Archive for October, 2011

Time Shift Your TV – America in Primetime

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Dick Van Dyke Show

A TV series about television? Sounds like maybe the last thing you’d want to watch, but PBS’ new four-part documentary America in Primetime is well worth your viewing time.

It’s all about character—or, rather, four specific types of characters—which makes for an interesting examination of certain popular themes in television. The hour-long episodes are: The Independent Woman, The Man of the House, The Misfit and The Crusader.

Approaching the four documentaries this way allows the filmmakers to use clips from all sorts of shows, including the many classics you would expect such as All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore. But it also enables producers to focus on new shows, too, including The Good Wife, Breaking Bad, The X-Files, The Shield, True Blood and 24.

There is no narration. Points that speak to the theme of each of the four episodes are made through interviews with dozens of different stars, writers and producers, including Edie Falco, Ron Howard, Julianna Margulies, Dick Van Dyke, Danny DeVito, Patricia Heaton, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Judd Apatow, Roseanne Barr, Sarah Jessica Parker and Rainn Wilson. Their personal observations, right down to specific jokes and scenes, explain how the shows pushed the envelope, reflected the real world and had a big impact on our culture. They offer insight and give context to the shows we have loved and watched through the years, and currently watch now.

My only quibble: At times, the focus on one character – such as Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife – borders on feeling like an ad for the show. But listening to the character analyses by the people who know them so well will help you gain an understanding of what they were—and are—trying to accomplish.

At times, America in Primetime is moving and inspirational. At other times, the old clips are laugh-out loud hilarious. After you’ve watched the documentaries, you will likely end up watching your favorite shows with a fresh appreciation and understanding. You might find yourself searching your TV’s guide for shows that really are trying to say something through its characters. Or you might end up just yearning for an old episode of I Love Lucy.

The four-part series premiered Sunday, Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. and will continue to air new episodes on Sundays through Nov. 20 on PBS. Don’t worry if you missed the first one. The Independent Woman repeats many times throughout the week before the second installment on Nov. 6. Check TV listings.

The Future of Picture Books Is Bright

Friday, October 28th, 2011

“We are tired of hearing the picture book is in trouble and tired of pretending it is not,” reads the opening sentence of a new proclamation from a group of children’s book authors. Read the whole thing here. It’s a proclamation that is particularly important now, as e-books and book apps leave parents, kids, and librarians wondering about the fate of the classic picture book.

The authors, including Parents’ Choice Awards winners Sophie Blackall and Sean Qualls, declare sound standards for pictures books, including: “The tidy ending is often dishonest” and “Even books meant to put kids to sleep should give them strange dreams.” They condemn the phrase “kid-friendly” and encourage their peers not to praise bland books. To stay relevant, picture book authors and illustrators ought to take heed of these points.

This is a refreshingly frank call to quality from a group of authors and illustrators at the top of their game. If others in the picture book world take heed of this proclamation, then the future is bright for the art form. We hope that this is the case, because kids need the imaginative possibilities opened by picture books as much today as they ever have, even in the face of a slew of new electronic options.

In that spirit, we offer a list of picture book titles that are honest, enlightening, weird, funny, complex and, above all else, memorable. They’ve all become storytime staples and conversation starters in our reviewers’ homes, and we hope that your family will enjoy them too.

Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange with illustrations by Kadir Nelson


Read this one twice, once for the pictures, once for the words. A beautiful book about the loss of community and memory among young African Americans, it works subtly and effectively. Monuments are poor substitutes for real memories and Shange’s words are neither bitter nor preachy. Kadir Nelson has long been one of the great children’s book illustrators and his work here is no exception. The historical figures in this book are drawn with care and love. Looking at the pictures you want to talk to the author and ask her about the past. It is a dinner party with some of the black men and one black woman who changed history. The reader is enriched by attending. Highly recommended for all ages.

The Crows of Pearblossom
 by Aldous Huxley with illustrations by Sophie Blackall

The Crows of Pearblossom relates how Mrs. Crow is troubled by an egg-gobbling rattlesnake who lives at the base of her tree and how her husband and Old Man Owl solve the problem by tricking the serpent. Out of print since it was first published in 1967, the story is now available again thanks to Sophie Blackall and her illustrations: vivid color drawings and amusingly conceived scenes that wonderfully shorten the distance between readers and her in-your-face subjects.

The Scrambled States of America by Laurie Keller

The Scrambled States of America (and the mini industry of “scrambled” products it spawned), the story tells of the day that the 50 states decided to change places. Unfortunately, the switch doesn’t go as well as expected; when Minnesota switches places with Florida he gets sunburned; Kansas becomes lonesome and seasick after switching places with Hawaii, and so on. In addition to the charming lessons in United States geography, the message about the grass not always being greener is skillfully and humorously executed.

The Dirty Cowboy by Amy Timberlake with illustrations by Adam Rex

A freckled cowboy decides “this ol’ boy needs a bath,” seeing as to how he’s found 32 fleas in his hair and tumbleweeds in his chaps. He takes his dawg to the El Rio River and instructs him to not let anyone touch the clothes. The cowboy has a good scrub; but when he returns, his half-blind dawg doesn’t recognize him without his usual sweaty wild boar and cow scent. A big old tussle ensues, and the clothes are destroyed. Dawg finally recognizes the newly grimy cowboy who is forced to walk home “naked as a nickel.”

Art & Max  by David Wiesner

David Wiesner takes readers on a colorful journey following an accomplished artist stuck in his ways. Max gives Arthur a jolt which allows him to understand the value of drawing outside the lines and viewing the world from, and with, a slightly different perspective. Wiesner’s tale is at once charming, humorous and humbling.

