Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Little People at 50

Well my March was full of March Madness, though not the NCAA kind—just the crazy writing lots of scripts kind. But that does mean that I completely missed writing about last week’s fiftieth anniversary for Fisher-Price’s Little People, even though I was perfectly aware of it. Apologies to Eddy and Freddy and all the rest, and happy birthday.

Fisher-Price launched the brand on March 21, 1959, so last Saturday launched a yearlong celebration for the company. For instance, as with anniversaries of Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids and others, you can buy retro Little People toys harking back to earlier designs; Emily Claire Afan of KidScreen informs me you can get a retrofitted 1968 Play ‘n Go Farm, seen below, for $17.49, or a remake of the 1971 School House for the same price.

I never realized before that it was Little People branded, but I grew up on this barn, with the silo (and without the large rooftop lettering). In fact my parents still have it—the doors still moo when you open them—and Loretta and my nieces and nephews like to play with it whenever we’re there. The Fisher-Price website capitalizes on the nostalgia angle:

“Do you remember? Take a trip back to the farm with your little one. Join some of your favorite childhood friends as they celebrate their 50th birthday with a commemorative play set designed to look like the farm you remember. Even the figures look like they used to! It’s all to help remind you that ‘it’s great to be little.™’”

The cynical among us could dismiss that as a cheap gimmick, but when I stopped to think about it I realized that it really is a remarkable toy and it does represent a positive step in comparison with most things out there today. I’m now in the middle of Dade Hayes’ Anytime Playdate (finally) and am continually struck by the fact kids are growing older younger, so that it’s now gotten to the point that toys are peaking at age four or five and after that kids are using iPods and GPS and BlueTooth things. (I was leading some four-year-olds in painting landscapes last Friday night and one of Loretta’s friends claimed she had seen Mount McKinley before on GoogleEarth, a striking term coming from her little lips.) So the point there is that stepping back in time, unplugging, and using Lincoln logs, pixie sticks, and toy farm animals that don’t contain any silicon can be a good experience for modern kids. I’m constantly explaining that I’m not a technophobe, but I do think there’s incredible virtue in including non-electronic toys in kids’ entertainment diet.

So that’s my plug. We also had the three-car circus train, with a ton of fun animals, and I spent innumerable hours playing with them. So perhaps the nostalgia is showing. But it has been an incredibly successful brand. Afan also wrote that over 1.5 billion Little People figures have sold in those fifty years, which is an enormous number but in its way not surprising (again, there are dozens in my parents’ house and Loretta has four of the modern incarnation in her closet, complete with the musical school bus. It’s that shift between the original, small wooden toys (who were noticeably nearly all adults, at least in my experience) with the modern large variety on shelves today that most interests me. As a kid I had 100% brand awareness of Fisher-Price—to me it meant high-quality, fun toys—but I had 0% awareness that those were “Little People”—in fact I didn’t learn that until I started writing this post. My first cognizant introduction to Little People as a brand was in a French version of the more recent cartoons that a Polish-French family loaned us when Loretta was about a year old. She didn’t get to watch much of it because we were limiting her television intake at that age, but I watched quite a bit to listen to the accents. I later saw it in English, got introduced to the toys, and made a connection with it with Loretta, although it hasn’t flooded our home. I love the new cartoons—anything still stop-motion is a winner in my book, and Freddy the frog is done quite brilliantly—and would personally like to see a lot more of them beyond the dozen or so I have watched, although as a parent raised on He-Man and G.I. Joe I am aware of the implications of cartoons based on preexisting commercial products.

Here’s the opening song sung (in English) by the great Aaron Neville, with a sample episode afterwards: “Michael and the Corn Field.” It helps to know that Michael has some magic powers; I’m not sure why but it works great stylistically. He can talk; he just chooses to be reticent here. Also, Sonya Lee can talk to animals. Also, I love Farmer Jed’s English voice; that actor makes it all worth it.

