The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes

What is it

‘The Wild Robot’ and its sequel ‘The Wild Robot Escapes’ is a very charming 2-part (so far) series about a sentient robot surviving in the wilderness, written and illustrated by Peter Brown.

Who is it for

The official website gives the recommended ages of 8 to 11, but every one of us enjoyed the audio book, even the 4-year-old. The books are chapter books, with occasional (wonderful) illustrations, so young readers who are used to a lot of pictures won’t want to read it. But the story is deep enough that adults and older children would enjoy it.

What Kids Like

It has robots, and fighting, and talking animals, but also feels like a “grown-up” story in some ways. Characters suffer and get distressed. Some characters die. This is all handled very well, and is not upsetting to kids.

What Parents Like

The story is surprisingly rich and deep for a book aimed at children. While the story on the surface may seem simple and childish, the themes of identity and purpose and community are thought-provoking.

The audiobooks were rare examples of stories that both adults and kids were eager to continue listening to.

What the Critics Think

4.1/5 on Goodreads, 4.9/5 on Barnes & Noble, 4/5 on Common Sense Media, and 96% on Google.

The relatively lower Goodreads score was a surprise to me, but I think some of their readers aren’t into robots.

Who Made it

The books were written and illustrated by Peter Brown, known for simpler books including “The Curious Garden”, “Children Make Terrible Pets”, and “Mr. Tiger Goes Wild”.

The audio books were read by Kate Atwater / Kathleen McInerney (I think it’s the same person, but am not sure). The audio books are excellent for long car trips.

History

Peter Brown has a fairly detailed write-up of the process of creating the book. Interesting to aspiring writers or anyone curious about the process.

"However, I wanted to tell a different kind of robot story. I wanted to tell the story of a robot who finds harmony in the last place you’d expect. I wanted to tell a robot nature story."

"For this to truly be a “robot nature story” Roz would need to encounter a wide variety of natural elements. And the story would have to take place in the future to explain the existence of intelligent robots. I imagined how the wilderness might look in a few hundred years, and two things occurred to me: 1) because of climate change and rising sea levels, animals from far and wide might eventually be forced together as they all seek higher ground, and 2) some of that higher ground might become completely surrounded by water, forming new islands. With that in mind, I set the story far in the future, on a rugged northern island that was formed by rising seas, and that had a diverse array of weather and flora and fauna."

"The Wild Robot is the story of Rozzum unit 7134, a robot who wakes up for the very first time to find that she’s alone on a remote, wild island. Roz doesn’t know how she got there, or where she came from: she only knows that she wants to stay alive. And by robotically studying her environment she learns everything she needs to know. She learns how to move through the wilderness, how to avoid danger, she even learns how to communicate with the animals. But the most important lesson Roz learns is that kindness can be a survival skill. And she uses kindness to develop friends and a family and a peaceful life for herself. Until her mysterious past catches up with her.

It took eight years, but I finally found an answer to the question that led me down this path. What would an intelligent robot do in the wilderness? She’d make the wilderness her home."

Where Can I Get it

You can read a preview here although it does not include the illustrations.

The books and audio books are everywhere.

Machinarium – Amanita Design

What is it

Machinarium is a point-and-click adventure game featuring a cute robot solving puzzles in a beautifully-drawn quasi-steampunk city.

Who is it for

It’s for anyone, young and old, but some of the puzzles are pretty tricky and even precocious children under 7 or so would need some grown-up help. But it’s a great game to play with a child.

What Kids Like

The character is cute, the atmosphere is immersive and captivating, and most of the puzzles are very satisfying. There is no speed/dexterity component, so players do not need to rush and can go at their own pace.

What Parents Like

The puzzles make you feel smart when you figure them out, so the game feels almost educational. It is aesthetic, and as stated above, is a good game for an adult to play with a kid. The music, by Tomáš Dvořák, is fun, happy, and pleasant.