The Odious Ogre by Norton Juster with illustrations by Jules Feiffer

The story stars an Ogre who, in his own words, is “invulnerable, impregnable, insuperable, indefatigable, insurmountable.” From town to town the enormous, angry, ugly, and ravenous Ogre terrorizes the land, feasting on villagers from librarians (his impressive vocabulary came from his inadvertent ingestion of a large dictionary) to grocers to the generally grousing grownups. Full of fear, no one does anything to stop him. One day, the Ogre wanders off his path and comes upon a kind and generous young woman tending her garden. That, dear readers, is where the lessons begin.

I Feel Better with a Frog in My Throat by Carlyn Beccia (nonfiction)

Carlyn Beccia’s nonfiction picture book is an eye-opening look at “history’s strangest cures” for a number of common ailments. We learn, for example, that having a cold in sixteenth-century England might have meant taking a dose of “puke weed,” and that drinking urine was a typical prescription for curing stomachaches. The text is a combination of science and history with a gross-out factor that will appeal to children.

Back to the Future

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Pictured (L-R): Landon Liboiron, Shelley Conn, Jason O'Mara, Alana Mansour and Naomi Scott. ©2010 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Michael Lavine/FOX

One of the fall’s most heralded new shows is Fox’s Terra Nova, a big budget sci-fi extravaganza from executive producer Steven Spielberg.  So yes, there are dinosaurs as well as bad guys and lots of action and special effects. The basic premise is that in the future, we have wasted our natural resources beyond repair and the only way for humans to move forward is to go back in time. Through a one-way time portal, select individuals can go back 85 million and get things right.  The show follows the Shannon family as they try to adjust to life in Terra Nova, the first colony in a beautiful but dangerous time on our planet. According to the show, life in 2149 was ruled by technology, so the Shannon’s three kids, Josh, Maddy and Zoe, are thrown back to a world without iPods, TVs or movies. So far, the series doesn’t dwell too much on that aspect of culture shock. Unfriendly dinosaurs and other critters–not to mention other human rebel colonists–take precedent. It makes one wonder though, when current research says our youngest kids are exposed three times more to technology than to books, if there isn’t a little fact in this science fiction. How do we unplug without becoming isolated? What can we do now (short of traveling back in time), to get back to the simple life? Does your family make an effort to make books a priority–that is, when you aren’t watching the new fall shows? What’s the longest your family has ever gone “unplugged?”

The People in Your Neighborhood

Monday, October 24th, 2011

Our neighborhood Chili Cook-Off

In the world according to television, we all live in beautifully decorated homes, friendly small towns with hiddily-ho neighborly neighbors. That is, unless, you live in that alternate TV stereotype—the creepy town of  supernatural creatures,  disturbing characters and unsolved murders. The real fact is that home life is far more complicated than that, and according to urbanists, our world and the way we live is evolving.  The old model of suburban life doesn’t hold true. The suburbs could now be considered less idyllic then they once were (especially on TV)– at least, less user-unfriendly and more isolationist. City living means a  high density population, but not necessarily more socialization. You may live close to a lot of people and still not know any of them. Wherever you live, though, you can and should get to know the people and business owners in your neighborhood. Socialization is a big component to our kids’ success, and while creating a safe and happy home is a parental priority, it’s important not to stop the effort at the doorstep. Beyond homeowner associations and grocery store shout-outs, how well do you know your own community? How many neighbors on your block can you name (both first and last?)  When was the last time your family got together with neighbors just for fun?

Here are a few ideas to promote neighborhood interaction:

National Night Out:

How to Get More People Involved:

Get Involved:

Time Shift Your TV – Halloween Edition

Monday, October 24th, 2011

It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown

TV can bring families together. It may not always offer the educational experience that a board game does (such as the many listed in our new Toy Awards), but a good show can evoke emotion, teach a lesson, prompt a conversation. And some shows become rituals, to be shared as a family through the years.

One such show is It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Like Rudolph at holiday time, this 30-minute Charles M. Schulz cartoon is a classic favorite at Halloween time. It centers around Linus, who believes the Great Pumpkin comes every year. He’s ridiculed for his beliefs, but stands strong. It was first broadcast on Oct. 27, 1966 and this year, ABC will air it again-45 years later-on Thursday, Oct. 27, at 8 p.m.

Other Halloween offerings that might be of interest this week:

Zombies: A Living History on the History Channel, Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 8 p.m.
This two-hour special takes a look at the “real story” of zombies. From the first written reference to zombies in the Epic of Gilgamesh, through the Bible, Europe’s Black Plague,China’s Terra Cotta Warriors and voodoo rituals in Haiti, the show looks at how zombies have become a prolific and popular myth in cultures worldwide.

ABC Family Channel is offering Halloween programming every night this week. Highlights include: Monsters, Inc , the charming 2001 Disney/Pixar film, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. and Hocus Pocus, the fun (and a little spooky) 1993 Sarah Jessica Parker-Bette Midler-Kathy Najimy film starring the three as sister witches, on Saturday, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m.

I'm Not Afraid of This Haunted HouseIf  you want more scares in the spirit of the Halloween season, check out Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart’s dazzling pop up book Encyclopedia Mythologica: Dragons & Monsters. The book is not only filled with magnificent paper art, but also includes detailed narrative histories of each frightening figure depicted. For another great Halloween treat, check your library for Laurie Friedman’s picture book I’m Not Afraid of This Haunted House.