Blueberries for Sal

Some books don’t age well. The customs and styles of a certain era aren’t necessarily appealing decades later. Blueberries for Sal, however, has aged well and is just as delightful as it was when I read it in the 70s, when it had already been in print for thirty years. Perhaps it’s because the behavior of Sal is timeless and modern parents can still relate. And the depictions of the styles of the time (the car, the kitchen) become glimpses into the past rather than simply seeming outdated.

The black-and-white drawings were not so appealing to our youngest ones, who are very used to everything being in bright, full color, but the story is appealing. The concept of climbing a hill, eating food that is simply lying there to be found is perhaps the most appealing part – an activity that now seems almost fantastic in the modern world.

Wacky Wednesday

This was a favorite of mine as a kid, and has been a huge hit with our kids as well when I rediscovered it.

It was written by Dr. Seuss and illustrated by George Booth. The book does not get as much attention as other Seuss books, perhaps because it does not have his iconic drawing style. There is one picture of a kid with a bare butt in the shower. It’s not outrageous or titillating, but could be enough to keep it off the shelves of some school libraries.

The book is a series of scenes with increasing numbers of ‘wrong’ things in it, e.g. a tree growing in the toilet, a chair with no legs floating in mid-air, an alligator in a stroller, etc. The book is described as a ‘learn-to-read’ book, but the purpose of the book is not reading, it’s about finding all the weird things. The book is more of an activity than simply reading, so is better as one to read on the couch than before bedtime. And this is a good one for a parent to read with a child. You can count and find all the wacky things together.

Jungle Party

This is another book that our kids regularly pull off the shelf year after year. It comes with paper dolls, stickers, and a party hat, and other stuff, so has some extra fun. We have since lost everything but the book itself, but we still enjoy that. The papercraft makes it a fun gift that the child can play with independently during the day, and the book is a fun story for bedtime reading.

The theme is of animals planning a party, and a bird visits different biomes (arctic, jungle, farm, etc.) to talk with the animals there. They talk in terms of opposite prepositions and adjectives, each pair of sentences covers high/low, cold/hot, etc.

The mood is very cheeful and happy and our kids enjoy it.

Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes

There are plenty of collections of nursery rhymes, partly because the text is not copyrighted and publishers don’t have to pay author royalties. But nursery rhymes remain popular among young children because they are fun and the simple rhymes make them a good too when learning to read. It’s easy to memorize a line such as “Mary, Mary, quite contrary” from hearing a parent read it. So then, when the child is sounding out words on their own, and get to the relatively difficult word, “contrary”, they can recall the rhyme and figure it out.

This particular collection is more British than most Americanized sets of nursery rhymes. For example, American collections typically don’t include traditional rhymes such as, “I had a little nut tree” or “Ride a cock horse”. So in some ways this feels like a more “authentic” set.

The drawings are very simple, but for whatever reason, our kids keep pulling this book off the shelf for us to read together.

Word Girl

The name is bland and the artwork is simple, but Word Girl is one of the better kids shows out there now.

You can watch it for free on PBS Kids, where you can also play related games.

The writing is snappy and funny enough to keep parents engaged. The voice acting is good, and helped with the comedic talent of Chris Parnell (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Archer).

I read once that J.K. Rowling chose to make her wizarding stories have a boy as the central character because she was afraid boys wouldn’t read a story with a female protagonist. And I’ve seen that behavior among boys, where they weren’t interested in stories ‘about girls’. But this show is very popular among our boys, and they were in rapt attention when watching a recent, very good set of episodes dedicated to bullying and rude behavior.

The dialogue is witty and multi-leveled and the education works at multiple levels as well, focusing on vocabulary and grammar, but also behavior and ethical/moral development. This means that kids of all ages can enjoy it and get something out of it, while not annoying the parents.

Octonauts

The Octonauts is a video series on Netflix and available on DVD. Some of the stories are also available as books and there are several toys out there of the characters. The look of the show is unique, a cross between kid-friendly 60s-era James Bond, ‘Sealab 2020’, and cutesy Japanese anime.

The show is not the creation of some corporate art department, but the work of a single design couple, who call themselves meomi.

They “live in Vancouver, Canada where we spend our days making up stories, drinking tea, and drawing strange characters. We love learning about underwater creatures and sharing our love for the ocean with kids (and grown-ups) around the world!”

