Friday, July 29, 2011

Apps We Love: “School 26”—So NOT About Being a Mean Girl

Just yesterday, I drove past a school that put up a sign declaring itself a “bully free zone.” This issue is a hot topic among parents of teens. Silicon Sisters Interactive—Canada’s first female owned and operated video game company—is trying to change school "mean girl" culture from within with their innovative app for tweens and teen girls called School 26. It attempts to teach empathy as it teaches interpersonal skills. Imagine that. According to Silicon Sisters, School 26 was inspired by academic research that identifies social engineering as a prominent element in the lives of teenage girls.

School 26 is built around a complex social hierarchy at a high school and follows Kate (users can change her name to their own), who's been the “new kid” at school 25 times. Kate’s mystical and nomadic parents have made it difficult for Kate to develop and maintain long-term friendships. As she enrolls at School 26, Kate's parents have promised her they’ll finally settle down as long as Kate can make friends at her new school. The player must help Kate use intuition, empathy, and strategy to build friendships and navigate the moral dilemmas of high school.

The music is fun and the interface is cheerful. The prime interface of the game is the locker. Posted on the inside door are pictures of 7 kids Kate (the player) needs to get to know. Inside the locker, there’s also a big, glowing orb that guides Kate on quests, a laptop that contains 26 quizzes (what teen girl doesn’t love a quiz?), and a cell phone. The quizzes help the player get to know and understand themselves and the other players in the game. The really cool thing about the quizzes is that players can post results on Facebook and invite their friends to take the quizzes, too. The cell phone will alert the player to text messages from friends (if they’re successful in winning them over!). Kate’s mystical mom might text, too!

During the game, Kate meets and has conversations with the 7 characters in her school. Her goal is to get to know them and make them like her. During these conversations, Kate has to match the background colors of the character and the emotion icons at the bottom in order to make progress and advance in the game. As Kate meets different people she is faced with sophisticated, serious, and relevant issues such as drugs, alcohol, poverty, homosexuality, teen sex and more—in short, the type of situations teen girls face every day. There’s a lot of on-screen reading with the conversations. An improvement would be voiceovers when characters speak.

Another part of the game involves a tarot card mini game that, depending on the results, will make people trust Kate even more. The tarot card game is a bit confusing at first, but as the game progresses you eventually get the hang of it.

School 26 by Silicon Sisters is available at the iTunes App Store (with links below in the "price" category). You can link to and learn more about this app at their site and at their (of course!) Facebook page. —Joseph Broda

App Name: School 26
Category: Games
Age Level: Designed for girls aged 12 – 16
Content warning with a 12+ age rating for the following: Infrequent/Mild Mature/Suggestive Themes; Infrequent/Mild Sexual Content or Nudity; Infrequent/Mild Alcohol, Tobacco, or Drug Use or References
Released: April 21, 2011
Requirements: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad. Requires iOS 3.1.3 or later;
Price: $2.99 for iPhone; $4.99 for iPad
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Bottom Line: Innovative app for teen girls that promotes and teaches empathy and interpersonal skills. Warning: Does not shy away from controversial issues, but does approach them in realistic, useful, and respectful ways. The interface design is better enjoyed with the larger screen of the iPad.

Joseph Broda is an all-around techie, freelance graphic designer, and writer from Hoboken, N.J. For more information:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Apps We Love—“FirstWords: Deluxe”

App Review
If your toddler is amazed by your iPhone (and what toddler isn’t), there’s a world of amazing apps out there that will turn your little one’s play time into learning time. We like FirstWords: Deluxe by Learning Touch. They recently updated their best-selling reading game for kids and it’s pretty cool. It’s a great way to introduce your child to technology AND promote early literacy.

This app’s user-interface is kid friendly and includes 174 words: animals, vehicles, colors, shapes, and words from around the house. The home page is colorful and highly intuitive. The options settings allow you to customize the game to match your child’s current skills and abilities.

Here’s how it works: the app’s colorful home page has a cute illustration for each of the 5 word groups. There's also an “all words” button in the middle that combines all the groups together. When your child taps one of the buttons, an adorable illustration appears along with a word scramble. For example, tap “animals” and an illustration of a little bee appears on a blue sky next to a random scrambling of the letters “b”, “e” and “e” in little boxes. At the top of the screen is a panel with the word "bee" spelled out in faded letters. (NOTE: the faded letters are “letter hints” and can be turned on or off under “options” to suit your child's level). The object of the game is to drag the letters at the bottom into the correct boxes at the top to spell the word correctly.

