Once a Pawn a Time

I’ve heard of chess prodigies as young as 6 and have played chess against 6- and 7-year-olds who knew what they were doing and were even able to beat me (although I’m not a great player). So I was eager to introduce chess to our oldest at that age. Once a Pawn a Time was a gift that arrived at the right time, when I was considering buying a set anyway.

The game includes a standard board and pieces as well as two books that explain the rules in a fun, kid-friendly way, by anthropomorphizing the pieces and by introducing the rules slowly, one-at-a-time. I’ve seen kids get overwhelmed by the number of rules and the amount of abstract thinking that chess requires, so this method of explanation seemed good to me. Our older kids took to it right away, choosing to read the books and learn the rules even when the board and pieces were not at hand. And they talked incessantly about chess for many days after.

It turns out that our kids are not quite as precocious as I had assumed they would be and the rules took a while to sink in, and I still have to sometimes remind them of certain details (en passant in particular) but other aspects seem very easy to them, such as visualizing which squares the knights are attacking. All kids are different of course.

We use the board and pieces for lots of inventive play – playing checkers using nickels and pennies, or adding extra pieces such as Star Wars figures or Hot Wheels cars to the board and giving them special abilities. Chess can seem dour and serious, but it can also be lighthearted and silly.

Many months later, we don’t read the Once a Pawn a Time books anymore but we still pull the board and pieces out every other week or so. We keep it on a shelf in the living room, so it benefits from high visibility. I love that we can sometimes take 15 minutes to play a quick game in the morning when there’s time between breakfast and catching the bus.

Even if you don’t buy this particular one, get a chess set if you don’t have one. I feel every home with kids ought to have a chess set. It’s one of those obligatory possessions along with a copy of Goodnight Moon or a teddy bear.

Star Trek – The Animated Series

A lot of cartoons aimed at kids are not very good. They are either insipid, appealing only to toddlers, or have too much adult humor, or are essentially long advertisements. So I sometimes look for older cartoons, hoping that they will transcend, but boy oh boy are they violent. We tried watching Heckle and Jeckle, and the kids thought they were a riot, but they were so brutally violent that they are no longer allowed.

So, it was a pleasant surprise when I stumbled across episodes of the old Star Trek cartoon. I hadn’t realized (or forgotten) that the show was ever made. It was aired in 1973 and 1974 and was voiced by the original actors, lending some credibility to the show. The animation is pretty crummy, in the same cheap style as the old Spider-Man cartoons from the same era. But the animation quality doesn’t matter to kids so much.

What was appealing to me was the stories of adventure and working together and the importance of following rules and the idea of ‘conquering’ space by cataloging its peoples and planets rather than by defeating them. And the kids love space adventure stories with weird aliens and spaceships and the occasional threat of photon cannons, although problems tend to get resolved by talking it out, not by fighting.

Netflix is streaming season 2

Wikipedia has some info about the show

Bad Lip Reading Star Wars Songs

BLR is a YouTube phenomenon. A guy dubs over news clips and videos with silly nonsense and sometimes songs. The songs are very, very good – well-composed, well-performed and sung, and slickly produced. His re-dubs of music videos are better than the originals.

Not all of them are particularly kid-friendly, but most are.

In 2016, Disney hired him to create some dubs of clips from the original Star Wars trilogy, with guest star help from Jack Black and others, in order to promote the new Star Wars film. These are pretty good, but Disney has a way of inserting crude sexual humor into kids’ media. I assume their intention is to make it more entertaining for the adults watching, but it ends up being awkward and feeling inappropriate.

However, the BLR guy included little tunes in these dubs and then went ahead and produced full song videos from them. They are excellent. The kids and I have watched these several dozen times.

I’m not a fan of how Disney has treated the Star Wars franchise, partly because of the fetishization of the Empire instead of the rebels, partly because the new ones are so much more violent than the originals, and also because the writing for episode 7 felt like mere fan fiction.

So, the kids haven’t seen the new ones. But they still love the figures and the Lego sets and the aesthetic.

