: Music Over Manhattan, by Mark Karlins, with illustrations by Jack E. Davis. This was the book he insisted we read him at bedtime when he’d had a particularly rough day, or perhaps a particularly great one he wanted to cap off well, even before he could use real words to do so.

It’s about a Brooklyn kid, Bernie, who feels he can’t do anything right, and certainly not as well as his irritatingly perfect cousin Herbert. But he’s taken under the wing of his Uncle Louis, a professional musician who plays Bernie’s favorite song, “Moonlight Over Manhattan,” so beautifully that the music lifts people into the air. Louis sees talent in Bernie, and over time teaches him to play the trumpet, and before a family wedding he’s playing for, he asks Bernie to fill in for a sick trumpeter—including the solo on the magical song. Bernie is nervous, but in the end, he doesn’t disappoint.

It’s a charming little book, and Davis’s exaggerated style of illustration fits the modern New York caricatures in the tale wonderfully. But the story itself can’t have been much of a touchstone for an 18-month-old who didn’t really have perfect cousins or peers to be frustrated by. It seems to be that magical idea of music making people actually lift off the ground and fly that captured Dash’s imagination early.

That concept has lasted, too—while he’s since moved on to other reading favorites, he still pulls out Music Over Manhattan from time to time for a look. The other day, I noticed him reading it to his little brother, who’s just a little older now than he was when he first fell in love with it. Two-time lovey, perhaps?
[Photos by Whitney Webster]