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June 29, 2012

New Books: Awesome Snake Science!

OK, I know not every kid likes snakes. A lot of adults don't like snakes, not even a little bit. But our older son does, and so when—just a few days after he'd proudly finished his first-grade year-end report on snakes—we came across Cindy Blobaum's new book Awesome Snake Science, well, it just felt like it was meant to be. (Luckily, he's not quite old enough yet to have felt cheated at not having encountered this book before he had to write his report....)

Because if Dash were to describe the perfect nonfiction snake book for a kid his age, he'd come up with this one. It's not merely full of snake facts and figures—though it certainly has enough of those to be suitably comprehensive for even the most obsessed child—but it also includes 40 fun snake-themed activities, from making a set of foldable fangs that demonstrate how the real things work with snakes' malleable jaws, to (safely) simulating cytotoxic venom. (Most parents will be pleased to know that no actual snakes are required for any of these activities.)

It's exactly the kind of hands-on learning book that takes what could be dry subject matter and makes it nearly irresistible to children—really a great achievement by Blobaum. Not that Dash cares about that; after we take this book on vacation to Canada with us, I expect he'll be mimicking rattlesnake noises all month long. (Let's hope he doesn't get too good at it.)

[Cover image courtesy of IPG]

June 21, 2012

New Music: In Tents

I sometimes worry that my enthusiasm for Recess Monkey has reached a point of absurdity, but I come by it honestly: The Seattle "teacher-rockers" (as they are now both truthfully and marvelously billed) have long been our family's favorite kid-music band, one of the few that gets my wife as excited about a new release as the two boys are.

I mentioned a little while back that they had just such a new release coming up soon, and, well, here it is: In Tents, the band's eighth(!) album, this one themed around circuses. It took just one listen at our house to see that it more than meets the high standards set by Recess Monkey's previous seven: Within minutes, both of our sons were hopping around the room to "Popcorn" (still their favorite off the album...though "Human Cannonball" and "Odditorium" are pretty close, come to think of it...and "Bouncy House"...OK, I'll stop).

The band's sound is astonishingly tight, as always, and the trio continues to push at their own musical boundaries, as they've done with each new album, experimenting with new sounds and instruments and even production techniques. (They're helped along this time in that last respect by the producer of In Tents, the ubiquitous Dean Jones.)

In fact, as Stefan Shepherd of the indispensible kids'-music site Zooglobble wrote in his review of the album, it feels absurd to burden any band by calling them the "Beatles of children's music"...and yet, with every one of their albums, it becomes harder and harder to avoid using just that phrase. They are most certainly the Fab...uh, Three of kids' music in our household.

I should also mention once more that they are a great band to see live with your kids, and that there are opportunities on both coasts to do so in the immediate future: In their hometown of Seattle, they're playing a bunch of shows to celebrate the release of In Tents with a real, live circus, Teatro ZinZanni; there are four of those shows left, on June 23 and 24, and July 14 and 15. (The show looks fantastic—for a taste, check out the full-length video below that Recess Monkey has put on YouTube.)

And for those of us on the East Coast, well, we don't get the circus, but we get several shots at Recess Monkey themselves: a free morning show on July 24 at NYC Summerstage in Rufus King Park in Queens; two admission shows on July 24 and 25 at 2 p.m. at the Long Island Children's Museum in Garden City; and another free outdoor morning show on July 26 in Madison Square Park in Manhattan at 10:30 a.m. My boys would be the first to tell you they're well worth the trip!

[Cover image courtesy of Recess Monkey]

June 13, 2012

New Music: Shake It Up! Shake It Off!

Twenty years ago, Seattle was the epicenter of new music for us I suppose it's not surprising that in 2012, it would be the epicenter of the new wave of music for kids. (This is, it must be faced, where our generation is right now.)

Nor should it therefore be a shock that Seattle would be the first city in the country, as far as I know, to have a family-music compilation entirely created by local bands. (Or at least the first I've heard of.) Put together by parenting website ParentMap, Shake It Up! Shake It Off! is essentially a "best of Seattle kindie music" album, featuring top (previously released) tracks by the likes of Recess Monkey, Caspar Babypants, and the Not-Its!. Like most compilations, it's a great way to test the waters for parents who aren't already familiar with these artists, and find out which you and your kids respond to most.