There are a lot more video recommendations on that episode’s YouTube page.

Returning our thoughts to the anniversary itself, Fisher Price has a webpage devoted exclusively to it. It has a great timeline of the toys’ progression, offers on some of those vintage-esque toys, notices of events—which in the next few weeks appear to be mostly at zoos everywhere from San Diego to Toledo—and some more online offers. Taking a step back to the main Little People website gives you more games and activities and other features.

If you’re really going to get into the history, then I’ve found no better source than this taxonomic portion of the website This Old Toy. The info and the pictures here are truly amazing. These folks are also—or primarily—an Atlanta-based retailer and repairer, and their homepage is here. There’s great stuff here I haven’t even touched on in this post, like the methods of dating your figures, a history of their styles and components, information on logos, generic knock-offs, and onward and onward. Plan on a half hour at least, and thanks to all the researchers and webmasters there on a job well done. 

(I loved this dog, by the way.)

And on and on and on… Here’s to fifty more years!

Monday, March 30, 2009

More on the Growing 3D Wave

Speaking of Coraline and Monsters vs. Aliens and Bolt, there is quite an upsurge in the number of 3D films on the docket for the next couple years, and if anything that's an understatement. Part of the reason is advances in 3D technology made available through HD video, as this Popular Mechanics article by Erin McCarthy explores. Given the periodical this is a technical article, though it's written for a general/non-specialist article (it's not as in-depth as a good American Cinematographer piece). It's a little off the beaten path for this blog, but since a majority of these films are for children I thought it pertinent to look at the advancing technology behind the films. I'm always glad when general interest magazines like this one publish articles on kids' lit, film, and television; it's nice to be on the greater cultural landscape. 

Friday, March 27, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens Reviews

Today is the release for DreamWorks’ latest animated film, Monsters vs. Aliens. It was written by a slew of writers based on a story by co-directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon. Letterman previously directed Shark Tale for DreamWorks, while Vernon’s best-known directing credit (he’s well versed in other departments) might be co-directing Shrek 2 for the company in 2004. The present film, given these credits, is a thoroughly DreamWorks project—and it seems just a little bit to me like another stab at Disney/Pixar, specifically by combining components of Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, and even Chicken Little.

Of course that doesn’t mean this will be a bad film, or even a good one for that matter. Today I’d just like to include a trailer, below, and some other reviews of media folks who unlike me have been able to see it. Please note various venues will show it in 3D, continuing the uptick in that medium over the past few years—Pixar’s next film, Up, will have a 3D release as well—and this is a major component of most of these reviews.

The fact that this trailer has two vulgar comments (and unfunny ones at that) reminds me to mention that the film is PG; I know I'm in the conservative bunch in this regard, but those comments alone would be enough for me to keep a child under ten out of the theater. Anyway, here are a few articles to browse: 

The New York Times by A. O. Scott

The L.A. Times, with a feminist critique, by Betsy Sharkey

A Variety article by Pamela McClintock on the new 3D tent pole films as well as an article by David S. Cohen comparing it to Watchmen, a similar yet unsimilar recent adult film.

The Village Voice by Robert Wilonsky.

The Guardian, again on 3D, by Jeremy Kay

And, for those who really want to get into the production nuts and bolts, an article by Bill Desowitz for Animation World Network

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Preliminary Notes on Where the Wild Things Are

I'm calling this "preliminary" not because no one's been talking about this film--it seems like one of the most talked-about films for the past two years already--but because I expect to have much more to say about it as it approaches (buzz is high, as is controversy over the old studio vs. director dilemma, so expectations are decidedly mixed). All I'd like to do right now is post some links to yesterday's USA Today, a sort of profile of director Spike Jonze. Also notice the mini-flash slide show and what amounts to a sidebar article about the character of Max, played by one Max Records of Portland. A Max playing Max is a little serendipitous, and I hope this film has other things going for it as well. We'll see, hopefully by October!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Save Books!