It’s been at least 15 years since the ‘Golden Age of free Flash web games’ if there ever were such a time, back when Homestar Runner was the best thing on the Web, and Machinarium came out toward the end of that era. There were so many Flash games that I loved that my kids won’t ever see because Flash will no longer be available soon, but thankfully there are some relics of that period, such as Machinarium, that remain.

I also like the Eastern European aesthetic of the game. The developers of Machinarium, Amanita Design, are Czech, and the look and feel of the game, the characters, the puzzles have a quality that is simply different from the American and Japanese games that flood the market.

What the Critics Think

Machinarium gets 9/10 on Steam, 4.6/5 on Google’s Play Store for Android, 4.3/5 on Apple’s iTunes for iOS, and 4.6/5 on Jay is games, which also has a nice write-up of the game.

  • IGF 2009, Excellence in Visual Art Award
  • Nomination for 13th Annual Interactive Achievement Awards (DICE Awards)
  • Gamasutra, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • VGChartz.com, Best Indie Game Of 2009
  • PC Gamer, Best Soundtrack of 2009

In 2011, Adventure Gamers named Machinarium the 17th-best adventure game ever released.

Concerns/Flaws

The only complaint is that some of the puzzles have the quality common to point-and-click type games, where you sometimes have to click on just the right pixel to prompt a reaction and there is sometimes a lot of frantic clicking trying to find that one spot.

Who Made it/History

Machinarium was the first full-length game, made in 2009 by Amanita Design, based in Brno, Czech Republic (more on Wikipedia) after years of success with shorter games such as their Samorost series

Where Can I Get it

You can play the free demo online using Flash. You may need to activate the Flash plugin in your browser.

The full set of links (Humble Bundle, Steam, iOS, Android) is on the Machinarium page

The game is going for $10 these days. If you don’t want to spend any money, or want more of a preview, check out Amanita’s other games, such as the free Samorost or The Quest for the Rest

Holes

Price: $17.99

What is it

Holes is a “young adult mystery comedy novel” that was also made into a movie, about a boy working digging holes in what is essentially a juvenile prison camp. There is a parallel story that takes place exactly 100 years earlier, involving some of the characters’ ancestors.

Who is it for

The target audience is young adolescents, although younger kids will enjoy the movie.

The book and movie have some strong language (e.g. “damn”) and some themes (e.g. homelessness, racism) that may be difficult for younger readers/viewers to process.

Most of the main characters are boys and many of the themes involve the relationships between boys, so I think Holes is essentially a book about and for boys.

What Kids Like

Kids like the honesty. The book is rare in how it depicts events such as bullying, being “the new kid”, and dealing with cruel adults – in a way that is realistic without being cynical. Similarly, characters in the story endure racism and other forms or cruelty in a way seldom seen in children’s literature.

The plot is also very rich, including scenes in the Wild West, a treasure hunt, a mountain climb, wacky inventions, strange characters, and everything is resolved very satisfyingly in the end.

What Parents Like

I like the complexity of the plot, which has enough going on for adults to enjoy (and not just sit through).

And the depictions of bullying, racism, and other themes are really good, sparking interesting conversation.

The audiobook version is very good, read by actor Kerry Beyer, and has been a welcome CD to play in the car.

What the Critics Think

Paraphrased from the Holes Wikipedia entry:

It won the 1998 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the 1999 Newbery Medal for the year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”. It also won the William Allen White Children’s Book Award in 2001. It was ranked number 6 among all-time children’s novels by School Library Journal in 2012.

The Holes Novel gets 3.9/5 on Goodreads, 5/5 on Common Sense Media, 4.6/5 on Barnes & Noble, and 87% on Google.

The Holes Movie gets 7.1/10 on IMDb, 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, 71% on Metacritic, and 92% on Google.

Concerns/Flaws

There is some strong language and there are some violent scenes.

Who Made it

Holes was written by Louis Sachar, who may be best known for the Wayside School series (Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger) which has since been made into an animated TV series.

The 2003 Disney movie was directed by Andrew Davis and starred Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson and Shia LaBeouf. I thought Jon Voight was just great in his role of “Mr. Sir”. And Shia LaBeouf really shined in his role, with a quality of acting rarely seen in child actors.

