Friday, December 30, 2011

Best Animated Films of 2011

I just published a post over at Filmmaker Magazine about the best animated films of the year, both for kids and adults. Check it out.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

FETCH! with Ruff Ruffman App

While we're on the subject of apps, here's one that I totally missed a month ago when it was released. It's FETCH! Lunch Rush, and here's the Nov. 14 press release:

PBS KIDS Launches Its First Educational Augmented Reality App

Furthering PBS’s leadership in using new technologies to support learning, FETCH! Lunch Rush App employs augmented reality to teach kids addition and subtraction

ARLINGTON, VA, Nov. 14, 2011 – PBS KIDS today announced its first augmented reality app for iPhone and iPod touch, FETCH! Lunch Rush, which is now available on the App Store. Available for free, the app uses the camera on iPhone or iPod touch to overlay computer-generated graphics on top of the physical, real-world environment. Extending PBS’s leadership in using augmented reality as an educational tool, FETCH! Lunch Rush opens a new world of learning by teaching kids ages six to eight math skills, like addition and subtraction, while blending the virtual and real world into a truly engaging experience.

“Augmented reality is becoming a popular marketing tool and a compelling feature for gamers, but no one has fully explored what this could mean for educating children,” said Jason Seiken, Senior Vice President, Interactive, Product Development and Innovation, PBS. “We were among the first to offer educational augmented reality kids content when we launched the DINOSAUR TRAIN Hatching Party online game last year, in which a player’s real world intersects with a virtual environment online to help hatch a dinosaur egg. We’re excited to expand our exploration of this space by launching our first augmented reality mobile app and continue PBS KIDS’s leadership in using new technologies to further learning.”

“The FETCH! Lunch Rush App is designed as a 3-D game, which helps kids visualize the math problems they are trying to solve,” added Lesli Rotenberg, Senior Vice President, Children’s Media, PBS. “At PBS KIDS our goal is to use media to nurture kids’ natural curiosity and inspire them to explore the world around them; we can’t wait to see what this new app will mean for furthering that exploration.”

The Fetch! Lunch Rush App was produced by PBS member station WGBH and is based on the PBS KIDS GO!series FETCH! With Ruff Ruffman, also produced by WGBH. In this multiplayer app, Ruff Ruffman has to collect the lunch order for his studio crew. The challenge is keeping track of how many pieces of sushi everyone wants using augmented reality “markers” (printable hand-outs) that prompt activity within the app. The app uses 3-D imagery to reinforce the early algebraic concepts, helping kids to make the connection between real objects and corresponding numeric symbols.

The FETCH! Lunch Rush App is available for free from the App Store on iPhone or iPod touch or at

Developed in partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and powered by a Ready To Learn grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Fetch! Lunch Rush is part of a new suite of games available on the newly launched PBS KIDS Lab website ( Combined with online and interactive whiteboard games, this new app helps build a learning experience for kids that takes place across platforms, all with the goal of accelerating learning. In addition to FETCH!, six suites based on hit PBS KIDS series are available on the PBS KIDS Lab: THE CAT IN THE HAT KNOWS A LOT ABOUT THAT!, CURIOUS GEORGE,SID THE SCIENCE KID, FIZZY’S LUNCH LAB, SUPER WHY!. and DINOSAUR TRAIN.

To date, PBS KIDS mobile apps have been downloaded more than 1.4 million times. With a transmedia approach, PBS KIDS is increasingly serving children wherever they live, learn, and play – through mobile devices, as well as on TV, online, in the classroom, and through a new line of educational toys.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New Interactive Dinosaurus ExploreUs Book

Here's an informal announcement from Darren Lutz of Believe Animation about the latest with Dinosaurus ExploreUs. I worked on the original television bible and, if I remember right, pilot episode script. With money tight for television pilots Believe has moved to introduce Dinos in new interactive spaces, which is pretty great. I haven't seen it but it sounds like a nice integration of print and interactive media.

