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May 27, 2011

New Books: A Butterfly Is Patient

Spring took a little longer to settle in here in the Northeast this year—at least, the aspect of spring we dreamed about all winter, the part that doesn't involve massive amounts of rain. Now, it seems, the season of balmy but not hot and sticky weather, of flowering trees, of butterflies, is finally here, for a least a few weeks before summer kicks in.

So it's appropriate that the latest book in author Dianna Hutts Aston and prolific illustrator Sylvia Long's ravishing nature series is out now, too. A Butterfly Is Patient follows in the impressive footsteps of An Egg Is Quiet and A Seed Is Sleepy, but it's my favorite entry so far, largely because the subject matter lends itself especially well to Long's vivid aesthetic. As usual, Aston's text is just the right amount of background—she has a great feel for providing enough information for a solid base of knowledge, and then allowing the art to take over. (Which it certainly does.)

So while readers of this book do in fact get a good primer on the life cycle of butterflies, it‘s nothing like a dry biology textbook, thanks to the tapestry-like pages of golds and greens and violets that often seem about to fly off the page. A Butterfly Is Patient makes for a wonderful reading experience for kids with a strong interest in science and nature (and a pretty satisfying browse even for those with less of an interest). Not to mention a great way to celebrate spring.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

May 24, 2011

Security Blanket: Classic Silent Movies

Back when I was a kid, seeing old movies at the various repertory houses conveniently scattered around the Upper West Side of Manhattan, silent movies were still working their way back to respectability. Somehow over half a century of talkies, even the very best of the genre—Charlie Chaplin, say—had at some point become, in the national psyche, movies fit only for children.

This had started to turn around well before I was born, but the stigma was still around by the time I discovered them, and as I grew into a young adult I got kind of indignant about it. Classics like Chaplin's City Lights, Buster Keaton's The General, and Harold Lloyd's The Freshman were at least as smart, as well-made, and as funny as anything at the cineplexes—for adults. That anyone considered these movies were merely "kids' stuff" was ridiculous, I felt.

In the years since, the great work of the silent comedians has fully retaken its rightful place in the film pantheon, thanks to devoted film archivists (and, in large part, the cable channel Turner Classic Movies). Certainly there's no sense that the films of Chaplin and Keaton are the equivalent of Saturday-morning cartoons anymore. So it's with some amusement that I find myself on the other side of the fence now, selling these movies…as great to watch with your kids. (The key consistency, I tell myself, is that I'd still also sell them as great to watch without your kids, too....)

At any rate, we return to these classics again and again for family movie nights when my wife and I are feeling a bit tired of animation. We spent a recent weekend evening watching Keaton's Steamboat Bill, Jr. en masse. I can't think of a time when each member of our family, from the 42-year-old to the two-year old, enjoyed a movie so much, so equally.

The reason silents work so well for family viewing, I think, is that they were originally made to be watched by adults—but at a time when that didn't more or less require subject matter either inappropriate for or uninteresting to kids. So the best work of the masters is fully engrossing to parents—again, as funny and as dramatically moving as any movie ever made—while giving the kids plenty of slapstick to giggle at. (Okay, I giggle at it too.)

There are, of course, moments in some of these movies that reflect the prejudices of the time, especially racial ones. While such ugly scenes are rarer in the silent comedies than in the silent dramas (say, Birth of a Nation, a film I do not recommend watching with your four-year-old), they do show up from time to time, and many parents will either want to vet carefully or be ready with some historical explanations. (But frankly, there are fewer of these issues in these silent comedies than you find in the Tintin books, say.)

To me, the rewards make that effort worth it. Pixar films are rightfully lauded as movies for children that are fully enjoyable for adults, even to the point that many adults see them without the kids. Classic silents are much the same thing, except the other way around: They're perfectly enjoyable for kids...but they were made for us adults. For once, we get to turn the tables, and yet everyone's happy. It's a win-win!

[Photograph: Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.]

May 20, 2011

New Books: Earth to Clunk

There are only a handful of picture-book authors who are capable of making me laugh out loud as I'm reading their work to my sons. Lane Smith comes to mind, as does Mini Grey. And after Earth to Clunk, I'll have to add Pam Smallcomb to the list, mainly thanks to the spread pictured here.

Of course, that would be meaningless if the kids didn't cotton to the book, but that's certainly no problem here. It’s about a boy forced by his teacher to become pen pals with an alien (one of those wild premises from which everything else follows logically); annoyed, he decides to end the relationship with Clunk by sending him unpleasant gifts, from dirty socks to...his big sister. However, Clunk proves well-prepared to respond in kind, escalating the "battle" of weirdly aggressive exchanges until our hero must admit it's kind of fun. There still is the issue of Mom having noticed his sister is missing, though...

