Thursday, October 30, 2008

Junk Food and Children's Media

I don’t mean to be a spoilsport, but I figured Halloween was as good a time as any to bring up junk food. My focus with this blog is children’s mental health and entertainment, and I’ve often cited the need for a balanced media diet, but the same is obviously true of physical health and actual real diets (yes, I know that’ll be a real news flash). There are numerous resources guiding parents on matters of health, nutrition, cooking, and for that matter Halloween safety. I merely wanted to briefly add a few thoughts on the relation between junk food and media consumption.








In short, many parents and children’s health advocates are opposed to the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, and particularly the use of cartoon characters to do so, whether these be a media tie-in like Dora, Shrek, or the Little Einsteins, or original, as in the Candyland board game. If cigarettes cannot be advertised on television or marketed to minors, then, the argument goes, junk food, which carries just as grave a risk for obesity and all its related diseases, should not be thus marketed either. There is little difference, they say, between Joe Camel and Toucan Sam. (Breakfast cereal is a particularly obvious offender.)

There are at least two sides to the story, in the United Kingdom and the United States. I confess to not knowing all the ins and outs of the former case, but in November 2006 the regulatory agency Ofcom banned advertising of junk food during children’s viewing hours (before 9pm). According to one source, this left health groups unhappy that a full ban had not been implemented, but on the other hand it had sufficient teeth to also anger advertising groups. Details of the ban’s specific restrictions—i.e. what qualifies as junk food—are available in a CBBC news article posted at the time. Bringing things up to the present, I believe the prognosis is good for the health of Britain’s children, but bad for television producers, who have allegedly lost a major source—if not the major source—of their funding. That at least is the view of Simon Parson, head of BBC Scotland’s children’s programming, as explained in this fairly recent Sunday Herald article.

Here in America there have been advances in regulation, government-mandated and self-imposed, but nothing as drastic as the British model. One of the foremost advocates against advertising junk food to children has been the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and this Nutrition Action Healthletter editorial by the Center’s director Michael Jacobsen (from the July/August issue) discusses the work of that group and other advocates like the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. The CSPI had threatened litigation against Kellogg over its advertising, and in June got the cereal-maker to establish a level of self-regulation, mandating that all foods advertised in prime children-viewing times meet certain “nutrition criteria,” which Jacobsen describes in detail.

Kudos to Kellogg for taking that move, although the battle is not yet won. Another August article, this time from Business Week, describes how Internet advertising is requiring a new approach from regulators and public health advocates. While government regulation is important and encouraging, in the end—or in the meantime—it is up to parents to observe the commercials their children watch as much as the shows, and then to exercise strict control in the grocery store, where flashy boxes always seem to placed at eye-level for short people (not a coincident, by the way: lots of money is going into where items get placed on grocery store shelves). Just the other day I myself grabbed some Dora the Explorer fruit snacks when met with those large puppy dog eyes my daughter is so good at; at the very least I could have bought the store brand and saved a buck, let alone buy some dried fruit or raisins.

It is possible, though, and it doesn’t mean banning trick-or-treating (remember, a balanced diet). I recently mentioned my strong childhood desire to consume Smurfberry Crunch, and the same can be said for C3PO Cereal, Count Chocula, Apple Jacks, Cap’n Crunch, and virtually anything else presweetened. My parents had a strict rule that presweetened cereal could only be eaten on Saturday mornings; during the week we had hot breakfasts, and on Sundays and off days we had Corn Flakes and regular Cheerios. Was I deprived? No. (And I did learn one can actually pour honey on regular Cheerios for a tasty alternative to the presweetened Honey Nut variety). Did it build character? Sure, although that’s not a great trial. More importantly, was I healthy and am I now, as a parent, grateful for my parents’ example? Yes, and yes. I didn’t start to get flabby until I moved out on my own. That’s an example I can’t afford to set for Loretta.

(Here, by the way, is another of Jacobsen’s editorials on the advances of Britain’s food labeling laws, which, as in most things, are more advanced than America's. Also, I’ll be foregoing an Anniversary Friday posting this week in favor of trick-or-treating, so I’ll be writing again next week.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Little Economic Baby Boom

Today's rate cut didn't do much to perk up Wall Street, and listening to Marketplace this evening wasn't that much of a pick-me-up either. Kidscreen has already run a series of articles about how the economic crunch will effect the children's markets, particularly retail. Toy sellers, and producers, are hunkering down a bit and preparing for a cold Christmas season.

That's why it's nice to find a little ray of sunshine, like this notice Kidscreen made me aware of quite a few weeks ago. Basically, while it's nothing compared to 1946, there was indeed an upswing in the American birthrate in 2007. As this CNBC article states, that means a surge in parental consumer spending, despite the forthcoming recession to which we seem to be headed. Parents scrimp on virtually all other areas before cutting spending for their children, and several industries—from baby entertainment to baby formula—therefore stand to benefit. I don't think children's items are immune to economic factors (parents will still have to increase cost consciousness), but I do think the increased birthrate is a positive factor that will help mitigate the negative ones coming from other areas.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some Halloween Theatre in London

I cannot count the hours I’ve spent in the National Portrait Gallery in London’s West End. Though sizably smaller than the adjacent National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery is equally engaging, with portraiture of all shapes and sizes from pre-Elizabethan times through to, say, Annie Liebowitz and Gilbert & George. I spent many months, sketchbook in hand, analyzing each and every picture, looking at the composition, lighting, and all those other things that enthusiastic film students look at. But I can also see how the galleries, particularly the upper floors of the Tudors, Jacobeans, etc., could prove a little unnerving to youngsters…late at night…on Halloween...


Such is the premise behind a special production presented by the Polka Theatre this Friday. The play is entitled Ghosts in the Gallery and was written by Paul Sirett. A comic-historical-horror production, it is described in a press release as 500 years of British history in a ninety-minute production:

“It’s Halloween and closing time in the gallery. A young girl is desperate to see her favourite portrait of Anne Boleyn - when suddenly two hands reach out and grab her! Will she escape or end up on the gallery walls?

