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.

Good Eats

Watching Good Eats was one of my weekly rituals back in the ’90s, back when the Food Network was an emerging force on television. Unlike the standard TV chef format (cook looks across a counter at the viewer while preparing food), Good Eats’ Alton Brown gets into the science of food and does so in a fun and wacky way. This is great family viewing because parents learn about cooking and kids are entertained by the antics and learn some chemistry as well.

More on the show and some examples of Alton Brown’s style at foodnetwork.com

Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land

Price: $9.99
Was: $14.99

This is one of the great Disney shorts from their “classic” period of the 1950s and ’60s. It has Donald going on an adventure, learning about how math is the foundation for music, architecture, nature, and games. It explains the Golden Ratio phi and how simple ratios explain many things that we may not have ever thought about.

This is a great intro to some basic STEM concepts and will get kids in a creative and curious mindset.

In middle school, we would watch this in math class on the last day before winter break. I always had fond memories of it and was happy to be able to share it with my kids.

It’s hard to track down some of these older Disney cartoons. It’s only 27 minutes, so buying a DVD seems excessive. It is up on YouTube, but I assume those are not official copies.

It’s worth watching with the kids. Be warned though that you may have a strong urge to play pool when it’s over.

LEGO Scooby-Doo and the Haunted Isle

My kids didn’t even know who Scooby-Doo was before stumbling across this game while looking for Lego-related apps.

The game is rated 10+ but we tried it anyway and I haven’t seen anything particularly ‘mature’ about it and our 4-year-old enjoys it without being scared (and this is someone who is sometimes scared of things on Sesame Street)

This is an official Lego app, and has the quality is consistent with all other Lego products I’ve seen. And like most other Lego apps, this is free, without ads, because the game itself is promoting the Lego sets.

The game itself is a platformer with some simple fighting of monsters in order to collect keys – a basic premise, but done well and manages to be not frustrating for younger kids while not boring for older ones.

Bad Lip Reading Star Wars Songs

BLR is a YouTube phenomenon. A guy dubs over news clips and videos with silly nonsense and sometimes songs. The songs are very, very good – well-composed, well-performed and sung, and slickly produced. His re-dubs of music videos are better than the originals.

Not all of them are particularly kid-friendly, but most are.

In 2016, Disney hired him to create some dubs of clips from the original Star Wars trilogy, with guest star help from Jack Black and others, in order to promote the new Star Wars film. These are pretty good, but Disney has a way of inserting crude sexual humor into kids’ media. I assume their intention is to make it more entertaining for the adults watching, but it ends up being awkward and feeling inappropriate.

However, the BLR guy included little tunes in these dubs and then went ahead and produced full song videos from them. They are excellent. The kids and I have watched these several dozen times.

I’m not a fan of how Disney has treated the Star Wars franchise, partly because of the fetishization of the Empire instead of the rebels, partly because the new ones are so much more violent than the originals, and also because the writing for episode 7 felt like mere fan fiction.

So, the kids haven’t seen the new ones. But they still love the figures and the Lego sets and the aesthetic.

Rolling Stone has an interview with the creator, as does The Washington Post. And The Village Voice has a more recent one as well.


And a list of funny, catchy Star Wars songs would be incomplete without these:

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:

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.

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

Price: $6.39
Was: $7.99

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.