The audiobook came out in 2016 and was read by Kerry Beyer.

History

Holes was written in 1998 by Louis Sachar after finishing the third and final novel in his Wayside School series. The Disney movie came out in 2003. Both book and movie seem as fresh and relevant today as they did twenty years ago.

Where Can I Get it

The book is available everywhere.

Amazon’s Audible service has the audiobook

Google has a sample/preview of the book

And the trailer for the movie is on YouTube:

The movie is available for streaming on Amazon

Whoowasit?

What is it

Whoowasit? is a board game as well as an app where players work together to win. Unlike most games that are essentially zero-sum (a player can win only when another player loses), Whoowasit? is collaborative and players either win or lose together.

The game is a bit like Clue or Cluedo in that the players have to deduce who the culprit is based on limited clues.

Here’s the description from BoardGameGeek:

In Whoowasit?, players must find the magical ring that was stolen from the wise king by the evil wizard. Playing against a running clock, players move their playing pieces through the various rooms on the game board to uncover clues to who stole the precious gem. Along the way, talking animals help players solve the mystery of the stolen item with the help of a treasure chest that randomly supplies clues on behalf of the animals. Whenever players meet animals, they must feed them so the animals — that can only be understood by children — can provide the clues that advance gameplay. The clues supplied by the electronic treasure chest ensure that no two games are alike. All players must work together to find the stolen ring, and they win or lose as a group, depending on whether they can master an assigned task.

Who is it for

The game is recommended for gaes 7 and up, but kids as young as 4 enjoy it, even if they don’t quite get all the strategy.

What Kids Like

Our kids love it and ask to play it on the iPad all the time.

The theme of a cursed castle with an evil wizard and helpful fairy and talking animals are fun and keep them playing.

The level of logical thinking required is also just right for kids – complex enough to be stimulating but not so complex that it becomes boring.

The length of the game is just right as well. The players sometimes lose but the game is quick enough that they can just try again. A longer game would be frustrating to lose, after having spent so much time on it.

What Parents Like

Our kids (like kids in most families) sometimes have trouble sharing and sometimes compete with each other a little too fiercely. Whoowasit?, by forcing them to work together, lets them see the benefits of doing so.

It’s also nice to have a game that is one with wits, not with agility, and is an alternative to all the building games our kids like.

What the Critics Think

The original board game won the ‘Most successful board game’ in 2008 and 2009 in Germany, was the 2011 Disney FamilyFun Toy of the Year, the 2011 Creative Child Magazine Game of the Year, and the 2011 National Parenting Center Seal of Approval.

Concerns/Flaws

I can’t think of any flaws.

The developers did lose a chance to broaden the theme when they made the app version. A board game, by necessity, has a limited theme because it can only have one board and only so many tokens. But the app version could have had multiple locations and characters. Even if the gameplay remained the same, a new location would help keep the game fresh.

Who Made it

Ravensburger (ravensburger.com) is a very established game and puzzle company based in Germany. They are well-known for their 3D puzzles and games such as Labyrinth, Make ‘n’ Break, and Scotland Yard.

Where Can I Get it

The original electronic board game is out of print as far as I can tell, but the app version is available in iTunes and the Google Play Store

The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

Finn Caspian

What is it

Finn Caspian is a free, weekly podcast about the adventures of a boy and his friends in outer space. They work with (and against) robots and aliens on board spaceships and strange other worlds.

The podcasts are usually 20-25 minutes long, with about 15 minutes of storytelling and the rest devoted to going through reader mail, much of which are space-related jokes.

There are a few seasons of the show online now, each with 15-20 episodes.

Who is it for

The show seems aimed at ages 5 to 10 but there is enough going on that kids a bit younger or a bit older could enjoy it as well.

What Kids Like

The kids like the adventure stories, which are humorous and suspenseful, most ending on a cliff-hanger that is resolved the next week.