“Ghosts in the Gallery will take you on a fast-paced journey through time bringing over 500 years of British history to life.

“Come and meet a host of familiar faces from the Tudors to the twenty-first century including Shakespeare, Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill and Princess Diana.

“Take a deep breath and hold-on tight, history is coming back to haunt you!”


The Polka Theatre itself is a children’s theatre troupe with a playhouse located in Wimbledon, out west of the centre of the city; the artistic director is Jonathan Lloyd. It was founded in 1979 and, in the theatrical capital of the world, still remains one of England’s few dramatic companies devoted exclusively to children’s theatre. Their productions include innovative and interactive tours of their facilities, plays produced on-site, and touring productions such as this one in the National Portrait Gallery. I can only imagine that Sirett’s play is interactive, with the audience following the troupe into various galleries to continue the ghastly tale (and learning some history in the process). Even given all of London’s theatrical goings on, there should be no better way to introduce youngsters to the joy of theatre and celebrate the (American) holiday at the same time.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Halloween on Cyberchase

It’s fortunate that Halloween falls on a Friday this year. Among other things, it means that television programmers are able to create an entire week of Halloween-related material, combining new episodes, interstitials, and old favorites together in a coherent package, all leading up to the day itself. This strategy seems to be taking place across the board—Playhouse Disney, Noggin, Nick Jr., etc.—and a great deal of it looks really good, like a new episode of Ni Hao, Kai-lan, for instance. To exemplify the trend I’d like to focus on what’s happening on PBS, a broadcasting service that often doesn’t receive its due of critical attention compared to its cable competitors.


Specifically, one show, Cyberchase, seems to be outdoing all the others, with not one Halloween episode but a full five running throughout the week, quite an impressive feat compared to other shows that can only afford one or two Halloween episodes at most. For those not familiar with Cyberchase, it’s a 2D animated program (I believe it was originally done on cels but has since been transferred over onto Flash, a vector-based computer animation program) produced by Channel Thirteen/WNET here in New York City. It used to be a co-production with Nelvana up in Toronto, but that function has now transferred to Title Entertainment, which I believe is in Ottowa. It’s been on the air since early 2000, an incredibly impressive run and arguably one of the best-kept secrets of children’s television. I for one admit ignorance; although I have enjoyed watching it and knew it had been on the air quite a while, I had no idea it was into six seasons, as long as Dora the Explorer and longer than most shows currently on the air; Little Bill and plenty of others from that time have long since ended production. That speaks to Cyberchase’s popularity and robust curriculum.

The show follows the adventures of three children and Digit, a bird cyborg, as they journey around Cyberspace (literally and physically, not just sitting in front of computer monitors) battling the evil Hacker, who is, as best I can tell, an irredeemable meany bent, as all meanies are, on conquering Cyberspace with the help of two inept henchmen. This is a tried formula, of course (writing it up in this way makes me think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), but it works well, not least because Hacker is voiced by Christopher Lloyd, one of America’s great comic actors of the past thirty years--his breakthrough performance in Taxi proved that--and a great villain, as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? aptly demonstrated. The show’s curriculum is math, and this and its (nonviolent) conflict-related plotlines mean that it’s geared toward elementary schoolers, age five to eight, though I find it has something to offer viewers from preschool through to middle school. (Here’s an interesting 2003 document I found, a good illustration of the research that goes into educational children’s television—it is an intensive process! And here’s Carey Bryson’s summary of the show’s curriculum, written earlier this year.)


Back to Halloween, today’s episode, pictured here, is a premiere entitled “Spheres of Fears.” Here’s a description of the plot from Thirteen’s website:

“In his latest and possibly maddest scheme ever, Hacker traps Digit and the kids in one of the dreaded Spheres of Fears, a mini-galaxy of orbs populated by eerie creatures called Creepers. He wants them out of the way so that Delete, in a diva star turn, can impersonate Motherboard and convince everyone in Cyberspace to cause chaos everywhere. No one can stop him now! To unlock the door and escape their Sphere, the kids must find the codebook – which Digit remembers is at the opposite end of the Sphere’sdiameter. And there is no way any of them will make that creepy journey alone! As chaos builds in cyberspace, the team uses the relationship between circumference and diameter to overcome obstacles, and their fears, in the search for the codebook. But can they find it in time? If they fail, chaos will reign supreme, and Hacker will take over the virtual universe forever!”

This episode will repeat on Friday, Halloween. In between those two broadcasts are three encore episodes from previous seasons: on Tuesday there’s “Castleblanca,” a Frankenstein-esque tale in which the CyberSquad must save Dr. Marbles from Hacker before his brain power is transferred to a nefarious new robot; it features more spooky castles than perhaps any other single television program ever. On Wednesday there’s “Trick or Treat,” in which Hacker professes repentance only to slip an alien frog into Motherboard’s mainframe. And on Thursday there’s “The Halloween Howl,” wherein Hacker brings a group of stone gargoyles to life to imprison the Mayor in his own dungeon, thus threatening the annual Halloween bash.

I recommend Cyberchase anytime, but tuning in this week could add a bit of mathematical rigor to what is generally otherwise a fun but not-too-educational holiday. The show, which has obviously always had a good web presence, has a special website up this week to highlight its Halloween run. This site features a plethora of downloadable material, including invitations, face masks (perfect for the season), and coloring pages, besides E-cards, tips for parents, and other materials. Let the haunting begin!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Halloween Flick Picks

I have actually been quite aware that Halloween is fast approaching. We got Loretta’s costume, a witch, weeks ago, and we’ve been going through the orange and black M&Ms like mad. Where I have been less diligent is in making a filmography of the best kids’ Halloween videos available. I hope that what follows therefore still proves useful, but I just wish I could have done more investigation into unknown diamonds of cinematic Halloweens past. I suppose that leaves me something to do for next year...

