Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Videogames: The First Fifty Years

Harold Goldberg’s new book, All Your Base Are Belong to Us—How Fifty Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture, amazed me from the moment I picked it up. For starters, can there really be fifty years of history? Goldberg’s engaging narrative takes readers back to the “first blips on the screen” and the Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist who engineered the first game of Tennis for Two. The scientist noted, “It occurred to me that it might liven up the place to have a game that people could play, and which would convey the message that our scientific endeavors have relevance to society.” I’ll say. Seems people started lining up to play the game on visitors’ day and our society has never looked back.

Goldberg writes, “The videogame industry in the United States is now a $20-billion-a-year juggernaut, surpassing movie, music, and DVD sales—combined. Just one game, The Houser brothers’ Grand Theft Auto IV, earned $500 million in its opening week, far outpacing the movie industry’s biggest force, James Cameron’s Avatar, which earned less than half that amount. Forty-two percent of Americans have videogame consoles. If you add computer games, 67 percent of us are gamers.” This game of Tennis for Two has been won by the videogame industry, and Goldberg takes readers on adventures of outrageous fortunes won and lost in true stories that rival the drama of an intense game of Red Dead Redemption. Videogaming is a significant aspect of our culture and if you’d like to understand how this relatively new technological and artistic form earned its place at the top of the pyramid, All Your Base Are Belong to Us will prove as entertaining as it is illuminating.

But now what’s with that title? The phrase is a quote found in the particularly poor English translation of the 1989 Japanese videogame Zero Wing and is one of the Internet’s first widely spread memes. The phrase became a type of insider trash talk and spawned countless image macros and flash animations featuring the slogan. And speaking of inside, it’s hard to find someone on the topic of videogames more inside than Harold Goldberg. He’s reviewed videogames for fifteen years for such publications as Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Boys’ Life, Village Voice, and Radar, and for three years penned a widely syndicated gaming column. He also served as editor-in-chief of Sony Online Entertainment during the launch of EverQuest. Harold Goldberg was good enough to answer a passel of questions for me regarding videogames and kids.

Media Darlings: Even though videogames make more money than movies (or any other mass media) there seems to be a cultural denial of their significance. Why do you think this is?
Harold Goldberg: It’s multifarious. I think parents fear that games will harm kids in the same way that parents feared comic books in the middle of the last century. They think games will make kids juvenile delinquents. That’s so untrue. I think the vast majority of mainstream magazines and newspapers feel this popular art form isn’t deep enough to be reviewed alongside music and movies. That constantly saddens me. Of course, game makers need to make stellar narrative. But that’s happening more and more often as well.

MD: What do you think is an appropriate age to begin playing videogames?
HG: Personally, I’d say seven. But certainly I’ve seen kids from three on up playing.

MD: What are the best games for younger kids? For older kids?
HG: Angry Birds is great for any kid. The Mario and Zelda games for the Wii and DS are great for kids around seven and up. Tweens probably would love Pokemon or Bakugan. Young teens would probably love Madden, all the sports games and the Uncharted series.

MD: Does the playing of videogames alter the way we see the world?
HG: I often want to use a controller to change my world. I assume there are others who feel the same way. Games immerse you in a world for more hours that does a book. I dream about games, and I occasionally think a character or location from a game is next to you on the street. So I find there’s an occasional merging of fantasy and reality that other media don’t offer.

MD: What is the greatest benefit to man from videogames?
HG: Entertainment, escape, a little bit of knowledge and great reflexes.

MD: What can kids learn from videogaming?
HG: Some of the same things they learn at school – except games can be more fun and more teamwork-oriented. The Civilization series deals with history in an immersive way that makes kids more curious about our iconic eras. So does the iPad version of Oregon Trail.

MD: If you could live in the world of a videogame, which one would it be?
HG: Good question! I’d live in the world of SoulCalibur, which is full of myth. I’d love to visit the worlds of BioShock and Red Dead Redemption, but not live there. Life’s too tough there – nasty, brutish and short.