Exciting news from the work front. We just finished a book for one of my animated children's shows called DinosaurUs ExploreUs and it is being released this friday. yeh! It's called Rocks In My Socks and it was authored by my sister and I. It's an adorable story about the process of acceptance. What makes it really stand out from the pack though, is that it has Augmented Reality (old name; virtual reality) games and activities in it. You need an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch 4th gen. to use the AR. Its like nothing you have ever seen before. It will make an AWESOME christmas present for the lil' ones :-) It will be available on Amazon and the Dino website this Friday. The FREE App is in review by Apple now and should be ready be weeks end also.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Children's App Manifesto

So I just got passed along this new manifesto for quality and responsibility in the creation of children's apps. I know quite a few people whose names appear in the signatures, and there's nothing in the manifesto that they weren't already doing; be sure to read the "Our Thinking" page. Where it might be most helpful for producers is to get in touch with other like-minded professionals. On that note, the Facebook Children and Media Professionals group is great for that to. Happy producing!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Sesame Street Launches in Afghanistan

There are already local versions across the globe, but the newest, that premiered yesterday, is significant for obvious reasons (just think of the fact Abby and Zoey are learning along with Elmo and Telly, for one example). Here's the AFP article (no byline):

US children's television favourite Sesame Street came toAfghanistan this week with the launch of a new series featuring familiar characters like Elmo and Big Bird.

"Baghch-e-Simsim" made its debut on a local TV channel Thursday and aims to improve education for children in the desperately poor, warring country.

It features Sesame Street's typical mix of Jim Henson's Muppets and short educational films and its initial run is for 26 half-hour episodes.

But some of the most familiar characters from the original show had to be cut from the Afghan version for cultural reasons, including the trash-loving Oscar the Grouch and The Count, a vampire maths whizz.

"Oscar the Grouch I had to minimise because his passion for trash did not translate well culturally here," the show's Afghan-American producer, Tania Farzana, told AFP.

As for The Count, she added that his fangs and fondness for bats would have proved problematic in a conservative, Islamic society like Afghanistan.

Producers also had to scrap a scene they tested in which shock-headed duo Bert and Ernie barked at each other.

"I can have them do lion sounds, rooster sounds but doing a dog is not acceptable," Farzana said.

"One of the worst words you can call someone in Afghan culture is a dog so to have kids barking like one is going beyond the line of what's right."

Farzana added that, unlike the US version of Sesame Street, dancing was not encouraged on the Afghan version.

Such activity in front of the opposite sex is seen as overtly sexual in Afghanistan, so Afghan children watching the show are encouraged to exercise to music instead of dancing.

"That way I don't get reprimanded by the parents because it's exercise and who can disagree with that?" Farzana said.

It is not the first time that the Sesame Street format has been exported.

A version of the show came to neighbouring Pakistan earlier this year, funded by the US government's international aid agency USAID, while co-productions have also screened in Bangladesh, Egypt, Mexico and Russia.

The latest version is a joint production by Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street, and Afghan television station Tolo.

"Teachers here in Afghanistan will discover that Sesame Street can help children start school well prepared," said the US ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker. "Perhaps most importantly, it shows children the world around them."

Afghanistan's deputy education minister Mohammad Siddiq Patman said he believed the programme would "depict traditions, culture and other aspects of Afghan rural and urban life" and would be "profoundly useful" for children.

And here's a really short video from the Guardian:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Beauty and the Beast app

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. We were able to go down to Virginia Beach to see my brother's family, play with cousins, work on riding a bike without dozens of cars all around, and visit Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg on Black Friday. It wasn't Plymouth, but it was great to see the site of America's oldest English settlement and the recently excavated site of their first church, where Pocahontas was married. (At least I think the covered hole in the ground was the site referenced in the article, which came out a day or two after we visited.) Loretta's just suddenly gotten into the American Girl books, so it was nice to have two in hours in Williamsburg so that she can identify with the place when she reads the Felicity books, which she started this morning on the subway. It was a really unexpected "text-to-self" connection, as they say at her school.

Recently I've really been trying to get up to speed on all the kids' literary/narrative apps out there, like the Mo Willems app I wrote about the other week. A new one came out on 11/11 that looks really promising, Disney's Beauty and the Beat Storybook Deluxe:

Here's the description as posted in the app store:

Experience a tale as old as time in this fully interactive Storybook Deluxe app. Complete with games, movie clips, puzzles, coloring pages, and sing-along songs from the film, you’ll find a surprise on every page. Hear the story read aloud, record your own narration, or explore at your own pace.

