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)

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 Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

Price: $7.19
Was: $7.99

I have met many, many adults who consider this book their favorite book of all time, even though they haven’t read it in twenty or thirty years. And I have met even more adults who have never heard of it.

The story is ultimately an adventure story, with the main character traveling in a strange land, meeting interesting characters along the way, some of whom join him. They stumble upon an epic quest and have to confront many challenges before saving the day and returning home.

But that is just the core plot. The real joy is the metaphor and wordplay. Many concepts are treated literally: Milo physically jumps to the land of Conclusions; The Spelling Bee and Humbug are large talking insects; The princesses Rhyme and Reason have been imprisoned. Milo begins the story bored, but over the course of the tale he learns that motivation and curiosity are the tools you need to help people and solve big problems.

The actor David Hyde Pierce (perhaps best known for the character Niles Crane from the TV show Frasier) recorded an audiobook version that is very well done and a good pick for a long car ride. It sounds trite to say, but it is one that the whole family can enjoy.

There was even an animated movie made in 1970 that captures much of the whimsy of the story, but doesn’t compare to reading the book and imagining the characters and hearing the wordplay in your own head.

The Phantom Tollbooth in Wikipedia

FunBrain

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for FunBrain but they have been around since 1997 and are one of the best sites for safe, educational games and videos for kids.

Their target audience is pre-k through grade 8. The site is free to use although it pays for itself via ads. The ads are not very intrusive, but do promote products like Lucky Charms and Froot Loops etc. I would have tagged this site as appropriate for younger kids, but it’s too easy for little ones to inadvertently click an ad and then not know how to get back to the site, so I recommend the site for kids who are at least 6.

The site offers games, reading, and videos.

Many of the games seem to use HTML5 rather than Flash, which means they should run on any device, in just about any browser.

The reading section has full books with scanned pages that a child can read on a tablet or phone or other device.

The video section has a lot of original content not available elsewhere, with puppet characters, cooking shows, music, and more.

All in all, a good, free, safe place to let your kid explore and learn while having fun.

Schoolhouse Rock

Price: Check on Amazon

Schoolhouse Rock was a big part of my childhood. ABC would show the ~3-minute cartoons during ad breaks on Saturday mornings. “Conjunction Junction” was probably the most memorable for me.

But then the 70s ended and the series was mostly unavailable until Disney bought the rights and began releasing them. And they are now available on DVD.

The set is worth having. There are 46 songs, which is well enough to keep kids occupied while learning.

I had though the old-fashioned hand-animation style wouldn’t be appealing to my kids, but they didn’t seem to care. The cartoons that resonated most with them were “Lolly Lolly Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”, “Figure 8”, “3 is a Magic Number”, and “Interjections!”. We sang and hummed those songs for a long time after watching the DVDs.

The CD is separate from the DVD.

In my opinion, the math ones had the best music and the history ones were the weakest, but it’s still a good gift.

Doc McStuffins

I first heard of Doc McStuffins from a joke Nick Offerman told about the ubiquity of the character and the show’s theme song. And I couldn’t relate directly, having never seen the show, but I had had similar experiences with other shows, such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or Caillou, which have songs catchy enough to take up permanent residence in your head, but aren’t so good that you want them there.

My dad then found some Little Golden books at the grocery store for maybe $1.50 apiece that were essentially book versions of some of the episodes. In my experience, novelizations of movies are one of the lowest forms of literature and I assumed that these books would be similarly terrible. And the name, “Doc McStuffins” sounded cutesy and stupid. But they’re actually pretty good. The writing of the original show is decent and the book versions tighten up the dialogue in order to to get to the heart of the plot.

The stories revolve around a girl who gives medical help to her stuffed animals. There is a bit of a ‘Toy Story’ feeling since the toys and dolls become inert when the parents or other kids are nearby. The stories begin with a toy or doll experiencing some problem and Doc then runs test to identify the problem and come up with a cure (which may involve duct tape or some other MacGyver-y solution). This is actually an excellent way for kids to get exposed to the scientific method and logical thinking.

We eventually found the show on TV and the kids got excited when they saw an episode that they had already read. And they enjoyed even more reading the book version of a episode they had already seen. Since they already knew the story and the dialogue, they had an easier time following along in the book.

I was surprised to learn that the show was a Disney Junior program. I love the classic Disney movies, but I associate current Disney programming with garbage shows such as “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”, or other shows that sexualize preteens. So it was refreshing to see a show, and read books that do not do that.

Being a Disney product, you better believe there are loads of plastic toys for sale with the Doc character’s face on them. I can’t vouch for any of those, but the books and the show are good.