Thursday, December 29, 2011

Books We Love: “Keep Our Secrets” by Jordan Crane

Book Review by Maggie Hames
Keep Our Secrets is both a high- and a low-tech wonder. Utilizing the new technology of thermographics, the book’s illustrations are heat-sensitive. Black portions, when rubbed with your fingers or warmed with a blowdryer, reveal full-color illustrations underneath. As a child would see it, the book can conceal and reveal secrets. On the low end of the techno-scale, this book demands to be held (warmly) by the reader. There is no e-book equivalent to this. I’d even call it the anti-e-book. It’s a precious object that needs to be handled to be appreciated. It’s a magical book of wonders.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

“War Horse” Directed by Steven Spielberg

Film Review by Jack Silbert
In my lifetime, there have been many notable horse movies: International Velvet, Black Stallion, Phar Lap, Sylvester, and Seabiscuit quickly come to mind. And I didn't see ANY of them. Why? Horses are for girls! (Though I did think Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken was an awesome title, and I used it as the chorus of a song I wrote. I didn't write a song, just a chorus.)

Three’s A Charmer: Disney’s “The Three Caballeros”

Disney’s Seventh Animated Feature – 1944
Having seen The Three Caballeros as a child, a college student, and a fully-grown adult, I can confirm that it has more layers than you may think it does. For the kids, it’s got simple, silly visual humor and music that will get their little feet moving; for adolescents, it’s just weird enough to get them texting “LOL” and “WTF” to their friends on the other side of the room. Now that I’m a grownup (and an artist/educator to boot), I see that the folks at Disney managed to make a mostly respectful, informative celebration of Latin American culture that’s a lot more engaging than that description makes it out to be.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It’s Elmo’s World—And That’s Fine By Me

Documentary Review: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey directed by Constance Marks
How does a puppet (and for that matter, a puppeteer) get to be a superstar? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall, according to the old joke. You PRACTICE. And Being Elmo makes it plain no one belongs on Sesame Street more than Kevin Clash, and he got there through talent, hard work, perseverance, and a willingness to confront his own natural shyness. Being Elmo takes us from Clash’s humble, “wrong side of Baltimore” life, growing up on the banks of a polluted run-off of the Cheapeake Bay to the happiest street in the world. It’s a coming home of sorts; a journey that began for Kevin even before Jim Henson created Sesame Street back in 1969.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

You (Kinda) Rock!

Television Shows We Love: The Fresh Beat Band on Nick Jr.
The Fresh Beat Band follows the fortunes of four “teenagers” who are students at music school and members of a pop band known as (you guessed it) The Fresh Beat Band. Other friendly characters in their wholesome, candy-land neighborhood greet them as a group, as in, “Hi, Fresh Beats!” They even have a Prince-like alter ego. You can correctly refer to them as “the band formerly known as The JumpArounds.” This show is a live-action, welcome alternative in the cartoon-heavy world of pre-school television.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Simply Moo-velous Books!

Books We Love: Cows Can’t Quack and Cows Can’t Jump 
by Dave Reisman with Illustrations by Jason A. Maas
What do you call a grumpy cow? Moo-dy.
What do cows do for fun? They go to the moooo-vies.

Hey—those jokes goes over like gangbusters with the toddler set. Why? Because kids love cows. Not sure why. Maybe “moo” is the easiest animal noise to make when they’re learning to talk or maybe it’s the way long car rides are made bearable by “cow spotting.” But I challenge you to find a toddler who doesn’t love cows, whether or not they’ve ever clapped eyes on one.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Music We Love: “Tumble Bee” by Laura Veirs

Music Review by Jack Silbert
When I first heard Laura Veirs back in 2004, her haunting voice uttering the words “The fate of Kurt Cobain, junk coursing through his veins ….,” my immediate thought wasn’t, “Ooh, I can’t wait for the children’s album!” But I did instantly become a fan: Her smart lyrics and spare sound spoke to me pretty directly. When I saw a photo, I was definitely hooked. The glasses, lank hair, inscrutable expression—this is the stuff of indie-geek crushes.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Vocabulary Building Ideas for Reluctant Readers

Readers, new and experienced, often run into difficulties when they aren’t familiar with the vocabulary used in their reading. They may be able to decode the words (sound them out) but if they don’t know what the word means, they’re going to have problems.

Running into unfamiliar words occasionally is a good thing – it’s what helps us grow as readers. Running into them repeatedly makes us want to just set the book down … permanently.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Child’s Guide to SMiLE

Music Review by Jack Silbert
On the day of its long-awaited release, I posted a photo of the Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions
online. My friend Maggie commented, “Is this by any chance a kid’s book?” Certainly, Frank Holmes’ legendary unused-for-44-years cover art has an undeniable childlike quality. It’s as if we’re welcome to enter the old-timey country store where smiles are for sale from who else but grinning proprietors. Good vibrations, indeed.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

They May Be Comin’ To Your Town!

Theater Recommendations for the Youngest Patrons
Has your child been to a play yet? There are plays touring right now that could make a wonderful introduction to the theater for your child, and if your child’s a seasoned theater-goer, all the better!

