Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I Call It “Still Life With Cheerios”

The First Camera
It was my daughter’s third birthday and like any parent, I thought it would be great to get her an extra special present that would inspire her; one that would stimulate her creativity as she learned by doing. Photography is a do-able activity for young kids in a way that it wasn’t just a few years ago. When you go digital, you’re not burning through rolls of film or reams of printing paper. Today’s all about digital files and online slide shows.

My needs were simple: I wanted an indestructible camera that used normal batteries (not the expensive specialty batteries in most digital cameras); it had to come with a connector cord for my computer; and if it isn’t asking too much, it needs to come in pink. Parents of daughters—I don’t need to explain that last one. And I don’t want it to be crazy expensive. Forty bucks was my ceiling.

I found several spot-on picks in my price range. I decided on the Vtech Kidizoom Camera (available in pink) for $35.99. It also has the capability to shoot short videos and comes loaded with three games and allows you to add silly “special effects” to your photos. It well fits the bill for an inexpensive, fun, durable first camera. I recommend it.

Needless to say, my daughter was delighted with her gift. She was up and snapping immediately. Handling a camera teaches fine motor skills. And in their own way, they are now contributors to your family’s digital archive. And they’re learning (by trial and error) about basic composition, light and shadow, and how important it is to just breathe, relax, and hold still.

They can snap away all day, and at first, they will. And with the coming holiday season, I’m looking forward to having her take her own special shots. If your kid’s like mine, they crave to be a fully vested member of the family, and letting them be second-string family photographer can accomplish just that.

Depending on your taste in art, you may find your child’s snapshots to be eerily (by which I mean blurry-ly) beautiful. My three-year-old took these shots, and though I’m certainly not unbiased, I think they’re fun, colorful, and sweet. Few things can trigger our memories like photographs. In its own way, it fills out the “picture.” These photos depict things that are important to my daughter. She won’t always dote on her Snow White doll; but I’ll always have her own snapshot to remind me that once she did. Time flies. If you take pictures AND your kids take pictures, you’re pretty well covered.

Have your kids experimented with photography yet? Tell us about it!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The First One’s Free. That’s How They Hook You

My Daughter’s First Trip to the Movies
My local cinema has a summer program: every Wednesday and Thursday, you can bring your kids to the movies—for free. I’ve been wondering when might be a good time for my little girl’s first trip to the movies. “Free” is a good motivator. It takes the sting out of the very real possibility that she’s going to demand to go home the moment the lights go down.

Football coach “Red” Sanders is NOT famous (since it’s always misattributed to Vince Lombardi) for saying, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Now, I don’t think movies are everything or the only thing. They can be an engaging, illuminating … oh, who am I kidding? Movies have been at the center of my life since I was a kid. Back in the day when broadcast television was filled with old movies, you’d find me on the couch all hours. Today I teach cinema studies and my employer might be interested to know I’d do it for free (which I practically do, but that’s another story. Seriously—teacher’s pay? So NOT what’s wrong with our economy).

When we entered the theater, the place was packed with rambunctious kids, most wearing day-camp t-shirts. So … there’s a day camp around here that promises healthy, vigorous outdoor activities and takes the kids to the movies instead? Sounds like my kind of camp. Today’s film is Shrek Forever After—The Final Chapter, which was released in 2010, and we won’t be seeing it with its 3D effects, at which point I remind myself that it’s free.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the Shrek franchise; thought all the pop-culture references seemed like lazy screenwriting. I reckon if you took out all the pop references in Shrek you’d have a thirty-second movie. But this is an experiment in interest and attention. And my daughter seemed very excited to be among all those kids. As the lights went down, she excitedly said, “It’s dark!” and I thought of a line from the world’s first talkie, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

My daughter’s face lit up at the sight of the images on the big screen. (So far, so good.) She’s not old enough to get the jokes. But I am. And for once, the references aligned just the way I like ’em. This Shrek is a riff on one of my favorite “sap” films: It’s a Wonderful Life. Want to see me cry? Just say, “Don’t you see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life.” I like that film on every level: as pure entertainment; as the idea that you can’t take just one brick out of the wall; the profundity of the big question of whether we really matter; and the simple answer that love and friendship are all. I’m a sucker for It’s a Wonderful Life. So I liked this Shrek, too, since it was the same film. And the good news: my daughter liked it just fine. Yeah, she’d drift in and out of attention with what was up on the big screen, generally tuning out during the talky bits. But when the screen held her focus, she seemed to be in heaven. No big surprise, she liked the physical comedy, the chubby cat, and the funny donkey. But there was something else: she seemed to really enjoy the moments when all the kids laughed in unison.

