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.

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.

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

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

Press Here – HervĂ© Tullet

Price: $9.69
Was: $15.99

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.

Price: Check on Amazon
Price: $13.30
Was: $14.95
Price: $17.82
Was: $19.95

Biography of the author

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.

Richard Scarry’s Best Mysteries Ever!

Richard Scarry invented many memorable characters, including Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm, that lived on in cartoons and educational CD-Roms even after his death in 1994.

This book seems to be based on the animated series, “The Busy World of Richard Scarry” and was written in 1998. It does not include the standard Scarry characters, but does include new ones, including:

– Intrepid reporter Cucumber and her assistant Pickles
– Detective Sneef and his side-kick Sniff
– Detective Couscous

The book has 8 adventures, with one of the main characters solving a crime somewhere in the world. Each story is in a different setting (Brazil, India, Sahara, etc.) and the book includes a large map of the world, so this is (among other things) a good introduction to geography

The drawing style is exactly the same as Scarry’s and the stories are fun and engaging. The kids like this book a lot.

The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me – Roald Dahl

This is a Roald Dahl story I hadn’t heard before, certainly much less-well-known than “James and the Giant Peach” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. It also doesn’t have the undercurrent of terror and threat of violence that most Dahl stories have.

Some animals have a window-washing business and a kid joins them.

The kids liked it and particularly enjoyed the audio cd performed by actor Richard E. Grant.

The audio runs 42:30.

Philadelphia Chickens

This is a unique book. Sandra Boynton (most famous for desktop calendars and coffee mugs with phrases such as “Don’t Let the Turkeys Get You Down”) wrote a musical and got performers (Kevin Bacon, Eric Stoltz, Meryl Streep, etc.) to sing the songs on the included CD.

The CD is about 48 minutes long and includes 20 songs. The book includes illustrations and lyrics in the first half, and sheet music for all songs in the second half. A younger child can listen to the songs while following along in the book, and an older child can try to play along using the sheet music.

The inclusion of celebrities on the recordings will not appeal to kids, but it’s fun for adults to hear the actor Scott Bakula sing about Pig Island:

The only way to get there is by Piggy Express — You’ve got to close your eyes and then whisper, “OOO, YES!”

The music itself is not remarkable. The melodies are not memorable enough to have you humming them afterward. The fun is in the words and the pictures.

How to Be a Viking

This book introduces the character of Hiccup, who went on to have more adventures in the better known series, “How to Train Your Dragon”. It’s a fun, but serious story of a little boy who is thrust into the world of adults (specifically tough viking men) and has to overcome fear and take on responsibility.

The book comes with a CD of the author, Cressida Cowell, reading the story. The CD also includes a track of the actor David Tennant (Dr. Who #10, among many other roles) reading a selection from “How to Train Your Dragon” in his rich Scottish accent.