I’m talking about clever productions based on children’s books: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical based on Mo Willems’ book, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar & Other Eric Carle Favourites by the Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia. Both productions are witty, beautifully produced, and kid-friendly in all the important ways. These productions value enthusiasm over silence; which is key, because the last thing you want as a parent is to have to walk your rambunctious child out of the theater because they’re too excited to sit still or they take a few minutes to adjust to the new experience of theater and “settle in.”

Friday, November 25, 2011

You Go, Marty Scorsese!

Film Review by Regina Robbins
There are many reasons that Hugo is a major film event. The book on which it is based, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, caused a sensation upon its release four years ago: it’s a whopping 526 pages which combine text and pictures, and won the Caldecott Medal for illustration, never before awarded to a novel. Because of this unique form, and because its plot is intimately tied to the history of cinema itself, the book practically cries out to be filmed. So it’s obvious why Martin Scorsese, best known for his tableaux of New York’s underbelly, was attracted to the project. The 69-year-old auteur makes his “family film” debut with a movie one might have expected to be made by Tim Burton or Jean-Pierre Jeunet (or, God help us, Robert Zemeckis). Just to make things even more mind-blowing, he shot in 3D.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Books We Love: “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick

Book Review by Maggie Hames
Okay—this book was released in 2007, but it is poised for a major revival with this Wednesday’s release of the film version—called Hugo—directed by none other than Martin Scorsese (in 3-D yet). But this book stands on its own as a wonderful and unique hybrid of chapter book, graphic novel, and cinema storyboard. Any reader over the age of ten (including you!) will enjoy this book. I hope the many joys of this book don’t get lost in the film hoopla, because The Invention of Hugo Cabret deserves to be savored for its own sake.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Save the Date: It’s a Stone Soul Birthday Party!

Need a great idea for your next birthday party, one that works for pre-schoolers to tweens? Why not anchor your party to a mix of great music that’ll get the kids on their feet, right alongside their delighted parents (and grandparents), groovin’ to sounds from the 50s to the 80s. I’m talking about soul music.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Disney’s “Fantasia” Encourages Your Imagination to Soar

Disney's Third Animated Feature - 1940
Back in June, when we ran Regina Robbins’s essay on Disney’s Dumbo, I included a short sidebar on 1940’s Fantasia. In retrospect, I believe I gave this film short shrift. It’s easy to dismiss this film, since Walt Disney himself all but offered a public apology for this box-office bomb. At the time, he commented, “We all make mistakes. Fantasia was one but it was an honest mistake.” I would never describe this as a mistake. It was created as a showcase for the talented, innovative Disney animators, allowing them to push their artistic and technical skills to the limit, mostly unfettered by the demands of story. And that’s a big risk, because without story, it’s a lot more difficult to engage an audience. After all, stories are the way we make sense of the world, and without characters to care about and stories to follow, Fantasia does drift, even flounder at times. On the plus side, this film is at times entrancing, at all times risky, and pushed film animation to new heights of excellence. I think Fantasia can—in the era of the dvd player—fulfill its original promise: to encourage an appreciation of classical music in children. The sequences that went “right” in Fantasia are superb; and the parts that went “wrong” are what your “fast forward” and “skip” buttons are for.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Books We Love: “Flicka, Ricka, Dicka and Their New Skates” by Maj Lindman

Book Review by Jack Silbert
Huey, Dewey, and Louie, I knew-y. Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka, not so much. So I was curious when I learned of this reissued vintage picture book from Swedish author and illustrator Maj Lindman. From the scant information available online, I could gather that Lindman created a series about these blond identical triplet girls, and another series about boys Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr. (No, Snapp did not change the spelling of his name and join another trio with Crackle and Pop.) My understanding is that the books were published in Sweden starting in the 1920s, and then reprinted in English in the U.S. from the 1930s through the ’50s. New Skates made its U.S. debut in 1950, but has long been out of print.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Finding the Right Book: Matchmaking for Your Child

The first step to becoming an enthusiastic reader is finding books that excite you. Most kids (or adults) won’t stick with a book that doesn’t interest them, or is too hard. If a book has vocabulary they don’t understand or talks about things they have little interest in, they will become frustrated and probably abandon it.

For example, I’m not a geek, but I’m fairly comfortable with computers. When setting up this blog, I took several books out of the library. Try as I might, I couldn’t make sense of them. I went online for help. Still stumped. Finally, I met with a friend and he walked me through some of the hardest parts.

The books didn’t help me because even though they were written in fairly plain language, I simply didn’t have the background experience or the vocabulary. Our reluctant and struggling readers are often in the same boat.

Our kids need to be matched up with books they WANT to read. Ones that interest them and don’t ask them to work too hard. This subject, matching books to readers, is a big one. In fact, huge. In this post, I’ll give you a technique, some tips and a few resources. I hope you find them useful.