The narrator, Jonathan Messinger has a virtual sidekick/cohost in the form of a robot, BeeBop, who is snarky and a bit rude (in a kid-friendly way) and the kids love that character.

What Parents Like

We like that our kids can listen to a story without zoning out in front of a screen. It hearkens back to the days of radio dramas when kids had to make up the pictures in their imaginations, in an active rather than passive way.

The stories are clever and one of the themes of the series is that it is stuffed full of references to existing children’s books, so we can play ‘spot the reference’ along with the kids.

It’s been essential listening on long car rides and I’ve been reading to them less frequently at bedtime, instead playing two episodes of Finn Caspian.

And it’s free! With no ads!

What the Critics Think

I haven’t seen any critics’ reviews of the show, but it gets ~4.5 stars on all of the streaming services that carry it.

Concerns/Flaws

Jonathan Messinger is a good writer but not a polished voice actor and some of the delivery sounds amateurish. His elocution has improved over the course of the series, however.

The voice of the character of BeeBop is created with a ‘roboticize’ voice filter that can get annoying after a while.

Who Made it

Finn Caspian is written and performed by Jonathan Messinger, author of Hiding Out, former web editor of Time Out Chicago Kids.

ZooGlobble has an interview with Jon about the show from 2017

The podcast is the first from the publisher Gen-Z Media. You can listen to their other podcasts for kids at Bestrobotever.com

History

The show began in the summer of 2016 and Jonathan has been putting out a new show just about every week since then.

Where Can I Get it

From the source:
FinnCaspian.com

From the publisher:
BestRobotEver

From a podcast aggregator:
KidsListen.org
Stitcher
Player.fm
iTunes
Google Play

RoverCraft

What is it

RoverCraft is an app that lets players build “space cars” and drive them along bumpy alien landscapes, collecting coins and avoiding crashes.

Who is it for

The game is simple enough for kids as young as 4 to have fun with it, although only older kids would be able to understand it well enough to get high scores.

What Kids like

They like the building, and they like the driving, and they like the upgrades. As the player collect coins, they can use the money to buy more and stronger materials for their vehicle, and unlock other worlds (Mars, Titan, etc.) The achievements are attainable, but take a little work, so the reward system is well-balanced and engaging.

They also like the catastrophic failure that ends every driving run. The player basically drives their car until it crashes, and the crashing is fun, so even when they lose they can enjoy it.

What Parents like

The building part is creative and forces problem-solving (how to structure the chassis so that the vehicle can cross the chasm without falling in?)

The driving part is thrilling but not overly competitive. The players are effectively racing against their own previous times.

What the critics think

The app gets 4.4/5 on Google, 4.5/5 on iTunes, and 4.6/5 on the Microsoft store.

Criticisms are that there are too many ads and that the developer (Mobirate) doesn’t update the game frequently enough.

Concerns/flaws

There are a lot of ads that the player has to endure or click off. There are in-app purchases that can distract from the gameplay, and we as parents need to make sure that the purchasing feature is disabled on the phone/tablet.

Who made it

RoverCraft is made by Mobirate, who also makes the Parking Mania series, other space-themed games such as Space Expedition and Space Bikers, and several others (Stick Fu, Jelly Jumpers, Dead Ahead).

When was it made/history

Mobirate was founded way back in 2003. RoverCraft was first released in 2015 and has had sporadic updates since then.

Where can I get it

Google Play Store, iTunes, and the Microsoft Store. You can even use Amazon to get it for Android devices, if you wanted.

The Fixies

What is it

The Fixies is a Russian cartoon series about a family of tiny (1cm tall) fairy-like creatures who repair everyday items, and in the process teach about physics, electronics, and other useful DiY knowledge.

Who is it for

The show is a big hit with our 4-year-old but a lot of the content is sophisticated enough for much older kids as well.

What Kids like

The characters are fun, with the kids getting into and out of trouble and the parents offering guidance when necessary. The animation is bright and engaging. The theme song is catchy and the show makes good use of music.