So here, in what is for the most part random order, are some of my top picks for your Halloween season:

Mad Monster Party (1969)


Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. are not household names akin to Walt Disney or Charles Schultz, but their work is universally recognized in the United States. They’re best known for their Christmas film, the 1964 Rupolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but for my money their Halloween classic Mad Monster Party, a follow-up holiday special from 1969, is just as wonderful, perhaps more so; it is certainly more delightful in its subversion than Rudolph, although even that film quietly turned some Christmas conventions soundly on their heads. But think of Mad Monster Party as a kid-friendly Young Frankenstein. The action follows the title well enough—there is a party and it turns out to be pretty crazy, pretty madcap—and though kids won’t recognize the celebrity impersonations of Boris Karloff, Phyllis Diller, and, my favorite, Peter Lorre, they’ll still appreciate the monster mayhem and rolling heads, although those younger than three might be apprehensive rather than amused. It seems, by the way, that there is virtually no way to understand the ending unless you have seen Some Like It Hot, which everyone in 1969 had (...and folks in 2008 could do worse)—at least that’s how I viewed it. At any rate, I firmly think everyone should see this little gem of a film, which is why I’m ranking it Number One on my Halloween Flick Picks List.


It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1966)


Bill Melendez is another filmmaker who followed up one of the world’s best Christmas television specials, 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, with one of the best Halloween television specials. I assume that Linus, Charlie Brown, and the mystical Great Pumpkin require very little introduction. This is the kind of film that I remember fondly from my own childhood but have not yet shown to my child; since we watched Mad Monster Party for a previous Halloween, It’s the Great Pumpkin is going to be this seasons’ film of choice.


Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)


Again, since this film is so new I suspect that a great many adults have seen it. Nick Park, Peter Lord, and the folks at Aardman showed once again why they’re the premiere animation studio in the world with this one. It’s for a slightly older set, perhaps ages five and up, what with some scary moments and some unfortunate sexual humor that has no place in a PG film. But it’s delightfully funny, witty, clever, and visually astounding. It’s also a great tie-in, for older kids, with the Bunnicula book series.


The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)


I’ll be including this near the top of my list of Christmas films in two months, but I recognize that the majority of the film is more Halloweeny than yuletide. We own both this DVD and soundtrack and I’ve found that while some of the images still scare Loretta she can handle all of the music—Danny Elfman at the top of his game—just fine. Also look for the short cartoon Vincent on the DVD, and the half-hour Frankenweenie (now being remade as a feature) for kids with longer attention spans and some knowledge of Frankenstein’s monster.


Corpse Bride (2005)


If one is going to see The Nightmare Before Christmas, then one should also see Corpse Bride. I, however, have not seen Corpse Bride, which is simply mortifying.


Others


Kids absolutely must see the Disney The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at some point in their childhoods. This was released in 1949 as half of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad and is available today on video under that title. Speaking of Disney, if you have access to a collection of Silly Symphonies, look at the very first of the bunch, Ub Iwerks’ masterful animation study Skeleton Dance (1929; shown at the bottom of this post). 

There are plenty of live-action films that are wonderful treats for the older kids and tweens; Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985) is right near the top of that list. Tim Burton is another draw, with Beetlejuice and especially Edward Scissorhands. Ghostbusters is superlative. And don’t rule out certain pictures because of the release date; Halloween in particular may be an opportunity to get kids to try black and white fare. Starting with Abbott and Costello Meet… films can be a good way to go, but mature kids can also handle the original old classics, mostly from Universal, like The Mummy, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and so forth. (Of course, Abbott and Costello were also at Universal; hence the synergy.)


All of the foregoing have been stand-alone films, but there has also been a slew of DVD releases of Halloween episodes of kids’ television shows. This blog by Carey Bryson lists Halloween DVDs from preschool TV shows, and these, from the same site, are new in 2008. If scariness is an issue in your house, you can be sure that preschool series like Diego, Little Bill, and Clifford, also seen below, have been thoroughly vetted to remove any threat.








Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Smurfs at 50

I’m moving the traditional Anniversary Friday onto Thursday this week in honor of the fact that this very day is the fiftieth anniversary of those smurfy little blue men, the Smurfs.

To my knowledge an authoritative history of the Smurfs has never been written, although I’d like to be corrected if that’s wrong. Wikipedia, however, has a fairly complete history. I won’t take the time to replicate that here; suffice it to say that the little blue men, actually called the Schtroumpfs, were first introduced to the world in a Belgian comic book on October 23, 1958. The artist Pierre Culliford, who went by the pen name of Peyo, seen below, created them as minor characters in one of his works about the medieval adventurer Johan and his midget sidekick Pirlouit. These two were recurring characters in their own comic book series, itself published as part of the journal Le Journal de Spirou, with this specific edition’s title being “La flute a six trous.” The Schtroumpfs were an immediate hit and were starring in their own comic book by the next year.



What followed was a slew of printed and filmic material. According to Giannalberto Bendazzi’s Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (page 303), the publishers of Spirou, a firm called Dupuis, had founded a television division by 1959, primarily to exploit the Schtroumpf property; this was done under the artistic direction of Eddy Ryssack, thus giving him the title of having first brought the Smurfs to the screen. This series evidently went on for years, with a compilation of episodes released as a film in 1965 and an original feature in 1976.



The Smurfs invaded America in 1981. That’s when Hanna-Barbera premiered their half-hour Saturday morning cartoon, and it’s coincidentally also right about when I started watching Saturday morning cartoons. I certainly don’t remember my first time watching—I have no recollection of a life without Smurfs—but I distinctly remember many weekend mornings spent in front of the television, my penchant for Jokey Smurf over all the others, my unfulfilled desire to dress as a Smurf for Halloween around age five or six, my reception of stuffed Papa and Jokey Smurf toys for a birthday (I realize it could have been any Smurf, but I immediately christened him Jokey), and my also largely unfulfilled desire to survive exclusively on Smurfberry Crunch cereal, thwarted by my mother. The commercials for this were actually my introduction to Tchaikovsky (high culture!).




Well, unfortunately it doesn’t appear that Post has seen fit to reissue the cereal for the anniversary, but there has been some other activity going on. On February 26 this year the first DVD was released, with a second volume released just on October 7. There are also some commemorative figurines, which have been a hot commodity since the 80s (although I myself never got into those). For instance, the official Smurfs website has, commendably, a charity auction of these, quite a pleasant surprise for an anniversary activity. For those who like the fuzzy Smurfs over the ceramic ones, there is also an anniversary edition talking plush toy.