In this unforgettable story of love and adventure, a young woman named Belle finds herself in a castle with talking furniture, an enchanted rose, and a grumpy beast. Despite an awkward beginning, Belle and the Beast gradually become friends, and Belle learns not to judge a book by its cover. A beloved Disney favorite retold in a magical new format the whole family can enjoy!

* Interactive Storybook Deluxe app features your favorite characters from Disney's award-winning Beauty and the Beast.
* Two reading modes allow you to follow along as the story is read aloud, or explore at your own pace.
* Engage in exciting activities based on scenes from Beauty and the Beast—help Belle make her way to the Beast's castle in the hedge maze, or go on a hunt for hidden roses.
* Puzzles and coloring pages for all ages!
* Record your voice reading the story and hear it played back as narration.
* Jump to your favorite page with the Visual Page Index.

I haven't been able to try it out yet--I guess I need to put an iPhone or Pad on my Christmas list--but it shows the promise of the expanding field of e-publishing. The combination of gaming and print is interesting, expanding the story world of the experience in ways that can engage new readers or lengthen the experience for established fans, and the games and coloring pages look really fun. But I'm a little more interested in the ways the app lets kids interact with the text itself. Essentially, different reading levels and reading out loud yourself remind me exactly of reading a print book, but it is a little different. Hearing your voice back, for instance, is something a book can't do, and I'd love to hear more about users' experiences--or professional research--about how this influences kids and the act of "reading" a text.

If you watch this demo video, however, you'll be reminded that the Disney Beauty and the Beast that's being adapted here to app form is not a book but a film. At first I was hesitant about the use of the full-motion video, but it looks like it actually works with the printed text quite well; the music, visuals, and Linda Woolverton's narrative innovations are obviously the strength of the film version, after all, so it wouldn't make sense to ignore those in bringing the film to the iPad (plus the performances by all the actors). What you're left with is a nice mix of video, print, and gaming, which should be a great treat for any Disney Princess fan. I hope that with future adaptations the mix becomes more and more fluid, but how to do that will be the state of the art of narrative app design.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Off to Bed! with Dada Company

So even though I haven't yet been able to get an iPhone or iPad, I'm trying to get more informed about the children's media, particularly narrative media, that's appearing on their screens. One app that I've recently come across is the interactive picture book Off to bed! by Mariam Ben-Arab and David Yerga. It's produced by the Spain-based Dada Company and is now available in English as well as Spanish. Here's a video trailer:

And here's a little promotional film about the company in general, including their title on transportation. This is in Spanish and I wish the music were mixed a little lower because it's hard for me to follow what they're saying when Zooey Deschanel is so much easier for me to understand, but even if you don't speak the language there are some good shots of their art and design work.

It looks like companies like this are starting to get their head increasingly around what interactive storytelling is and how it differs from traditional A-Z narratives. But what are these hybrid forms? Is this really a goodnight storybook or should we call it something else? Beyond semantics, is this really helpful in getting kids down for bed? I tried a Pajanimals clip tonight and it initially quieted my two-year-old down, but when it ended and we closed the laptop she broke down, so I'm not sure how helpful it was.

But those are the kinds of questions creators and parents will have to ask now, because there's obviously no going back to the pre-digital days, even for late adapters like me. (I don't want to be a late adapter! I'm just semi-employed!) So I'm excited by the enthusiasm and commitment on Dada's website and the respect they show both their young audience and their new tools. Whenever a new medium's been introduced theorists and practitioners have had to labor over finding its inherent comparative advantages vis-a-vis old media, and I think titles like Off to bed! will help move us in that direction--and entertain kids along the way. I can definitely see Izzy--and even Loretta--playing with those lights, swings, and the kissing moon for quite some time. Bien hecho y buena suerte con sus proyectos en el futuro!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Curious George Thanksgiving

It's been about three years since I've written about the PBS/WGBH show Curious George, which was then starting its third season, and the show is still going strong and worth revisiting. Obviously the source property has been a favorite for over half a century, but the television version adapts and builds on that in a style all its own. And it's still proving popular: the show won the Outstanding Children's Animated Program Emmy last year, it's the top-ranked preschool show in the U.S., and it's been renewed through its ninth season--which is three seasons away! Building upon that popularity, PBS is airing a new collection of George films this Thanksgiving in what it hopes will become an annual holiday tradition.

