Steam Train, Dream Train

Price: $10.29
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

Holes

Price: $9.99

What is it

Holes is a “young adult mystery comedy novel” that was also made into a movie, about a boy working digging holes in what is essentially a juvenile prison camp. There is a parallel story that takes place exactly 100 years earlier, involving some of the characters’ ancestors.

Who is it for

The target audience is young adolescents, although younger kids will enjoy the movie.

The book and movie have some strong language (e.g. “damn”) and some themes (e.g. homelessness, racism) that may be difficult for younger readers/viewers to process.

Most of the main characters are boys and many of the themes involve the relationships between boys, so I think Holes is essentially a book about and for boys.

What Kids Like

Kids like the honesty. The book is rare in how it depicts events such as bullying, being “the new kid”, and dealing with cruel adults – in a way that is realistic without being cynical. Similarly, characters in the story endure racism and other forms or cruelty in a way seldom seen in children’s literature.

The plot is also very rich, including scenes in the Wild West, a treasure hunt, a mountain climb, wacky inventions, strange characters, and everything is resolved very satisfyingly in the end.

What Parents Like

I like the complexity of the plot, which has enough going on for adults to enjoy (and not just sit through).

And the depictions of bullying, racism, and other themes are really good, sparking interesting conversation.

The audiobook version is very good, read by actor Kerry Beyer, and has been a welcome CD to play in the car.

What the Critics Think

Paraphrased from the Holes Wikipedia entry:

It won the 1998 U.S. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the 1999 Newbery Medal for the year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”. It also won the William Allen White Children’s Book Award in 2001. It was ranked number 6 among all-time children’s novels by School Library Journal in 2012.

The Holes Novel gets 3.9/5 on Goodreads, 5/5 on Common Sense Media, 4.6/5 on Barnes & Noble, and 87% on Google.

The Holes Movie gets 7.1/10 on IMDb, 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, 71% on Metacritic, and 92% on Google.

Concerns/Flaws

There is some strong language and there are some violent scenes.

Who Made it

Holes was written by Louis Sachar, who may be best known for the Wayside School series (Sideways Stories from Wayside School, Wayside School is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger) which has since been made into an animated TV series.

The 2003 Disney movie was directed by Andrew Davis and starred Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson and Shia LaBeouf. I thought Jon Voight was just great in his role of “Mr. Sir”. And Shia LaBeouf really shined in his role, with a quality of acting rarely seen in child actors.

The audiobook came out in 2016 and was read by Kerry Beyer.

History

Holes was written in 1998 by Louis Sachar after finishing the third and final novel in his Wayside School series. The Disney movie came out in 2003. Both book and movie seem as fresh and relevant today as they did twenty years ago.

Where Can I Get it

The book is available everywhere.

Amazon’s Audible service has the audiobook

Google has a sample/preview of the book

And the trailer for the movie is on YouTube:

The movie is available for streaming on Amazon

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

Shake a Leg!

There are so many board books available for little kids, and it’s hard to know in advance which ones kids will actually like.

This is one of the few that our little ones keep pulling off the shelf

What is it

Shake a Leg! is a stanard-sized board book with a dozen spreads with drawings of Sesame Street Muppets rubbing their tummies, patting their heads, etc. With each picture there is an associated movement and sound.

Who is it for

This book is ideal for a child that is old enough to be read to and still learning body parts and basic sounds.

What Kids Like

The kids like that the book is essentially an ultra-simple yoga routine instruction. Reading it together becomes a fun 5 minutes of movement together.

What Parents Like

I like that the book, with its movement, is different from most other books. It gets me out of the chair and it’s fun for both of us.

What the Critics Think

GoodReads gives it 4.3/5. Amazon gives it 4.8/5

Who Made it

The book was written by Constance Allen, who has written dozens of books based on Sesame Street characters. The illustrations are by Maggie Swanson, who has illustrated several dozen kids’ books, many of which are Sesame Street books.

History

The book was first published in 2010 as part of the Big Bird’s Favorite Board Book series.

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.

Hop on Pop

Not all ‘classic’ children’s literature ages well, and not even all of Dr. Seuss’s books have aged well. Some have racist or sexist imagery that was mainstream in the ’60s and ’70s but not now.

Hop on Pop, however, has aged well. And not just from its visuals, but from its educational value as well. The repetition and rhyme, even the size of the type, makes it a book that kids want to read. When I read it aloud, the kids almost instinctively join in.

And it’s just silly enough to keep their interest while reinforcing their reading skills.

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.