B. Fish N’ Splish

Price: Check on Amazon

Of all the toys in our house, this one has probably been played with the most (apart from legos). We got it as a gift for our oldest’s first birthday and it has been an essential part of the tub toy collection ever since.

It’s a well-designed toy with all the features that kids want:
• Cups to pour water
• Cups with holes
• Little captain figure
• Floating boat
• Fishing rod with fish
• Mirror
• Comb and brush

The fishing rod itself is an essential toy for us that has spent as much time outside the bathroom as in it.

The boat even has an elastic band that allows you to wind up the paddle-wheel in the back, which then actually powers the boat forward.

All the pieces fit inside the boat so you can keep things tidy when not in use.

And the components are designed with no deep crevices so there is no place for mold to hide, which has been an issue with some other bath toys we’ve had.

Highly recommended if you need a gift for a 1- or 2-year old

Disney Pixar Storybook Collection

This is a collection of abbreviated versions of all the Pixar movies in book form.

It has been published a few times, each time with a few more movies added. We have the third edition of this book from 2016 which includes:

  • A Bug’s Life
  • Brave
  • Cars
  • Cars 2
  • Finding Nemo
  • Finding Dory
  • The Good Dinosaur
  • The Incredibles
  • Inside Out
  • Monsters, Inc.
  • Monsters University
  • Ratatouille
  • Toy Story
  • Toy Story 2
  • Toy Story 3
  • Up
  • Wall-E

The kids don’t need to be familiar with the movies to enjoy the stories. In fact, we had never heard of some of them (e.g. the dinosaur one, which was kind of a weird story). The plots are highly abridged in order to fit into ~10 pages so the stories as they are retold may not even be all that familiar anyway. And some movies that were duds in my opinion (e.g. Cars 2, Monsters University) actually work better as books than films. The plots are streamlined, with extraneous side-plots removed, leaving only the central character arcs and lessons about honesty or friendship or whatever.

It’s a hefty book with many hours of story time inside. A typical bedtime for us will be each kid gets to pick one of the stories, which ends up being half an hour or so in total. The book is almost like having 17 little golden books in one massive tome.

The illustrations are fun. They are not simply stills from the movies but have been redrawn to better evoke key scenes from the stories.

Minecraft: The Island

We have some Minecraft-obsessed people in our house and when visiting the library we always look for Minecraft-themed books for design ideas. We picked up “The Island” not knowing anything about it and the kids lost interest when they saw that there were no illustrations.

But I read the first chapter at bedtime and they were hooked. They couldn’t get enough and I ended up reading two or even three chapters per night until we had finished it. For that one week we were all obsessed.

The story is a first-person narrative of a character in Minecraft, as though their consciousness suddenly dropped out of the sky. The narrator has to figure out how to survive in the world, creating shelter, acquiring resources, defending against monsters – all the things that a player has to do in the game. So there is a Robinson Crusoe-aspect to the story, combined with details specific to the game.

The story is by Max Brooks, who is probably best known for his zombie novel, World War Z, which has been made into a movie. He knows how to pace the action, build suspense, and how to create a real page-turner.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is how it weaves philosophical ideas into the action. When there is a moment of quiet, the narrator asks himself questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What is the meaning of this place?” I don’t know how much of that made an impression on my kids, but I like that I could expose them to that kind of thinking via a book.

In a way, the book is basically a long advertisement for Minecraft, but it was still very enjoyable for all of us.

The book has been on the New York Times bestseller list, and I can see why. It is not high literature and there are many passages with loose grammar that made me cringe a little. The ending felt a little rushed as well – as though the author wasn’t sure how to end it until most of it had already been written. But none of that matters for the kids.

I’m guessing there will be a sequel.

The Doghouse

Price: $7.99

Some books become standard objects in the home, as familiar as a piece of furniture. And this is one of them. I couldn’t say why exactly because the story and illustrations are so simple, but perhaps that is part of the reason.

Regardless, this is one of the few books that many of us in the family will quote, even if months have passed since the most recent reading – the most popular quote being, “Duck for dinner?!?!?!?!”

The story is of a group of animal friends who are all afraid of the local dog, but it turns out that he’s actually nice. So the themes are of friendship, overcoming fear, and not judging someone solely on appearances.

A fun book to read aloud with a kid because of all the different voices.

Good Eats

Price: $22.50
Was: $37.50

Watching Good Eats was one of my weekly rituals back in the ’90s, back when the Food Network was an emerging force on television. Unlike the standard TV chef format (cook looks across a counter at the viewer while preparing food), Good Eats’ Alton Brown gets into the science of food and does so in a fun and wacky way. This is great family viewing because parents learn about cooking and kids are entertained by the antics and learn some chemistry as well.