Are there any particular books or movies that you’d like to see made into a game?
HG: I’d like to see Infinite Jest made into a role playing game.

MD: Is there a particular children’s book that you think would make a great videogame?
HG: The great Salmon Rushdie wrote a book for his son that’s based on videogames. I’d like to see Luka and the Fire of Life made into a game.

MD: Is there a particular character from children’s literature, music, or film that would make a great videogame anchor?
HG: Well, from comic books that older kids read, I always wanted to see Dr. Strange, The Phantom Stranger and the Swamp Thing in a videogame – together.

Some just-for-fun questions:
MD: What was your favorite t.v. show when you were a kid?
HG: I liked The Twilight Zone best, although I think I first saw this in reruns. Also, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, Star Trek, The Beatles cartoons, the Mario cartoons … and Lost. I guess I’m still a kid.

MD: What character would you like to be?
HG: Nightmare from SoulCalibur. But I am him.

MD: What was the first book you remember really loving?
HG: A collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories. They really scared me.

MD: Do you remember being read to as a child? Do you have a favorite book from that era?
HG: My mother read Hawthorne to me and I loved that. And the Sunday comics. And Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Beyond those, I recall really loving a book called It’s Like This, Cat.

MD: Who’s your favorite character from a t.v. show or cartoon?
HG: Every character in Twin Peaks, Lost, and Popeye. I still watch all of them sometimes.

MD: What’s in your dvd player right now? Your ipod?
HG: My DVD player is an Xbox 360 or a PS3. There’s Portal 2 in the Xbox 360. iPod - Green Day and Chappo.

MD: Who’s your favorite animated character, show, or film?
HG: I like Bill Plympton’s Idiots and Angels right now.

MD: And finally, which famous fictional character’s motto or iconic line do you wish you came up with?
HG: “This day you die, Kamandi.”— Jack Kirby’s Kamandi comic.
“You got that right, Teacha,” — Sony’s Parappa the Rapper.
“The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever.” — Unnamed character in David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion.

MD: Thanks, Harold.
HG: You’re welcome.

Photo of Harold Goldberg by Helen Pfeffer.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rain, Rain Go Away … Or Not

Boredom-Busting Links for a Rainy Day.
It’s the weekend and it’s raining; or it’s snowing; or it’s hailing—you get the picture. You’re stuck inside, but more to the point, the kids are stuck inside. And everybody’s just too antsy to watch a dvd. You’re not a natural-born craftsperson, but you have some vague notion that you should be able to do something with paper and, what? Glue? Crayons? Some instructions would be nice. People—that’s why the Internet is here. I’ve assembled a group of can’t-fail projects to get you started, but don’t be afraid to freestyle.

What can you make from an egg carton? At the site The Crafty Crow, the question is, what CAN’T you make from an egg carton. There are egg carton ideas here for every age and skills level. I like the little owls, and don’t see that they’d lose anything if they went unpainted.

Disney FamilyFun has an extensive craft department on its site, and I appreciate their “crafts by material” tab, as you can drive the craft selection by what you have around the house. I especially like this Printed Palm Tree. It’s a fun variation on the classic hand print Thanksgiving turkey. Your child’s hand and forearm create the trunk and boughs of the tree; gluing on bits from the garden create the leaves, fruit, and grass. I say why feel obligated to use brown paint for the trunk, and if it’s miserable outside, you probably don’t want to go out gathering botanicals. A good substitute could be cutouts from magazines or newspapers. And let’s face it: anything involving your child’s palm print is a nice keepsake for you, too.

Caught without a single can of modeling clay? You can make your own from the time-honored recipe that used to be featured on boxes of salt. The site ehow has the recipe. It only takes flour, salt, and water. And half the fun is making the clay, which is well within a preschooler’s skills set. It’s fun to just get your hands in the dough, which is easily tinted with food coloring. How about creating dough words, like your child’s name? Dough snakes are your friends.