The 5-Finger Method
The five-finger method is a quick and easy way to decide if a new book is at a comfortable reading level for a reader.
• Select a page from the middle of the book. Before you read, close the fingers in one hand.
• As you read silently, stick up one finger for every word you don’t know and can’t guess. If you open 3 to 5 fingers, consider a different book.
• If you stick up 1 or 2 fingers, this book is probably in your comfort range.
• This isn’t a fool-proof method. Sometimes you can read all the words in a book but not really understand the story/text itself (like me and the blogging books).
• Sometimes a book fails the 5-finger rule but if you really want to read it, you’ll keep going (like some kids with the Harry Potter books).

So how do you find books your child wants to read? There are several things to try:
Ask Your Child Questions
• What was the last book that you liked/interested you? Show no judgment here – a book from a younger time is very okay. This will give you an idea of where to start.
• What would you like to be an expert in? This can be a great jumping off point for research.
Ask Your Teachers and Librarians
• Ask what books your child has shown interest in and has been successful reading.
• Ask for a few recommendations.
Visit the Public Library
• Let your child choose whatever books he/she wants. Books seem too young? Swallow your judgment! The point is to read, regardless.
• Ask if your library system has an online site. These sites often have a powerful search engine to explore books.

Here are three sites I find helpful for finding books: Kansas Book Connect, Lexile, and Story Snoops.

Finding the right book is essential for all readers. I hope you find some good ones for your child! —Gail Terp

I’m a retired elementary teacher. I write kids’ books and connecting kids to books they love is my passion. My blog—Best Blog for Kids Who Hate to Read—is a 3-day-a-week blog: Monday - Books; Wednesday - Parent Post; Friday - Fun Stuff. Follow me on Twitter @gailterp

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Books We Love: “Nursery Rhyme Comics”

Book Review by Maggie Hames
This book is touted as, “50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists!” But when it comes to the old nursery rhymes, do kids today need them? Is “Baa-Baa, Black Sheep” essential reading (or listening)? This may not be strictly logical, but I’m voting an energetic yes. Why shouldn’t our kids be part of the long line of children who’ve enjoyed these pieces through the years? We were part of it, and now they’re part of it. And figuring out the meaning of the dated language is part of their sentimental education, just as it was part of ours.

Here’s the twist: the stories are “illustrated” by cartoonists. Some of the cartoonists play it straight: the recognizable text is set to wonderful cartoons, such as in “Hickory, Dickory, Dock,” by Stephanie Yue. Here, it’s the little mouse who “strikes one” with a large mallet to the tower bell. He then parachutes to safety, ninja style, then blithely takes a nap.

Some of the cartoonists riff on the classic verses, adding their own humorous asides. For example, in “Jack Be Nimble,” cartoonist James Sturm has his Jack add his own comments as the verse unfolds. As the narrator reads, “Jack jump over the candlestick,” the young Jack, annoyed, shouts, “What?! You must think I’m pretty stupid!”

In a similar vein, the nursery rhyme, “There Was a Crooked Man” interpreted by the divine Roz Chast, begins, “There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile.” We see a young boy and his mom (in what looks like New York’s Central Park) wonder, “Mommy? Who is that man?” She answers, “Don’t look. You’ll go cross-eyed.”

And then there are the artists in the middle, who create something new through visuals alone, such as Dave Roman, who sees “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” as a scenario where the Clone Master 3000 creates a string of identical, cloned little boys, each with a different number on their sweater. “One” and “Two” buckle the Professor’s shoe. “Three” and “Four” knock at the door. And so on. “Pat-a-Cake” by Gene Luen Yang is presented as a scenario of aliens cooking aboard their spaceship. “Old King Cole” is a lion in the jungle as imagined by JP Coovert.

Which is better—the straight interpretation or the riff? I’m not avoiding the question. The answer is both. Both work, because these nursery rhymes are safely in the hands of the best in the business. So fifty nursery rhymes are given fifty distinctly different interpretations. And all of them are the best.

Face it. This children’s book is for the parents. It’s made for us to read to them, if for no other reason than some of the illustrated text would be difficult for young readers to suss out. So the cartoonists have packed in layers of interest and fun for us. Kids who are old enough to appreciate the jokes will probably feel they’re too old for nursery rhymes. A lot of your favorite cartoonists from The New Yorker are here and it’s great fun to see their take on this historic project.

My favorite? Oh, I’m not really supposed to play favorites … who am I kidding? My favorite was the clever reworking of “Hush, Little Baby” by Mo Oh. The verse is presented as a conversation (or more accurately a conflict) between a father and his difficult-to-please, clever, adorable daughter. Dad says, “Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird!” And the cynical little girl just can’t leave it alone as she frets, “And if that mockingbird won’t sing?” In short, it’s a sublime reinterpretation that compels you to reconsider the material … and I dare you not to smile.

Remember, parents, this book is for you. But don’t forget to share it with your kids.

What do you think? We’d love to know.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Disney Halloween Treat: “Ichabod and Mr. Toad”

Disney's Eleventh Animated Feature - 1949
We’ve made a point of covering the classic Disney features in the order of their production, but in honor of Halloween, we’re allowing Disney’s 1949 feature, Ichabod and Mr. Toad to jump the line. Ichabod and Mr. Toad is the last of a series of “package films” that combined shorts until the 1970’s. Ichabod and Mr. Toad would make a terrific choice for a children’s Halloween party, even for under-fives, as the Ichabod story is scary but not too; ultimately, it’s funnier than it is frightening. And Mr. Toad is a hilarious and adventurous tale that incorporates Christmas, but transcends season and speaks to all of us, all year ’round.