Now, there’s been buzz for years about a theatrical film. There’s been a lot of recent speculation, such as this January blog and this February news item, about a 3D CGI film, as seen above. The latest news is that Sony is going to do a live-action-CGI mix film, like we’ve seen done with Scooby-Doo and Alvin and the Chipmunks. Imdb has a 2010 release date, with Colin Brady directing and veteran animation screenwriters J. David Stern and David N. Weiss doing the screenplay. Not much else has been revealed—let alone visuals—at this point.

Here’s another article on the anniversary at ComicMix. And here’s a couple old Hanna-Barbera episodes, with lots more at YouTube.

This is “Calling Doctor Smurf”:




And this is part one of “The Smurfette,” when Gargamel creates that nefarious female Smurf that everyone’s been talking about ever since:



Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Latest Issues from Cricket


I’d like to thank Jenna Bartolomei for allowing me to take a look at the latest issues published by the Cricket Magazine Group. Cricket has been a staple of children’s magazines-and hence children’s literature-for thirty-five years. The Cricket family of magazines is actually published by the Carus Publishing Company, headquartered southwest of Chicago. This was founded by Marianne Carus in 1973, and she still serves as editor-in-chief for all the company’s publications, as far as I am aware. Her well-publicized desire at the time of Cricket’s launch was to create The New Yorker for children; while I think this has been largely accomplished just by Cricket itself, Carus’s desire to branch out into different age groups and subjects is admirable. The breadth of their offerings reaches from infants to late adolescents.

The tent pole publication is, of course, Cricket, but the group has added various sister publications throughout the years. Today they publish magazines with three emphases divided up for five age groups, as follows:

The best-known body of publications is the “literature and imagination” category. This features Babybug for children under 3, Ladybug for children ages 3-6, Spider for 6-9, Cricket for 9-14, and finally Cicada for those above that age. This is the only group of magazines that begins so young or lasts until so old, making Babybug and Cicada the edge’s of Cricket’s spectrum.

In the “ideas and science” category there is Click for ages 3-6, Ask for 6-9 year-olds, and two for 9-14 year-olds: Odyssey and Muse.

The “history and culture” category does not begin until the 6-9 age group, with Appleseeds. This is followed by a bevy of titles for the 9-14 year-olds: Dig, Faces, Calliope, and Cobblestone.

A subscription insert in my copy of Ladybug describes a few of these titles:

Ask magazine is perfect for curious kids, exploring questions like: How did dogs become domesticated? How are robots designed? Why do we sleep? Engaging articles and outstanding photography will amaze young readers.”

Dig is about the thrill of discovery! And the latest archeological finds from around the world.”

Muse magazine is for the kid who wants to know everything-the latest science news, history, art, and more.”

Suffice it to say that there is something from the Cricket group for essentially any reader. Ironically, however, a couple weeks ago I wrote about how kids’ magazines are struggling to find and keep readers. This phenomenon is true across age groups and interests: according to the newest issue of American Journalism Review, U.S. newspapers have shed more than 1,000 jobs this year. In the past few weeks we’ve seen venerable periodicals from The New York Times to Rolling Stone shrink their size to cut costs. And on and on. Pick up any coy of AJR or Columbia Journalism Review and you see the same thing again and again: that it’s the middle of the end for print journalism. If parents are cutting their own consumption of printed media in favor of online material, then why should they not do the same for their children?

Well, I’ve got about four good reasons on my desk here. Not to be a Luddite about children’s material on the Internet--hopefully yesterday’s post showed that I’m quite in favor of online content and new media--but I think that parents who resort to it exclusively are missing out. Once again, it’s the principle of a balanced diet, which applies equally to media consumption as to nutrition.

Having said that, I admit that for the past year I’ve been meaning to subscribe to Ladybug but have never felt fiscally free to do so. Having held one in my hand again, after quite a respite, and especially seeing Loretta’s positive reaction to it, makes me reconsider. At any rate, here is a sampling of what I found in the “bug” (“literature and imagination”) series, from Babybug through Cricket:


Babybug


This is one I had not seen before, and I’ve been curious for months what would be in a magazine for toddlers. I assumed it would be like a paperback board book, which it turns out is not too far off the mark. The dimensions are small, roughly six or seven nearly square inches, and though made of paper, not boards, the individual pages are sturdy, able to withstand a baby’s handling. What I most appreciated was a paper cover, or wrapper, glued to the outside of the magazine proper that discussed the magazine’s content, the research that went into it, and various ways to build upon it in interacting with your child. Such resources, like I was discussing yesterday with PBS KIDS Island, are a wonderful way to help parents maximize the benefit from their children’s media, whether printed or visual.

The magazine’s only eleven pages, counting both covers, and the September issue has a short story by Clara Vulliamy about a toddler picking up her mess, “Humpty Dumpty” illustrated by Carolyn Croll, a narrative presenting a hidden object activity by Nancy Edwards (the cover material encourages parents to do this on your own with your child), and a handful of poems and other items. The magazine is succinct, but it’s actually amazing they included as much material as they did, without feeling cramped. Subscribing to Babybug is like checking out a new boardbook from the library every month but not having to worry about your child drooling all over it.


Ladybug


This is just the cream of the crop for me, since my daughter falls in this age group and it’s the one I tend to have the most fun writing for, both for television and print. September ’08 has two stories and an activity devoted to camping, several poems, detailed pictures—by Ron Lipking—with brief captions to encourage youngster’s visual engagement, a few stories, and the music and words to “This Old Man.” I quite liked “A Meal Fit for a King” by Marcie Aboff and illustrated by Liza Woodruff, about a young chimpanzee’s attempt to cook a dessert for the Great King Ape. Poems include new works and a traditional Navajo piece translated by Hilda Wetherill, and there’s a permanent comic stript entitled “Mop and Family” by Alex de Wolf and Martine Schaap.