What Parents like

I like the fact that it’s Russian. It’s nice to have a reference to Russian culture that has nothing to do with politics. And I like having influences from other countries. Geronimo Stilton is from Italy, P.J. Masks from France, many (most?) PBS Kids shows are from Canada, and lots of the more cutesy cartoons are from Korea and Japan. Although each cartoon has basically the same formula (a group of young people work together to solve problems) each one has a slightly different feel to it that is representative of its country of origin.

In the case of The Fixies, the subject matter is significantly more in-depth in terms of engineering/STEM topics. For example, one episode had a bit on pipe fabrication, how pipes can be made by rolling and welding a sheet of metal (which results in a seam) vs. extruding a solid block to make a seamless pipe. I can’t imagine any American show covering that level of detail.

Each episode includes a 40-second bit on how things work, in a fun and educational way.

There is also a typically Russian attitude toward toughness and responsibility. While most American and Canadian cartoons seem to value self-affirmation over anything else, The Fixes put that value below those of being responsible and getting the job done. One episode had the children try to do a quick fix in order to earn a prize and at the end the father gives them a cheap, flimsy award to reflect the quality of work they did.

But really, the Russian-ness is not obvious. I wouldn’t have noticed or guessed. if I hadn’t looked it up. (The one big clue is the catchphrase the characters use when they’ve fixed something, “tideesh”, which sounds very slavic to my ears.)

Another quality of the show, that may have something to do with it being Russian, is that there is a strong message about the importance of fixing what you have as opposed to throwing something away just because it’s broken.

What the critics think

I haven’t seen any reviews of the show. They have a sparse IMDB page and nothing on Wikipedia despite having several hundred episodes (~140 dubbed into English) and a feature movie. The show was nominated for an APKiT award, which is, as far as I can tell, a Russian equivalent to the Oscars.

Concerns/flaws

I found no flaws with the show itself, but it seems to be available only via YouTube and has multiple ads to skip in each 12-minute episode.

Who made it

The show is made by Aeroplane Productions in Moscow

Lots of info on their website https://www.thefixies.com/

They are doing what lots of other children’s media companies are doing, creating related apps, games etc. Most of the Fixies games are in Russian and don’t yet have English translations.

It looks like the company is actively looking for licensing in other countries and it would be great if Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or PBS Kids picked it up.

When was it made/history

The original, Russian show began in 2010 and the English version was released starting in 2015.

Where can I get it

As far as I can tell, it’s only available via The Fixies channel on YouTube

Bloxels

What is it

Bloxels is a free make-your-own videogame app that lets kids (or adults) create 8-bit style sprites and levels for 2D platformer games without needing any coding. The Bloxels kit includes a 13×13 grid with colored blocks so that younger kids can manipulate ‘pixel blocks’ (bloxels) physically before committing them to the game.

There is now also a Star Wars version

Who is it for

Bloxels is recommended for kids age 8-12, but our 4-year-old has had a lot of fun with it. Older kids will get more out of it, but it’s fun for just about any age. The bloxel cubes are about 1 cm2 (¼”2) so it could be a choking hazard for very young kids.

We’ve had fun with it at home, but PixelPress is pushing for the games use in classrooms and I can easily see it used as an educational tool.

What Kids like

Our kids have played with Bloxels on and off for the past few months, since we got it, so it has passed the ‘lost in the closet’ test – that is, the kids choose to pull it out every now and then. The older ones do everything on screen, using only the free app. The younger ones like designing characters using the physical bloxel cubes. Everyone enjoys playing the levels they make.

There is a community aspect to Bloxels, where you can play other people’s games, but we haven’t gotten into that.

What Parents like

Bloxels seems like a great way to introduce basic ideas of programming without having to get into actual code. The kids spend much more time creating (designing characters and levels) than they do playing (running and jumping and shooting).

What the critics think

Bloxels has been nominated for several education and game awards and most reviews I’ve read have been positive.

