Steam Train, Dream Train

Price: $13.71
Was: $16.99

What is it

Steam Train, Dream Train is a very charming, beautifully-illustrated book that tells a simple story in verse of a freight train being loaded by animals, explaining all the types of train cars along the way.

Who is it for

Kids as young as 2 (or possibly younger) who are in a “train phase” enjoy the images of the train. Slightly older kids enjoy all the details in the pictures showing the animals and cargo, kids a bit older than that enjoy the verse by Sherri Duskey Rinker and can read along. So 2 to 5 is probably ideal. It’s been a fixture on our shelf for years as each kid discovers it.

What Kids Like

Trains are always a hit for some kids. The illustrations by Tom Lichtenheld are wonderful and full of details for the kids to pick out.

What Parents Like

The theme is of a night train being loaded before bed, and is perfect bedtime reading. The final page makes you ask the question of whether the story you just read is real, or part of a dream.

The cover is attractive and passes the “Melissa and Doug test” of being appealing enough to show off on a bookshelf.

I have a fond memory of buying this book soon after it was published, on a lovely, snowy evening in December at Books of Wonder in New York. I read it to our oldest perhaps 50 times over the next few months.

What the Critics Think

4.4/5 at Barnes & Noble, 4.1/5 at Goodreads

Who Made it/History

Tom Lichtenheld drew the pictures and Sherri Duskey Rinker. They worked together on Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site in 2011 as well.

Stinky and Dirty

What is it

Stinky and Dirty is a show based on characters from a couple of books, about a garbage truck and an excavator who solve problems together.

Who is it for

The show is good for kids of most ages, maybe 3-8.

What Kids Like

My kids like the celebration of filth, which is unusual among kids’ shows. Sometimes toys and games rely on the yuck factor, with slime boogers and fart noises, but ‘Stinky and Dirty’ manage to involve mess and rot and dirt without being gross.

The show is also good about how it presents problems and engages the viewer to think of possible solutions along with the characters.

What Parents Like

Years ago we got the original book called “I Stink!” that the kids liked enough to ask for it multiple nights in a row, although I initially didn’t care for it. It seemed a celebration of noise and filth that I just didn’t find amusing when trying to put little ones down for the night.

Price: $7.49
Was: $7.99

A few years later I saw that Amazon was premiering a new kids’ show called Stinky and Dirty that had animation that looked an awful lot like the book, and sure enough, the show is a spinoff of the book and its sequel. I suppose that’s a dream for many children’s book authors and illustrators, to have their work turned into a show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I and the kids really like it.

The books are quite simple, running through the alphabet and showing vehicles making vehicle sounds. But the show is about teamwork and problem-solving, in a way that isn’t done on other shows.

The animation style is unique. It’s 3D but texture-mapped to look like paper illustrations.

The characters drive around together solving problems. Several times each episode, one of the characters asks, “What if…?” And this makes it a great example for problem-solving. Their efforts don’t always work out, but they keep trying.

I also like that the show is following in the somewhat recent tradition of using veteran actors for the voices (Martin Short on ‘The Cat in the Hat’, Christopher Lloyd and Gilbert Gottfried on ‘Cyberchase’, Elvis Costello on ‘Pete the Cat’). In this case, Wallace Shawn (Vizzini from ‘The Princess Bride’ and Rex the dinosaur from the Toy Story movies) plays Tall the crane.

What the Critics Think

7.1/10 on IMDB, 5/5 on Common Sense Media

Who Made it/History

The original book was written by author Kate Mcmullan and illustrated by her husband, actor Jim McMullan.

The show is made for Amazon, by Guy Toubes, who has written for lots of kids’ shows including ‘Odd Squad’, ‘If You Give a Mouse a Cookie’, and ‘Chuck and Friends’.

Where Can I Get it

You can watch the first episode on YouTube

The show is streaming on Amazon Prime.

Pete the Cat

What is it

Pete the Cat is a series of books starring a cool cat and his animal friends.

Pete the cat is now an icon with his own musical and his own TV show on Amazon Prime.

Who is it for

The books are for younger kids, as they tend to focus on simple concepts such as colors, friendship, etc. The show seems to be intended for slightly older kids and has stories and subtle jokes that probably only grown-ups will appreciate.

What Kids Like

Regardless of my initial impressions, kids love it. They love the illustration style and the attitude of the main character, Pete, and they love the repetitive say-along style of the writing.

We have several of the books and frequently check others out of the library.