Spider


This was perhaps my favorite issue of the bunch, a surprise because I had previously heard the least about it. Spider is for the age where children are old enough to be reading on their own, but young enough to still be innocent and guileless, if I dare say that—at least it is still children’s, not young adults’, literature. My favorite part of this magazine was the short special section on pizza—what a great topic—which essentially consisted of an ode, “To a Pizza,” by Jennifer Judd, and a nonfiction history of pizza’s, “Pizza’s Past,” by Devorah Gurwitz. Nonfiction is particularly difficult to make relevant, revelatory, and interesting for young readers, and this is as fine an example as I’ve read recently. I certainly learned a great deal, from why a plain slice is called a Margherita to the fact that pizzas didn’t emigrate to America until after World War II. The other poems and stories were also top-knotch, but I spent as much time reading the letters to the editor and looking at readers’ artwork as looking at the work by grown-ups. I did particularly like the poem “The Hens Have Gone to Bed” by Laurie O. Curtis for the fact that, though it was in a wonderfully quiet verse, it did not rhyme or feel compelled to exhilarate with every stanza. This, more than any other piece in any magazine, made me feel like I was reading The New Yorker (which I do read cover to cover every week).


Cricket


Cricket, then, is making that transition into young adulthood. The stories and nonfiction essays are longer--including a fantasy serial by Frederic S. Durbin (fitting since Lloyd Alexander was one of the magazine's founders)--and deal with more mature issues like cruelty to animals in Betsy Hearne’s “Cargo” and deafness in Claire H. Blatchford’s autobiographical “Passing on the Torch"; these were both part of a special section on dogs, another great topic to explore in unusual ways like these. Donna Gamache’s “The Window Washer” addresses gossip through a student learning about her teacher’s romantic life. Anna Levine’s nonfiction history “Live Wires” discusses Morse code and telegraphs (try explaining that to a five-year-old) by comparing them to instant messaging. My favorite piece was a story by Kathryn Lay called “The Day Grandpa’s Teeth Flew” that depicts the troubled relationship between a granddaughter and grandfather, plus a tornado. I admit it took me a page to get into it, but the scene Lay paints in the storm cellar is effective and touching.

**

There is obviously a lot to recommend there. I’d like to put it in the context of yesterday’s post about the virtues of exploring reading in an online world. To put it succinctly, I’m a strong advocate of both. Electronic resources, be it an independent website or one associated with a television program, magazine, author, or station (like PBS KIDS Island), are wonderful for their immediacy, their instant accessibility, and their interactivity; it’s also not bad touch that they teach youngsters computer skills as well.

The allure of the magazine is somewhat different. There is interactivity in a pre-worldwide web sort of way, (though kids write in via email rather than letters), including some ways that you can’t really get online like crossword puzzles and word searches that are easier with a pencil than a mouse. Cricket has taken this one step further by turning many of their back covers into fold-out arts-and-crafts activities: Ladybug features a cut-out tent and campsite with two paper dolls, while Spider has a “constellation cone,” a cut-out poke-through piece of astronomical crafts that, when placed over a flashlight, allow you to recreate the night sky on your own ceiling.

On top of such features, however, the real allure of printed magazines is their very printed nature itself. They are tactile, physical objects that a child can own and manipulate. Each afternoon after I retrieve Loretta from Pre-K part of our daily routine is to stop in our lobby and get the mail. We used to sing the Blue’s Clues mail-time song, though that’s largely faded, but Loretta still without fail asks “Is there anything for me?” as I open the box. She is sorely disappointed when there’s not, but when there is--generally either a letter from her Aunt Kristine in Idaho or the Friend magazine from the LDS Church--she is thoroughly elated; she rushes up the stairs and immediately opens up her new treasure. So the point is she loves getting mail and she loves having a magazine that belongs to her alone-and is actually interesting, without all that boring stuff (i.e. bills) that mom and dad normally get. There is a definite feeling of validation that comes from receiving and owning a magazine at that age, and it will spark a love of reading that will last throughout life. Though I’m a media enthusiast and avid viewer of shows and films, in the end there is no substitute for having books and magazines in your home. I think it’s time I subscribe to Ladybug after all.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

PBS KIDS is Raising Readers

I’ve been reading the book G is for Growing about all the curricular research that went into the creation and development of Sesame Street from 1968 through to the new millennium. I’ll try to give a full report on that soon, but suffice it to say I was incredibly impressed by the range of research that went into the creation of that show, especially since it created the use of research and curriculum in television production. One point that was interesting was the position reading and literacy took amongst the various curricular goals: inasmuch as there was—or is—a hierarchy of curricula within the Sesame Street mission, reading has definitely always been the first and foremost. Math, social skills, emotional skills, and other areas have received their due, but for me reading is always what I think of when I think of Street’s pedagogy. (That’s particularly telling since as a child my favorite Muppet was the Count…plus Grover.)

I feel that Sesame Street has always maintained that position as the foremost show for literacy, while the Children’s Television Workshop concentrated on science in 3-2-1 Contact and math on Square One, also both shows I watched religiously. Only in retrospect did I realize PBS, the de facto distributor for CTW, aired a number of literacy shows: I watched Reading Rainbow with just as much avidity as the other shows, for instance, and I even watched Wishbone regularly, even though I didn’t encounter it until at least middle school. I must say that I completely missed the original The Electric Company, sadly. But at any rate, the trend has gone on, with PBS launching Between the Lions a few years ago and, more recently, animated shows like WordWorld and WordGirl, which both premiered in September 2007.





Now the full genesis and purpose of those recent productions is coming into view. A few years ago PBS KIDS received a Ready to Learn grant from the Department of Education to further develop its literacy curriculum across multiple platforms. Sesame Street and Between the Lions benefitted, while new shows emerged in the form of WordWorld, SuperWhy, Martha Speaks, which premiered this past September 1, and the revised The Electric Company, which will premiere in January 2009. This was not a simple grant program for traditional television funding, however. Much of PBS KIDS’ resulting literacy program, called Raising Readers, has focused on the Internet as a means of interactive education that allows parents and caregivers to build off of the shows in games and offline activities to enhance the reading skills of two-to-eight year-olds. There has been a great deal of original Internet content created for each of the participating programs, but Raising Readers’ flagship is an entirely new site, PBS KIDS Island, which was presented to the media just last Wednesday.