Released in 1949, Disney chose two huge (and hugely different) stars to narrate the stories. Bing Crosby relates the American tale of Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Basil Rathbone narrates the English story of Mr. Toad from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

Introduced as the most fabulous character in all of English literature (not overselling it, are we, Basil?), Mr. Toad is a replete, fun-loving, speed demon who merrily races around the country side in a canary yellow cart pulled by his friend, Cyril the horse. (So THAT’S what they mean by “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”) Mr. Toad is everybody’s favorite wild child, full of mirth and as irresponsible as the day is long. His destructive hi-jinks have put at risk his stately mansion, Toad Hall, the showplace of the shire. His friends Rattie and Molie commiserate with the responsible MacBadger who tries to pull Mr. Toad back from the brink of financial disaster. Before Mr. Toad can seriously consider reforming, he is tantalized by the latest invention: the speedy motorcar. He won’t rest until he can possess one.

Mr. Toad finds himself in serious legal trouble when he’s accused in court of trying to sell a stolen car and winds up in jail. His pals help him escape and clear his name, and he goes after his accusers who have stolen Toad Hall out from under him. You’ll enjoy the scenes with the unscrupulous Weasel Gang whose characters were later borrowed by the creators of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Cinephiles will appreciate the funny stunt where four weasels simultaneously club each other, a moment that eventually found its way into the work of John Woo and Quentin Tarrantino. Suffice to say, all turns out well for Mr. Toad, but the new, reformed Toad doesn’t stay static for long. But we really didn’t want him to reform, did we?

Bing Crosby then takes over the narration, speaking up for “the colonies.” Ichabod Crane was a lanky, eagle-beaked, itinerate schoolteacher who finds his way to the town of Sleepy Hollow, New York, seeking more than just a job teaching school. He’s manipulative and ambitious in his way, and wouldn’t mind making a comfortable marriage for himself. Bing Crosby also lends his voice to Ichabod, so when Ichabod sings, the ladies of Sleepy Hollow swoon like 1940’s bobby-soxers. Ichabod didn’t figure on falling head-over-heels for the flirtatious Katrina Von Tassel, who just happens to be the daughter of the wealthiest man in town. Local he-man Brom Bones considers Katrina to be his claimed territory, but Ichabod gives Brom a run for his money. It’s made fairly obvious that Katrina enjoys playing one man off another, and is most likely using Ichabod to make Brom jealous. And it works. If I were to fault this tale, it would be that none of the lead characters—Ichabod, Katrina, or Brom—is particularly likable, but they are faithful to the satirical, stinging prose of Washington Irving who deflates every stuffed-shirt in Sleepy Hollow.

Fed up with Ichabod, Brom Bones (also voiced by Crosby) sings the frightening tale of the Headless Horseman at the Van Tassel Halloween ball. Ichabod has a harrowing ride home, imagining the Horseman around every bend, eventually sharing a laugh with his horse at his own silliness. And then, the Headless Horseman appears, flaming Jack-O-Lantern in hand! The Horseman chases Ichabod to the safety of a covered bridge, where he tosses his “severed” head at him. As in the Irving story, it’s left a mystery as to whether Ichabod safely fled or was “spirited away” by the Horseman; though Disney heavily weighs it toward the former, showing Ichabod with a plump wife and a table-full of eagle-beaked children. And any idea that Katrina was left broken-hearted is dispelled when we see her enthusiastically kiss Brom Bones on their wedding day.

All told, Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a fun, lively, sometimes scary feature that’s just right for kids but will appeal to parents as well. I personally prefer Mr. Toad to Ichabod, as the attempts to freshen up the Ichabod story with pop references—like the girls who swoon at Ichabod/Bing’s singing—actually make the piece seem a bit dated. And I could do without an unnecessary scene at the Halloween ball where Brom tries to trick Ichabod into swapping his dance partner Katrina for a short, overweight gal, but chalk it up to 1940’s sexism. I’d describe Mr. Toad as the more timeless, universal piece. But both are delightful, perfect for the transition from Halloween to the winter holiday season. You can see Ichabod and Mr. Toad in its entirety (in chapters) on YouTube.

Have you seen Ichabod and Mr. Toad? Share your thoughts here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

That Bunny Is a Bully!

Book Review: Sarah O’Hara – Gift of the Fairy Wings written by Penny Holguin
There’s something I don’t find myself saying every day: that bunny is a bully! But “little girl” bunny Sarah in Penny Holguin’s Sarah O’Hara – Gift of the Fairy Wings is a bully and then some. On her sixth birthday, Sarah receives a pair of green fairy wings. According to her bunny mom, Sarah wanted these wings to complete her fairy princess Halloween costume, and (at first) Sarah is thrilled to have them. But the reader immediately gets clues that Sarah is a bit thoughtless. She takes the wings to school and when another bunny girl, Angela, asks to try on the wings, Sarah answers, “No Angela, you’re not a princess. Princesses don’t wear shabby clothes.” Ouch. The other bunny kids laugh and Angela bursts into tears.

