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.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Men Are the New Women

The Fall Television Season for Teens and Parents

New Girl starring the adorable and very funny Zooey Deschanel as grammar school teacher Jess gives us a wonderful twist on the “gal whose pals have got her back” show. The “girlfriends” are played by three guys: Jake Johnson as nice guy Nick; Max Greenfield as ladies’ man Schmidt, and Lamorne Morris as former athlete Winston (though Damon Wayans Jr. starred as roommate Coach in the pilot, he won’t be part of the series). Men are the new women, and I mean it in the best possible way. Feminism has come full circle when women and men can be pals without the show being about sexual tension in the apartment. Jess’s new roommates become her great friends who rescue her when she’s stood up by her “rebound” date. As Nick announces as they swoop down to save her, alone at her restaurant table, “We’re reverse Mormons. One man just isn’t enough for her.”

The tag line for the show is “Simply adorkable” and Deschanel is fresher than fresh as Jess, the Lord of the Rings quoting hipster. Deschanel gives Jess plenty of cute quirks. My favorite is that she can come up with a moments-notice “theme” song for every turn life offers her. She gets the guys singing by the pilot’s end. You’ll sing, too.

Speaking of adorable/adorkable women, you should check out the web series The Retributioners starring Stephanie Faith Scott as Stephanie. It blurs the line between reality and fiction and is witty, touching, edgy, and often hilarious, just like life. The series was created by Scott and her writer/director husband Eric Rasmussen and it’s better than most of the sit-coms on television. Scott plays a woman in the city who tracks down people who did her wrong and makes them pay. Only not really. She’s actually too sweet to enact any real revenge and often finds herself getting sucked in all over again. She’s Mary Tyler Moore for the 21st century. Catch all the episodes on their site.

And The Retributioners is miles above either of NBC’s new sit-coms, Up All Night or Free Agents.

Up All Night stars Christina Applegate as Reagan, producer of the Oprah-like women’s show, “Ava.” She and husband Chris (Will Arnett) just had an adorable baby girl. He left a law firm to stay home with the baby as Reagan goes back to work. They look to be—how do I put this—very wealthy. And they whine about all the work that goes into raising a baby. And then they whine some more. And then it’s over. I mean, hire a nanny already.

Saving grace? The scenes at Reagan’s workplace are sensational thanks to Maya Rudolph as Ava, who is merely terrific. I hope this show improves drastically and doesn’t get cancelled for Maya’s sake, or rather for the viewers’ sake. Rudolph’s that scary good.

Can’t say the same for the actively unfunny Free Agents starring Hank Azaria as recently divorced public relations man Alex who breaks into tears at the thought of his sad life. And Kathryn Hahn as co-worker Helen lives among 21 life-sized photographs of her deceased fiancĂ©. Now that’s what I call funny! Alex and Helen wind up in bed; regret it, don’t regret it, who cares? Anthony Stewart Head does what he can with the singularly unoriginal role of boss Stephen who’s rich and great looking and never stops talking about his fabulous life. There is nothing in his character you haven’t seen before (many, many times).

Don’t get me wrong—I love the mega-talent Hank Azaria—but experience suggests he’s a classic character actor, all quirks, tics, and funny voices, not a leading man. And as a voice talent, he’s second to none. The Simpsons owes this guy for their very success. I figure he made some kind of deal with the devil, one of those ironic bargains where he gets to be super-famous, but only his voice achieves fame. He’s just not a leading man, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of; leading men can be very boring. As boring as Free Agents. Just don’t. Do some reading. Or take up crochet. You’ll thank me later.

What do you think? Seen any of these shows yet? Share your thoughts here.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My September 11th

I lived in Hoboken at the time. When I saw on tv that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, I raced up my street to the river. A group of people watched the smoke rise, a mushroom cloud over lower Manhattan as if a nuclear bomb had hit. Someone with a radio said that the second tower had just been hit and the sickening truth dawned on us: this was no accident. This was a horrifying, intentional act. And there wasn’t a thing we could do to help those poor people.

As the sad day unfolded, we were turned away at the local hospital when we offered to give blood. The next day, every bus shelter in our city was covered with homemade posters, “Have You Seen Him?” “Have you seen my daughter? Son? Wife? Husband?” So many hopeful faces photographed at happy family occasions. Too much loss. There would always be an empty chair at the family dinner now.

We regroup and rebuild. We go back to work and life resumes. I always thought our freedom and openness protected us from terrorist threats. If anyone hated our values, they were free to criticize us to their heart’s content; lead a protest and march it up Broadway if you like. A feeling of “security” doesn’t mean the same thing anymore. We are now aware of our vulnerabilities, which is what the terrorists hoped.

I think it’s good news that life has largely returned to normal. Travel, especially air travel has been changed, but it’s amazing how little else has changed. Our freedom really is our strength. We call upon it in times of trouble and it sustains us. The terrorists didn’t “win” a thing. We’re still a free and open society and if you don’t like our values, you can criticize us in a loud voice from the highest hill. And people are willing to die to protect our freedoms. But the people of September 11th didn’t have a choice. Many just wanted to finish their work and get home to their family dinner.

There’s a hole in the skyline that can never be fixed. There’s an empty chair at the table.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Welcome to My Manhattan Home

Living History in New York City by Maggie Hames
When you think of New York City, you often think of the high-tech, modern crossroads that is Times Square. But there’s another Manhattan, one steeped in history. I suggest an eye-opening trip into the past: visit a pair of residence-museums that will give you and your child a vivid picture of New York City’s extremes in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. Combine a visit to The Tenement Museum on the lower east side with a visit to The Frick Collection on the upper east side and you will experience a peek into the private, intimate living spaces of New Yorkers who experienced vastly different versions of the same city.

The Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard Street, tells the stories of the residents who lived there. Lucas Glockner built the 20-unit building in 1863 and it was home to more than 7,000 people before it was condemned as a residence in 1935. The Museum has done an amazing job researching the histories of a selection of families and re-creating their living spaces. Guides lead small groups of visitors into the halls and apartments of these families and tell their stories in detail. The tours are designed for visitors at least five years old, with some tours reserved for visitors older than eight; and others for visitors twelve and older. The Spartan conditions in the apartments will give you pause, as you try to envision life in a walk-up apartment without running water, privies (and squatters) in the yard, and a coal stove running 24 hours a day, all year long. You’ll learn of the ordinances that compelled landlords to install electricity and running water in the building, as well as a flush toilet for every two apartments. Even more astounding are the success stories that emerged from this historic dwelling.

Visitors must be ten or older to visit The Frick Collection. The building was once the residence of Henry Clay Frick who was born in 1849 and made his fortune in coke, the essential fuel used in the smelting of iron ore. Frick was an astute collector of old master and 19th century art. In 1913 he built his splendid mansion as much a home for his collection as for his family. (It must be nice to have your own Vermeer, and Frick had three of them, all on display here.) The house itself is grand beyond imagining, with an excess of that most precious New York commodity: space.

To walk these halls is to venture back to a truly gilded age. It’s difficult to imagine that Fifth Avenue was once lined with mansions like this one, but the Frick residence makes that era come alive. And the Frick garden, where you’re free to wander, has a larger footprint than most buildings. The lifestyle that went with this space is every bit as “gone with the wind” as that of 97 Orchard Street. But these residence-museums allow the past to live again in our waking dreams.

Have you been to either of these museums? We'd love to hear about it.