In a line-up called the Curious George Holiday Spectacular, PBS will be airing the network/public television premiere of the theatrical Curious George film from 2006, followed immediately by Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey, which had aired in '09, and then, getting in the all-out holiday spirit, Curious George: A Very Monkey Christmas (also '09), a kind of mix between O. Henry, Charles Dickens, and of course Hans and Margret Rey. My 7-year-old had the chance to see the original theatrical film at an event hosted by PBS a few days ago, and she was absolutely enchanted. For the subsequent thirty minutes I heard every last plot point from beginning to end, accompanied with a tremendous amount of girlish giggling--in other words she loved it.

The films will air back to back Wednesday the 23rd and then repeat frequently throughout Thanksgiving weekend, when there's plenty of time to curate your own monkey movie marathon.

I got a chance to talk with the executive producer Dorothea Gillim (also the creator of another family favorite, WordGirl) and learned some more about how the books were adapted (a strict "no purple" rule to match the palette of the books, and the fact Margret Rey wrote in her will that George would never be allowed to talk) and what's in store for the property. Besides being slated to pass 200 regular episodes in the next few years, there's more long-form content on the way. Future television films include other seasonal productions--initially for spring and Halloween--that will roll out at least annually. These film ventures could really represent the direction George is going in his third iteration, after books and the television show, in the next decade.

Here's a spot on the Thanksgiving lineup:

And here's the trailer for the original feature film (lower resolution):

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App

Hope everyone had a great Halloween weekend. Ours was full of candy, pumpkin carving (Harry Potter again...), some Wallace and Gromit were-rabbitting, a little partying, and, for the first time, the Halloween costume parade by Ft. Tryon Park in Washington Heights. Izzy bit into her glow stick and immediately threw up, but she recovered almost immediately and remained the cutest little chicken in the crowd (as profiled on the Today show!).

Before the holiday, however, I had the chance to learn about a cool new app from Hyperion Books and Mo Willems (seen here): Don't Let the Pigeon Run This App. (For everything the Pigeon can't do, evidently sitting on heads is allowed.)

I'm sure that nearly all parents will be familiar with Mo's work in print--he's the author of the Pigeon picture books (starting with Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus in 2003), the Elephant and Piggie easy readers, the Cat the Cat books, and numerous other stand-alone books. Recently Loretta took a break from her Harry Potter craze to really get into Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, which we had gotten for Isabelle. There's no way a naked mole rat isn't funny, and leave it up to Mo to be the first to exploit that in a book for kids. I first saw his work when Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was being passed around the Strand Bookstore office--which is run by adults--when I was there in 2003. Through all this he's earned my everlasting envy by doing everything I want to do better than I ever could: he's won six Emmys while working on Sesame Street, created his own kids' shows, and racked up the awards with his books: three Caldecotts, two Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals, and probably others I'm losing track of. And he's pushing boundaries as well: on October 23 Jonathan Hunt wrote a column at School Library Journal arguing that the Elephant and Piggie book I Broke My Trunk should be considered for (and win) the Newbery Medal, an award given purely on the merit of the text and hence not traditionally given to picture books; Hunt's somewhat controversial argument, illustrated through a really thorough analysis, is that Mo has blown right past all other easy readers and expanded the state of the art of the storybook or illustrated book in what most publishers and librarians would consider just a picture book. Whether that argument will persuade the ALA remains to be seen, but last month Mo published a new Elephant and Piggie book (the excellent Happy Pig Day) and installed an large-scale sculpture at the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst; and another Pigeon book, The Duckling Gets a Cookie, will be coming early next year. Talk about polymathic. Maybe he should let the Pigeon do some of this stuff!

And now there's an app. At the event last week Mo said he'd long resisted doing something interactive. After his move from television to literature this reasoning makes sense: he's astute enough to know that each property needs to fully exploit the capabilities of its medium, and he didn't want to create any type of app that didn't fully capitalize on the interactive capability of iPads and handheld devices. He didn't want it to keep going if you set it down and left the room. (That would be a TV show on a tablet.) So when the inspiration came about how to create the right kind of app in March he and the folks at Hyperion jumped right in, working on it over the summer and launching last week. And it is a pretty great piece of software; Apple noticed and named it "App of the Week" last week. At $7 it's definitely on the pricey side, but that reflects the work that went into it and the variety of activities it presents youngsters.