On that day I had the opportunity to meet in midtown Manhattan (near Between the Lions’ namesake New York Public Library building) with Sharon Philippart, Project Director for Raising Readers, and Sara DeWitt, Senior Director for PBS KIDS & Parents and PBS KIDS Interactive, for a walk-through of the new website, which had actually launched a few days earlier.

The site is located at http://pbskids.org/read/, but is also available through a large banner across the bottom of PBS KIDS’ traditional website. The name “Island” derives from the site’s artificial environment, an amusement park island that allows children to navigate to different games. At first glance the site therefore seems quite akin to Noggin’s, Nick Jr.’s, or any other kids’ stations’ (it made me think particularly of Nick’s Dora site based on her carnival episode), but there are several important innovations. The games, which are all literacy-based, are not universally accessible; rather, children have to progress through levels, passing off the skills developed in one game before moving onto another—for which those skills will be prerequisite. This progressive model wouldn’t be much use without the more important ability for parents to create user profiles for each of their children—or teachers for their students—that can save their progress over the long term: the island does not, and indeed absolutely should not, be mastered in a single sitting.



The recording of personal information allows for the customization of the interface, to a degree: the child’s character can be either the green boy or girl from PBS KIDS’ logo, for instance, and the tree house (a home-base where children can enjoy the prizes they have won) can be pink or blue or otherwise customized. It can also provide customized feedback to parents to let them track their children’s progress (after the little one’s gone to bed, for instance).

Speaking of which, while the literacy games are entertaining and educational, I think I was most impressed by the wealth of pedagogical material available for parents and teachers. It is my impression that PBS has become more transparent in its curricular goals since Sesame Street first aired thirty-nine years ago. Now you see notices on virtually every kids’ station of what each program’s curriculum entails: Maggie and the Ferocious Beast teaches social skills, Wonder Pets teaches teamwork and practical problem solving, etc. PBS KIDS Island does this one better by providing complete curriculum descriptions, not just in general but on a game-by-game basis. It then builds upon these with further resources such as games and activities that can be carried out away from the computer—an excellent resource for we Kids Off the Couch-types who like to see media as a means to enhance unmediated experiences (for a long explanation of what I mean, see one of my first postings). The site even allows parents to play the games themselves as administrators, without effecting the children’s records. There are also embedded video tours and explanations.

These last two items are useful for all parents—I’m already playing around myself without effecting Loretta’s scores—but are intended specifically for low-income parents who may have low literacy skills themselves. The folks at PBS KIDS understand that ultimately it is the parents who will set the standard of literacy for their children, and if the site is to reach children at the highest risk of illiteracy or below-level literacy, it must also target their parents. This may seem slightly patronizing, but I find it’s not for two reasons: first, reaching the poor is part of the DOE Ready to Learn grant’s stipulations, and second, and more important, reaching the impoverished has been part of Sesame Street’s mission from the very beginning; it is, in fact, its raison d’etre. More on this next year when we celebrate the show’s fortieth birthday, but it grew out of the progressive policies of Lyndon Johnson and programs like Head Start. Television, it was assumed, was able of reaching inner-city children unreachable through other methods; today, the Internet has much of the same capacity. The inclusion of materials for educators (include professional-level lesson plans and pedagogical materials) helps ensure that children who don’t yet have online access at home can still take part in the program at school.

The site has various other innovations that should be mentioned. It is compelling, for me, that characters from different shows intermingle, rather than having to go back to a homepage and accessing a new site for a new show; this cross purposing comes as a result of the grant being applied to multiple shows, but it is helpful in that children see they are learning similar material from different sources.

Also, I liked that after winning games children could redeem their tickets for actual prizes. On many other websites winning a game lets you see a quick video or print a coloring page, which is good enough, but when you log out it’s gone. Here the kids can hoarde up their prizes in their tree house, watching their video whenever they like, coloring again and again, etc. The prizes become much more material and therefore worthwhile because they are something the children get to actually keep.


So I'd like to encourage all parents to have a look at PBS KIDS Island; it's a great resource for the little ones (and material for older readers is on the way). I’d like to say a word about the shows that are involved, though I suspect a thorough review must be saved for another day. When I got home from meeting with Philippart and DeWitt I explained to Loretta what Martha Speaks is about—essentially a talking dog (but one that teaches vocabulary). She lit up and said she had read that book in school, and indeed she had. The show is based on a whole series of books by Susan Meddaugh. That gives one more platform for parents to extend the experience. And ultimately, all of this material—online and on the television—is pointing to books: what better way to teach literacy, after all, than with a book or a pencil? I don’t think this is undermining the Raising Readers initiative at all. As we children of the 1980s learned from LaVar Burton: “Don’t take my word for it”—go read it for yourself.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Paddington Bear at 50

When we lived in London we didn’t have too many opportunities to go through Paddington Station—we lived in the northeast and it’s a little west of our regular haunts in the West End—but there was one particular occasion when I caught the express train to Heathrow there and I paused to envision a quiet little brown fellow with a rain hat and galoshes, sitting on his suitcase and possibly munching a marmalade sandwich. The calm and even polite demeanor of Paddington Bear formed a nice mental contrast to the bustle of the station; it was, perhaps ironically, the perfect place for such a character to be born. Like Pooh—who was similarly discovered at the uber-busy Harrods not far away in Knightsbridge—and Peter Rabbit and other British storybook animals, Paddington signifies something of a quieter, more self-reflexive way of life. I particularly like Paddington in that he doesn’t hail from the Victorian or Edwardian eras or the Lake District or any such picturesque milieus; he comes from the post-war, post-Clement Attlee world that would quickly lead to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, swinging London, and, well, modern times. Moral: peace of mind is not dependent on nostalgia; it’s attainable to each of us, even today.