When the lights went up, she looked delighted, happy to be able to see all the kids with whom she had just experienced “the movies.” I felt like she was going to call for a group hug. You can’t buy an experience like this; okay, you can. Every time you go to the movies. Like my daughter seemed to realize intuitively, the essence of the attraction IS the communal experience: sitting together, enjoying each others’ muffled reactions (or with kids, not so muffled), oohing and ahhing together, validating each others’ feelings and reactions, and just laughing together. But the cinema “community” disperses quickly after lights up, and we shuffled out with everyone else.

I asked her if she liked the movie but she was already onto the next thing, trying to get through a door marked “private.” When I asked her again if she liked the movie, she asked me, still trying the door handle, “Can you open this door?” Okay. I won’t press. I’m going to be grateful that she was able to sit still for the length of a feature film and seemed to enjoy herself. Don’t you see, Julia? Life as a moviegoer can be a wonderful life. Now you’re a part of it. I would have paid for this one.

Do you remember your first trip to the movies? Have you taken your kids to the movies yet? What did you see? Share it here.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

It’s “Bambi” Versus Time. And “Bambi” Wins!

Disney's Fifth Animated Feature - 1942
Short and sweet, Walt Disney’s 1942 animated feature Bambi is a magnificent film, well worth your time, energy, and dollar.

But nothing this good is simple. Even if you’re never seen Bambi you probably know what happens to Bambi’s mother. That’s how potent and memorable this film is. Bambi is hands down one of the best if not THE best Disney animated feature. But is your child old enough for Bambi? Answer me this: does your child know that all living things die—including animals and humans? If so, they’re old enough for Bambi. You don’t need me to tell you that your child should not find out that living things die in a movie, any movie.

Having said that, Bambi does touch upon important life lessons that relate to growing up, as the film follows the character of the fawn Bambi from birth through adolescence to first love and completes the cycle with the birth of his own offspring. What’s interesting here is that aside from the expected animated conventions that place this story in the world of talking animals—a peaceable kingdom where an owl is a friend to a rodent, not a predator—the story makes an effort to obey the rules of nature in the life of deer. Young Bambi is raised by his mother with his father a distant presence in the forest and in his life. I like the way Bambi’s father is called “great prince” because he earned the right by wisely managing to live longer than any other deer in the forest. He isn’t born into royalty; he’s earned his title. And I like the way Bambi’s mother raises him alone, a lovely depiction of an unconventional family (though not unconventional for deer).

This peaceable kingdom is not without its dangers, and the greatest threat to the deer of the forest is—you guessed it—man. Bambi’s mother makes the threat plain to her young son, and it easily translates for any child to their own lives and the dangers of crossing a street or speaking to strangers. The message is clear: listen to your parents; they can help keep you out of harm’s way. The threat here is not mystical or magical; they’re not going to be kidnapped and turned into donkeys, as in Pinocchio. The threat here is a real, live hunter/predator who demands attention. As I mentioned earlier in this piece, Bambi’s mother is shot and killed by a hunter. We only hear a gun shot. And we never see any humans in this film, but we see evidence of their destruction, not only in hunted animals but in a carelessly abandoned campfire that leads to a forest fire.

Speaking of the forest fire, Bambi contains sequences such as the fire, an April shower, and Bambi’s first visit to a meadow that are Fantasia-worthy stunners. The film is slower-paced than today’s cinema and the music sounds corny and a bit dated, but the slower pace allows viewers to really savor all the clever and beautiful details the animation team created by hand. Respect.