This is the most basic: shake the Pigeon. Mo made sure that you could shake the Pigeon--causing him to freak out as seen here--indefinitely. Tickling works too. Beyond small creative corners like this, the app breaks down into two basic categories: drawing the Pigeon and telling stories with him. The first is fairly self-explanatory, with the tutorials introduced by Mo himself. This is enough to keep budding artists busy for some time, but it's with the storytelling where things really come to life. The Disney Interactive Publishing people described this as their first author-driven app, and Mo's drive for true interactivity (much like the original books themselves) means kids are intimately involved with shaping the narratives: the title page even credits it as an app "By Mo Willems and YOU." (So kids can "infringe on my copyright in interesting ways," Mo said.)

There are three levels of interactivity here for different age ranges: Egg, which lets the youngest kids change a few nouns to create new stories; Chick, where slightly older kids can create stories through multiple-choice options; and Big Pigeon, where audio cues tell kids to supply various words, Mad Libs-style, that are then plugged into the resulting story. With all the variables built into the app--let alone the creativity of the kids using it--there are over 100,000 stories in there. (One youngster last week suggested Don't Let the Pigeon Poop on the People, and Mo promised to read it if the boy wrote it.) So there are quite a few train rides built into this thing--although given its aural interface it might be better built for quieter car rides than the straphanger kids here in the city.

Mo's influence is all over this--in a nice Freudian touch he even voiced the Pigeon himself--and I really hope it indicates the direction future narrative-based apps will be going. Thankfully, the Disney/Hyperion folks indicate that it is. After this maiden voyage--the first collaboration between the teams at Hyperion, a book-only imprint of Disney, and Disney Interactive Publishing, the app people--they have several other properties lined up and are even interested in new authors angling to write in this new space. And that bodes well for the state of art of the app; we'll see what suggestions the Newbery committee is dealing with ten years from now.

As for now, there's one cool app out there starring one surly but lovable pigeon. Check out this video and more Willems-related stuff at

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Why we like Harry Potter

Astute readers will notice that my posts here have been steadily declining for quite some time. This is mostly because other interests have taken my time and attention elsewhere, and those other activities remain incredibly, well, active, right now. I won't go into them all, which would be boring even for me, but I will say that there's been a lot of things I've wanted to write about here that have fallen to the side during all my craziness and disorganization. (And I'm oh so sorry to those publicists and musicians who I haven't followed through with yet!! It's still coming!) I'm writing for my own film/transmedia blog and have now started posting for Filmmaker magazine, plus I'm also revising my own the intention to migrate a lot of my blogging there. My writing docket's pretty full.

So what to do here, on my oldest and truest little blog? Long term I don't know, but for the next little while I'm going to try shaking it up and seeing what kind of effect that can have on my own writing and consistency. In a nutshell, I'm going to try treating Red Balloon more casually, more autobiographically, and more like any other daddy blog out there--although I'll certainly retain my bias toward media. Loretta and Isabelle are seven and two now, and their adventures through the digital world are well worth chronicling.

A couple weeks ago I was cleaning out some computer and camera stuff from our storage closet and ran across a roll of 35mm film. "Look, Loretta," I said, "this is what people used to take pictures on."

"Why didn't they just use a camera?"

Oh, my dear sweet digital native. Last night she said Izzy sounded like a "record on repeat" and I realized she'll never see or hear a broken record in her life. A hair turned gray but I got a bit more insight into her seven-year-old worldview.

In monitoring all this familial activity, I won't lose my perspective as an active participant in the children's entertainment industry. I'll try to increase my reviews--helpful for both creators and users--and continue speaking about industry information, news, etc. -- just all from the perspective of a father who's both a creator and consumer in this biz.

So I'm going to try to upload a rather large video file of Loretta talking about her favorite books. She accompanied me on a shoot for a nonprofit organization, and while we had a little pause for that I had Loretta take a seat in front of the camera and asking her about books was just the first thing that popped into my head. But I think it turned into an insightful little interview.

Sorry about the squeeze and grain on the image. I shot it HD but am still figuring out all the compression codecs, etc.

So for the record, we've let her read the first two Harry Potter books but we're taking a several-month break before #3. Call us conservative, but I also think that will help draw the experience out longer and help her as the actual reading level pushes upward toward The Deathly Hallows.

