Mug Brownies

What is it

A mug brownie, or brownie-in-a-cup, is a single serving of brownies made in a mug and cooked in the microwave. They take just a few minutes to make, are vegan, and very tasty.

Mix equal parts flour, sugar, cocoa powder, oil, and water in a mug. Microwave for a minute. Done.

i.e. in a big mug
1/4 cup flour
+ 1/4 cup sugar
+ 1/4 cup water
+ 1/4 cup cocoa (this is unsweetened baking cocoa, not hot chocolate mix)
+ 1/4 cup oil

or:
50 ml flour
+ 50 ml sugar
+ 50 ml water
+ 50 ml cocoa
+ 50 ml oil

You can easily halve the recipe for smaller servings

Optional:
• a pinch of salt brings out the chocolate flavor
• add a dash of vanilla extract and/or almond extract and/or peppermint extract add/or a few shakes of cinnamon
• add 1/4 tsp (1 or 2 ml) of baking powder to make it a bit fluffier
• replace some (or all) of the flour with the same amount of cocoa powder for an extra chocolate-y brownie

Who is it for

Mug brownies are for anyone with a sweet tooth, but the activity of making them is for anyone who can manage a measuring spoon. 3+ is probably right.

What Kids Like

Kids are motivated by the speed of the process. From saying, “Let’s make brownies!” to actually having them in your mouth can take as little as three minutes. Cooking is a great activity to do with kids, but they often get bored or frustrated having to wait.

What Parents Like

Cooking is a great way to teach some basic math (how many teaspoons in a tablespoon? [3] how many milliliters in a quarter cup? [~60]) as well as basic cooking concepts (mix the dry ingredients before adding the wet, leveling the measuring spoons before dumping it) and this recipe lends itself to some scientific inquiry. For example, what happens if we add half the sugar, or half the oil, or use brown sugar?

Concerns/Flaws

Now, teaching kids to wait, and be bored for a bit is actually an essential concept these days, with instant access to almost anything, and these brownies are the food equivalent of on-demand streaming media, but they are fun and the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

This is a strange book and I can’t understand why it’s a classic, but it is. We got multiple copies as gifts when the kids were born, and we got a bit of a nostalgia rush when we looked at it for the first time since we were kids ourselves. But I don’t think the kids liked it much. I don’t recall them ever asking for it when we read stories at bedtime.

Margaret Wise Brown has a unique voice and her rhythm is evident in Goodnight Moon, but this is not one of her best. Yet, it seems every American kid needs to know it.

The L.A. Review of Books has a 75-year retrospective

Sandra Boynton

Sandra Boynton has had children’s books in print for the past 40+ years, ever since publishing “Hippos Go Berserk” in 1977. Her distinctive and very recognizable illustration style may be more familiar from her many, many calendars, coffee mugs, and cards. By her own estimate, she has drawn between 4,000 and 6,000 greeting cards! Her most famous is probably the birthday card that reads, “Hippo Birdie Two Ewes”

We have several of her 60+ children’s board books and they are an easy and popular gift to give and receive. The drawing style is fun and whimsical and the “stories”, as simple as they are, are great for read-along time. Our kids essentially memorize entire books and then can read along with us.

Her most popular books include “Moo, Baa, La La La!”, “The Going to Bed Book”, “Barnyard Dance”, “A to Z”, “Blue Hat, Green Hat”, and “Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs!” A complete list of her books is on her Wikipedia page

She also has several children’s music albums, including:
“Rhinoceros Tap” (1996)
“Philadelphia Chickens” (2002)
“Dog Train” (2005)
“Blue Moo” (2007)
“Boléro Completely Unraveled” (2010)
“Frog Trouble” (2013)
“Hog Wild” (2017)

Our kids love “Philadelphia Chickens” in particular.

More information about her books at sandraboynton.com

And The Atlantic has a charming article on her (2019/11)

Simon

What is it

Simon is a French TV show (translated into British English) for kids about a rabbit boy and his family and friends

Who is it for

The animation in Simon is simple and appealing enough that kids as young as 2 will enjoy it, and the themes presented are appropriate for kids up to age 9 or so.

What Kids Like

Simon is not as sanitized as most American and Canadian shows for kids are these days, and the characters are often bickering and dealing with bullies and other realistic situations. My kids like seeing characters handle scenarios that come up in their own life and thus are more relatable.