How about trying your “hand” at making puppets? I say go to the master. I recently found this link on Wired’s GeekDad, a 15-minute video by Jim Henson on puppets and puppet making. This was originally seen in 1969 on Iowa Public Television. The projects are very do-able and adaptable to materials you’re sure to have around the house, like tennis balls, wooden spoons, and potatoes, to name a few.

By now, I'm feeling like a bit of a crafty crow myself.

Friday, April 22, 2011

More Young Adult Prizewinners from the Book Industry Guild

Part IV: Young Adult Nonfiction, Graphic Novels, and Fiction Novels
Earlier this month, the Book Industry Guild of New York hosted their 25th annual show in New York City. This show is a celebration of the printer’s art. These Young Adult winners are also among the best-reviewed new books of the season.

This week, feast your eyes on these nonfiction, fiction, and graphic novels. Since 1993, the group has donated all the books from the show to the Literacy Assistance Center of New York.

Hardover Young Adult Nonfiction

The Cowgirl Way by Holly George-Warren. Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.
The tagline reads, "Hats Off to America’s Women of the West," and it truly is an overdue commemoration of womens’ contributions to the American Western experience. highly recommended this book, describing it as, “A wonderful book examining cowgirls as an American cultural icon, including profiles of country singers and screen stars as well as actual, rootin'-tootin' cowpunchin' rodeo riders and pioneer gals like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. The book is brief and concise, but packed with great anecdotes and profiles, as well as a trove of gorgeous western memorabilia and vintage photographs.”

Graphic Novel Young Adult

Smile by Raina Telgemeier. Published by Graphix/Scholastic.
The New York Times raved, “There are comic-style books aimed at older teenagers on every conceivable subject, but Smile is unusual. It’s a fictionalized memoir (some names and details have been changed), but also the equivalent of a Judy Blume novel: younger readers can turn to it for understanding and comfort. It hits home partly because there is nothing else out there like it.”

Meanwhile by Jason Shiga. Published by Amulet Books/Abrams.
The blog at the School Library Journal described this as, “Simple enough in its concept and art that a ten-year-old would feel confident picking it up, yet jam packed with an insane degree of whimsy and darkness, the book isn’t afraid to trust the brains, and the decisions, of its audience. Meanwhile is hoping that you’re gonna be a pretty smart cookie if you pick it up.”

Hardcover Young Adult Fiction

The Carrie Diaries by Candace Bushnell. Published by Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins.
The tagline reads, "Meet Carrie before Sex and The City." The Los Angeles Times reported, “This is not ‘Li'l Carrie.’ It's not dumbed-down ‘Sex and the City.’ It's an origin story. An addictive, ingenious origin story.”

She’s So Dead To Us by Kieran Scott. Published by Simon & Schuster BFYR.
When having money is all that matters, what happens when you lose it all? The blog Linus’s Blanket wrote, “Scott has written a thoroughly engaging novel exploring the ins and out of the in crowd and what happens when you and your family no longer belong.”

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Will the Real Bert and Ernie Raise Their Hands!

We’re all familiar with the adaptation of comic book characters into live-action films. The Batman franchise alone has given us numerous actors who “became” Batman. Some made (or continue to make) a mini-career of it; others were shown the secret door marked “exit” after one performance.

From left, an original comic; Michael Keaton; Val Kilmer; George Clooney; Christian Bale.

And the cartoon world has certainly seen its share of shows based on real people.

But at the “Big Kahuna” of children’s television, long-running and beloved Sesame Street has created clever spin-offs of popular Muppet characters and embedded them within each Sesame Street episode.

Bert and Ernie still appear on the show in their original Muppet identities, but they also appear in the clay-animated series, Bert and Ernie’s Great Adventures. Each episode finds the lads traveling the globe on quests, such as their search for the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, or on a more surreal experience, such as caring for exotic “living” plants that barked orders at the boys. Sesame Workshop states that the show, “aims to show young viewers that each person experiences the world in their own way, and encourages honest expression of feelings.” It also introduces pre-schoolers to all kinds of interesting international facts, like the platypus being native to Australia. The clay animation style is beautiful and it does get Bert and Ernie out from behind that wall. They get to have legs in this incarnation.