An audible pronunciation of each letter sounds when your child touches the letter and when he or she places it in the correct box at the top of the page. When all letters are placed correctly in their box, an audible pronunciation of each letter sounds, followed by a pronunciation of the word. The best part that makes kids smile and giggle is when the word is spelled successfully, the little bee starts to flutter, buzz and twirl around to the center of the page. Your child will learn letters, spelling, fine motor skills, and word-sound association—and have a blast!

The graphics, illustrations and realistic sound effects make this a best-selling app for kids. Be warned, though: they'll want to use your iPhone all the time so have your rules in place for access to the phone, iPod, or iPad in place before you move forward. This app would be great for long trips in the car or for a special play-time session at home. FirstWords: Deluxe and other apps for kids by Learning Touch are available at the iTunes App Store. —Joseph Broda

App Name: FirstWords: Deluxe
Category: Games
Age Level: “If your child is old enough to ask for your iPhone, they're old enough for FirstWords: Deluxe!”
Updated: July 11, 2011
Requirements: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad. Requires iOS 3.0 or later
Price: $4.99
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Link for FirstWords Deluxe at iTunes App Store:
Bottom Line: Promotes learning in a fun way and gives your kids access to technology.

Joseph Broda is an all-around techie, freelance graphic designer, and writer from Hoboken, N.J. He can be reached at

OFFER EXPIRED: Media Darlings First Giveaway!

Sign up to follow Media Darlings from now until 5 pm, ET, August 5, 2011 for a chance to win one of five great early childhood apps from Learning Touch: you can win either FirstWords: Deluxe; FirstWords: Animals; Bob Books #1 - Reading Magic (for the iPhone only); FirstWords: At Home; or FirstWords: Shapes.


• To enter, sign up to follow us on our home page, here.
• If you already follow us, you are automatically entered in the drawing.
• You must sign up before 5 pm ET on August 5, 2011.
• Five winners will be selected in a random drawing.
• Winners will receive one of the following Learning Touch apps: FirstWords: Deluxe; FirstWords: Animals; Bob Books #1 - Reading Magic (for the iPhone only); FirstWords: At Home; or FirstWords: Shapes. The approximate value of each app is less than $5.
• Apps are redeemed with promotional codes supplied by Learning Touch and Media Darlings and have a specified expiration date of August 16, 2011.
• Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia who are 18 and older.
• Limit one (1) prize per household per Giveaway.
• Click here for complete Official Rules. Winners will be notified by e-mail, so be sure to provide a valid address!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Anyone Else Feel “Awkward”?

Review, New Television Series on MTV, Tuesdays at 11 pm

Everything about MTV’s new series, Awkward places it recognizably in the world of the high schooler. For starters, it’s on at 11 pm; there’s cursing, bleeped f-bombs, and implied though not explicit sexual activity, all in context without being the main focus of the story. Kids, go to bed. This one’s for your teen sibs.

Ashley Rickards stars as Jenna Hamilton, the beautiful young gal who insists she’s a dweeb. Her character’s voiceover narration is mature, a self-deprecating hipster voice, similar in tone to Ellen Page’s character in the film, Juno. Parents may want to watch Awkward with their teens as television chaperones, but they’ll stay for the laughs.

The characters and situations in Awkward are pushed into a slightly surreal world, but this direction amplifies the themes of the show and makes clear how it FEELS to be a teen who wants some small measure of acceptance; and would certainly appreciate being liked; but finds it hard to imagine being vigorously pursued or experience that emotion that dares not speak its name—love. The creative team takes great pains to keep the tone light despite the serious subjects covered, and at times the tone feels downright goofy. I almost expect to hear novelty sound effects like “boings” and “boo-weeps” as characters enter and exit.

Characters say things that could only seriously be uttered in high school, such as, “Nobody can know that I like you,” but that’s the point. It speaks the language of high school. And the show is very knowing in that it understands that high school does NOT operate by the maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Teens walk that fine line of craving attention, yet dreading receiving the wrong brand of attention. In the real world, “wrong” attention has been blamed for driving teens to the brink of suicide. And Jenna Hamilton finds herself in the very awkward position of being presumed suicidal after an innocent, hapless slip and fall creates an hilariously incriminating tableau. Jenna gets the wrong kind of attention, especially since she has to suffer the indignity of a neck brace and full arm and shoulder cast. And we’re off to the races.