Paddington was born fifty years ago this past Monday, October 13. On that day in 1958 Michael Bond published the first Paddington book, A Bear Called Paddington, with William Collins & Sons, which is now Harper Collins. Since then there have been 30 million books in 30 languages, three television series over three decades, a mountain of merchandise, and now a feature film slated for a 2010 release (see here also).

Wikipedia has a fairly good history and compendium of information, as does Paddington’s official site. On Monday, the anniversary itself, Paddington evidently took a ride around London in a black cab as part of a contest for those who could snap a picture of him; unfortunately there are no official events this weekend, but in December Paddington will have his first concert, in Southgate (…Amy Winehouse, anyone…?). There has, of course, been a whole range of marketing activities going on all year, including a new line of plush toys, a PlayStation 2 game released last fall, a UK-wide television campaign for Marmite (if Popeye can back spinach…), and of course a series of anniversary publications as well as the release of a brand new book, Paddington Here and Now, in June.



While Michael Bond wrote the stories, the original illustrations were in black and white and were created by Peggy Fortnum. The image above is from the original 1958 book and is from this Flickr page that has a bit more information on Fortnum. Her pictures have since been colored (or coloured) and Paddington has gone through a number of different incarnations, on page and screen, but he is perhaps equally known as a toy as he is as a literary character.



I thought it interesting to learn, again from Wikipedia, that the characteristic wellies were added on the toy before they ever made it into print; they were placed on Paddington’s feet by Shirley Clarkson in order to make him stand upright when she created the first bear at Gabrielle Designs in 1972 (the version above is from circa 1980); it is hard now, of course, to think of Paddington without them. This June Shirley published an autobiography entitled Bearly Believable: My Part in the Paddington Bear Story, which is available from the publisher (Harriman House; more info available here as well) or amazon. I haven't looked at it but it appears to be a rare thing in that it's an autobiography about book/toy marketing and merchandizing, an integral part of this industry that often gets short shrift. 

Now, given that we’re celebrating Paddington’s fiftieth, it is delightful to be able to say that Michael Bond is still at the helm of the enterprise. Turning eighty-two himself this year, Bond has written dozens upon dozens of books, including Paddington and his two other series, Olga da Polga (launched 1971) and Monsieur Pamplemousse (launched 1983). It appears that other authors have worked on Paddington in the 80s and 90s—which is perfectly acceptable, after all—but I’m pleased to note that the aforementioned Paddington Here and Now as well as an earlier 2008 title, Paddington Rules the Waves, were both once again the work of Mr. Bond. This short review of the former title asserts Bond (below, earlier this year) is still at the top of his game; if you loved Paddington as a child but feel you know all the stories, there are now many more chapters in these two new books to both engage yourself and introduce Paddington to your child.


There is more I could add. I haven’t said anything about how incredibly funny Paddington is, for instance, but I somewhat hope that goes without saying. If anyone knows more about the 2001 documentary Paddington Bear: The Early Years, I’d love to hear your comments.

Finally, I’d like to share the premiere episode from the original Paddington series (in other words, his screen debut), produced by FilmFair in London in 1975 and narrated by Michael Hordern. There are plenty more clips, including of the later Hannah-Barbera series and the most recent incarnation by Cinar Films (that’s Cookie Jar now-a-days), where that one came from.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Bob the Builder Celebrates Christmas

Lionsgate and HIT Entertainment are releasing a new Bob the Builder DVD today, gearing up for the holiday season. It’s Bob the Builder: Bob’s White Christmas, and it features five episodes relating to Christmas and winter, including the titular episode “Bob’s White Christmas” and other favorites like “Bob of the North.” 



This is not the first time HIT has released some of these titles—in fact, a previous DVD called Bob’s White Christmas came out in 2001, after the episode first aired. If you’ve missed Bob’s Christmas specials thus far, though, this new DVD is now the way in which to experience them, because I’m unaware that all five Christmas/winter eps have been gathered together on one disc before.

Most my Bob the Builder viewing in America has been on television and has therefore featured the American voices. But as with all media I prefer to hear the original language/accents, which in this case is British; although the American actors do a very fine job, there’s something lost in translation, particularly when the actors have to match their lines to already moving lips, as opposed to the process when the original actors record their lines and the animators at HOT Animation match the lips to the recordings. At any rate, let’s hope, like the Teletubbies DVDs, that Bob offers both versions. In any case, parents who want to introduce a little constructive activity into their child’s Christmastime will surely do well with this latest DVD.

Monday, October 13, 2008

On Designing Playgrounds



The New York Times on Friday ran an article about the new playground at west 116th Street in Morningside Park, which has been open for a few weeks now. Most interesting is to hear from playground designer Alexander Hart (above), who's official title is assistant landscape architect at the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, and some of his philosophies about playground design--such as that it shouldn't construe a single type of imaginative play such as a pirate ship would do--combined with some regulations of the city--such as that all materials must be bulletproof. 

Our family usually spends time in Payson Park and Anne Loftus Playground--the only NYC playground originally designed by the Olmstead brothers of Central and Prospect Park fame--simply because they're closest to our apartment, but visiting New York City's newest park sounds like an interesting adventure to undertake sometime soon.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Anne of Green Gables at 100


In 1908, while Beatrix Potter was giving us Jemima Puddle-duck and Henry Ford was giving us the Model T, Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery was creating her greatest character, Anne Shirley, better known through the title of her first book, Anne of Green Gables.