When Sarah’s wings are almost ruined after an accident, Angela offers to help. Again, Sarah is obnoxious to her. Sarah doesn’t want the wings anymore and prefers to sulk. Angela wears the wings herself as part of her own Halloween costume and wins a prize that she graciously offers to share with Sarah. Sarah is shocked, confused, then shamed into assessing her own bad behavior and chooses to change for the better. Sarah acknowledges the simple truth that Angela is the real princess. This is a Halloween story with year ’round appeal.

This isn’t a story I’d classify as sweet or adorable. The subject matter is too important and the characters are all too real. I can imagine this book as a script for a short film acted by real kids. The bullying, the sulking, the selfishness, and the thoughtlessness of the Sarah character are all too recognizable. The forgiveness and innate graciousness of the Angela character are almost too good to be true, but it is in the fullness of Angela’s spirit and in her downright classiness that Sarah learns her lesson. You don’t have to twist yourself into a pretzel to find the useful metaphor here. The message is clear and intact.

Children over the age of six are old enough to understand what it means to be a bully and can choose to be better people (or children). That’s where the sweetness of this book lies: in the hoped-for effect it can have on kids. If it gets kids to thinking about their own part in the culture of bullying, not to mention in self-defeating habits like sulking, then it has done a service to the next generation. It would be great if our high schools didn’t have to enforce the idea of being “bully-free zones,” and perhaps books like Sarah O’Hara – Gift of the Fairy Wings can help raise the next crop of teens as people who see things a bit differently.

And author Penny Holguin puts her money where her mouth is. Her goal is to donate 1000 books to organizations for distribution by Christmas, so for each book she sells, she’s donating one. Find out more at the Sarah O’Hara website.

We’re giving away a personally autographed copy of Sarah O’Hara – Gift of the Fairy Wings. Just leave a comment below with a way to reach you (email preferred) or simply visit our Facebook Fan Page to qualify for our drawing. The deadline is 5pm E.S.T., October 31, 2011, better known as Halloween. Our Giveaway Rules apply.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why Can’t We Be Friends? Disney’s “Saludos Amigos”

Disney's Sixth Animated Feature - 1942
The year was 1941, before our entry into WWII, and the Department of State commissioned a goodwill tour of South America for Walt Disney and his creative team. Already popular in Latin America, Disney seemed a good choice to counteract the Nazi ties forming with several Latin American governments.

The resulting film was 1942s Saludos Amigos, or Hello, Friends. It was the first Disney “package film” made up of a series of shorts. The film includes documentary footage of modern Latin American cities with skyscrapers and fashionably dressed residents that contributed to a changing impression of Latin America. Film historian Alfred Charles Richard, Jr. commented that Saludos Amigos “did more to cement a community of interest between peoples of the Americas in a few months than the State Department had in fifty years.” We also get to see Walt Disney himself, cigarette in hand, con-fabbing with Latin American artists. You’d never suspect that back in the U.S., Disney was struggling with labor unrest, including a strike that was underway at the time the goodwill journey began.

A voiceover narration attempts to illuminate the Disney team’s creative process from inspiration to sketch to finished animated product. All but one of the shorts features the immensely popular characters Donald Duck or Goofy. Donald visits Lake Titicaca and meets some locals, including a small boy who controls his llama with his flute. This inspires the requisite jitterbug and pop culture jokes. Likewise, the sequence where cowboy Goofy is transformed into an Argentinean gaucho is peppered with jokes that had whiskers on them in 1943.

In the short Pedro, a tiny “little boy” airplane from Chile makes a hazardous mail run because his “parents” are incapacitated. The film has little to do with Latin culture and the Chilean backdrop seems grafted onto the story. Annoyed at this, cartoonist René Ríos Boettiger (Pepo) was inspired to start one of the most famous Latin American comic magazines, Condorito, in part because of his disappointment with Pedro as the image that the outside world had of Chile.

The film does feature some wonderful music, including the song “Aquarela do Brasil,” written by Ary Barroso and performed by Aloysio De Oliveira and an instrumental version of “Tico-Tico no Fubá,” written by Zequinha de Abreu. “Aquarela do Brasil” did not achieve much success when it was released in 1939, but after appearing in this film, it became an international hit. It was the first Brazilian song to be played over a million times on American radio.

The film introduced the animated parrot Joe Carioca voiced by José Oliveria (Zezinho). He star-trips Donald Duck and promises to show him “the land of the samba” in what is the best segment of the film. Donald drinks and gets a little tipsy. The artist dips his brush in the liquor and paints musicians and instruments in appropriately hot colors as Donald dances. Flamingoes dance and orchids sing back-up as a bunch of bananas morphs into a bunch of toucan beaks. What the Disney team attempted to do for classical music in Fantasia, they succeeded in doing for Brazilian music in Saludos Amigos, and the modern music video was born.