What Parents Like

I like that there is a show that hits the sweet spot between the overly safe PBS Kids stuff (e.g. Daniel Tiger) and obnoxiously sassy Cartoon Network/Disney stuff aimed at tweens (e.g. Teen Titans Go!). Simon manages to not talk down to kids but isn’t trying to be cool, either.

As it says on the Simon Wikipedia page:

He’s at an age when little rabbits (and indeed little children!) are starting to come into their own – challenging relationships with parents, embarking upon school life, learning about the world in general, dealing with authority and of course, language.

I also like that it’s a French show. Every culture has a slightly different approach to raising children, which is why I like my kids to see shows like Pocoyo (Spanish), The Fixies (Russian), PJ Masks (French), and Pororo (Korean), each of which gives a glimpse into a world that is not quite the same as the others.

And lastly, the “full” episodes are all 5 minutes, 19 seconds long. This makes the show a bit easier to digest and makes it easier when watching videos close to bedtime. I can say “OK, last one” and know that there will be closure within a few minutes. That’s harder to do with movies or longer shows.

What the Critics Think

IMDB gives Simon 7.9/10

A review at Animation Magazine

Life with Wifey puts Simon among the top 5 shows for kids on Netflix

Who Made it / History

The show is based on books by Stephanie Blake (American-born, living in France) who is best known for books such as “Poo Bum” (2011) and “Stupid Baby” (2012) which were originally published in France and introduce the character of Simon the rabbit.

The show is produced by GO-N Production and premiered on France TV’s Zouzous channel

More on Wikipedia

Where Can I Get it

Simon is streaming on Netflix and there is an official YouTube channel where the episodes are streaming for free.

Llama Llama

What is it

Llama Llama is a book series and an animated series based on the characters from the books.

Llama Llama is a young child with some separation anxiety, learning the basics of interacting with others and overcoming the conflict and resentment toward his mother.

Who is it for

The themes in the books make it ideal for very young children, age 2 to 4. The show is more general and kids as old as 6 might get something out of it

What Kids Like

The main plot of the first book Llama Llama Red Pajama is of a kid who doesn’t want to go to bed, who misses his mom and gets lonely. He screams for her and she comes running, but then scolds him for his “Llama drama”.

Our young kids relate to that very well and became obsessed with the book after having it read to them the first time. The red pajama book is worth sharing with your child. If they like it, you might consider the other books as well. A few others in the series deal with the same theme of the conflict that can arise between parent and child, especially at bedtime.

The appeal to kids is that, of all the kids stories out there, there aren’t many that explore the anguish of being left alone in a dark room at bedtime.

And the TV version also depicts scenarios that are not common in other kids media. For example, in one episode the child (called simply, “llama llama”) throws a fit at a grocery store and makes a mess by knocking items off a shelf. The mother (“mama llama”) then scolds him and makes him clean it up.

What Parents Like

The illustrations are fun and the rhyming language of the text makes it fun to read with a child.

I can’t think of another book, or set of books, that address the particular issue of the child getting angry at the parent. We see young adult literature in which teens defy the parent, but not board books for kids in which the child resents the parent for unfair bedtime practices.

And I like having scenes like the grocery store one described above. It’s good for kids to see depictions of bad behavior in other kids and seeing the consequences of it.

What the Critics Think

Several books in the series have won awards:

  • Llama Llama Red Pajama: Scholastic Parent and Child “100 Greatest Books for Kids” award winner; Bank Street “Best Children’s Book” recipient; Missouri Building Block Award winner; National Public Radio pick; Carolina Children’s Book Award Master List winner (picture book category)
  • Llama Llama Home With Mama: Children’s Choice Book Award “Illustrator of the Year” nominee (2012)
  • Llama Llama Time to Share: Children’s Choice book Award “Illustrator of the Year” nominee (2013); Thriving Family magazine’s Best Family-Friendly Picture Book finalist (2012)
  • Llama Llama Mad at Mama: Missouri Building Block Award winner; winner of Alabama’s Emphasis on Reading program (grades K-1); Book Sense Book of the Year Children’s Illustrated Honor Book (2008)
  • The show has had mixed reviews, with most ratings giving it ~3 stars out of 5.