More on the show and some examples of Alton Brown’s style at foodnetwork.com

Stinky and Dirty

From somewhere we got a book called “I Stink!” that the kids liked enough to ask for it multiple nights in a row, although I initially didn’t care for it. It seemed a celebration of noise and filth that I just didn’t find amusing when trying to put little ones down for the night.

Price: $7.48
Was: $7.99

A few years later I saw that Amazon was premiering a new kids’ show called Stinky and Dirty that had animation that looked an awful lot like the book, and sure enough, the show is a spinoff of the book and its sequel. I suppose that’s a dream for many children’s book authors and illustrators, to have their work turned into a show.

Price: $5.94
Was: $6.99

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I and the kids really like it. The books are quite simple, running through the alphabet and showing vehicles making vehicle sounds. But the show is about teamwork and problem-solving, in a way that isn’t done on other shows.

The animation style is unique. It’s 3D but texture-mapped to look like paper illustrations.

The stinky garbage truck from the original book has a friend, a dirty dump truck. Together they go around solving problems. Several times each episode, one of the characters asks, “What if…?” And this makes it a great example for problem-solving. Their efforts don’t always work out, but they keep trying.

The show is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land

This is one of the great Disney shorts from their “classic” period of the 1950s and ’60s. It has Donald going on an adventure, learning about how math is the foundation for music, architecture, nature, and games. It explains the Golden Ratio phi and how simple ratios explain many things that we may not have ever thought about.

This is a great intro to some basic STEM concepts and will get kids in a creative and curious mindset.

In middle school, we would watch this in math class on the last day before winter break. I always had fond memories of it and was happy to be able to share it with my kids.

It’s hard to track down some of these older Disney cartoons. It’s only 27 minutes, so buying a DVD seems excessive. It is up on YouTube, but I assume those are not official copies.

It’s worth watching with the kids. Be warned though that you may have a strong urge to play pool when it’s over.

Mudpuppy Puzzle Wheels

We get lots of gifts for the kids, and it’s very hard to tell in advance which ones will get played with a lot, and which will just stay at the bottom of the toy box. I don’t even remember who gave this to us, but it is one that each successive kid has pulled out and played with over and over. Even the older kids will play with it when they see it again, even if just for a few minutes.

The ‘puzzle’ is a circle with 6 pieces around a 7th central hub piece. Each puzzle is themed. We have the farm one, but the company has several others, such as construction vehicles and forest animals, as well as licensed images from Eric Carle, Babar, The Little Prince, etc. The puzzle has pictures on side and solid colors on the other

The theme doesn’t seem to matter much with our kids. The appeal is the size and shape of the pieces that even little hands can manipulate, pulling out of the box and putting back in. And for little brains, 7 pieces seems to be the right number in the balance between boringly simple and frustratingly complex.

The thick cardboard has gotten a little worn after so many hands have handled it, but it’s still in decent shape after the 5+ years we’ve had it.

How to Build a House – Technical Tales Series

Quarto is a publisher of art books, children’s books, and science kits, among other things. They have dozens of imprints, including Walter Foster Jr. which focuses on “art, transportation, history, craft, gardening, and more”. It is a welcome alternative to the Disney-dominated world of children’s media.

One of their series is Technical Tales, in which a mouse named Eli and his mouse, bird, and frog buddies build things such as a plane, a car, or a motorycle.

The one we got the other day was the one about building a house. The book has a ‘layered’ approach, which I have seen more and more lately, in which there is a story interweaved with more technical descriptions. This has the advantage of making the book more appealing to a broader audience, since a child may be only interested in the story while a sibling (or the same child years later) is more interested in the technical explanations.

The illustrations (by Martin Sodomka) are highly detailed and interesting to look at just on their own. They are somewhat reminiscent of the David Macaulay, although these are in full color and almost photo-realistic in places.

The story (by Saskia Lacey) is about friendship and how group projects need to take all voices and needs into consideration, which is a good lesson for our kids to hear.

This is a good book for an adult to read to a child, or for more experienced readers to read on their own.

Love, Triangle

Price: $10.78
Was: $17.99

This is a cute book about the friendship of three shapes that gives rudimentary geometry instruction while telling the story. In addition to basic shape names (circle, square, triangle) the text includes usage of words including ‘angle’ and ‘apex’. Toward the end of the book, one of the characters has to come up with an invention in order to resolve the central dilemma.

I wouldn’t categorize this book as STEAM (or STEAM) but I might consider it a proto-STEM book because it places value on knowledge of geometry and on the ability to use ideas and invention to solve problems.

And the kids like it.