Joe Carioca was popular enough to come back (with his pal Donald) in the film, The Three Caballeros, which we will examine here soon. Ultimately, Saludos Amigos is outdated as travelogue and not terribly scintillating as animation. We see the artists’ inspirations and their sketches, but it all seems a bit self-congratulatory for what is ultimately the least compelling Disney feature to date. A more complicated and involving narrative could have been a better route to creating a film worth seeing year in, year out. There simply wasn’t an engaging story here, and the product suffers for it. But oh, that music.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Books We Love: “The Day the Cow Sneezed”

Book Review by Jack Silbert
For a long stretch of time there, it seemed like every album I bought—and I buy a lot of albums—had some connection to Irwin Chusid. His name appeared in reissue liner notes for Esquivel (whose 50s/60s “space-age bachelor pad music” helped spawn a 90s revival), the Shaggs (“outsider” late-60s girl group), Raymond Scott (whose 1937 composition “Powerhouse” was utilized in countless Warner Brothers cartoons), and many others. I quickly accepted Chusid—a longtime d.j. on New Jersey’s legendary WFMU—as an ambassador and caretaker of quirky cool from bygone eras.

So it was no surprise when I learned of 1940s/50s album-cover illustrator Jim Flora via a 2004 book authored by Chusid. Flora’s style is deceptively simple: cartoon-y, two-dimensional, with jagged angles and circus-like colors, very evocative of its moment in time. A sense of joy and a sense of humor practically leap off the page.

I feel at this point in the review—I promise, a review is coming—that I must once again make an admission in the interest of full disclosure: Irwin Chusid lives just a few doors down from me. However, I can again assert a total lack of bias. I have had only one conversation with the man, albeit while purchasing from him a print of a Flora Mambo for Cats LP cover for a feline-obsessed friend.

When I learned that Flora had written and illustrated a 1957 children’s book, and that it was being reissued, I knew I had to own it. The silliness inherent in the title—The Day the Cow Sneezed—sealed the deal for me.

And a lovely reissue it is, from the Enchanted Lion publishing house. Here’s a book you can judge by its cover. (A handsome hardcover, at that.) The fun patterns in the zany lettering convey a mad energy. Spot illustrations of a smiling cat, topsy-turvy mouse, above-it-all bird, and of course, a sneezing cow, basically tell the tale of the book: motion, not-too-dangerous danger, and most importantly, whimsy. Also on the cover, we see that Flora is listed as James, not Jim. Well, la-dee-da!

Within, we learn that Chusid is credited as “solicitor and overseer.”(La-dee-da part deux.) Flora’s artwork is reproduced quite crisply on quality paper stock. Color-wise, two decisions struck me immediately: one almost certainly a financial choice (by the original 1957 publishers, Harcourt, Brace & World), and the other I’m not quite sure. Decision 1: Every other two-page spread is black-and-white. While this likely saved some printing bucks, it doesn’t really hurt the book. The eye gets to rest a little on these pages, and the brain can concentrate on fun little details in the art that might be missed in a splash of color. Decision 2 is an interesting color palette: black lines surrounded mostly by pink, light red, and blue-green. Now, I don’t know enough about Flora’s oeuvre to definitively say if he placed this limitation on himself, or if it was placed on him by Harcourt or Brace or maybe even World. But it totally works. The colors jump at you off white backgrounds. Meanwhile, he repeating, pleasing palette eases the transitions from the black-and-white spreads.

Story-wise, the book is pretty straightforward. A cow sneezes, and chain-reaction hilarity ensues. I’m not sure if this was intentional either, but we’re kind of “tricked” by a sizeable block of text on the first page, setting up the plot. But after that, even though there is fun writing throughout—with occasional big-type onomatopoeia—overall it’s the art doing the heavy lifting. As hinted at on the cover, there is a nonstop sense of motion (think Family Circus’s dotted paths, but much more madcap), tracking the “destruction” from page to page, from farm to mountain to city and all points in-between. With many modes of transport, we pass, run over, and/or pick up various people, buildings, trees, and countless critters. And like that smiling cat on the cover, amidst much shock and awe, there’s often one animal wearing a calm grin, taking it all in. It’s as if to say, don’t worry, kids—we’re just having fun here.

I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice to say, Thing 1 and Thing 2 do not show up. Also, the boy whose inattention led to a sneezy cow gets his comeuppance a bit more matter-of-factly than a kid-glove-handled modern character might.

Tempted to say that I’m fawning over Flora. But I’ll try to resist.

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Web Series We Love: “Recess Stories”

Series Review
You, your tweens, and “pre-tweens” will love the fictional web series, Recess Stories. Each two-to-four minute episode takes place on a school playground during (appropriately enough) recess. The team behind Recess Stories succeeded in creating, “a cross between Peanuts and Seinfeld.” All twelve episodes are available for free streaming and downloads, can be watched online, or your phone, or on t.v.

The stories are by definition, short and sweet; they’re also disarmingly real and documentary-like in their unpretentious look. There’s drama but no tears. In one episode, a girl announces, “I’m not going to be here tomorrow, but my twin is.” The twin’s a princess, and shows up on the playground in her purple princess cape. She looks just like recurring character Petal, and shows everyone how to play princess tag.