    Common Sense Media gives the series 5 stars, however

    In some ways, the show doesn’t really distinguish itself from other shows aimed at young children, with themes such as the importance of sharing, how to express frustration, etc. The way that it does distinguish itself is in how it also addresses themes of conflict between a parent and a young child: e.g. the fights that happen at bedtime when the child decides he wants one more thing to eat before bed.

    Concerns/Flaws

    The show can be a bit generic – not bad, but not particularly different from Daniel Tiger or any of the other many, many wholesome kids’ cartoons out there now.

    In the cartoon, the mother is voiced by the actress Jennifer Garner, so to me the show sounds like a long Capital One commercial. Although, after hearing so much of it, I’ve decided that she has a particularly clear and appealing voice.

    Who Made it

    Anna Dewdney wrote and illustrated about two dozen books, most of them in the Llama Llama series

    She died at age 50 in 2016

    More on Wikipedia

    History

    Dewdney illustrated many books for other authors, but Llama Llama Red Pajama was the first one she wrote and illustrated herself in 2005. It almost immediately became an enormous hit.

    An interview with the author at Parenting magazine

    Where Can I Get it

    The books are published by Viking and are available everywhere. The show is on Netflix

    Mouse Paint

    What is it

    Mouse Paint is a charming board book by Ellen Stoll Walsh that teaches primary and secondary colors. It reminded me a bit of the classic Color Kittens although Mouse Paint has its own style.

    Who is it for

    It’s a book to read to a toddler who is interested in colors and is learning color words, so children aged 1 to 3 would get the most out of it.

    What Kids Like

    The drawings are charming and the mice are cute. They are busy, getting into things. I don’t know whether the kids relate to that, but I think so. With books aimed at very young children, it’s often hard to know exactly why they like something. But our 2-year-old asked to read this about five times yesterday, which I consider a positive review.

    What Parents Like

    The art is appealing, enough that my attention is kept, even when reading it for the fifth time. There is just enough going on that the parent and child can have a conversation about what’s happening. The book encourages communication and engages the child, rather than simply letting them passively listen.

    What the Critics Think

    Barnes & Noble gives Mouse Paint 4.1/5
    GoodReads gives Mouse Paint 4.2/5

    Who Made it / History

    Ellen Stoll Walsh is an author and illustrator, who has been creating children’s books for the past several decades from her studio in Baltimore.

    Her other mouse-themed books for young children include Mouse Count, Mouse Shapes, and her Dot and Jabber series. And she uses frog characters as well in books such as Hop Jump

    Mouse Paint was first published in 1989 and remains in print. You should be able to find it easily.

    Blocksworld

    What is it

    Blocksworld (not to be confused with similarly-titled games such as “block world”) is one of many Minecraft-inspired games, but Blocksworld stands apart in the quality of the game, the number of features, and the implicit instruction of programming fundamentals.

    What Lego is to Minecraft, Duplo is to Blocksworld.

    Who is it for

    The game is complex enough to be fun and satisfying for almost any age. The controls are simple enough that kids as young as five can get something out of it.

    There is a social component to the game, where users can share their creations. While a nice idea, this can lead to some inappropriate creations being available to everyone. Blocksworld has moderators to sift out the inappropriate stuff, but parents should be aware that sometimes nasty things get through.

    What Kids Like

    This is currently my kids’ favorite game. They would spend ten hours a day playing it. It’s very easy to build stuff, and not just static things like buildings, but driveable cars with lasers and the like. There are the usual game components such as credits and badges and levels, which help motivate and get a sense of accomplishment.

    What Parents Like

    My favorite aspect is the pseudo-coding that the game uses to give functionality to the creations. If you build a car with laser beams, you need to “program” how the car and lasers operate. This kid of coding is perfect to teach kids fundamentals of programming.

    There are so many STEM apps out there, and most of them fail because they try to teach overtly. But most kids don’t want a game that teaches coding. They want a game that is fun, where the teaching is implicit.

    The best educational games are those where the education happens in the background. People who played RISK! or Axis & Allies as kids know world geography, not because they were explicitly taught, but because knowing that stuff helped in playing the game.

    What the Critics Think

    The critics don’t seem to like the game as much as I or my kids do.

    6/10 Steam
    3.8/5 iTunes – Apple
    3.1/5 Apprview.com

    A review at gameslikefinder.com
    and one at GeekDad

    Concerns/Flaws

    A couple things:

    • Wow, so many ads! This game has more ads than other games I let my kids play. I allow it because I think the game has enough merits, but the volume of ads is a concern. And since you don’t know what ads are going to be displayed, you need to supervise the kid a bit more than you would otherwise.