Here are some of her favorites, then:


The Anderson School, where Loretta goes, doesn't technically celebrate Halloween, not during the school day anyway (tonight they're watching Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Wererabbit as an evening event). Next Monday is Storybook Character Day, not Halloween, so every kid's costume has to come out of a storybook somewhere. Loretta's is Annie's kimono here from Dragon of the Red Dawn. And if you're really interested in seeing it in action, here she is on the Today show this last Tuesday. A film crew caught us near the end of the day at Boo at the Bronx Zoo a couple weeks ago. So Loretta, little Isabelle (a chicken holding Cinderella's hand), and some friends are in the video at 2:41.

It was just a moment of screen time but it made Izzy's day. Happy Halloween!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Furry Puppet Studio

So we missed the Elmo doc but hit the Jim Henson exhibit and both girls really liked it; there were enough puppets and videos for them to look at and enough labels and conceptual art to supplement it for the adults. We had to drag the girls away from a documentary on Henson's life and, later, the Muppet-full gift shop.

After that we survived the hurricane by leaving town for a week to see Niagara Falls, some Mormon Church history sites east of Rochester, and some friends in Vermont, with surprisingly good roads given the flooding. The Hudson and East Rivers are both brown with flooding run off, and I stopped by the Central Park lake this morning (after dropping Loretta off at her first day of second grade!) to see it's risen about a foot (it's been raining this week too), but there's virtually no damage in the city and the kids I've talked to actually found Irene more amusing than anything else, which is a nice contrast to how it could have gone.

So let's get back to puppets. While all of that was going on I got an email from Zack Buchman, the founder of Furry Puppet Studio in Brooklyn. The studio's been around a while but they just got a new website, which looks really cool in both Flash and html versions. One thing I love about New York is the plenitude of puppet-makers here; I'm no expert but I think this may well be the puppet-making capital of the world. And Furry Puppet's work, like this example, looks great--anyone in need of some design or construction would do well to check them out!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Muppets Galore

Just a couple of notes about things going on around New York related to Muppets. The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria is hosting the Jim Henson's Fantastic World exhibit until next January. As explained on the museum's website, the exhibit contains Muppets and material covering everything from his earliest show Sam and Friends through all the films--Muppet movies as well as Dark Crystal--and the well-known television shows: The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, and of course Sesame Street, which is filmed next door to the museum. There are evidently demonstrations and lectures on the weekends, but for the next couple weeks Friday afternoons are free, so you can pick which you'd rather have. We'll probably go this Friday.

If you like looking behind the scenes of the Muppets, you can then catch a screening of the new documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, which premiered at Sundance and is currently showing as part of DocuWeeks in New York and L.A. Directed by Constance Marks, who cut her teeth with the Maysles brothers, and featuring Kevin Clash (aka Elmo), this looks like one of the best looks behind the scenes of Sesame Street we've had; for me it seems more engaging than The World According to Sesame Street from 2005. Maybe it's apples and oranges because of the different emphases of the films, but giving intelligent analysis to the character and phenomenon of Elmo, and the creative personality behind him, seems like a really excellent idea.

Here's a really short teaser:

Here's an interview with the filmmakers:

and with the subject:

Monday, August 8, 2011

Legend of Korra trailer

I neglected to share this a couple weeks ago during Comic-Con when it was released. But since Avatar is by far the most popular show in our home it's a pretty big deal around here. And this new series looks every bit as good as the old one, meaning the whole property won't suffer too much for its feature film misstep.

Doesn't that footbridge look excessively steep?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Party with the Laurie Berkner Band

Last week the Laurie Berkner Band released a brand new DVD-CD combo called Party Day!

My own kids are out of town so I can only give you my grown-up take on it, but I was not disappointed. It has 12 songs, taking viewers along for a costume party, a birthday party, and a pajama party. A group of kids (giving great performances) accompany them along the way, joining in for consistently upbeat songs like "This Hat," "Where is the Cake?," and the mischievous "The Cookie Bakers of the Night."

The DVD is essentially a visual album, a smart move in today's market of online media and decreased DVD and, particularly, CD sales; the great animations on the DVD, coupled with the accompanying five-track CD, give parents a reason to purchase the actual discs, although I don't know if there are plans for an iTunes version down the road.