Concerns/flaws

Most of the criticisms I’ve read have to do with how the app captures the image of the 13×13 bloxel grid. The image capture relies on the camera in your phone or tablet and can be frustrating to use, although we haven’t had much trouble with it.

There is really only one type of game that can be created with Bloxels, and that’s the 2D platformer, where a character runs, jumps, collects power-ups, shoots monsters, etc. There are so many other kids of games, and if your child doesn’t like 2D platformers, they won’t have much interest in making them. But that is a theoretical concern in our case, since our kids like that kind of game. As a parent, I would rather the games involve puzzles or problem-solving, rather than shooting monsters, but as a former game designer, I realize that those sorts of games are much more difficult for children to do well.

And the Bloxel pieces are quite small – possible choking hazards for little siblings, and they hurt to step on when not put away properly! but that’s a problem we have with lots of toys (e.g. Lego) and is not an inherent flaw with Bloxels.

Who made it

Bloxels is made by Pixel Press, which makes a few other similar make-your-own game apps, such as Floors and Adventure Time Game Wizard. Pixel Press has since been bought

When was it made/history

Bloxels started as a Kickstarter project in 2015 and got enough funding to go mainstream and eventually partner with Mattel.

Where can I get it

You can get the Bloxels app on iTunes, Google Play, and for the Kindle Fire. And you can get the physical kit on Amazon or the Bloxels site

Spaceflight Simulator

Every week we try out at least 5 different apps, either on an Android phone or the iPad. They are all free except for the rare occasion when we decide that the paid version will be worth it (e.g. in the case of Plants vs. Zombies). The apps are free usually because they have ads, and often the ads are so frequent and interrupt gameplay so inconveniently that we delete the app altogether. Some apps are free because they are promoting a product, such as all the Lego games. But I was surprised to see that the Spaceflight Simulator app was entirely free. The developer decided to use the mobile version as a free trial, hoping that those who like it will spend money on the Steam or console versions. I hope this monetization model succeeds. Mobile is the obvious place to casually try things with minimal commitment.

The game itself is a stripped-down Kerbal Space Program clone, in which you build rockets out of various components, try to get the rocket into orbit, and ultimately reach other planets. It’s fun for adults and kids but is an absolute sensation with our 7-year-old, who has only ever gotten into orbit once, yet still has a blast just building and testing.

One problem we have with many of the free mobile games (apart from the ads) is how so many of them rely on violence and aggression to play the game. Spaceflight Simulator does have explosions, but they are the negative consequence of poor building, not the objective. Instead of trying to blow up other people’s virtual property, in this game you inadvertently blow up your own creation. So the child still gets the little thrill of seeing a crash, but not the reinforcement equating violence with success.

The interface is very simple and plain. Anyone who wants the garishness of games such as Candy Crush will be disappointed.

The game is great way to teach physics and basic engineering, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for STEM/STEAM-type apps.

On Google Play Store
On Apple iTunes

Slingball

Price: Out of stock

This was a gift from Grandma. She found it for $4.99 at a drugstore or somewhere like that. It was not meant to be a Major Gift (the way Lego sets are, for birthdays and Christmas) but the Slingball set ended up being the Essential Toy that went with us everywhere for a few days.

The toy is a pair of nets, which each have a hook on the side, and a pair of balls that have rubber loops coming out of them. You hook the loop to shoot it and in theory someone else catches it in their net.

Most of the fun was in weaponizing the toy, but because the ball is soft foam and the rubber loop is not long or strong enough to provide all that much power, it can’t do much damage, and we even contemplated allowing this as an indoor toy, although we soon changed our minds.

When ‘fired’ at close range toward a sibling’s face, the ball does hurt (as we discovered) but only as much as a rubber band snapped from the same distance and far less than a small plastic train engine hurled from the same distance (as we also discovered).

This was fun to take to the park and play catch, or shoot it straight up to see if we could catch it, or aim at targets such as trees.

It’s such a simple idea, that we didn’t think it would be fun, but it was. And we thought the nets or balls would fall apart after a few days of abuse, but they are still in perfect shape.