My mentioning yesterday that the recession has publishing off kilter got me thinking a bit more about it. It's a topic that's getting a lot of coverage lately, but one of my favorite recent articles was by Katha Pollitt in The Nation a few weeks ago. In it she advocates for federal and grass roots aid for publishers, libraries, books for poor children, books in schools, the whole nine yards. Digital publishing has a very useful place (here we are commiserating on a blog, after all), but she makes a good case for the social purpose of print books in benefiting America's poor (who aren't going to be purchasing a Kindle), besides the community functions of public libraries. It is there, for instance, that people who can't afford home Internet service can get free online access to look for jobs--when I first moved to New York in 2002 I was in exactly that position, bouncing between up to four or five branches a day to troll for jobs (the moving around was due to half-hour limits). How much more important it is today in our economy's current condition.

The above picture is of the Free Library of Philadelphia building on Vine Street. Philadelphia's been in the news lately for the battle that's been going on over city funding, library closings, and public desire to keep them open. There's a lot online about this--and the situation unfortunately presages a similar battle in many other cities--but here's one article I found from a couple months ago. This comes from LibraryJournal.com, a great site with other recent stories on the Boston Public Library, for instance, and a great article by Andrew Albanese on an ACRL (Association of College and Research Libraries) report on how libraries can turn the crisis into an opportunity. 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Little Airplane Children's Book Academy

Last summer I attended the Little Airplane Academy in downtown New York. (Little Airplane has made shows/characters like Oobi and Piper Possum and currently produces The Wonder Pets and 3rd & Bird in the UK.) It was a three-day intensive workshop that featured sessions on screenwriting, licensing and merchandising, directing animation, directing live action, budgeting and scheduling, curriculum development, music, puppet design, legal issues, and a host of other topics. It was also a great networking opportunity, not only among the attendees but also with the presenters, people who are the top in their field; I have since had profitable relationships with several of them, including one top-tier executive who I never would have had access to otherwise. I am particularly grateful for the work Melinda Richards put(s) into the Academy and her conscientious follow-ups into my professional progress in the subsequent months.

All of that is preamble to an email--a press release, really--that I got from Melinda last week. The text is on the Little Airplane site, and it announces the premiere Academy for children's book writers. It will be hosted by Brenda Bowen, CEO of Bowen Press (see this interview from Publishers Weekly last May), and will cover the same array of literary issues that the traditional Academy covers for television production--from writing and illustrating through binding, production, and legal issues. It will run concurrently with Book Expo America here in the city--Academy dates are May 30-June 1--and tuition includes entry to that event. Tuition is $1,500, and that was the only downside for a poor up-and-coming talent like myself, but since I was able to save up the money beforehand the experience has proven well worth it. 

I don't know as much about this, but I should mention that the Academy seems to be in conjunction with the launch of Little Airplane Books. Their first publication, as far as I know, is a collection of children's poetry by company founder and Wonder Pets/Oobi/everything else creator Josh Selig entitled A Book For You

While the Little Airplane Academy for television is fairly unique in the world, a children's literature workshop is slightly less so. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, for instance, hosts a continual series of workshops, classes, and conferences, including their main annual conference in Los Angeles, which I understand to be the biggest kids' lit conference in the world. That will be run from August 7-10, and preliminary details are already available on the SCBWI site. Regional chapters, including the very active one here in New York, also host their own events.

The recession has the book industry a little off balance, to say the least, but for me at least that's no reason to stop writing. Amidst all my television sample scripts I've managed to write a few picture book manuscripts over the past six months, something which I've found very rewarding despite not even having submitted them anywhere yet. Both the Little Airplane Academy and the SCBWI Summer Conference are opportunities for novices like me or seasoned veterans to meet new faces and pick up a few new tricks. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

Happy 40th, Very Hungry Caterpillar

One morning, forty years ago today, the warm sun came up and--pop!--there emerged a very tiny, and very hungry caterpillar. The little creature has been munching away for four decades, and today, the first day of spring, is appropriately being internationally celebrated as the Very Hungry Caterpillar Day, with festivities going throughout the weekend. (Check out what events might be happening near you here.)

