His Shoes Were Far Too Tight

This book is a collection of absurd poems by Edward Lear, selected from his two books of nonsense literature, “A Book of Nonsense” (1846) and “Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets” (1871). The most famous of Lear’s poems is “The Owl and the Pussycat”. Many readers who don’t know Lear will know that poem.

Perhaps because the works predate many copyright laws, many of Lear’s poems have been reprinted over the years without attribution. I recall a book of rhymes from my childhood with one his:

I eat my peas with honey
I’ve done it all my life
They do taste rather funny
But it keeps them on the knife.

This verse is sometimes attributed to Ogden Nash and sometimes to Anonymous and sometimes even to someone else who predates Lear himself.

The book was edited/selected/curated by Daniel Pinkwater. Daniel Pinkwater is known to me by his books from the 1970s, such as Lizard Music and The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. I haven’t introduced my kids to those yet.

Because the writing of His Shoes Were Far Too Tight is so old, and the illustration style is so “artistic” (i.e. the opposite of the simplistic style of many modern kids’ books, such as those Mo Willems) I thought my kids wouldn’t like it. I’ve tried Alice in Wonderland with them and they couldn’t get into it. But to my surprise, they did. The illustrations by Calef Brown are complex and interesting and the stories are at the right level of absurdity for kids – where it feels like you know what’s happening but there are also things that just don’t make sense.

My kids favorite story was that of the Pobble Who Has No Toes, and asked to hear it again the next day.

It’s a fun, silly book without much depth to it. But because the writing is old enough to be considered ‘classic’ you can feel like you’re providing your kids with sophisticated culture when you read it.

There are other collections of Lear’s poems, but this has the nice illustrations and Pinkwater intro, so is at least as nice an edition as any other.

The kids have yet to ask me what ‘runcible’ means, and that is an indicator of the absurdity of the verses. There are so many strange, hard-to-understand aspects of the rhymes that an unfamiliar word does not stand out.

Peppa Pig

Peppa Pig is a British animated show for younger kids. The owners of the trademark have been liberal with licensing the image and there are Peppa Pig playsets, dishes, even bicycles, as well as books and DVDs. Based on the licensed products, it seems the show is aimed exclusively at girls but our boys love it. There is an idea in children’s media that girls don’t mind watching shows with boys as protagonists while boys don’t like girl protagonists, but Peppa Pig has shown that idea to be untrue.

Part of the appeal for our kids is the snarky, even rude tone of many of the characters. They are frequently bickering and mocking each other in a realistic way that most kids can probably relate to. In one episode, the kids make fun of the dad for being fat and spend a lot of the episode fat-shaming him. I feel like an American show would not depict this kind of thing.

The dialogue is witty in a dry, British way that makes it appealing to us grownups as well. I laugh at some of the lines, even if the kids don’t quite get it. Other subtle aspects are funny as well, such as that all the animal characters speak in British English, with various U.K. accents for each species (Irish for one, Yorkshire for another) while the talking vegetables all have ridiculous French accents.

The animation is extremely simple. It looks like they drew it in Flash. You can even see where the vector lines don’t quite match up in places. But that simplicity is probably part of the appeal as well. My kids just don’t seem to like photo-realistic media. They much prefer highly abstract cartoony-looking stuff.

The official Peppa Pig website has games, videos, and activities.

And you can watch free, full episodes at the Peppa Pig Nick Jr site

The videos are all on YouTube as well, but those have ads, and not always appropriate ones.

If your child is a fan of Peppa Pig, they will probably like Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom which is made by the same company (Neville Astley and Mark Baker, and produced by Astley Baker Davies and Entertainment One) and has the same look and feel, even the same voice actors. It also has music by Julian Nott, who may be best known for creating the music for the Wallace and Gromit movies.

Geronimo Stilton

I had never heard of Geronimo Stilton before having kids, and just randomly stumbled across these CDs at the library when planning a road trip. These were a big hit and we started playing them in the evening at bedtime.

The concept is that Geronimo Stilton is a mouse and a newspaper editor who winds up in zany adventures with his sister and nephew and others. Geronimo is a bit of a nebbish and a reluctant hero, making the stories comical.