In addition, ParentMap is donating $3 of each $12.95 purchase of the album to one of 14 participating nonprofits, from Ashoka to Washington Green Schools.

[Cover image courtesy of ParentMap]

June 11, 2012

New Books: Oh No, George!

Many great picture books for young children are existential at root. (The works of the late Maurice Sendak are merely one notable example.) Of course, it's the point at which that existentialism meets the characteristics of your actual kid that's most joyful—and, when the kid himself seems to recognize the concurrence, interesting as well.

A new favorite of our three-year-old's is a title that came out a couple of months ago: U.K.-based illustrator Chris Haughton's Oh No, George! It's as simple as is it expressive: Before going out for a while, the owner of George the dog tells him to be good. And George determines that he will be good. He so wants to be good, after all.

But with that tasty-looking cake on the table and the cat to be chased and all, temptation ends up winning out again and again—and before long, George has trashed the place. But he feels terrible about it—Haughton's rendering of ashamed George is particularly evocative—and after promising his owner to do better next time, he does manage to proudly resist temptation...for a while, anyway...

Now, the previous two paragraphs would also serve, more or less, as a description of a day with three-year-old Griffin this spring. (Even some of the specifics are awfully similar.) So it's been fascinating to watch Griff slowly but surely fall in love with Oh No, George!, to the point where it's currently his favorite bedtime read. I suppose it's really the same throughout our reading lives: We look to find ourselves in the literature we love.

And sure, I'm allowing myself to hope he takes the lesson of the book to heart at some point. (Another part of me fears I'm missing the point and figures perhaps I should be the one learning a lesson here.) But either way, Oh No, George is a delight to both of us.

[Cover image courtesy of Candlewick Press]

June 4, 2012

New Movies: The Pirates: Band of Misfits

By now we've come to expect a certain (high) level of quality from Aardman Animation—after all, these were the animated movies we started watching back in the 1990s, well before we had kids, when the company was dominating the animated short category at the Oscars. With rare exceptions, though, we've also come to expect Wallace and Gromit, and films like Chicken Run that defied that expectations, while perfectly well executed, always seemed to me to be missing that little spark of wacky Brit inspiration that puts the W&G oeuvre over the top. (Perhaps it's unfair to hold a studio to the standard of its very highest work, when that standard is rarely matched by anyone else either—but I do the same thing to Pixar, too. So I'm consistent!)

So when I saw the previews for The Pirates: Band of Misfitsa movie whose visual style was so clearly Aardman's that the credit was unnecessary—I wasn't so sure about it. My kids, however, had no such qualms—the preview had them at "Ghost ship—ooooooooh!"—and so we marched off to see it at the first opportunity. (We are not yet familiar with the book series by Gideon Defoe upon which the movie is based, though I'm thinking now we ought to become so shortly!)

The boys—veteran W&G fans themselves, I should add—could hardly have had a better time. And, grudgingly at first, neither could we, really: The story of the titular barely competent buccaneers and their captain—actually named the Pirate Captain and voiced by Hugh Grant in his best polite-English-discomfort mode—as they try to win the coveted Pirate of the Year trophy is silly, sure, but only in the manner of Aardman tradition. (After all, it's not like Wallace and Gromit's battle against the Were-Rabbit was exactly free of silliness.)

And, like the studio's previous work, all sorts of cleverness for parents is baked into the silly, including the inclusion of a young, corruptible Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant) and a supervillainous Queen Victoria (the always marvelous Imelda Staunton) as major characters. For those of us missing the Buster Keaton-ish silent expressiveness of Gromit, there's even a similarly put-upon monkey named Mister Bobo that's been trained by Darwin as a butler (see above re: silly), whose deadpan communications via beautifully scripted written cards are hysterically funny.

Do I worry that I will need to clear up someday with my sons that Queen Victoria did not, as far as we are aware, chair an evil secret society that enjoyed capturing and eating endangered species? (Or, for that matter, that Darwin was not, as far as we know, romantically infatuated with that queen?) Yes. But will that be worth the rolling giggles I saw both my sons helplessly indulging in as they watched the film, some of which my wife and I were indulging in ourselves? I'd have to say yes as well.

[Image courtesy of Aardman Animation/Paramount Pictures]