Like all of Berkner's work, the program seems geared toward the 3-6 crowd, although I expect it should work very well all the way through age eight or even nine; the music certainly does, and I know my seven-year-old, having given up on many other preschool properties, still enjoys this band's segments on Jack's Big Music Show. I'll have to give it a go with her when she gets back from her summer vacation, but my expectation is a lot of dancing and jumping around...

The band consists of Laurie Berkner, Adam Bernstein, Susie Lampert, and Bobby Golden. The DVD was directed by Bil White and produced by his partner Nathalie Renard at Space Cadet Industries. You can check out the album on the band's website.

Here's a YouTube preview of the title track "Party Day":

Thursday, June 23, 2011

First graders on transmedia

This is a great post on how first graders define transmedia buzzwords. Can't wait to try with my own first grader.


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Readeez Volume Three

Over the past couple years I've become a fan of Michael Rachap (seen here), father and creator of the musical literacy "Readeez" DVDs. Michael's a musician and father who's put his skills to great use creating these minimally animated--but beautifully designed--videos to teach phonics and sight words around a first grade level (expanding later into things like syntax and math). Now he's just finished volume three in the series, and though I haven't seen it yet I'm excited to do so and can guarantee it'll be full of catchy tunes, great lyrics, and strong curriculum. Check it out (and buy it!) on Readeez' website.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

New Teletubbies & In the Night Garden apps

Teletubbies is one of my favorite programs (or favourite programmes) out there for very young children. We used it to introduce Loretta to television when she was old enough, and now I still go back and look at old episodes on my own. I've also recently discovered the joys of In the Night Garden, the follow-up show by the same production company, Ragdoll, in the UK. I've been watching it on the Hub constantly over the past two months and can't think of a better program for the pre-preschool set, the 2-4 year-olds. So if parents have been using these shows to introduce their youngsters to TV (no younger than 2, I hope), then they can now use them to introduce them to their mobile devices. I haven't seen these apps yet, but I expect them to be pretty high quality, given the precedent.

Toddlers can now tap into BBC Worldwide’s In the Night Garden and Teletubbies brands on their iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad mobile devices.

Now available on the App Store, Teletubbies: My First App! features the characters from the TV series along with the original music and voices. Developed by EM Studios, the app features age-appropriate games and a dedicated Parent’s Zone that allows parents to customize the app specifically for their children, including length of play and access to other content.

Similarly, Hibernum Creations’ In the Night Garden app immerses fans into the TV series’ fantastical world. Players are able to dance and play counting games alongside characters like the Pontipines and Upsy Daisy.

Now I know that for some Ragdoll's shows can be a little controversial, and there are plenty of parents out there who don't like the Teletubbies. I think they're extremely well designed, but I'd love to hear any other opinions. What can be the merits of new Teletubbies and Night Garden apps?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Who Else Misses Ooh and Aah?

So far so good for Disney Junior here in the U.S. But it's always sad when great host characters have to move on to that big television station in the sky, and the removal of the words "Playhouse Disney" has apparently made Ooh and Aah obsolete--and there aren't even any high quality videos of them online. These puppets were well written, well designed, and with great songs. Congrats on the long run to everyone involved with them.

What other host characters do you miss? Piper O'Possum was awesome. At least she's on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

KidScreen 2011 Gets Underway

Today was the first day of the expanded KidScreen Summit for 2011 and I already had several really great meetings. There were no regular sessions today, just day-long master classes for those who paid an additional fee, but that gave those of us who were meeting a chance at finding a seat. I'll start going to sessions tomorrow, of course, and will probably be tweeting with the hashtag #kidscreen11, which is how you can find out about all the goings-on. My twitter name's randyastle, btw.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A note on the show

Just wanted to say Saturday's Milkshake show was everything that was expected--a little bottle of sunshine while it was raining outside. It helped cement my belief that the Just Kidding series is one of the great opportunities for New York families. This Saturday: music of the African diaspora from Heritage OP (Organic Percussion). Check it out.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Just Kidding at Symphony Space

One of the coolest things about living in New York is all the wonderful venues and events going on for youth and families all the time. Symphony Space in the Upper West Side is one of the great continual fountains of such events. Thus far, because of my interest in children's film, I've only attended the New York International Children's Film Festival (this year's tickets just went on sale a few days ago). But this Saturday I'm excited to go to a performance by Milkshake as part of Symphony Space's Just Kidding live event series. I've been vaguely aware of the series for quite a while but have never found out much about it or, obviously, attended, so it's exciting to not only see Milkshake again but tap into one of the best children's concert series in the city.