There are something like 30 stories that have been read and recorded on CDs, in collections of 2 or 3. The narrator of the first few CDs is Edward Herrmann and of the others is Bill Lobley. Lobley in particular is a very skilled voice actor and he makes the characters and story very entertaining, enough to engage parents as well as children.

It turns out that Geronimo Stilton is practically a media empire, with dozens of chapter books, comic books, graphic novels, audio CDs, and a TV cartoon. It was fun for our kids to hear the stories first on audio, and later to read the comic versions, putting faces to the characters they had become familiar with.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that our kids spend more time with Geronimo Stilton stories than any other single thing, including Lego and Minecraft.

The appeal is still a bit of a mystery to me, but I think part of it is the set of main characters, which is different from characters in most American media. Geronimo Stilton is translated from the original Italian, and some of that European perspective comes through. Specifically, most current American children’s media either has all characters be equally genial and pleasant, or has all characters be equally snarky.

Mostly gone are the days of Winnie the Pooh, when the main character (Winnie) was funny because he was so stupid, but other characters were very distinct: Eeyore the grumpy one, Rabbit the fussy one, etc. Compare that to most Dreamworks or Disney movies now where everyone makes wisecrack remarks but are mostly interchangeable with each other.

Geronimo Stilton is more in the older form, with a central hero (Geronimo), a sidekick (his nephew Benjamin), comic relief (his cousin Trap), and the girl (his sister Thea). This form was the standard for American movies and TV for decades. But G.S. twists the form. Geronimo is timid, not heroic. The kid (Benjamin) is not obnoxious and in fact everyone likes him. He’s smart and reliable. And Thea, the girl, is actually the boldest, most courageous and decisive, as well as the most athletic of the group. Even Trap, the comic relief subverts the trope by saving much of his ridicule for the hero.

Even though the characters are mostly male, the character of Thea is a good role model for girls. She likes fashion, but not obsessively so. She is portrayed as attractive (I think. She is a mouse after all) but not in an idle princess kind of way.

We love us some Geronimo Stilton. If were to have another kid, I would lobby for “Geronimo” as a middle name.

Kratts’ Creatures – Zoboomafoo – Wild Kratts

It all started when brothers Martin and Chris Kratt grew up in New Jersey, went camping, and took some pictures of local wildlife. This blossomed into lifelong love of nature and specifically of documenting it and sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Their first show together was Kratts’ Creatures in 1996. They evolved the concept a bit and ran Zoboomafoo in 1999, Be the Creature in 2003, and Creature Adventures in 2008. They have been making the current incarnation, Wild Kratts since 2011. This more recent version has much more animation, which my kids find appealing. (They aren’t so interested in long-form nature documentaries with nothing but video clips of animals)

The older content, such as the Zoboomafoo series, has aged well (although the brothers themselves are visibly much younger) and I’ve found used DVDs for very cheap. (The hard part about DVDs these days is finding a working player).

There are also several free onlne spinoff games on PBS Kids Games. Monkey Mayhem is my kids’ favorite.

There are also lots of books based on Wild Kratts and even action figures, and even also a live stage show!

The Kratt Brothers’ enthusiasm is infectious and I find myself jealous that these guys can travel the world, making a living from doing what they love.

The videos and everything they do is wholesome, entertaining, and educational. It’s the kind of thing I have no hesitation of letting my kids watch during their allocated screen time.

There are free videos, games, and other activities on the Wild Kratts website at PBS kids dot org.
(The games are all done in HTML5 so they work on all types of computer, iPad, etc. with no need for the now-deprecated Flash plugin.)

Disney Pixar Storybook Collection

This is a collection of abbreviated versions of all the Pixar movies in book form.

It has been published a few times, each time with a few more movies added. We have the third edition of this book from 2016 which includes:

  • A Bug’s Life
  • Brave
  • Cars
  • Cars 2
  • Finding Nemo
  • Finding Dory
  • The Good Dinosaur
  • The Incredibles
  • Inside Out
  • Monsters, Inc.
  • Monsters University
  • Ratatouille
  • Toy Story
  • Toy Story 2
  • Toy Story 3
  • Up
  • Wall-E

The kids don’t need to be familiar with the movies to enjoy the stories. In fact, we had never heard of some of them (e.g. the dinosaur one, which was kind of a weird story). The plots are highly abridged in order to fit into ~10 pages so the stories as they are retold may not even be all that familiar anyway. And some movies that were duds in my opinion (e.g. Cars 2, Monsters University) actually work better as books than films. The plots are streamlined, with extraneous side-plots removed, leaving only the central character arcs and lessons about honesty or friendship or whatever.