    • The social/sharing/multiplayer/community feature is well-done. The kids are motivated to share their creations and see what other kids have built. But it’s not hard to imagine what happens when some middle-schoolers find out that they can upload their “Momo” or “Evil Elmo” creations. Blocksworld has moderators who flag this stuff, and it’s generally a safe environment for kids, but again, supervision is strongly recommended.

    Who Made it

    Blocksworld is made by Linden Lab, A.K.A. Linden Research, Inc., who are best known as the creators of Second Life.

    Most Minecraft-like games are made by random teenagers learning to program, but Linden is a group of very experienced developers, and their experience is evident in the quality of the game.

    History

    From the Blocksworld Wikipedia page:

    Blocksworld was initially developed by Swedish independent video game developer Boldai, which was acquired by U.S.-based Linden Lab in early 2013.[3] An earlier version of the game was briefly available in 2012 in Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Norway.[4] However, for the subsequent global release, the game was repositioned as a freemium offering where players have the option to purchase premium sets and games, additional building objects and pieces, coins, and other upgrades and extras for a small fee.

    Virtual coins serve as the in-game currency, which can be either purchased via the in-app shop or rewarded through various community actions such as having creations rated via stars.

    Players used have the option to pay 7.99 (US) or (CAD) dollars for Blocksworld Premium, which gives an infinite amount of designated blocks. Now, Blocksworld Premium is a subscription which has to be paid monthly/yearly and gives more benefits than the original Blocksworld Premium.

    In September 2017, Blocksworld was released on Steam, prior to that, you could only play it on your browser or on your mobile device.

    Where Can I Get it

    Blocksworld is not available for Android, but is for iOS and is now on Steam as well.

    Plus-Plus

    What is it

    Plus-Plus is a building toy made up of pieces that look like two plus signs: ++

    They are sort of like Legos, but also sort of like Play-doh

    Who is it for

    Anyone old enough to manipulate small objects and also old enough to know not to put little things in their mouth should be old enough to use it, so maybe 4 at the lower end. And anyone who still plays with Legos would enjoy Plus-Plus as well, so maybe 9 at the upper end. It would also be a decent office desk toy / stress reliever.

    The company also makes a larger version (called, simply, “Big”) that is more than twice the size of regular Plus-Plus and is easier for little hands to work with and are too big to choke on. These would be fun for kids as young as 1 year.

    What Kids Like

    The bricks/blocks connect easily and it’s very simple to make a figure or vehicle or whatever. Unlike Lego, which more and more rely on special pieces, Plus-Plus has only one shape and size of brick and this uniformity actually makes it easier to design things because you always have every shape of brick you need.

    Also, Lego requires rectilinear construction because of the way bricks fit together. But Plus-Plus can fit at angles, resulting in more organic, rounder creations.

    Perhaps the most appealing aspect, for some, is that the creations end up looking like Minecraft creations.

    What Parents Like

    I like having multiple options for building toys.

    I like that Plus-Plus are cheap. Because there are no special pieces, Plus-Plus bricks end up costing something like 5¢. The kids like taking toys in the car and on trips and when visiting people, and there is always the risk with Legos that a certain special minifig helmet or something will get lost. With Plus-plus, we can lose a few pieces and no one will notice.

    What the Critics Think

    The toy gets 4.6 stars at Amazon and 4.9 at FatBrain Toys

    The toy has won many awards, including:

    • Popular Mechanics USA “Best of Toy Fair 2019”
    • Mystery Makers highlighted as one of “2019 Most Trendy Products” at New York Toy Fair
    • Learning Express “Best Construction Toy 2018”

    Concerns/Flaws

    I keep comparing Plus-Plus to Legos because the similarities are obvious. Another similarity is that these things get scattered all over the floor and stepping on them is painful. They are a bit of a choking hazard as well for little ones.

    Who Made it/History

    The company was started in 2009 in Copenhagen, Denmark and now has an office in Greenville, SC

    Where Can I Get it

    Plus-Plus used to be something of a boutique toy, only available at specialty educational stores, but they are now everywhere: Amazon, Target, Kohl’s etc.

