Little Robot

Price: $11.55
Was: $17.99

We got this from the library, which has a lot of graphic novels and other quasi-comic books – a lot more than when I was a kid, but back then the genres were more explicitly separated (novels OR picture books OR comics). Little Robot has a lot of panels with no dialogue at all, so the storytelling is necessarily done through the images. I had thought that would make it hard to read at bedtime, but I would just point at the pictures or sometimes describe the image and its role in the plot. This book was the favorite pick for bedtime reading for 3 or 4 days in a row and our oldest read through it a few times.

The plot is not so different from that of T2, the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie from the early ’90s. A robot gets lost and is found and protected by a child and then they both have to flee from the evil robot sent out to collect the first robot. The story manages to straddle the line between being fun and being almost a little scary.

The imagery is appealing and Little Robot won the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award in 2016

The protagonist is a young girl who lives in a trailer park near a research lab, or something. Her circumstances are not relevant to the story but I found that it humanized her and made me want to root for her character more.

The author/illustrator, Ben Hatke, has several other books in a similar vein.

The Camelback Dogs!

Price: Check on Amazon

This seemed like a very odd book when I first read it to the kids after receiving it as a gift, but we’ve all grown fond of it. This one does not get read as frequently as some others on our shelves, but when we do read it the kids are in rapt attention.

The story begins with a kid discovering and interacting with strange alien creatures and then they all go on a surreal journey involving sand castles and harpsichords. During this journey, the main character experiences curiosity and confusion, but also joy and peaceful contentment. In the end, we are left wondering whether the entire story was a dream. It is ultimately, a very happy and optimistic story.

The story and pictures are dream-like and as I read the book, my kids want to make sense of what is going on. Tomkins’s illustration style is distinctive and full of detail so there is a lot to look at.

This author/illustrator has several other appealing books but because he works with a smaller publisher (Sasquatch Books) his titles don’t get the same exposure as mainstream ones. So if you want to give a book as a gift and want to make sure the recipient doesn’t already have it, this is a good bet.

Block Craft 3D

This is essentially a clone of Minecraft and the main reason to play this is if you want to play Minecraft but don’t want to pay for it. It’s a pretty faithful copy with some slight differences and is close enough to the original that even kids who have played real Minecraft should have fun with this one.

The game has ads but they are not intrusive – certainly much less annoying than the ads on most other free phone games I’ve played.

The game gets 4.5/5 on Google Play and 4.9/5 on iTunes and is one of the top results when searching for “minecraft” or “minecraft clone” or “free minecraft”

We actually have a Minecraft account but still play Blockcraft for 2 reasons:

• Blockcraft is slightly simpler than Minecraft, which means the interface is less complex, which means the screen is less cluttered. Minecraft is great on a large screen but can be a bit frustrating on the small screen of a phone, while Blockcraft is a little easier to manipulate.

• The newer versions of Minecraft seem to emphasize all the ways you can destroy things with T.N.T., fire, etc. while the emphasis on Blockcraft seems more about the building. What we were looking for in the first place, when we first used Minecraft, was “virtual legos” and Blockcraft actually satisfies that description a bit better than Minecraft. (Lego also has good, free games that let you play virtual legos, My kids’ favorite is “Lego City 2”)

Block Craft 3D on Google Play for Android devices

Block Craft 3D on iTunes for Apple devices

Blockcraft is made by (I believe) a Brazilian developer that calls itself TFG.co and they make a lot of games for older kids (i.e. violent games). You can read more about Blockcraft on their site

Minecraft’s developer, Mojang, was bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014, and I had assumed they would use their new pile of cash to sue developers such as TFG.co since the latter is so obviously ripping off Minecraft and is surely denying Microsoft revenue, but I haven’t heard about a lawsuit yet.

Moana

I’m normally a pretty cynical person, but I thought Moana was just great. Great story, great music, great everything.

(The executive producer was John Lasseter, who produced and/or wrote/driected most of the great Pixar movies before and after the Disney purchase, which may have something to do with the quality)

It is not a typical Disney princess movie, and in fact some of the dialogue pokes fun at that idea. The story is of a Polynesian girl who finds a demi-god (smug strongman and shape-shifter, Maui) and together they go on a fantastic adventure full of very original characters and scenes, with a very entertaining musical number by Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Conchords) as a giant crab.

Fun for parents and kids alike, boys and girls.

The songs are catchy and tuneful, written by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and manage to maintain the balance between sounding authentically Polynesian and contemporary. The songs and the beautiful animation made me pine for Hawai’i.

There is also, of course, the obligatory themed Lego set:

Word Girl

The name is bland and the artwork is simple, but Word Girl is one of the better kids shows out there now.

You can watch it for free on PBS Kids, where you can also play related games.

The writing is snappy and funny enough to keep parents engaged. The voice acting is good, and helped with the comedic talent of Chris Parnell (Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, Archer).

I read once that J.K. Rowling chose to make her wizarding stories have a boy as the central character because she was afraid boys wouldn’t read a story with a female protagonist. And I’ve seen that behavior among boys, where they weren’t interested in stories ‘about girls’. But this show is very popular among our boys, and they were in rapt attention when watching a recent, very good set of episodes dedicated to bullying and rude behavior.

The dialogue is witty and multi-leveled and the education works at multiple levels as well, focusing on vocabulary and grammar, but also behavior and ethical/moral development. This means that kids of all ages can enjoy it and get something out of it, while not annoying the parents.

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.

Mr. DeMaio – YouTube Channel

Mr. DeMaio is an elementary school teacher in New Jersey who makes silly and fun absurd educational videos for his students. Since 2013, he’s put a few dozen videos on his YouTube channel

His playlists include songs about multiplication and
social studies themes, but my kids’ favorites are the ones about space and science

Unlike those who make most educational videos on YouTube, Mr. DeMaio is an actual teacher and knows the perfect balance of humor and education to keep kids’ attention while dosing out the knowledge. He’s also completely willing to act like a fool and get kids to laugh out loud. You can see his progression as a performer over the past few years. The earliest videos have him as a cool, aloof guy while he is much more of a clown in his more recent ones.

The videos are funny enough that kids as young as 3 can watch them and enjoy them even if they don’t understand the education.

The videos are very silly and absurd and our kids regularly recite catch-phrases from the videos. The format of the space and science videos is to have Mr. DeMaio interview things such as a tornado, or the planet Saturn, and these things act in a way just as silly as he does, in a way that subverts the normal way that these things are normally presented. For example, the planet Saturn is normally depicted as silent and mysteriously beautiful. In Mr. DeMaio’s video, the first we see of Saturn is a goofy face superimposed over an image of the planet saying, “I have a cat named ‘Orange Juice’!”

The education is basic: the names and basic stats of the planets, the names of the continents, etc.

The downside of these videos is that they are on YouTube, which not only has ads, but ads that don’t seem to be targeted in any way. Our kids have ended up seeing ads for inappropriate things so we make a point of supervising them while watching anything on YouTube.

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 Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

Price: $7.99
Was: $8.99

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

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.