The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

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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.

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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

FunBrain

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ad for FunBrain but they have been around since 1997 and are one of the best sites for safe, educational games and videos for kids.

Their target audience is pre-k through grade 8. The site is free to use although it pays for itself via ads. The ads are not very intrusive, but do promote products like Lucky Charms and Froot Loops etc. I would have tagged this site as appropriate for younger kids, but it’s too easy for little ones to inadvertently click an ad and then not know how to get back to the site, so I recommend the site for kids who are at least 6.

The site offers games, reading, and videos.

Many of the games seem to use HTML5 rather than Flash, which means they should run on any device, in just about any browser.

The reading section has full books with scanned pages that a child can read on a tablet or phone or other device.

The video section has a lot of original content not available elsewhere, with puppet characters, cooking shows, music, and more.

All in all, a good, free, safe place to let your kid explore and learn while having fun.

Schoolhouse Rock

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Schoolhouse Rock was a big part of my childhood. ABC would show the ~3-minute cartoons during ad breaks on Saturday mornings. “Conjunction Junction” was probably the most memorable for me.

But then the 70s ended and the series was mostly unavailable until Disney bought the rights and began releasing them. And they are now available on DVD.

The set is worth having. There are 46 songs, which is well enough to keep kids occupied while learning.

I had though the old-fashioned hand-animation style wouldn’t be appealing to my kids, but they didn’t seem to care. The cartoons that resonated most with them were “Lolly Lolly Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here”, “Figure 8”, “3 is a Magic Number”, and “Interjections!”. We sang and hummed those songs for a long time after watching the DVDs.

The CD is separate from the DVD.

In my opinion, the math ones had the best music and the history ones were the weakest, but it’s still a good gift.

Doc McStuffins

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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.
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The 8 short stories make it good for bedtime reading since I can read just one if it’s getting late and the kids are tired, or 3 if there’s more time, or even all 8 if everyone’s happily tucked in early.

Philadelphia Chickens

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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.

Sam and the Firefly – P. D. Eastman

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This was one of my favorites when I was a kid but our kids haven’t been into it. I think the dark colors are less appealing or maybe a bit scary. I’ll try again. The lesson about listening is a good one.

Backyardigans

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This is a Nick Jr. cartoon that was very popular with our kids. The music is particularly good.

5 animal friends play together with a different theme (Egypt, under-the-sea, space, cowboy, etc.) each episode. The friends take turns being the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ and the overall tone is very kind and gentle.

It ran from 2004 to 2010 with a total of 80 episodes.

You can watch for free at NickJr.com if you have a cable tv account, and it’s available on amazon’s streaming video service as well. (And they’re all on YouTube too, although you may have to hunt for them.)

Spiderman 1967 series

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We watched a bunch of these on YouTube. They’re corny and dated but the kids loved them. And the old cartoons from the 60s seem so much less violent than those from other decades.

The animation style is pretty simple, so older kids probably won’t be into it. But it has that classic theme song:

“Spiderman, spiderman, does whatever a spider can.
Spins a web, any size, catches thieves, just like flies.
Look out. Here comes the spiderman.”

Robot Turtles board game

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This is a clever game that got a lot of media attention when it came out, touting its ability to teach STEM concepts, specifically logical thinking.

The box says for ages 4 and up but I don’t think 4-year-olds are able to grasp all the rules of the game, which are a bit complicated even for me. However, once we laid out all the pieces, we came up with all sorts of new games to play and had quite a lot of fun building ‘snow forts’ and taking turns trying to move the ‘lasers’ around in order to melt them.

My son got quite obsessed with the game in fact, even though we had yet to actually play it according to the official rules, and every day for about a week he wanted to play again, until he eventually got tired of it. It sits prominently on a shelf in the living room and we’ll get it down again soon. The reason we haven’t yet is because the rules are complex enough that an adult has to sit with the kids and walk them through each step.