Bambi’s pals, Thumper the rabbit and Flower the skunk are a jolly and supportive pair of pals, charmingly voiced by real children. We see Thumper and Flower grow up, too. As teens, the “lads” vow that they’ll never be interested in girls about two seconds before they’re all smitten. When Bambi reconnects with Faline, a gal he first met as a young fawn, it’s love at first sight. But as with real deer, Bambi must fight another young buck for the right to be with her.

No small thing, this is the first Disney feature that is absent of any ethnic stereotypes or overt racism, which makes it unique for 1942. You don’t have to make apologies for this film. This film is about life in all its shades of glory and sorrow. Like the four seasons—prominently featured in this film—there is a time for everything. And it may be time for you and your kids to enjoy Bambi.

Disney Goes To War
Also made in 1942, the Disney animated short, Der Fuhrer’s Face answered the call for anti-Nazi propaganda, and did it with humor and snap. It won the 1942 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film and rightly so. The film, which takes place in Donald Duck’s nightmare, was held back from general release for decades due to the Disney Corporation’s squeemishness at the sight of Donald Duck in a Nazi uniform. It’s now available on dvd, but can also be seen in its entirety on YouTube. Also on YouTube, Spike Jones and his City Slickers, famous for their parody songs, recorded the title song and can be seen here at a WWII bond drive, giving their own version of the Nazi salute.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Elegant Story of Math In Nature: “Blockhead, The Life of Fibonacci”

I’ve always been a little afraid of math. I wish Joseph D’Agnese’s wonderful book was around when I was a kid, and I’m glad I’ll be able to share this with my own child. Beautifully illustrated by John O’Brien, Blockhead is the story of “The Leonardo of Pisa” known as Fibonacci. He’s the mathematician who discovered the series of numbers that describes the building blocks of nature that can be seen in the spiral of a seashell or the petals of a flower.

As a young man, Fibonacci was thought to be a “blockhead” but turned out to be anything but. D’Agnese explains Fibonacci’s mathematical concepts in language that makes it easy to grasp. There’s a sensitivity to a young reader’s vocabulary but D’Agnese doesn’t “dumb down” the story. (He’s lucky Fibonacci lived in Pisa and not Pino sulla Sponda del Lago Maggiore.)

When Fibonacci travels to North Africa with his merchant father, he’s introduced to Hindu-Arabic numerals and his world opens up. He becomes something of a math tourist, gleaning mathematical practices from different cultures around the world. But it’s the connection between numbers and nature that makes this book an emotional and intellectual revelation. And the character of Fibonacci is loveable. What kid (or adult for that matter) can’t relate to someone who’s basically misunderstood and much smarter than anyone imagines? Been there, right? ;) This book is a great read and a wonderful mathematical conversation-starter for parents and kids. I highly recommend it.

Joe was kind enough to answer a few questions for us:

Media Darlings: When did you first become aware of the life and work of Fibonacci?
Joseph D’Agnese: One of my earliest jobs in publishing was writing for and editing a children’s math magazine at Scholastic Inc. I’m sorry to say that I’d never heard of the man known in his lifetime as Leonardo of Pisa or the famous sequence named after him until I got to this job. Every other year or so, the magazine did an article about Fibonacci. But it was never enough for me. I wanted more. So I wrote the book as a way of learning more about him.

MD: What attracts you to his story?
JD: Fibonacci lived in Italy during the Middle Ages, about 800 years ago. My Italian-American heritage and my still-unexplained fascination with that period of time guaranteed that I’d become obsessed with his story. Imagine: At a time in history when most people never traveled beyond the cities where they were born, this guy was traveling the world in search of mathematics, not filthy lucre. That’s an amazing story in almost any age.

MD: The Fibonacci Sequence seemingly cracks the code of how nature “builds” plants and sea shells. Are there other places where we can see Fibonacci’s numbers in nature?
JD: Kids can best observe Fibonacci numbers in plants by counting flower petals and the shapes of leaves. Spirals suggestive of the Fibonacci sequence appear in a variety of plants too, such as sunflowers, pinecones and pineapples. If you’re looking for a stretch, you could even argue that the human body displays Fibonacci numbers. People tend to have two eyes, two nostrils, two ears, and series of fives on their hands and feet.