Of course, calling it a "concert series" is a little myopic, as I found out yesterday when I got to chat with Darren Critz, the performing arts director who curates the entire series. (He's the one on the left, I believe.)

Darren's a really affable guy--and incredibly knowledgeable about children's music, as I found out. He has two main programming dicta that reflect this: the first is that any performers have to be quality musicians (or dancers or thespians), and on top of that quality live performers--they have to not only sound good on their CD but engage kids at the back of a 750-seat hall. His second rule of thumb is that he wants as broad a range of music as possible, from the country sounds of Farmer Jason to pop and rock acts like Milkshake, Recess Monkey, and the Sugar Free Allstars, to, this season, international and native music such as from folk artist Suni Paz, the Thunderbird Dancers (who present an array of Native American dances), and, all the way from Cuba for the first time since 2002, los Munequitos de Matanzas (who will be giving shows for both families and adults sans kids). This array is already striking, and Darren envisions getting more artists from outside the U.S.--as well as just from outside the city--coming in and presenting their work.

Since college I've striven to be eclectic in my musical choices, so I appreciate being able to expose my daughters to such a broad spectrum of live performers this early in their lives. Tweens, it seems, have started to solidify in the type of music they like, and they're hesitant to try anything new. And parents are even worse. So Darren sees the Just Kidding series as an opportunity to expand parents' musical worlds as well as kids'. Parents are more likely to take children to a concert of music that they wouldn't normally listen to just to expose the kids to it--and the upshot is that the parents are exposed as well. One of the best things about the entire series, in fact, is watching parents get into shows and rock out with their children.

That brings me to what I believe is one of the most important purposes of live events--be they music, dance, theater, galleries, picnics, or anything else--they allow for greater interaction between parent and child than more passive (socially constrained) experiences like watching a movie. I wrote about the value of interaction between parents and children in one of my first posts on this blog (it's point #4); suffice it to say here that the type of talent lined up for Just Kidding is exactly what you would want for this type of interaction. And groups like Milkshake are great, as we discovered with our infant last year, because they pack so much more into a performance than just the music. There's such a strong visual component, as Darren pointed out, that they can entertain very, very young children (as well as adults).

Here are some other really cool things I learned about Just Kidding:

* In addition to pushing international performers, future series (which run from October through April generally) will have a stronger component of theater and dance. I'm really pleased about that.

* If you miss a performance or don't live in the city, chances are it will have been recorded and you can catch it online at Symphony Space Live. Note, that's for grown-ups' performances as well as kids', and included discussions and presentations as well as performances.

* Also, there's a lesser known book series that brings literature into the mix. These presentations aren't as frequent as those with musicians, due to publishing dates, author availability, and general book tour issues, but they're definitely worth checking out. (These are generally for 7-11 year-old readers, btw--chapter books and easy novels rather than picture books.) The next one is with Laurie Halse Anderson on March 20, with Lincoln Peirce on April 10. Authors do various things, but they include readings, discussions of their works, and even writing workshops with the kids. There are eight to ten of these a year (and, again, there are adult authors as well).

So there's definitely a lot going on--congratulations to Darren and everyone at Symphony Space for keeping such an outstanding series going for roughly a decade now. As far as this Saturday goes, I'm excited to see Milkshake again; we often listen to their music during breakfast to get my seven-year-old moving in the mornings, and I'm excited that she's excited to see them in person now that she can sing along. That kind of reaction from the kids is what these live events are all about.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

New Study on Children's Books and Bookstores

A few days ago Publishers' Weekly had a good article about a new study on youth reading and book-purchasing habits. It's a very interesting short little read, with some expected information and some surprising findings, such as that teenagers rate reading books as their third favorite leisure activity and that over 80% of them don't read ebooks. Interesting.

Friday, January 14, 2011

BAMkids Festival in February

Just a quick note that the schedule for the BAMkids Film Festival in Brooklyn is up and available. It's a great event--looks like an excellent line-up this year--that's happening the first weekend in February. Check it out and if you're at all able it's a great event with shows for kids of all ages.

And speaking of events in New York, check out my post on my other blog about the reopening of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens; it's a great venue for kids and adults alike, and the new floor space and exhibits will just make it that much better.