Countless sequels, tourist destinations, memorabilia, and film, stage, and television adaptations later (above we have Megan Follows in the dual 1980s miniseries, and below a 1979 Japanese anime version), Anne is still, as Ramin Setoodeh says, “the most modern girl in the bookstore.” That comment comes at the beginning of a Newsweek article from July commemorating Anne’s centennial. That article actually says everything I would or could want to say about the subject, so for this Anniversary Friday I’ll essentially steer readers in that direction. Wikipedia also has good information and external links, and there is a good story at Fort Worth's Star-Telegram.com, an online exhibit at the L. M. Montgomery 
institute (with lots of other related materials), and more information at a website for Prince Edward Island in British Columbia (the tale's setting), Anne2008.com.  And the anniversary wouldn't pass by without a new edition of the original book, put out by Penguin, although this annotated version might be more intriguing for fans who have already gone through the book itself.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sleeping Beauty Deluxe DVD


Yesterday Disney released Sleeping Beauty on a two-disc Blu-Ray DVD for the suggested retail price of $35 (available at amazon for $24). When the film was first released in 1959 it had been Disney's longest-in-the-making and most expensive film (at $6 million) to that point. It was stylistically daring--basing its design on the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters (which, since it's just a fifteen minute walk from my apartment, is one of my favorite places to take Loretta), but that certainly didn't help it with an audience coming off of Lady and the Tramp. It was a critical and commercial failure, but thankfully since then it has regained its position in the canon as one of Disney's finest films. The plot certainly needed some padding, but the fairies' domestic troubles are just as engaging--if not more so--as the main story line. 

At any rate, the film has been reissued and restored over the years, so this release doesn't represent a breakthrough in that sense--except, quite significantly, that it is being presented in its original wide-screen aspect ratio for the first time since its initial release--but it does represent a huge step in how Disney is marketing its films in the age of high definition. This press release has a great deal of the technical information, couched, as press releases are wont to do, in a great deal of hyperbolic praise. And then this video also talks about some of the DVDs' interactive/online components:




In addition, there are some good videos on the production of the original film at a blog entry by Floyd Bishop from Frederator Studios, and of course there's some information on Disney's website as well. (As a bonus, I also just received an email from Kids Off the Couch with some ideas for making the film more interactive, and feminist-minded.) While I'd prefer to see this on 35mm, the restored aspect ratio alone is enough to make me want to check this one out. 

If you haven't seen it in a long time, be aware that there are quite a few scary parts that will need to skipped for the youngest viewers. For a princess movie that's friendly even with three- and two-year-olds, Cinderella is the only way to go.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Fred Rogers 1986 Interview

I thought that today I'd simply include an old video I watched on YouTube a few months ago. It's an interview with Mr. Rogers on the old talk show Our Magazine from 1986, and it touches on child rearing, Mr. Rogers' life and career, production of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, and other subjects. It's always greatly enlightening to see him talk about his own show, but the one thing that has stuck in my mind since I first watched it was that Mr. Rogers didn't call the show Mr. Rogers; he called it the Neighborhood. Fitting for someone who wouldn't want to be repeating their own name every five minutes; for him, the show never was about himself, but about the neighborhood and the people--particularly the children--in it.





Friday, October 3, 2008

YTV at 20

Coming from—and being in—the United States, I did not know this until recently, but an article by Amanda Burgess in the July/August KidScreen magazine (available here as a PDF or html document) has made me aware of the twentieth anniversary of Canada’s first kids’ television station, YTV (the second honoree in our series of Anniversary Fridays). Seen here is the original 1988 logo.



My Canadian experience is minimal, having only spent a week in Vancouver as a child, but I have always enjoyed the work of Nelvana, Cookie Jar, and of course the NFB (for adults and children alike). It seems fitting to not only recognize how Canadian work has influenced children’s media in the United States and other English-speaking countries, but to honor a Canadian station on its own terms, within Canada itself. YTV’s effect on the country’s children was and is immense, and the same can be said for its production companies, as it has provided a distribution outlet for a great deal more Canadian content than would found an audience otherwise.

Because I’m not an expert and Amanda Burgess is, I recommend that anyone who is truly interested simply download and read her article (plus a lot of other great material in that issue). But I’d like to summarize a few points.

There were several ways in which YTV revolutionized the children’s television market up north. The first instance was indeed the foremost, coming about through the station’s very creation in 1988: by creating the first round-the-clock children’s station, it broke kids’ programming out of the daytime block (before 4pm) and enticed advertisers to invest in primetime and all-day programming, quite a feat for a commercial station competing (against the CBC) in a country whose cinema has been so markedly defined by government sponsorship. The increase of funds opened the way for increased production, and the all-day programming mentality provided for kids themselves to be able to watch their shows, well, any time of day.

A second innovation, about which I’ll speak less, was the introduction of anime to Canada, first through Sailor Moon and then, exponentially more so, through Pokemon. The influence of Japanese animation on the West has been immense, so any firms facilitating that interchange have shown acute foresight.

As well as broadcasting programs by established production companies, both American and Canadian, YTV also made a name for itself by collaborating with smaller firms, taking risks through more adventuresome projects than other networks. As Burgess says on page 66, “Collaboration appears to be YTV’s calling card in the Canadian independent production arena.” The station has a brand that will build viewership enormously for the series, but it still allows enough autonomy that production companies feel empowered, with creative integrity. That’s a win-win situation for producers, and while I’m sure there have been some kinks and strained production meetings over twenty years’ time that is still a fantastic reputation to have created as a distributor. (For the most recent example of this co-production-friendly corporate climate, stay tuned for the February rollout of RollBots, by Amberwood Entertainment in Ottowa.)




Also, I was impressed to learn that YTV airs a wider variety of programming, including movies, than any American kids’ station. That, I suspect, is due in no small part to the formal and stylistic innovation engendered by the NFB for something like sixty-three years now; Canada has consistently showed more willingness to experiment with cinema's formal elements than any other English-speaking country in the world (looking at kids’ films, that can range anywhere from silly cartoons like The Cat Came Back to educational masterpieces like Universe).

Well, the article and its sidebars have a plethora of more information—particularly interesting to me was a short history of YTV’s storied history with its American sister Nickelodeon—so I hope to have whetted an appetite for some to go read it in full. And let me join with the myriad well wishers who placed ads in the issue to wish a happy birthday to YTV and its staff.


**
Now, as a housekeeping note, I should say that it's actually proven more time consuming than I'd like to be running two concurrent series of longish entries while I'm trying to finish a kids' TV spec script, a piece of adult video art, and my new website at randyastle.com, besides that pesky day job. So I think I'll be suspending Asian Literature Mondays until I'm done discussing all the prominent birthdays of 2008. Sorry to all the thousands of readers waiting on pins and needles (sarcasm!).