What Parents Like

I first heard of Pete the Cat in 2008 or so. A local bookstore had a huge poster of the cat and books signed by the author. I did not understand the appeal and thought the writing and illustration was so crude and simple that anyone could do it. It made me think that I could write a children’s book if this thing could get published.

But I haven’t written a children’s book and not only did “I Love My White Shoes” get published, there are now 40+ titles in the Pete the Cat series.

The show is actually interesting to me. I don’t really have much of an opinion of the books, but the show has a certain sophistication that most kids’ shows lack. The characters talk about presence of mind and consciousness that no other show does. If anything, it hearkens back to Linus’s monologues from Peanuts.

Many kids’ shows focus on one subject. ‘Peg + Cat’ and ‘Odd Squad’ discuss math, ‘Super Why’ covers reading, ‘Arthur’ covers issues related to responsibility and friendship, ‘Word Girl’ does vocabulary, etc. But ‘Pete the Cat’ is the only one that covers philosophy. In the Halloween episode, characters have lines including, “I’m not dressed as a ghost, I’m dressed as your preconceived idea of a ghost”

There is also a strong focus on music, and real-life couple Elvis Costello and Diana Krall do the voices for Pate the Cat’s parents.

What the Critics Think

The show gets 8.5/10 on IMDB and the books get 4.4/5 on Goodreads

Who Made it/History

From Wikipedia:

The book uses a character first devised by James Dean, an artist active in Atlanta, who drew up Pete in 1999 and in 2006 self-published The Misadventures of Pete the Cat. Litwin wrote a story about and a song for the cat, and the two began a partnership.

The collaboration between Dean and Litwin was severed in 2011. James Dean and wife Kimberly Dean continue to write and illustrate the Pete the Cat series, now over 40 books, together. Pete the Cat, the animated TV series which was released on September 21, 2018, based on James and Kimberly’s children’s books produced by Alcon, Appian Way and Phineas and Ferb co-creator Swampy Marsh was preceded by a New Years special on December 26, 2017 on Amazon. The cartoon includes the voices of Elvis Costello and Diana Krall.

Where Can I Get it

The books are everywhere. The show is on Amazon

More about the series and the author and illustrator

The Book with No Pictures

Price: $13.99
Was: $17.99

What is it

The Book with No Pictures indeed has no pictures, but uses variations in typeface and color to create a very entertaining story that is a hit with young kids

The story is not about a character, but is instead about itself – about a book that has no pictures.

Who is it for

This is one that is meant to be read by an adult to children, so even children who can’t yet read will enjoy it. I would say ages 3 to 7.

What Kids Like

This book has been a hit with our 3-year-old and our 6-year-old, getting lots of laughs.

The premise is that the book ‘makes’ the parent say silly words and phrases against their wishes, which in a way puts the kids in charge.

What Parents Like

The book requires some acting on the readers part, and plays with the roles of parent and child in a fun way.

The Book with No Pictures isn’t about learning to read, or about a particular character, but is almost unique in how it’s about the relationship between parents and kids.

What the Critics Think

The Book with No Pictures gets 4.4/5 on Goodreads, 4.8/5 at Target, 4.6/5 at Barnes & Noble, and 91% on Google.

It was nominated for the 2014 Goodreads Choice Awards Best Picture Books

Concerns/Flaws

It was a hit at the pre-school as well, although the one teacher didn’t like the book’s use of the word, “butt”.

Warning: the book tends to animate, rather than calm the children, so is not a book to put them to bed.

Who Made it

The book was written by B. J. Novak, perhaps best known for his role in the TV show “The Office”.

Here he is reading it:

Published in 2014. More information at the official website

Where Can I Get it

The Book with No Pictures is available just about everywhere.

You can see a sample/preview on Google

Tumble Leaf

What is it

Tumble Leaf is a very charming stop-motion animation series about a blue fox living on a shipwreck and his adventures with other animals.

The animation quality is impressively good. The tone is gentle and sweet.

If you have any interest in animation or storytelling, the Tumble Leaf page is a fascinating look at how a top-rated stop-motion animation show for children gets made.

Who is it for

The target audience is pre-schoolers. There’s a lot to look at so even kids as young as two would get something out of it. Six might be the maximum age.

What Kids Like

The animation is very rich with lots of detail, and kids can watch episodes multiple times and see new things. The whimsy and charm of the premise (each day a crab pulls some flotsam from the beach and puts it in the ‘finding box’ on a shipwreck) is captivating.

