Bob the Builder: The Legend of the Golden Hammer

This movie is from Bob the Builder’s “middle period”, when the animation was done using CGI but meant to look like the original stop-motion style, but before the change to a more human-like look for the characters. This older look is more popular in our family. We seldom watch the new one, even though it is freely available on PBS Kids.

The structure of the story is that of a scavenger hunt, with each discovery leading to a new clue, ultimately resulting in the finding of the golden hammer. The tone is gentle and fun and the kids like the pacing. It’s like a mystery thriller for kids. There is lots of reinforcement about what has happened, what the characters have done and seen, so it’s not confusing for little ones, but it doesn’t get bogged down in repetition so is not boring for older ones.

IMDB has a rating of only 6.6/10 but our kids love it. This is one of the few movies that the kids ask for by name.

It’s available as a DVD and also streaming on Netflix and Amazon prime.

“Golden hammer” is the embodiment of The Law of the Instrument, the idea that your most familiar or available resource becomes the only one you rely on. In other words, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I don’t know if the writers were making a point or not, but when I’m watching children’s cartoons, I find them more entertaining when I deconstruct them ad absurdum.

Scamp to the Rescue

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This book may not be in print any longer and it’s easy to see why since the theme of kidnapping is no longer one you see in children’s books.

This is the story of the four puppies belonging to Lady and the Tramp: Scamp, a rascally energetic boy, and his three well-behaved sisters. Scamp is always getting into trouble until one day his sisters are dog-napped by an evil man and woman. He would have been as well, but was off getting into trouble. He managed to find them, rescue them, and escort them home, where he is ultimately forgiven.

We currently live in an era of children’s media, exemplified by shows such as Daniel Tiger, where there is no evil, where all characters are well-behaved and generally pleasant to each other. This is good for young kids, but as they get older, they become fascinated by themes such as violence and sinister intentions. Our oldest also can relate to Scamp, as someone who has so much energy that he often gets into trouble, and it’s appealing to have a story where that character is redeemed.

Lambert the Sheepish Lion

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This is a book version of a 1952 Disney short directed by Jack Hannah (not the same Hannah as Hanna-Barbera) and written by Bill Peet, who went on to write dozens of children’s books (all of which are still in print) including Kermit the Hermit (1965) and The Ant and the Elephant (1972).

Lambert is loosely based on the Grimm’s fairy tale, “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids” and tells the story of a lion raised by sheep, who feels different all his life, until one day he has a chance to be a hero.

The theme is similar to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, where a trait that makes the main character feel excluded turns out to be valuable. But this story has a bit more appeal to my kids, who see Rudolph as a bit of a wimp, while Lambert is obviously powerful and only needs to tap into his latent ability.

I sometimes hesitate with books from the 1950s since they are often more violent than I would like, but this one is pretty tame, other than some head-butting.

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.

Moana

I’m normally a pretty cynical person, but I thought Moana was just great. Great story, great music, great everything.

(The executive producer was John Lasseter, who produced and/or wrote/driected most of the great Pixar movies before and after the Disney purchase, which may have something to do with the quality)

It is not a typical Disney princess movie, and in fact some of the dialogue pokes fun at that idea. The story is of a Polynesian girl who finds a demi-god (smug strongman and shape-shifter, Maui) and together they go on a fantastic adventure full of very original characters and scenes, with a very entertaining musical number by Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords) as a giant crab.

Fun for parents and kids alike, boys and girls.

The songs are catchy and tuneful, written by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and manage to maintain the balance between sounding authentically Polynesian and contemporary. The songs and the beautiful animation made me pine for Hawai’i.

There is also, of course, the obligatory themed Lego set:

How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World

This book answers a question every kid asks at some point, “What would happen if I dug a hole and just kept digging?”

The journey soon requires the construction of a very heat-tolerant “no-spaceship” that is like some kind of submarine drill thing. (The schematic for this vehicle in the book is very appealing) The character in the book makes his way through all the layers of the earth, learning about geology along the way.

Faith McNulty wrote this book. She and her husband John were part of the mid-century group at the New Yorker under Harold Ross, where she edited the annual New Yorker compilation of the year’s best children’s books. She is probably most famous for The Burning Bed (which is absolutely not children’s literature)

The very engaging illustrations are by Marc Simont, who has illustrated many children’s books, perhaps most famously the “Nate the Great” series. Some of the pictures are quite beautiful and I had the thought of cutting them out of the book to hang on the wall (but I didn’t want to damage the book)

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.

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.