Believe it or not, the Sequence itself was first “discovered” by Indian mathematicians who worked centuries before Fibonacci. Despite the fantasy described in my book, the real Fibonacci apparently never knew the significance of the numbers he worked into a single mathematical word problem in one of his books. Later mathematicians named it after Leonardo, cobbling together a nickname for him, Fibonacci, from the remnants of his real name: “filius Bonacci” (son of Bonacci or Bonaccio.)

So Fibonacci sort of became the unwitting adopted “uncle” of the Sequence, importing them to the western world and popularizing them.

MD: You mentioned that there are several Fibonacci projects in print right now. How did this resurgence in interest in his life come about? (Did YOU bring this about?)
JD: I certainly can’t claim credit for the current boom in Fibonacci literature. I just like that it’s happening. It means that a lot of children will be growing up hearing about the Sequence than ever before. One of my favorites (for kids) is Growing Patterns by Sarah Campbell. Adults will enjoy a slim little volume called The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution by NPR’s Math Guy, Keith Devlin.

MD: Your book, Blockhead, tells the story of a boy who had a great love of numbers and math. Did you like math when you were in grammar school? High school?
JD: I had an irrational fear of both math and science when I was in elementary school. I say irrational because my grades in both of these subjects weren’t bad. It was as if my reaction to math didn’t mesh with the reality of math. That changed quite a bit when I got to high school, and I fell in love with the logic inherent in algebra, trig, calculus and geometry. But my passion for those subjects was not enough to compel me to study those subjects in college. The great ironic joke of my life has been that much of my career as a journalist has been writing for math and science magazines.

MD: How did you come to work with the math magazines at Scholastic? What was your mission there?
JD: It was just a lark that I ended up working at this really creative, stimulating place as the time in my life when I was most open to new experiences. Everyone knows that math textbooks can’t cover everything it would be nice to teach kids. And those books are rarely current. Scholastic’s math magazines, where I worked once upon a time, serve as a supplement to the regular math curriculum. Each month, they toss out some fun activities for kids that are tied to real-life applications and pop culture.

MD: Why do you think there is a fear or aversion to this subject? Are parents inadvertently passing their own fears/anxieties to their kids?
JD: I suspect it’s a mix of nature and nurture. One of my genius scientist friends tells me that human beings are, by design, wired to do addition and subtraction fairly well, but have trouble when they have to deal with the big numbers inherent in multiplication and division. But that’s okay. That’s why we invented mathematics; it’s a tool that’s supposed to help us deal with the tough stuff. I can’t speak for other cultures, but I do know that American citizens unknowingly struggle daily with innumeracy. Millions of us aren’t comfortable with numbers, statistics, probability and computation. That makes us sitting ducks when politicians start throwing out facts and figures that can impact our lives. We are easily bamboozled. I am uncomfortable when parents tell me their child “loves” math. By implication, they are suggesting that this is unusual. It’s not. Kids are inherently curious about their world; math is just a handy way of making sense of what’s around us.

MD: How can parents help their kids excel at math, or at least lose their fear of math?
JD: Younger kids should be exposed to counting books as regularly as any other type of picture books. With older kids, you ought to try to work math logically into family discussions where it makes sense. Just asking your kid to help plan recipes, determine how much you’re paying per pound for some item at the grocery store, or help you understand a chart or graph in a newspaper can have a huge impact.

MD: Where/how can people buy your book?
JD: I’m fortunate in that this book is available almost anywhere in North America, wherever books are sold. It’s also been translated into a couple of languages so you might be able to find a foreign language edition elsewhere. If you want an autographed copy, there’s only one way to get it. Call this bookstore in my hometown and they’ll hook you up.

Just for fun:

MD: What was your favorite TV show when you were a kid?
JD: Anything involving Bugs Bunny. I probably aspired to be a smart-alecky, world-traveling wabbit. No wonder Fibonacci’s rabbit problem meant so much to me.

MD: What character would you like to be?
JD: Uh, what’s up, doc?

MD: What was the first book you remember really loving?
JD: There were two, for two different reasons. Charlotte’s Web was the first big book I read on my own, in a night, because I just had to know how it ended. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler introduced me to the pleasures of mysteries, and I’m still hooked on them.