I love the many self-involved characters like Jenna’s mom, played by Nikki Deloach who believes her daughter tried to commit suicide but still makes cracks about her hair. Desi Lydic as school counselor Valerie Marks wears an “I’m rocking my day” t-shirt and exhibits that well-observed brand of phony concern that quickly turns to lost interest. Even Jenna’s best friend, Tamara played by Jillian Rose Reed can’t seem to quell her natural passive/aggression. Again, these choices place this world in the reality of the high schooler. After all, we live in a world where everyone ELSE is self-involved, right?

And I’m really liking the overweight alpha cheerleader Sadie Saxton played by Molly Tarlov. She busts the obvious stereotype of beautiful = mean. She’s a natural leader/bully and the scene where she turns her moment of embarrassment (over her size) into an opportunity to marshal her girls/minions in commiseration was perfect. When Jenna expresses sympathy, Sadie tells her, “I don’t need someone like you to feel sorry for me. It’s not like I’m gonna kill myself.” But that’s what a winner is, after all. She isn’t so much someone who always literally wins, but is someone who can spin every defeat into victory, into a gain of territory, into one for the plus (size) column. She’s got an ego and an army bigger than her dress size. She takes no mess and the enemy of her enemy is her friend. In other words, she’s the perfect tv antagonist.

Viva Jenna. At times, she seems to embody a self-possession and confidence that would cancel out the whole show, but don’t worry; she’s more than awkward enough to carry this series. The feminist movement has been good to young actresses. They can now portray a broader range of misfits, nerds, dweebs, and losers. And if they can be the worst, they can also be the best, which is the hope of the show.

Welcome to sophomore year. Release the hounds.

Link to the show here:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

“Meem’s Little World” Just Got Bigger

Book Review and Author/Illustrator Interview
Texas-born Lori Rolie has created a children’s book of verses, Meem’s Little World, that’s unlike anything else on your child’s (or for that matter, your bookseller’s) shelves. Rolie has an uncanny ear for the voice of a child and a sensitivity to children’s joys, fears, and concerns. There’s a disarming sweetness to her poems, a gentleness and a lack of “wink, wink” edge that’s refreshing. This book serves its audience—young children—and doesn’t have a snarky, pop-culture-referencing second layer for the grown-ups. It’s for kids, through and through.

Rolie crafts poems around well-observed kid “issues” like why it’s not in a bumblebee’s best interest to sting you, all the while holding her rhyme scheme:
I shoo’d him away and off he goes
He’s a smart little bee “bee” cause he knows
He’ll lose his stinger if he stings me
And no longer be a honey bee!

And then there are the illustrations. These are not slick and air-brushed. They look as if they were drawn by a talented middle-schooler and that’s the charm. This book speaks directly to children in their own language. It’s folk art that depicts a kid’s idea of the world, accessible and recognizable. Rolie created and published Meem’s Little World on her own dime and on her own terms. One of the great things about the Internet is that a small, self-published book like Meem’s Little World can find its audience; or not. Like anything else hand-made, some appreciate the effort; some don’t. I highly recommend this book. My three-year-old won’t let it out of her sight and has declared it, “really cute.”

Lori lives in Texas with her husband, Gregg Rolie, co-founder and original lead singer and keyboardist of the rock bands, Santana and Journey and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their two children were Lori’s inspiration for Meem’s Little World. Lori recently answered a few questions for us:

Media Darlings: Your book is self-published. Did you go to publishers with this project?
Lori Rolie: I knew I had something different, something special. I took my time creating it and focused on my reader. I never let the “business” come between me and my creative work. With my husband being in the music business, I knew what I would be up against if I tried to submit it to publishers because it’s a highly competitive world out there. I may go to publishers in the future, but I wanted to test it myself on the local level. This was created for the child and the parent who need to escape from the fast pace of life at the end of the day.

MD: You’ve written that it was your “lifelong dream … to create stories for the very young reader.” What inspired this dream?

LR: When I was very young I had an imaginary friend because I was frequently alone. The smallest worlds that are easily overlooked became my playground. I found beauty and appreciation in the smallest things. I remember watching a line of ants and the way they communicated with each other in their world. I enjoyed my grandmother taking me out to her garden to show me what she had planted and grown. My dad taught me about bugs and how not to be afraid of them but understand them. I was nurtured by the smell of dirt and getting it all over my hands. The love and respect I had for animals was immense. Everything had personality. Modern times are busy and filled with agendas. Simplicity is sometimes lost. In a young child’s mind the world is going pretty fast. I wanted to write a book that would be on their level of understanding simple things. One that was soothing and allowed a good half-hour to calm down and let the world out there go by. The most special times with my children were quiet, one-on-one moments, usually at naptime or the end of the day. My children liked the way I told stories and inspired me to pursue that dream.