    You can see the toy in action and images of the various sets on their website https://www.plus-plus.com/

    Pig Will and Pig Won’t

    My dad got this book for my kids. He fondly remembered reading it to my brother and me when we were young.

    What is it

    Pig Will and Pig Won’t is a simple book about two brothers, one of whom behaves well while the other does not. The good pig gets rewarded and the bad pig changes his ways because he wants rewards as well. Although this sounds a bit Machiavellian for a kids book — teaching them that good behavior is a quid-pro-quo situation where treats are ‘bought’ by not misbehaving — the story is fun, sweet, and engaging.

    Anyone who remembers Goofus and Gallant from the Highlights for Children magazine on the coffee table at the pediatrician’s office will recognize the theme.

    Who is it for

    All kids could use a reminder about the importance of good behavior, but we noticed the book resonated particularly well with our oldest, who is frequently chastised for behavior. The story and language is quite simple, so only younger kids will get much out of it.

    What Kids Like

    The kids like the classic Richard Scarry drawing style. They always enjoy looking at the details in his illustrations. And they like that the characters ‘win’ in the end.

    What Parents Like

    There really are not many engaging books that depict good manners. So many books now focus on space and STEM and try to be fun without really giving examples of how to act. Perhaps books on manners is an old-fashioned idea.

    What the Critics Think

    Goodreads gives it 4/5

    Who Made it

    Richard Scarry wrote and illustrated over 300 books until his death in 1994. He trained as an artist in Philadelphia before moving to Switzerland and many of his books take place in a kind of idealized Swiss village.

    His most famous characters are Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm.

    Where Can I Get it

    Google has a preview

    The Great Paper Caper

    Caution: Reading this book with your kids will probably make them want to start folding paper airplanes (and you will want to as well), so may not be ideal for bedtime reading.

    What is it

    The Great Paper Caper is a unique book, written and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, previously known for “The Incredible Book-Eating Boy” and many other titles.

    Most of the creatures (plus one kid) of the forest work together to solve the mystery of why so many tree branches are disappearing.

    Who is it for

    This is a fun one for non-readers and beginning readers as well as more mature readers. The story is not that complex, but most of the plot is implicit and the very young may not understand what’s going on. For example, on one page we see an owl alighting upon a branch, and a few pages later we see the owl trying to do so again, but no branch is there. Inferring that someone has sawn off the branch is a mental leap that very young kids can’t make.

    While younger kids focus on the animals and the overt aspects of the pictures, older kids focus more on the bear and his motivations.

    What Kids Like

    The book is very dense with details. Even the inside cover includes instructions for different paper airplanes (and the instructions on the inside of the back cover are different from the ones on the front). So they like poring over the drawings, studying the details.

    The book is also very varied in how it approaches storytelling. A few pages have overt descriptions of what is happening, other pages rely entirely on images to tell the story. Part of the book is a kid-level police procedural while others parts are a touching, almost somber exploration of the motivation of the “villain” in the story.

    And of course, they get inspired to make their own paper airplanes.

    What Parents Like

    I’m generally a fan of auteur works like this, where the pictures are drawn by the person who wrote the story. Having a single vision for art and word makes it a more personal and unique creation. Collaborative works can be wonderful, but they are more likely to have that taste of where the creative decisions were made by committee. This book does not have that problem, and the occasional weirdness or inconsistency in style makes it that much more interesting for both adults and kids.

    This is also fun to read because there are multiple ways to do so. Because so much of the story is told through pictures, I can choose to either describe the actions in detail, or briefly, or I can just stick to the text and let the kids figure out the meaning of the pictures on their own.

    The book hints at issues such as mistrust and guilt, and if you take the time the book can spawn some interesting conversations with your kids.

    The book is even used as a teaching resource to explore issues such as empathy and creativity

    What the Critics Think

    “The Great Paper Caper” gets 4/5 on Goodreads

    Publishers Weekly has a review, as does The School Library Journal

    Who Made it

    Oliver Jeffers is an Irish artist (born in Australia and now living in Brooklyn) also known for his childrens’ book illustrations, most famous for the pictures in “The Day the Crayons Quit” by Drew Daywalt, and also for the pictures in “The Boy in the Striped Pajames” by John Boyne.

    Jeffers has many of his own books as well, that he wrote and illustrated on his own.

    He has been putting out two or three books each year since 2004.

    Where Can I Get it

    Google has a preview

    Harper Collins has an mp3 of the audiobook version