Another spin-off with “legs” is Abby’s Flying Fairy School, a cartoon series featuring popular Muppet Abby Cadabby. Abby also appears on Sesame Street as a Muppet, but in her own series, viewers get a peek into her life at school where she’s beginning to learn the basics of her magical trade, sort of a Harry Potter for the pre-school set. Sesame Street describes the series as, “designed to promote children's reasoning and problem-solving skills,” and the gang at Abby’s school do get themselves out of fixes through thinking and cooperation.

These series stand side-by-side with the “real” Muppet characters, who exist in a recognizable world alongside human beings. This is a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the people associated with Sesame Street. It’s always been the gold standard of children’s television and speaks to pre-schoolers with the right amount of gentleness, wit, and surprise. Their formula of introducing one letter of the alphabet and one number each episode puts the content level at an appropriate one for pre-schoolers. The extra enrichment of these embedded series continues to make learning fun. There certainly are a lot of choices out there when it comes to pre-school programming, but none better than Sesame Street.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Run Away, Bunnies!

I can make my review of Hop short and sweet: don’t go. Not, “don’t bother to go; it’s lame,” but rather, you should not bring young kids to see this movie. It delivers an anti-merit message that’s disheartening to say the least. I saw a link from writer John Shore that intrigued me: his headline: “Hop”: So Racist It Hurts certainly raised my interest. Could this be? The cute little Easter-bunny-and-fluffy-yellow-chick movie? In short, yes.

The cute bunny movie’s plot explicitly shows that even though the chicks do all the real behind-the-scenes work, only the boss’s lazy, undeserving rabbit son may take over the “business.” Gee, what a wonderful message for the kids. (insert sarcastic Emoticon here) You might as well learn how the world works now, kids: it’s all about who you are on the day you’re born. Ugh! And while we’re on the subject, why does an Easter bunny movie even have a PG rating? For “some mild rude humor.” Taking kids to the movies is a lot of work; it should be as wonderful as it is exciting; don’t waste the effort on a dubious project like Hop.

What a disappointment! James Marsden gives his usual excellent (but wasted) performance, and is really shaping up into the kind of actor who can dominate the kid-to-tween market. I loved his affable dufus Prince Edward in Enchanted: loved when he got creamed by the bicycles in Central Park as he sang; loved how he didn’t know what “melodramatic” meant. Not every actor can make dimwit seem so charming. And what can I add to the assessment of Hank Azaria? He’s wildly talented and successful and doesn’t even have to report for wardrobe and make-up anymore. Hank, James, you’re too good for this. Read the script before you sign on the dotted line next time. The kids are depending on you.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

More Show-Stoppers from the New York Book Show

This group of Young Adult prize-winners from the Book Industry Guild’s recent New York show were judged on beauty of design and quality of printing. There's something here for every teen and tween. Click on a book cover for a larger view; it's worth it!

Hardcover Young Adult Illustrated Novels

The Memory Bank by Carolyn Coman. Published by Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic.

The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Published by Scholastic Press.

Hardcover Young Adult Fiction

WINNER, BEST IN CATEGORY: Countdown by Deborah Wiles. Published by Scholastic Press.

Numbers by Rachel Ward. Published by Chicken House/Scholastic.

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh. Published by Chicken House/Scholastic.

Zombies Vs. Unicorns, Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier, Editors. Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster Cildren's Publishing.

The 39 Clues by Rick Riordan, Gordon Korman, Peter Lerangis, et al. Published by Scholastic Press.

New week: more young adult selections!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

“Snow White”—Disney’s First Feminist?