Two episodes are about the trials and tribulations that go with playground “hard time” better known as getting a timeout “on the wall.” We never see the teachers who put the kids on the wall, but we hear about them. Hilariously. I was half expecting someone to bust out a harmonica. One little girl moans that she hasn’t been put on the wall since second grade. The humiliation of it all!

There’s drama with a sense of fair play in the episode, “The Girl Who Stole Everything Pink,” where, as the title suggests, a girl is falsely accused of theft, but quickly vindicated, apologies humbly offered. In the pilot episode, “Kangaroo Club,” a few of the boys think the girls’ club is “stupid,” but another wants to join.

Creative team Kenton Jakub and Shelley Latham of Maine-based Beeswax Productions shot the 12-episode series during the summer of 2010. Beeswax worked with a rotating cast of 41 kids aged seven to thirteen and a crew of six local teenagers. They applied the same working philosophy that Shelley uses with her play productions: create the conditions and the opportunity for everybody to be amazing. The results? Well, amazing. I think serious students of filmmaking owe it to themselves to take a look. Recess Stories is one of the only live-action web-series for kids. Inspired to create? Hope so. The world needs more series like Recess Stories.

Beeswax shot season two this past summer and promise new episodes soon. Not soon enough for me! When’s Recess already?

Have you seen Recess Stories? Share your thoughts here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rock The Playdate!

Kid’s Music With Parent Appeal
Grammy-winners Dan Zanes and Friends (You may know Zanes as the front man from The Del Fuegos) has just released a collection of songs, Little Nut Tree, that he calls “age desegregated.” That’s hipster for kid’s songs that won’t make you cringe at their saccharin level or forced “teachable moments.”

Five years ago, Dan Zanes and Friends released the family cd Catch That Train that went on to win the Grammy. Little Nut Tree is made up of original tunes and covers and includes some fun and surprising collaborations. My favorite is his cover of the Etta James and Sugar Pie DeSanto R&B classic “Down in the Basement” with funk/soul singer Sharon Jones. Every suburban kid is familiar with the basement playroom. Zanes makes the playroom hip as he sings, “Where can you go to party all night?” as Jones chimes in with the refrain, “Down in the basement!”

Zanes told NPR, “Most pop music is about romance and sex. That doesn’t fly with most three-year-olds. And parents aren’t all that excited about songs that are about saying please.” Tracks like "Wake Up Baby!," title track, "Little Nut Tree," and "I Don’t Need Sunny Skies" (plus 12 more tracks), make this a refreshing choice for parties and playdates. It’s about having fun and enjoying life and each other without being corny about it. And you can listen to samples of every cut right here.

This spring, nerd/geek rockers John Flansburgh and John Linnell, better known as They Might Be Giants, will celebrate 30 years in music. Since becoming parents themselves, they’ve blended careers in “grown up” music with family-friendly, witty kid’s discs and shows. I took my then two-year-old daughter to see their confetti-cannon Family Show and she just adored it; almost as much as I did. There’s a lot to love here. John and John have always had a way with a catchy, just-this-side-of-Motown bridge. Their clever lyrics always work on more than one level, but with their children’s collections, they only have to work on two: yours and your kid’s.

You can get a feel for their sense of humor just by reading their list of original songs: on their Grammy-nominated disc, Here Comes Science, track 9 is "Why Does the Sun Shine?" And track 10 is "Why Does the Sun REALLY Shine?" Grammy-winning Here Come the 123’s contains the hilarious tracks, "The Secret Life of Six," and "Seven Days of the Week (I Never Go To Work)." You’ll want to keep these discs (including Here Come the ABC’s) for yourself; if the kids are extra good, they can have a listen. But only if they know how to share. Sample songs from all their kid’s discs at their Amazon “mini-store.”

What music do your kids like? Share it here!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Books We Love: “Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes” by Jonathan Auxier

Book review by Jack Silbert
We book critics take the platitude “Don’t judge a book by its cover” extremely literally. And literarily. So this book can thank me (in some alternate reality where books have sentience), for splashed across its cover are the words, “Boy’s First Name, Boy’s Last Name and …” as the title construction. Below that, an illustration of a tousle-haired lad sneaking across dark, mysterious rooftops of what I’d hazard a guess is London. For the cover-judgers out there, and perhaps in the dark hearts of publishers’ marketing wings, it all might conjure a certain popular children’s book series, you know the one, with the wizards and owls and what-have-you. But despite appearances, Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes is not remotely a Hogwartian knockoff. It’s a fresh and fun adventure with some familiar elements refashioned into something new. Perhaps too many F’s in that last sentence, but I’m sticking with it.

Before I continue, two admissions in the interest of full disclosure:

1) I read very few children’s books. Case in point: the aforementioned teenage wizard collection. Didn’t read ’em. What? You didn’t read the best-selling series of books in the history of mankind? No, I didn’t. Why? I’m an adult. Relax, okay? I saw the movies.

2) Perhaps I should recuse myself from writing this review, as I know the author, Jonathan Auxier. Now, we’ve only hung out twice: darts on the west coast and a slice of pizza on the east coast. (Thank goodness it wasn’t the reverse, as California pizza is utter crap.) I am confident that I can proceed in an unbiased fashion. Also, I bought the book with my own money, unlike those so-called “professional” reviewers who get free copies. So now who’s biased, huh?