The simple story—really a lesson in not prejudging people and situations—is told in a most entertaining fashion by Smallcomb, aided by Joe Berger's appealing illustrations. (In fact, my six-year-old was inspired to re-enact the entire narrative upon finishing it, high praise indeed.) And the boy’s perfectly dry, matter-of-fact tone as he plots his next swap with Clunk, then tries to process whatever disturbing thing he's gotten in return, will have parents smiling—and, yes, laughing—along with the kids. Earth to Clunk is nothing fancy; it's just everything a charming picture book should be.

[Cover image courtesy of Dial Press. Interior photo: Whitney Webster]

May 18, 2011

New Music: Bugs

Bugs, the second children's CD from Mister G (the nom du plume of former indie rocker Ben Gundersheimer) starts off like any other pleasant kids'-music album: Cute, funny songs about insects, a crocodile (in Spanish), hats, grilled-cheese sandwiches. It's all subject matter that can't fail to appeal to the target audience, and doesn't. (My son's favorite, naturally, is the Halloween-themed "Ghosts and Goblins.")

But parents in the room will start noticing something a few songs in, something not always true in this genre: This guy, and his whole band, can really play. By the time I got to the bluegrassy "Shark in My Bathtub," which features some serious picking, my eyebrows were fully raised. And it's true of every song, from the Latin-tinged songs (sung in Spanish) to the ska number.

And that means Mister G has hit the sweet spot that makes for so much of the best children's music today: subject matter that keeps the kids entertained, set to music that adults will enjoy too.

[Cover image courtesy of Mister G.]

May 13, 2011

Roundup: iPad Games

I've owned an iPad for almost a year now, and I'm a complete convert: I use it to read books and magazines, to watch movies, and to research and write these very posts. But I've been reluctant to let my kids get their grubby little paws on it, mostly, I think, out of bad emotions like selfishness ("It's my precious...") and fear ("Omigod, what if they break it?). Beyond teasing them with occasional looks at the stunning Star Walk app—which uses the device's GPS to give you a full, accurate view of the night sky that you can hold up to identify stars, planets, and even satellites, and may represent the best three dollars I’ve ever spent—I've kept the iPad firmly out of their reach.

Which means that beyind being a cruel parent, I know next to nothing about the burgeoning world of iPad games for kids. I have resolved to change, on both fronts, but each passing day makes the prospect of entering that world more daunting, as another umpteen games hit the market. How on earth does a moderately late adapter figure out which are the good ones and which ones are crap?

Luckily, I have a trump card: Ian Smith, CEO of Freeverse Software, which makes many a fine app of its own, is an old and dear friend. Even more luckily, Ian has two boys of his own, and far less selfishness and fear than I do. (Or maybe he just has more than one iPad?)

Anyway, Ian was gracious enough to give me not only some excellent kids' game recommendations for the iPad, but a few security tips for the wary parent on putting one's precious into child hands.

First, his “pro tips for parents—both pretty important to safe kid iPad gaming,” as he says:

1. Click on Settings. The third setting is “Notifications”; turn them off for all the games your kids download and then annoy you with. This will prevent “Your Smurfs are hungry!” from popping up on your screen in the middle of that important Keynote presentation at the office.

2. Also in Settings, under “General,” then “Restrictions”: Turn off “In-app purchases” to avoid unwanted headaches. Ian again: “My son dropped a decent amount of cash on Zombie Farm before I did this. Apple did refund it, but why not just sidestep the issue entirely?”

Now, the fun part: the games:

Top pick: Let's Create! Pottery ($2.99, or $4.99 for the HD version). Half-game, half zen activity, and lots of fun, this app lets you pinch and touch a spinning pottery wheel to create your own. “It’s amazing. Get it and let your kids have at it. And your spouse. And yourself.”

Other good choices: Battleheart (a mild fantasy game, with combat; $2.99), Pocket Frogs (in which you breed, well, frogs—surprisingly addictive, and free!), and Puzzle Planet (just what it sounds like: jigsaw puzzles, with an iPad twist; also free!).

Ian’s kids’ faves: Solomon's Keep (think Harry Potter mixed with D&D, in a simple app; $0.99), LEGO Harry Potter (the real thing, except in LEGOs—four movies’ worth of plot and levels, all incredibly habit-forming; $4.99), Cut the Rope (a very clever and original puzzle game; $0.99), and of course Freeverse’s own Parachute Ninja (a flying adventure/story-driven game; $0.99).

Obligatory edu-pick: Math Ninja ($1.99). Kids hone their math skills while defending a tree house against a villainous tomato and its army. “Actually, pretty fun!”