The caterpillar, of course, was the work of a young illustrator named Eric Carle, who today is a household name along with the likes of Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, published by Philomel Books, represents one of the most prominent events in the development of novelty books over the past two hundred years. As Carle’s website tells us, it has since been translated into forty-seven languages (for fun try naming thirty languages and you’ll see how impressive that number is) and sold over 29 million copies. USA Today tells us that it continues to sell 650,000 copies a year, not bad for a little book with 224 words.

The work’s familiar enough I’ll forego a full appreciate here. Although I’m certain I’d seen it earlier, my own first memory of the book is of sitting in the waiting room of my orthodontist, when I was significantly older than the book’s intended audience, but it still elicited quite a bit of happiness and joy as I fiddled through its pages, jamming my fingers in the holes and examining the different-sized leafs. I bought a copy of the board book version a full year before Loretta was born, knowing full well that the book had better be around from day one. It’s been battered and thoroughly slobbered upon, but it’s still front and center on her top bookshelf.

As mentioned there are lots of events throughout the weekend to celebrate, with some more things happening throughout the year; New Englanders will particularly want to check out the Carle Museum in Amherst. There is also a new pop-up book that caught my eye, a nice tactile adaptation of what was always a tactile book. Here's a video review of it from newbaby.com (notice the little girl's shirt):

There are lots of articles and blogs out there commemorating the occasion; just give it a google and lots of things pop up. Speaking of which, as you’ve probably noticed, even Google itself changed its typeface today, to a design apparently created by Carle himself:

YouTube has a trove of films about the book, and here's one of my favorites (since I'm into works produced by children), by the kids at the Coppermill Primary School near my old stomping ground in North London. 

There’s also a film on Carle’s website in which he discusses the genesis of the book.

Carle has sadly retired from the picture book business, but his legacy is enormous. To create one book the stature of his works would be an incredible accomplishment, but to do it over forty times is nothing short of astounding. So happy birthday, Caterpillar, and thanks, Eric Carle, for all the books, pictures, and memories.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Science Media in Australia

It's been a month since the KidScreen Summit here in New York, and I'm now starting to work with some of the people that I met there, making this one of the most exciting months of my career (thus far). Recession or no recession, there were so many people there that had such enthusiasm for children's media that it was quite refreshing, to say the very least, to know how large and vibrant the community is. I was there proffering services, not pitching for funding, but that's the area where the recession is being felt: it's always been hard to make a kids' television show, but money is tighter now than ever. I hope in the next few months to shine what little light my blog can provide on some of the people who have immense potential and are in that stage of rounding up all the money.

 The first of these is the wonderful British-Australian writer and director Kate Vyvyan. I only met her briefly after we both attended a session with the CBBC, but she was helpful and gracious and when I later visited her blog I was particularly impressed. You can find that here, at www.jellyjym.com. She uses it not for frequent updates but as a venue to display some of her own work, in particular (recently) a home video/documentary she made with her own children about shark fossils in western Australia, and her show reel, which features diverse media and lots of fun. I like both and was encouraged by the potential of the documentary. Certain science shows like Peep and the Big Wide World feature live-action segments after the animation, but there is certainly room in all English-speaking markets for more live action and documentary for children. With some development I think a format like this would make a great series in and of itself, either on television or the web (where kids could post their own scientific findings). It could also skew to older kids (8 and above) if desired; my personal feelings are that shows with curriculum for this age group are fewer and farther between (something even more true for teens, Brigid Sullivan of WGBH informed us). I loved 3-2-1 Contact when I was a tween (before we were "tweens"), and it'd be great to see that kind of show, for that age group, again. But at any rate, please pop over to Kate's site and have a look at her work--if nothing else it's something to emulate in your own family!