What Parents Like

There is no violence or harsh language or tense situations, but at the same time it’s not dull. The characters engage in creative projects, and although there is no overt education, the show promotes the values of creative problem-solving and discovery.

What the Critics Think

According to the series’s website, Tumble Leaf has won 8 emmys and several other awards.

The show gets 8/10 on IMDB, 5/5 on Common Sense Media, 4.9/5 on Amazon, and 96% on Google.

Who Made it

Tumble Leaf is mad by Bix Pix Entertainment which has made many other animations, but none as widely broadcast as Tumble Leaf. Their reel page on Vimeo has many examples of their work.

History

Tumble Leaf premiered in 2014 as an Amazon Studios original series based on the short film Miro and is now in its 4th season.

Where Can I Get it

The show is streaming on Amazon

You can see the pilot episode on YouTube and on IMDB.

StoryBots

What is it

Storybots is a series of 100+ educational music videos featuring animated and/or puppet robots. They cover subjects such as the planets, dinosaurs, the alphabet, and more. The production quality is very high and the videos are very entertaining.

Who is it for

Kids of all ages can get something from the StoryBots videos. They are highly entertaining, so even if a child doesn’t understand the subject matter being covered, they can still enjoy the music and the silly antics of the characters: Beep (green), Bo (purple), Bang (blue), Bing (yellow), Boop (red), and Hap, their manager (olive)

What Kids Like

The music is great, with very catchy melodies and the characters are silly and entertaining.

The premise of the show is that the robots live inside our digital devices and are constantly trying to learn about the human world by asking questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” – questions that children also wonder about.

What Parents Like

The education is snuck in painlessly and kids can’t help but learn. The language is totally G-rated with no violence so it’s easy to leave the screen on without having to worry about what the kids are watching.

I like the music and, as a fan of animation, love the fact that the characters are sometimes presented in 3d animation, 2d animation, hand-drawn style, puppets, or claymation. I can’t think of any other project that presented its characters in such a variety of mediums.

What the Critics Think

StoryBots has won a Winner of Teachers’ Choice Awards, a Tech Edvocate Award, an Emmy, and has been nominated for an Annie and a Peabody award. So in a nutshell, it is highly regarded by critics.

Concerns/Flaws

It’s just great. I can’t think of any criticisms.

Who Made it

StoryBots is produced by JibJab, who you may remember as the creators of animated political satire during the 2004 presidential election.

and who went on to create shorts for Noggin and Disney before building their personalized ecard service

JibJab has been able to attract top talent and many famous singers and actors are part of the videos.

History

StoryBots was first distributed as shorts on YouTube in 2012 and “Ask the StoryBots” was picked up as a full-length show by Netflix in 2016.

Where Can I Get it

StoryBots has literally hundreds of videos on their
YouTube channel
and “Ask the StoryBots” is available for streaming on Netflix. They have a Spotify channel and multiple music albums as well.

More at storybots.com and Wikipedia

i-Blason ArmorBox Kido iPad Case

One of the kids dropped their grandma’s iPad last year. It landed on one of its corners on the wood floor and the glass front cracked. It was and is still usable, but we have to be careful with it because the shattered glass occasionally leaves a splinter in a finger.

So, when we got an iPad we made sure to get a case and we’re very happy we did because that thing has been dropped more than I can count.

I had never heard of this brand, and I imagine we selected it based on price. But it has been great. No tears in the rubber and looks brand new even a year later.

Recommended

Clumsy Ninja

This is one of the many games the kids have tried on the iPad and the Android phone, and months later they still play it.

What is it

The free ‘action-adventure’ game shows a 3d character dressed as a ninja who reacts to the user’s actions in the same way used in the ‘ragdoll physics’ games from a few years ago.

The player can pick him up, give him high-fives, throw objects at him, tie balloons to him to make him float. Each action has the potential to help ‘train’ the ninja, earning points, leveling up, etc. There is a narrative in the game, about getting the ninja to find a missing friend, but that is not overt.

Most of the actual gameplay is flicking balls and other stuff at the character to make him dodge them.

Who is it for

The game is rated ‘family’/’everyone’ and is very G-rated. There is the violence of throwing objects at a virtual character, or dropping him from heights, but it’s very cartoony and not violent like many other games are.

What Kids Like

The kids seem to like the toy aspect of the game rather than the narrative. They like playing with a virtual doll. And they like earning points they can use to ‘buy’ new objects. They also like competing against each other to see who can get to a certain level first.