It’s a hefty book with many hours of story time inside. A typical bedtime for us will be each kid gets to pick one of the stories, which ends up being half an hour or so in total. The book is almost like having 17 little golden books in one massive tome.

The illustrations are fun. They are not simply stills from the movies but have been redrawn to better evoke key scenes from the stories.

Minecraft: The Island

We have some Minecraft-obsessed people in our house and when visiting the library we always look for Minecraft-themed books for design ideas. We picked up “The Island” not knowing anything about it and the kids lost interest when they saw that there were no illustrations.

But I read the first chapter at bedtime and they were hooked. They couldn’t get enough and I ended up reading two or even three chapters per night until we had finished it. For that one week we were all obsessed.

The story is a first-person narrative of a character in Minecraft, as though their consciousness suddenly dropped out of the sky. The narrator has to figure out how to survive in the world, creating shelter, acquiring resources, defending against monsters – all the things that a player has to do in the game. So there is a Robinson Crusoe-aspect to the story, combined with details specific to the game.

The story is by Max Brooks, who is probably best known for his zombie novel, World War Z, which has been made into a movie. He knows how to pace the action, build suspense, and how to create a real page-turner.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is how it weaves philosophical ideas into the action. When there is a moment of quiet, the narrator asks himself questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What is the meaning of this place?” I don’t know how much of that made an impression on my kids, but I like that I could expose them to that kind of thinking via a book.

In a way, the book is basically a long advertisement for Minecraft, but it was still very enjoyable for all of us.

The book has been on the New York Times bestseller list, and I can see why. It is not high literature and there are many passages with loose grammar that made me cringe a little. The ending felt a little rushed as well – as though the author wasn’t sure how to end it until most of it had already been written. But none of that matters for the kids.

I’m guessing there will be a sequel.

Stinky and Dirty

From somewhere we got a 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: $4.99
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.

Price: $6.98
Was: $7.99

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 stinky garbage truck from the original book has a friend, a dirty dump truck. Together they go around 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.

The show is streaming on Amazon Prime.

How to Build a House – Technical Tales Series

Quarto is a publisher of art books, children’s books, and science kits, among other things. They have dozens of imprints, including Walter Foster Jr. which focuses on “art, transportation, history, craft, gardening, and more”. It is a welcome alternative to the Disney-dominated world of children’s media.

One of their series is Technical Tales, in which a mouse named Eli and his mouse, bird, and frog buddies build things such as a plane, a car, or a motorycle.

The one we got the other day was the one about building a house. The book has a ‘layered’ approach, which I have seen more and more lately, in which there is a story interweaved with more technical descriptions. This has the advantage of making the book more appealing to a broader audience, since a child may be only interested in the story while a sibling (or the same child years later) is more interested in the technical explanations.

The illustrations (by Martin Sodomka) are highly detailed and interesting to look at just on their own. They are somewhat reminiscent of the David Macaulay, although these are in full color and almost photo-realistic in places.

The story (by Saskia Lacey) is about friendship and how group projects need to take all voices and needs into consideration, which is a good lesson for our kids to hear.

This is a good book for an adult to read to a child, or for more experienced readers to read on their own.

Love, Triangle

Price: $14.28
Was: $17.99

This is a cute book about the friendship of three shapes that gives rudimentary geometry instruction while telling the story. In addition to basic shape names (circle, square, triangle) the text includes usage of words including ‘angle’ and ‘apex’. Toward the end of the book, one of the characters has to come up with an invention in order to resolve the central dilemma.

I wouldn’t categorize this book as STEAM (or STEAM) but I might consider it a proto-STEM book because it places value on knowledge of geometry and on the ability to use ideas and invention to solve problems.

And the kids like it.

Little Robot

Price: $11.55
Was: $16.99

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.