MD: Do you remember being read to as a child? Favorite book from that era?
JD: Yes. And I remember correcting my parent’s pronunciation too. We had a good collection of Dr. Seuss. My most requested was probably Horton Hears a Who.

MD: What’s in your DVD player right now?
JD: I’m currently re-watching the entire Mad Men series.

MD: What’s your favorite smart phone app?
JD: I’ve just discovered that I can read books on my phone. The screen is ridiculously small, so I don’t like to do it except in a pinch. But still: books on a phone! I’ll never be bored while waiting somewhere ever again.

Find out more about author and journalist Joseph D'Agnese here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

“Cats and Rabbits” by Martin King

A #100blogfest Blog
We used to own the leanest, meanest street cat on our estate. It was called Tinker. I was only about six when this tale took place. Sitting comfortably ... then I shall begin.

Near our home was a place called Rainhall Rocks. It used to be a quarry that was connected to the canal during the industrial revolution but was now home to a vast array of creatures. Because we didn’t have a cat flap, my mother would after to leave a small window open for Tinker to get in and out.

As a treat for us, quite often Tinker would bring us back a little present and leave it inside the house by the back door. So in the morning we were greeted with dead mice, rats, rabbits and other animals our cat managed to catch. But that is not the end of Tinker’s unusual custom. You see it would gnaw of their legs and ears and tales and lay them out in a neat little row, just like he was leaving us a well presented gourmet meal.

There was this particular morning when our tough cat showed his love for us and brought home for us a pair of rabbit ears and laid them out on the kitchen floor in his customary manner. We happened to own a rabbit at this particular time (although its name escapes me). Well when we looked out of the window, the rabbit hutch door was wide open.

My mother went out leaving me and my sister indoors. Moments later we heard a blood curdling cry from her and we dashed to the window. There running around merrily in the back garden was our rabbit, but with no ears.

Well that is what it looked like at first. You see our rabbit used to flop its ears down so at first glance it would look like it didn’t have any. Well my mum screamed and screamed because she thought our cat had chopped its ears off. The ears in the kitchen must have been off some wild rabbit it caught in the night.

Have you got any weird pet stories?

These blogs are all about fun and sharing. Thank you for reading a ‘#100blogfest’ blog. Please follow this link to find the next blog in the series: http://martinkingauthor.com/blog/7094550076

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Test of Time: The Books We Loved (and Love)

The book that touched you, the book you remember, the book you look forward to sharing with the kids in your life—that’s all I was asking. I asked my friends to name their favorite children’s book. I didn’t specify picture books, early reader books, or tweenie lit. I just wondered which books—for any age group—left an impression. Some people told me why the book struck a chord, others gave me a title.

What are the chances: lots of folks cherish Dr. Seuss. Other favorites are recognizable classics for a reason: they continue to enthrall kids year in, year out. My favorite? Stuart Little by E. B. White. And on a more contemporary note, one friend mentioned that her one-year-old just loves the classic Pat the Bunny in its new incarnation as iPhone app. Won’t be long before we’ll think in terms of “beloved, classic apps,” but for now, the favorites:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace

The Boxcar Children, a franchise created by Gertrude Chandler Warren. “I so wanted to have a fun place that I could decorate and hang out in. Loved that book!”

Caps for Sale: A Tale of a Peddler, Some Monkeys and Their Monkey Business by Esphyr Slobodkina.

The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hears a Who, and The Sneetches by Theodor Seuss Geisel, under the name Dr. Seuss

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

“Anything by Beverly Cleary or Judy Blume!”

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

The Hundred Dresses by Louis Slobodkin

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

Jenny and the Cat Club by Esther Averill

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. “This is an absolute given as favorite series (except Farmer Boy—hardly felt like it belonged in the series).”

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Little Mommy by Sharon Kane

The Littlest Witch by Jeanne Massey

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. “The word play is unbeatable (a car that ‘goes without saying,’ a ‘whether’ man. Loved it as a kid. Appreciated it even more re-reading it as an adult.”

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. “Such a celebration of nonconformity and the power of love!”

What’s your favorite children’s book? We’d love to know. Please feel free to leave a comment and tell us here.