Disney's First Animated Feature - 1937
Does Disney’s Snow White hold its own among today’s “girl power” films? It seems unfair to expect a film made in 1937 to communicate modern, empowered themes, but Snow White actually delivers timeless and positive messages to today’s girls.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

More Books! The Best Children’s Books from the Book Industry Guild of New York Show

Part II: Novelty Books
As promised, here’s another batch of prize-winning books from the Guild’s recent show. These books were judged on beauty of design and quality of printing. These selections are as cleverly designed and produced as they are written.

Heads by Matthew Van Fleet. Published by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster BFYR.

Gigi In the Big City by Charise Mericle Harper. Published by Robin Corey Books/Random House Children’s Books.

Little Scholastic Stacking Shapes by Salina Yoon. Published by Cartwheel Books/Scholastic.

Next Week: Prize-Winning Young Adult Selections.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Couch Po-tah-to: Spot-On Children’s Media from Great Britain

She’s cheeky, she’s Britain’s Peppa Pig, the gentle British series about a group of animal friends. Peppa Pig’s the “soccer” of children’s television: wildly popular all over the planet but just catching on here. Nick Jr. just started showing Peppa Pig twice a week, and I’m betting the show will soon demand a daily time slot. And unlike her British cousin, runaway train Thomas the Tank Engine, Peppa and her friends retain their British voices; no dubbing into “American” here and thank heavens! Why not use the show to introduce your child to the concept that there are other countries in the world?

Nick Jr. accurately describes the show as “teaching sharing and caring while nurturing social and emotional development.” Peppa Pig Producer Richard Lewis told BBC Mobile that the secret to Peppa’s success is the show’s support for parents’ values. Peppa shares and takes turns and is a sweet little “gal.” Episodes often end with the entire cast of animals falling to the ground in delight, laughing and rolling about. It’s disarming.

You can watch Peppa Pig on Nick Jr. and there’s a large cache of episodes on YouTube. Older kids can utilize the foreign-language Peppas on YouTube to practice their French, Italian, or Spanish, to name just a few of the languages into which Peppa Pig has been translated.

Another British creation in the same spirit as Peppa Pig is Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, starring Ben Elf and Princess Holly and their exploits in the secret world “under the brambles” of your garden. The animation style resembles cut paper with interesting camera work that peers through the “layers” of the garden to find Ben and Holly. There’s a good supply of episodes on YouTube and at their own site at And sweet Roary the Racing Car has all the excitement of the race course but gentled down for the preschool set. The animation style is similar to Bob the Builder. Roary The Racing Car can be seen on PBS’ Sprout Online and on YouTube.

You can sample from a nice selection of British children’s series at Nick Jr.’s U.K. site at Even if these shows don’t catch on in the U.S., you can follow your favorites through any number of Internet portals and of course, on YouTube.

The latest issue of The Wallace and Gromit Newsletter is excited to report, “Nick Park has recently been immortalized in yellow as he guest stars in an episode of The Simpsons!” Nick Park’s scene in the recent “Angry Dad” episode is set at the Academy Awards. Not surprising as the multi-Oscar winning animator is a favorite of the Academy; and rightly so.
His Wallace and Gromit series is a “go-to” dvd at our house. Wallace is the hapless inventor and cheese-loving “owner” of clever, long-suffering dog-to-the-rescue Gromit. Park’s work includes feature films, several shorts, and a spin-off series, Shaun the Sheep and can be found packaged in many different dvd incarnations available new and used at and elsewhere.

My young daughter loves them, but young kids may need to watch with their folks, as there is drama there. My daughter got sad when Gromit ran away from home in the rain in the short film, The Wrong Trousers. She’s really come to care for that doggie!