What Parents Like

It’s not a game that I have any interest in playing, but it seems like harmless fun for the kids.

What the Critics Think

MacWorld rates the game 3.5/5. They have a lengthy review.

That rating seems unfair given that the game gets 4.8/5 on iTunes and 4.4 on the Play Store. And the game was an iTunes ‘editor’s pick’

Concerns/Flaws

The game used to have ads, including those awful ‘watch to earn’ ads. The latest version of the game is supposed to have removed those.

There are also in-app purchases, which is presumably how the developers make money, so you have to be careful to restrict that action on your devices.

Who Made it

Clumsy Ninja is made by NaturalMotion, who also makes games such as “Dawn of Titans” and “My Horse”

History

The game was first released in 2013 and is the first mobile game to use the Euphoria game engine

Where Can I Get it

iTunes for iPad and iPhone

Google Play Store for Android devices

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 Roald Dahl Audio Collection

What is it

This 4-CD collection includes Roald Dahl himself reading some of his most-famous stories: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James & the Giant Peach, and Fantastic and Mr. Fox – as well as a couple of his less well-known: The Enormous Crocodile and The Magic Finger

Who is it for

Kids of most ages and adults all seem to like Roald Dahl stories.

What Kids Like

One aspect of Dahl stories that seem to appeal to my kids is the perpetual threat of violence that is largely absent from modern children’s stories. The threat is rarely realized, and when it is, it’s done so in a comical manner, so never crosses the line into gore.

The other appealing aspect for kids is the revenge fantasy element. Almost every Dahl story has a mistreated child who is finally able to strike back at the grown-ups who torment them. Mr. Fox is an exception to that, in that he is a fox, but that is also a tale of revenge, actuated by outwitting the cruel adults.

There is a kind of thruthfulness to Dahl’s language, describing characters and actions in a way that could be described as politically incorrect, but in a refreshingly honest way. Here is the opening of Fantastic Mr. Fox:

Down in the valley there were three farms. The owners of these farms had done well. They were rich men. They were also nasty men. All three of them were about as nasty and mean as any men you could meet. Their names were Farmer Boggis, Farmer Bunce and Farmer Bean.

Boggis was a chicken farmer. He kept thousands of chickens. He was enormously fat. This was because he ate three boiled chickens smothered with dumplings every day for breakfast, lunch and supper.

Bunce was a duck-and-goose farmer. He kept thousands of ducks and geese. He was a kind of pot-bellied dwarf. He was so short his chin would have been underwater in the shallow end of any swimming-pool in the world. His food was doughnuts and goose-livers. He mashed the livers into a disgusting paste and then stuffed the paste into the doughnuts. This diet gave him a tummy-ache and a beastly temper.

Bean was a turkey-and-apple farmer. He kept thousands of turkeys in an orchard full of apple trees. He never ate any food at all. Instead, he drank gallons of strong cider which he made from the apples in his orchard. He was as thin as a pencil and the cleverest of them all.

What Parents Like

Part of what we like is the nostalgia from hearing stories we remember hearing as children, and we like exposing our kids to stories that we consider ‘classics’.

Also, the language Dahl uses is more sophisticated and creative than most other children’s media our kids enjoy, so we like exposing them to that.

This set is perfect for road trips. The stories themselves are about 45 minutes, and each fits on a single CD.

These are also very convenient for bedtime. MP3 players or streaming via the phone is convenient, but with those devices there is always the temptation to see what else is on the device. With CDs, there isn’t a choice.

What the Critics Think

I don’t think this particular anthology has won any awards, but Dahl and his books have won plenty (Here’s a list)

Concerns/Flaws

There is some harsh language, when adult characters belittle the children in the stories, calling them “stupid” and “worthless”. The language itself is not graphic, but it can be shocking for kids who are only used to the gentle language of Sesame Street, for example.

Who Made it

Roald Dahl is most famous for writing the story, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” that has since been made into multiple movies. He also wrote Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Danny the Champion of the World, Matilda, The BFG, The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, The Twits, The Witches, and several others. Many of his stories have been made into movies.

There’s a lot more about the author at this fan site.

History

Dahl did most of his writing in the 1960s and 1970s

James & the Giant Peach 1961
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 1964
The Magic Finger 1966
Fantastic and Mr. Fox 1970
The Enormous Crocodile 1978

Where Can I Get it

The CDs are available at libraries or to buy online. You can get them streaming for free with an Amazon Audible subscription, and some libraries offer them as downloads through the Libby app.