MD: For what age group is the book created? Have you received feedback from this group?
LR: It is written for ages 2-7. The feedback has been a unanimous “thumbs up.” Parents have told me how it has become their child’s favorite book and how they love finding the mouse in every story. I’ll never forget my first library reading: five-year olds gathered all around me, fascinated. The moms all bought books from me and the kids gave me big hugs, thanking me for coming. That feeling is the essence of why I created it.

MD: The subjects and ideas explored in your poems seem anchored in a child’s world. How did you discover these subjects, and how do you home in on a child’s perspective?
LR: I never lose sight of how important a child’s view of the world is. I respect it. It’s pure and natural. It can be easily thwarted if it isn’t nurtured. A child has an opinion of the world around him. His perspective shapes his personality. The subjects in my book are ones that I find children to be generally curious about.

MD: Which children’s authors and illustrators do you admire?
LR: I admire Shel Silverstein for being so brilliantly clever. I admire Eric Carle for his incredible imagination and color with illustration. Charles M. Shultz for his precious illustrations and stories.

MD: Have you noted any disturbing trends in children’s media?
LR: We are quickly becoming a computer-oriented society for the sake of convenience and the human element is somehow getting lost in the translation. There seems to be a trend that more is better. It’s bewildering. I would prefer to see less confusing graphics and more meaningful content in books for small children. There is a quality that’s disappearing. Who made the decision that a child has to grow up so fast?

MD: Have you received any formal training as an illustrator?
LR: When I began writing my book, I couldn't draw a stick figure. I tried to con everyone in my family to do it for me. I quickly became frustrated and even tearful. One day my husband said to me calmly, “Close your eyes and really see it. When you open them, draw it.” Out of necessity, I did. That inspired me to develop my own style. Now, I look forward to illustrating my next books.

MD: Who’s your favorite animated character?
LR: Disney’s Dumbo.

MD: What’s your next project? Will we see more of Meem?
LR: I've written two more books and have started on the illustrations for Meem’s Little World II and III, with more stories just like this one. I’ve also written three additional stories that will someday be individual books.

MD: How can people buy your book?
LR: Go to my website, for links to purchase the hardcover book through Amazon or BitVibe as well as the e-book through PayPal. While you’re there, download the free Meem’s Little World coloring book!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Gardening Fun, Locally Grown and Harvested

Discover the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Last week we went to the Discovery Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The Friday morning brought kids from schools on last field trips of the year and families with young children. We decided to take a spin through the different areas that make up the garden: the Nature Center, Woodland, Meadow, and Wetlands. Each was filled with blooming plants and chock full of activities for kids to explore and experience.

We started off in the Nature Center. A table at the entrance was an introduction to the Garden, with a sampling of insects and compost as well as nature books for kids to page through. Behind the table lay the good stuff. Huge compost bins with shovels encouraged kids to get their hands dirty, gently digging for red worms, pill bugs and shifting through the soil to see what lay underneath. We loved the water table. It was filled with aquatic plants that could be picked up and studied. The Center was rounded out with a Nature’s Object table that had pinecones, seed pods, and dried mosses. Observation based cards posed questions that helped guide exploration. A Garden Educator was on hand to answer questions and point out interesting facts.

We moved on to the Meadow, a small but beautiful spot featuring plants commonly found in meadows and fields. Signs identified different species of plants. Like the Nature Center there were laminated cards with observation-based questions for kids to consider. Last but not least there was an impressive metal spider with plants hanging from it.

We cooled off in the Woodlands, a shady spot where we found a fabulous bamboo water trough on the side of a small hill. Kids dump water into the trough and watch it flow down the hill into a small stream. The Wetlands’ yellow bamboo grove is right at the bottom of the trough. When harvested the bamboo is fed to the pandas in the Prospect Park Zoo. A cute little walkway allows kids to study the habitat. We looked for frogs but sadly didn’t see any.

The Discovery Garden has something there for everyone although it’s probably the most fun for kids ages 2-12. Drop-in workshops for kids are running Tuesdays & Thursday now through August 30th. — Beth Barbaro and Joanna Burgess

Beth Barbaro and Joanna Burgess are co-founders of PoP Gardens, a science education company. For more information visit