The animation is old-school clay, and your big-screen television will reveal the artist’s fingerprints on the characters. Subscribe to the newsletter yourself at where you’ll also discover the greater world of Wallace and Gromit. Like Peppa, they’re as big as soccer is in the rest of the world.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Saved by the Belle: In Praise of Audrey Hepburn

Addie Swartz, founder of B*tween Productions, started the Beacon Street Girls book series as a response to what she calls “oversexualized media.”(1) Originally conceived as a series of books to help pre-teen girls navigate the challenges of growing up, Beacon Street Girls has evolved into an award-winning “consumer/entertainment brand committed to the health and well being of girls ages 9-13.”(2)

Unfortunately, my daughter was a bit too old by the time the first book was released in 2004. She grew up in the early Britney years; “. . .Baby One More Time” went platinum in 1998, followed by “(You Drive Me) Crazy” in 1999 and “Oops, I Did it Again” in 2000. Britney as a role model was impossible to avoid.

Our search for an alternative media role model began in earnest that February with the arrival of her camp newsletter. The camp theme for summer 2000 was to be “Reach for the Stars” and all 100 girls were to pick their favorite star and bring a costume to model down the runway at the annual camp party. Rebecca became concerned that she would have to pretend to be a sexy star like Britney and almost despaired.

That’s when Audrey Hepburn came to the rescue. Many people had remarked that Rebecca, who had danced since the age of two, had the grace and carriage of Hepburn. We decided to watch selected Hepburn films together to discover if she was a star worthy of emulation. Eliza Doolittle showed us that poise and manners can take you through challenging social situations. Roman Holiday taught us that even though princesses need to have fun, they also have to fulfill their duty. From Sabrina we learned that choosing a mate is about more than physical attraction. In Funny Face we saw how unique beauty of face and character is often overlooked and how new experiences can help us understand ourselves and grow. The Children’s Hour and Breakfast at Tiffany’s gave us the chance to talk about the damage lies can cause and how some people cope with being unhappy. Inspired by Audrey’s strength, character, and beauty, Rebecca put together an elegant costume and packed it carefully into the footlocker bound for camp.

I wish I could tell you that Rebecca won the trophy for best costume that summer, but Britney and her contemporaries were better represented – and better recognized on the runway. Still, I’m grateful to Audrey for bringing my daughter and me together in our quest for a role model. She’ll always be our fair lady. — by Jan Hames

Notes: (1) Collins, Clayton. Pitches to Tweens Target Parents, Too / The Christian Science Monitor - The Christian Science Monitor - 28 Apr. 2006. Web. 04 Apr. 2011.

(2) Beacon Street Girls Provides Positive Messages for Tween Girls - Beacon Street Girls. Home - Beacon Street Girls. Web. 04 Apr. 2011.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Beauty + Brains: The Best Children’s Books from the New York Book Show

Part I: Hardcover Picture Books and Pop-up Books
Just this week, the Book Industry Guild of New York hosted their annual book show. This show is a visual arts-lovers paradise, as the books selected were judged on beauty of design and quality of printing. These selections are a feast for the eyes as well as the soul. The show features notes about the books’ typefaces, paper weights, and special printing effects. No e-books to be experienced at this show. It’s truly a celebration of the printer’s art.

This is the 25th annual show the guild has hosted. Since 1993, the group has donated all the books from the show to the Literacy Assistance Center of New York.

Hardcover Picture Book – Fiction

Extraordinary Pets by Barroux. Published by Blue Apple Books.

Bunny Days by Tao Nyeu. Published by Dial Books for Young Readers.

This Is Silly! By Gary Taxali. Published by Scholastic Press.

Cupcake by Charise Mericle Harper. Published by Disney.

Counting Chickens
by Harriet Ziefert. Published by Blue Apple Books.

Hardcover Picture Book – Nonfiction

Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow by Gary Golio. Published by Clarion Books.

Pop-Up Books

Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go! Pop-Up! by Dr. Seuss. Published by Robin Corey Books/Random House Children’s Books.

DC Super Heroes: The Ultimate Pop-Up Book by DC Comics and Matthew Reinhart. Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Bosco’s Busy Morning by Chuck Murphy. Published by Robin Corey Books/Random House Children’s Books.

We'll feature more books from the New York Book Show next week!