Our kids like the characters, the pace of the storytelling, and the balance of adventure just at the edge of sometimes being a little scary but not quite. The videos are fun for adults as well. We find ourselves watching along with the kids to see where the story goes.

We like the educational aspect as well. Some of the episodes are just as informational as Wild Kratts or any other nature-themed cartoon. A lot of what I know of deep-sea creatures is from Octonauts. (Who knew vampire squid were real?)

It’s a unique show and worth watching.

Mr. DeMaio – YouTube Channel

Mr. DeMaio is an elementary school teacher in New Jersey who makes silly and fun absurd educational videos for his students. Since 2013, he’s put a few dozen videos on his YouTube channel

His playlists include songs about multiplication and
social studies themes, but my kids’ favorites are the ones about space and science

Unlike those who make most educational videos on YouTube, Mr. DeMaio is an actual teacher and knows the perfect balance of humor and education to keep kids’ attention while dosing out the knowledge. He’s also completely willing to act like a fool and get kids to laugh out loud. You can see his progression as a performer over the past few years. The earliest videos have him as a cool, aloof guy while he is much more of a clown in his more recent ones.

The videos are funny enough that kids as young as 3 can watch them and enjoy them even if they don’t understand the education.

The videos are very silly and absurd and our kids regularly recite catch-phrases from the videos. The format of the space and science videos is to have Mr. DeMaio interview things such as a tornado, or the planet Saturn, and these things act in a way just as silly as he does, in a way that subverts the normal way that these things are normally presented. For example, the planet Saturn is normally depicted as silent and mysteriously beautiful. In Mr. DeMaio’s video, the first we see of Saturn is a goofy face superimposed over an image of the planet saying, “I have a cat named ‘Orange Juice’!”

The education is basic: the names and basic stats of the planets, the names of the continents, etc.

The downside of these videos is that they are on YouTube, which not only has ads, but ads that don’t seem to be targeted in any way. Our kids have ended up seeing ads for inappropriate things so we make a point of supervising them while watching anything on YouTube.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Pop-Up Book

This is a story familiar to most. The advantage of the pop-up format is that it makes the book appealing for a wide variety of ages. Younger children will have fun simply exploring the pop-ups and finding every hidden element. Slightly older kids will pick and choose which pages to examine more closely, and older children will read the book straight through.

The illustrations are by Quentin Blake, who has a distinctive style that many will recognize. His visualization of the story is a welcome alternative to the slick Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie version. The illustrations as pop-ups help convey the sense of wonder and discovery that the characters in the book feel.

The story (as far as I can tell) is slightly abridged from the original, streamlining some elements of the plot. Each major scene is given a two-page spread. Our kids would sometimes only want to see the Violet Beauregarde page, or only the Augustus Gloop page. This book made it easy to jump around like that.

Even if you already have a copy of the book, this is different enough that it’s worth having.

The Deep Blue Sea – A Book of Colors

This unique, somewhat minimalist book is about colors, but also encourages discovery and anticipation.

The pictures begin right at the start of the book, on the inside of the cover, and continue all the way through to the inside of the back cover. Each page introduces a new color and new animal/object, as well as a hint about what will be on the next page. This act of discovery, looking for the clue, was very appealing to our kids.

The art is distinctive, looking like computer-generated 3d images. I honestly didn’t care for the artwork, and still don’t upon reviewing it again, but the kids seemed to like it. But there is a contrast between the very bright foreground images (e.g. a purple parrot) and the much more subtle background detail (e.g. the fish swimming underwater) and the kids enjoyed hunting for these subtle details.

There’s not much to this book, really, but the simplicity is part of the appeal, and the details that it does have place it above other books that simply list colors and shapes.

Press Here – Hervé Tullet

Known simply as ‘Un livre’ (a book) in its original French publication, ‘Press Here’ is a fun book that our kids enjoyed and wanted to read again and again. Of all our books, this one has probably been physically damaged the most through heavy use. The book asks the reader to press colored dots on the page, blow them, and tilt the book to slide them around. There are no electronics in the book, on the contrary the images are very clearly hand-painted and non-computer-generated-looking. So, the dots don’t actually move – you have to turn the pages to see what happens as a result of your actions.

For children used to interacting with the touch-screens of phones and tablets, the ‘old-fashioned’ medium of a printed book asking them to interact with it turns out to be a delight.

The author has written several other books for children, all fun, and many of which also include the dynamic of the book being treated as a physical object, and not just a set of printed pages.

Biography of the author