Getting-in-deep pick: Battle for Wesnoth. “An open-source Warlords-type game. Tons of content, enough to keep them going for days on end, if not the greatest user interface.”

[Let’s Create: Pottery image courtesy of Infinite Dreams, Inc.]

May 11, 2011

Security Blanket: Garibaldi's Biscuits

When I was writing the other day about historical-fiction picture books, one of the elite slipped my mind: Ralph Steadman's Garibaldi's Biscuits. Anytime a celebrated artist or illustrator delves into children's books, it's worth a look, but we've been a Steadman fan in particular since his work on the imagery surrounding my wife's favorite movie, Withnail and I. (Those less well versed in moderately culty British cinema of the 1980s may know Steadman's unique style—"chaos focused into expression" is the best way I can sum it up—from his Hunter S. Thompson illustrations, as well as his work in the New Yorker and other U.S. magazines.)

Garibaldi's Biscuits presents itself as a tale of the origin of a cookie, and while this currant-studded delicacy is much better known in Steadman's native England than in the U.S., that matters little for one's enjoyment of the book. For the author uses the real history of Garibaldi's return to Italy to fight for its freedom merely as a leaping-off point into flights of wonderful fantasy, involving a pants-wearing pet woodpecker named Pecorino, battles fought with water balloons, and the like. (It feels a lot like a picture book from Monty Python.) The reader's first hint that Steadman may be going for a more imaginative than actual origin tale here comes when he says the belt buckles worn by Garibaldi and his troops were as large as pizzas, then reconsiders and follows that up with "In fact, they <>were pizzas." And off we go...
We're in experienced and expert hands here, so the offbeat narrative, much like the rip-roaring ink-spotted art itself, is delightful rather than unsettling. (And for those who want to sort out truth from fiction, the author takes a page from Lane Smith with a brief run through the details at the end.) The grounded surrealism of Garibaldi's Biscuits has been pretty much irresistible to my six-year-old since we got it a couple of years back, with staying power, and it's always an enjoyable bedtime read for us parents, too.

[Photos: Whitney Webster]

May 6, 2011

Old School: The Story of Ferdinand

I can't imagine many parents are unfamiliar with Munro Leaf's classic about the peace-loving bull; since coming out in the 1930s, it's been universally beloved. And if my two-year-old is any indication, it's lost none of its ability to enthrall young listeners and readers. As is so often the case, this story has been deemed a classic for a reason.

If you're looking to rediscover (or just discover!) Ferdinand, you might be interested in the handsome 75th-anniversary edition that just came out. Also worth a look is an eccentric, marvelous audiobook treatment, read with gusto by David Ogden Stiers and accompanied by music by Saint-Saëns and poetry by Ogden Nash, that I mentioned in this space last year.

[Cover image courtesy of Penguin USA.]

May 4, 2011

Security Blanket: Here Comes the Garbage Barge!

I feel like this choice is cheating a little, since it came out only last year, and got plenty of well-deserved coverage then (including a spot on the New York Times' list of the best children's books of the year, which it most certainly was). But Here Comes the Garbage Barge!, a collaboration between Jonah Winter and Red Nose Studio (the working name of artist-illustrator Chris Sickels), truly is the current obsession of my two-year-old, so I suppose it satisfies my, er, categorical imperative.

At any rate, it's pretty amazing. Winter, whose family I seem to be writing a lot about these days, shares lordship over the small but wonderful historical-fiction-picture-book genre with Lane Smith. This time, he's chosen as his inspiration a tale New Yorkers of a certain age will remember well: The barge full of garbage from Long Island that, after being refused landing in various locations in the hemisphere, sadly steamed around New York Harbor in 1987 for several months, the Flying Dutchman of trash. As usual, Winter frames his narrative with the true story while adding his own flights of fancy, and giving a tale that ends with a rather stern moral ("Don't make so much trash!") a light, jaunty, and always entertaining air.

It's the art, though, that's downright astonishing. The odyssey of the tugboat captain tasked with dragging the barge around North and Central America is portrayed in images (they're actually photographs) of 3-D sculpture scenes, essentially—all made of found objects. That is, trash. Each image is dazzling: remarkable for its complexity and for its simple, essential beauty, all at once. And the artist is able to make his story's characters as expressive as those in the best stop-motion animated films (with no assistance from voiceover artists!).

It's by far the best "you should recycle more" children's book I've ever seen. No, that's far-too-faint praise: It's among the best children's books I've seen, period. If by some chance, like me, you missed the rave reviews when it came out last year, give it a look. (Also, check out this cool video from the publisher, below, which shows how the illustrations were created!)

[Cover image courtesy of Random House.]