Sunday, March 8, 2009


Times are pretty busy right now so this year it looks like I'll only be able to make one screening of the New York International Children's Film Festival, and that was Saturday with Loretta when we saw the Shorts for Tots program. The venue was at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side, and we got off the A train early enough that we were able to explore a bit of Central Park first and enjoy the--final--arrival of spring. When we walked over to Broadway the line stretched down a block and around a corner, besides the line for those who still needed to purchase tickets. The wait outside wasn't egregious, particularly given the weather, but once we got in things did take a little while longer than expected as we started the screening about twenty minutes late. It was obviously a good turn-out, with at least half the attendees coming for the first time, but one wishes the entrance process could have started earlier so that we could have dimmed the lights closer to the actual time.

But that's about the worst thing I have to say about it. The program of twelve shorts was great. There was an audience ballot handed out and Loretta said she loved three films and really liked each of the others. Here's a shot from one of her favorites--and possibly mine as well--Spot and Splodge by Lotta Geffenblad in Sweden. 

It was claymation, of course, with wonderful snow effects throughout the whole piece, and it reminded me of a cross between Miffy, with the single narrator, and Pingu, for the frosty setting and the slight mischief entered into by the protagonists. The eight-minute plot revolved around two friends who see it's snowing outside, go out and have fun, get caught in a bit of a blizzard, and then make their way back home again. Loretta liked the snow rabbit that they build, and the fact that because of the cold Spot becomes a bit Splodgey and Splodge becomes a bit Spotty. In fact, she started quoting the closing narration today as we were walking home from church, quite accurately I should add. The narrative worked completely well as a stand along film, but it had such quality and such potential for additional stories with these characters that it's the type of thing you hope the filmmakers are trying to adapt to television. I would love to see Spot and Splodge on the preschool television line-up in two years. 

So that was a highlight, and if I had to single out one more I would certainly mention Laban the Little Ghost by Lasse Persson, again in Sweden. This was a traditional 2D animation, running five minutes, and again it would and should absolutely translate into a serial format. Poor little Laban lives in a haunted castle but just can't seem to spook anybody, not the Queen, not the King, not his best friend the Prince, not even the sleeping little guard dog. The narrative is extremely tight and has a wonderful conclusion. It's hard to make a story about a haunted castle and not scare the two- and three-year-olds, but from what I could tell Persson succeeded completely. The film made being spooky fun (and uplifting), and that's a tough brief to fill, especially within five minutes. Well done, then.

There were no losers among the films, although I must simply admit that I've never been a great fan of the book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which was here adapted to film by Scholastic/Weston Woods. (I don't know why I don't really care for it--I think it's good enough, and Scholastic, that is director Konstantin Bronzit, did a wonderful job in the adaptation.) Below we have a pic from another Swedish film--they're on a roll--Aston's Stones, which was particularly appropriate since we had just selected a nice round rock from Central Park to bring home. At the top of this post is a pic from the closing film, Hedgehug, by Dan Pinto. The premise was simple enough--who wants to hug a prickly hedgehog?--and it was a good way to close the screenings. I was impressed by this film, the fantastically wonderful opening film The Bridge on the River Zzzeee, and two or three others (The New Species, Horsie) that essentially excluded dialogue. It's great to thus harken back to cinema's linguistically universal roots, especially for an audience that is just developing their own linguistic abilities, and the kids were able to follow all the stories with no trouble. In fact, the chorus of pint-sized benshi scattered throughout the auditorium made these films particularly enjoyable, as kids brazenly talked their way through these texts and the grown ups for once did not feel obligated to silence them. We all benefitted from that, I suspect.

The festival still has a lot more going on the next couple weekends, for everyone from five- to eighteen-year-olds. Congratulations to all the featured filmmakers and thanks (and congratulations) to the organizers on a job well done.