Rolling Stone has an interview with the creator, as does The Washington Post. And The Village Voice has a more recent one as well.


And a list of funny, catchy Star Wars songs would be incomplete without these:

Little Robot

Price: $10.98
Was: $16.99

We got this from the library, which has a lot of graphic novels and other quasi-comic books – a lot more than when I was a kid, but back then the genres were more explicitly separated (novels OR picture books OR comics). Little Robot has a lot of panels with no dialogue at all, so the storytelling is necessarily done through the images. I had thought that would make it hard to read at bedtime, but I would just point at the pictures or sometimes describe the image and its role in the plot. This book was the favorite pick for bedtime reading for 3 or 4 days in a row and our oldest read through it a few times.

The plot is not so different from that of T2, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the early ’90s. A robot gets lost and is found and protected by a child and then they both have to flee from the evil robot sent out to collect the first robot. The story manages to straddle the line between being fun and being almost a little scary.

The imagery is appealing and Little Robot won the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award in 2016

The protagonist is a young girl who lives in a trailer park near a research lab, or something. Her circumstances are not relevant to the story but I found that it humanized her and made me want to root for her character more.

The author/illustrator, Ben Hatke, has several other books in a similar vein.

The Camelback Dogs!

Price: Check on Amazon

This seemed like a very odd book when I first read it to the kids after receiving it as a gift, but we’ve all grown fond of it. This one does not get read as frequently as some others on our shelves, but when we do read it the kids are in rapt attention.

The story begins with a kid discovering and interacting with strange alien creatures and then they all go on a surreal journey involving sand castles and harpsichords. During this journey, the main character experiences curiosity and confusion, but also joy and peaceful contentment. In the end, we are left wondering whether the entire story was a dream. It is ultimately, a very happy and optimistic story.

The story and pictures are dream-like and as I read the book, my kids want to make sense of what is going on. Tomkins’s illustration style is distinctive and full of detail so there is a lot to look at.

This author/illustrator has several other appealing books but because he works with a smaller publisher (Sasquatch Books) his titles don’t get the same exposure as mainstream ones. So if you want to give a book as a gift and want to make sure the recipient doesn’t already have it, this is a good bet.

Block Craft 3D

This is essentially a clone of Minecraft and the main reason to play this is if you want to play Minecraft but don’t want to pay for it. It’s a pretty faithful copy with some slight differences and is close enough to the original that even kids who have played real Minecraft should have fun with this one.

The game has ads but they are not intrusive – certainly much less annoying than the ads on most other free phone games I’ve played.

The game gets 4.5/5 on Google Play and 4.9/5 on iTunes and is one of the top results when searching for “minecraft” or “minecraft clone” or “free minecraft”

We actually have a Minecraft account but still play Blockcraft for 2 reasons:

• Blockcraft is slightly simpler than Minecraft, which means the interface is less complex, which means the screen is less cluttered. Minecraft is great on a large screen but can be a bit frustrating on the small screen of a phone, while Blockcraft is a little easier to manipulate.

• The newer versions of Minecraft seem to emphasize all the ways you can destroy things with T.N.T., fire, etc. while the emphasis on Blockcraft seems more about the building. What we were looking for in the first place, when we first used Minecraft, was “virtual legos” and Blockcraft actually satisfies that description a bit better than Minecraft. (Lego also has good, free games that let you play virtual legos, My kids’ favorite is “Lego City 2”)

Block Craft 3D on Google Play for Android devices

Block Craft 3D on iTunes for Apple devices

Blockcraft is made by (I believe) a Brazilian developer that calls itself TFG.co and they make a lot of games for older kids (i.e. violent games). You can read more about Blockcraft on their site

Minecraft’s developer, Mojang, was bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014, and I had assumed they would use their new pile of cash to sue developers such as TFG.co since the latter is so obviously ripping off Minecraft and is surely denying Microsoft revenue, but I haven’t heard about a lawsuit yet.

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:

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.