Still with me? Good. Let’s continue.

Has any Ph.D. candidate explored the early stages of consuming a work of fiction, in which at first your brain pleasantly flounders around—who are these characters? what’s the plot?—until, often imperceptibly, things snap into place? (An exception to this is the Darren Aronofsky film The Fountain, which in 96 minutes did not make a lick of sense, and five years later I’m still angry about it. But I digress.) Likewise, I enjoyed that it took me a little while to settle into Peter Nimble. At the start, I thought each chapter might be a self-contained adventure. They end with fun little cliffhangers, like those Dickens serials we all heard about in school. (Actually, with modern attention spans, I’m surprised the Dickens book-sales business model hasn’t made a huge comeback as an e-reader subscription service.) Suffice to say, the various threads all meld together, with Auxier expertly plotting things out.

Oh yeah, plot. I’m supposed to give a little summary, right? Peter Nimble is a blind orphan boy thief in an unnamed city that is probably London. (I kept thinking the city would be revealed at some point, or at the very least a reason would be provided why it wasn’t being revealed, but no sir. We’re left with a few clumsy references to Peter’s “port-city hometown.”) Likewise, the events transpire in the vague unnamed era that is prior to technological innovations that would reduce most epic adventures to one page or less. He’s taken under the wing of the evil Fagin, no, wait, it’s Mr. Seamus, whose name is undoubtedly being mispronounced by kids across the country as we speak. Seamus, though cruel, schools the lad in many tricks of the thieving trade that, you never know, may come in handy later in the book. And then a Gandalf/Dumbledore-type shows up who knows that Peter is special … different … you know, chosen. And so young Peter sets off on a magical quest, possibly with eyes of a fantastical nature in his carry-on bag.

As I indicated, there are some, shall we say, “homages” to pre-existing characters, storylines, and such. So, yes, there’s also a little Invention of Hugo Cabret (orphan, thief, clocks), Peter Pan (Lost Boys), Star Wars, Planet of the Apes. And Auxier’s own terrific chapter-opening illustrations somewhat recall E. H. Shepard’s Winnie the Pooh work with a hint of Jules Feiffer. But aren’t we all products of our influences? (Note my own Letterman-esque snark! And while I’m in parentheses, let me fess up to Googling the name of the Winnie the Pooh illustrator. You can’t know everything.) In Peter Nimble, the familiar touches come across as comfortable footholds in the larger, original world Auxier has dreamed up.

Admirably, he avoids the Scooby-Doo-esque kid-mystery elements (zany heists and the like) that I felt marred that series of wizard movies based on the series of wizard books that I didn’t read. Auxier doesn’t talk down to his readers; things are happening on a slightly more mature plane. That being said, there is some violence, there is some killing. It didn’t feel overly graphic—more often the violence is referred to rather than seen. But for sensitive or younger children, you might want to read the book first or, better yet, read it together.

The book’s narrator is a bit of a wiseass, bringing a lot of humor to the proceedings. This is via somewhat dubious “facts” and also fourth-wall observations such as “If ever you have had the chance to spend quality time with a villainous mastermind, you will know that these people are extraordinarily fond of discussing their evil schemes out loud.” But the clever narration never overwhelms the prose, or gets in the way of the action. It simply raises the writing level up a notch; there’s artfulness here. Indeed, Auxier has an excellent handle on stoking the story’s forward momentum, A leading to B leading to C, while the action gets more frenzied. (Though never muddled: The writing is sharp and clear. And if a key event happened earlier in the book, the narrator gently reminds us.) All the while, he weaves in some positive, tried-and-true children’s-fiction tropes: It’s okay to be different, your shortcomings can work to your advantage, friends are important, never give up—but Auxier never hits us over the head with them.

Ooh, and this is important: when you’re least expecting it, the author reveals himself as a—are you sitting down?—Canadian. A napkin is referred to as a “serviette.” And I didn’t even Google that one; I know it from listening to the Nardwuar the Human Serviette radio program based in Vancouver.

Still, I think Canucks and non-Canucks alike can appreciate this book. I’d say it’s primarily for 8- to 12-year-olds, smart boys first (who will know when Auxier is teasing), then adventure-loving boys, then smart and/or adventure-loving girls. There is a strong female character but she only emerges about halfway into the book. Otherwise, it’s fairly boy-heavy.

Are you someone who just skips to the last paragraph of reviews? If so, let me state for the record: I enjoyed Jonathan Auxier’s debut novel Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes quite a lot, and I think kids will too. Could there be a movie? There are a couple of battles and a combo man-cat-horse creature that I think might work better on the screen versus what I could summon in my (admittedly no-longer-a-kid) imagination. Sequels? The conclusion doesn’t demand them, but with robust sales, who knows? Peter may discover a fantastic elbow, spleen, pinky toe ….

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.

Link to author Jonathan Auxier’s blog or Tweet him at @JonathanAuxier.

For a chance to win a personally autographed copy of "Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes," leave a comment. Make sure you include a way to reach you—email is preferred. Giveaway rules apply.