Category Archives: Reviews

REVIEW: Chu’s Day

To finish my month-long series on childhood literacy, I thought there would be nothing better than to look at a great picture book that was just released: Neil Gaiman’s Chu’s Day.

Chu’s Day is the story of a small panda with a big problem. Whenever Chu sneezes, bad things happen. Over the course of the book, Chu appears to be in danger of sneezing a handful of times, first at the library (dusty books), then at the diner where he has lunch (lots of pepper in the air), but it is actually at the circus when nobody is paying attention to Chu that he needs to warn everyone else about his impending calamitous sneeze.

Knowing Gaiman, it would not be outside the realm of possibility for monsters to appear–or more likely, that we realize the worst monsters of all are ourselves–but that doesn’t happen here, and this book stays within a light, cheerful sensibility that any parent can appreciate. The book is designed for very young children, with appropriately simple short sentences and a preeminence given to the artwork.

Speaking of Adam Rex’s artwork, it is beautiful.

One of my favorite images, featuring Chu and his father at a diner

Every page of the book is filled with the gorgeous, deeply colored, and highly characterized art represented on this page. In all seriousness, this is one of the most beautiful picture books I have read. And it only gets more fascinating when Chu finally does sneeze and everything gets blown around!

Of course, it doesn’t really matter how much I like the book. What matters is how much children like the book, and in my particular case, what matters is how much Sam likes the book. Let me tell you, he loves it! We borrowed this from the library and read it regularly while we had it. He is usually pretty good about sitting still and listening to stories, but even so, he did as well with this book as any other book I have ever read to him. What’s more, he seemed to enjoy it every time we read it!

I don’t think I can praise this book highly enough. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors already, but I know this book will be one my whole family will enjoy for years to come, and I have no doubt that it will soon become a classic book read to children for many years to come.

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Holiday Game Guide

It’s no secret that I love board games. The last time I wrote about board games here, I got a question on my facebook page (Have you liked the facebook page? It’s a great way to keep up to date on new posts!) about what games would be good for a very small child. Since we’re now fully into the holiday shopping season, I thought I would pass along a few more thoughts on what would games would make a great gift for someone in your life.

Animal Upon Animal in action–image courtesy of Boardgamegeek.com

AGE 3 & UNDER

It’s hard for children much younger than 3 or 4 to really get into games. Ability to understand and follow rules, take turns, and stay engaged for the entire length of the game all make it difficult for kids this young to really get it. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t try, and it CERTAINLY doesn’t mean that you have to resort to Candyland (which frankly isn’t a game anyway) either! I recommend something light, easy, and that has value as a toy, even if playing as a game doesn’t appeal to the child at first: Animal Upon Animal, designed by Klaus Miltenberger. In Animal Upon Animal, players build a pyramid of animals, stacking them on top of each other, ala Jenga. Great fun, and your kids will love the animals.

AGE 4-7

At this age, kids should be able to handle more complex rule systems and stay involved with a game longer. However, I don’t want to leave the land of toys quite yet, so here I will recommend Pitchcar/Pitchcar Mini, designed by Jean du Poel. Better yet, if you can still find a copy of Cars 2 Sorry Sliders, go for it. It’s substantially the same game, but at a fraction of the retail of either Pitchcar game, even at full price. I picked up a copy on clearance last week at a Toys R Us (Cars 2 the movie did come out 2.5 years ago after all), so move fast if you want to go that direction! For more information on Pitchcar, I recommend reading the review I wrote about a month ago. In short though, it’s a fantastically fun game where players race around a track by flicking small “cars” on their turn. Kids this age particularly seem to love it (I picked up a copy of Cars 2 Sorry Sliderslast week and Sam’s 7 year old cousin couldn’t get enough of it!), even though people of all ages will enjoy playing.

Pitchcar Mini in action–image courtesy of Boardgamegeek.com

AGE 8-10

Now this is a great age for board gaming! This age group should be able to handle the complexity of most “gateway” or “casual” games, like Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, or Pandemic. If you don’t already have those, they’re all great choices that no modern game collection should be without. However, I want to veer a little off the beaten path here and recommend Zooloretto, designed by Michael Schacht. Zooloretto is a great game and 2007 Spiel des Jahres (German game of the year, one of the highest awards given for board game design excellence) winner, about running your own zoo. Kids love the animals, and its light enough they will get it and enjoy it, but interesting enough adults won’t be bored.

AGE 11-13

This is the point when your options become very wide open. These kids should be able to handle most things, and are really ready for some complex interplay between game mechanics. I can’t think of a better choice than Dominion, designed by Donald X. Vaccarino. Dominion, another Spiel des Jahres winner (2009), is all about building a medieval kingdom. However, while the game can be enjoyed on a fairly simple level, a well planned strategy will always win out. At this age, most kids should be able to handle the game (it is also incredibly easy to explain), and will enjoy diving deep into the many strategies available.

TEENAGER/COLLEGE STUDENT

Again, anybody this age should be able to handle virtually any game, and some will be interested in playing the highly complex games of the world. However, by and large they will be more interested in playing light “party” style games with other people. To that end, I recommend 2 different games: Zombie Dice, designed by Steve Jackson, and Wits & Wagers: Party, designed by Dominic Crapuchettes. I don’t really know why, but zombies seem to be the pop culture flavor of the year, and Zombie Dice will suit your zombie fans perfectly. A fairly simple dice game where players play a zombie who, unsurprisingly, wants to eat brains and not get shotgunned. Roll dice hoping you get brains, but stop and “bank” your brains before you roll 3 shotguns. It’s fun, simple, can be played by any number of people, and leads to great moments when someone defies incredible odds as they roll the dice.

Wits & Wagers: Party is a new version of the modern party game classic Wits & Wagers. Really, either game would be a great choice, but the party version is designed to be simpler and easier to jump into, and without the vegas style betting system the original has. Both games feature number related questions where all players write down a guess, like in many trivia games. However, then players guess who actually wrote down the closest answer, so it really doesn’t matter if you know the answers or not–you can win simply by knowing who does know the answer. It’s another game that large numbers of people can pick up and play quickly, and your kids and their friends will love as much as you.

Of course, I may have missed some other great games that would make equally good gifts for someone in your life–or you might have a special case and you’re looking for some more insight into great games for your family. If so, write a comment! Let me know what I missed or what else you might be looking for.

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REVIEW: Coraline

As I continue my review series, I’m going to turn to a book this time. Considering the time of the month, I thought I would review one of the scariest books for kids (but also one of the best, hang with me folks that don’t much care for scary books!) I’ve ever read: Coraline, by Neil Gaiman.

Coraline is the name of a young girl who has just moved to a new apartment with her parents. She is good natured, opinionated, independent, and curious. Shortly after moving, she begins exploring both inside and outdoors, meeting her eccentric neighbors and discovering the grounds of the converted old house. What most interests her though is a locked, bricked up door at the back of her flat that would lead directly into another flat.

Although her overly busy and disinterested parents dismiss her curiosity, Coraline unlocks the door on her own one day and discovers that the door leads to a tunnel rather than the bricks that had formerly been there. After walking through the tunnel, Coraline discovers a new world just like the real world, only initially far more appealing thanks in no small part to her “Other Mother”, who pays much more attention to Coraline and seems to want her around, unlike her real mother. However, Coraline is quickly trapped in the “other world” and forced to rescue herself and her parents from the clutches of the evil other mother.

Gaiman suffuses Coraline with an understated eeriness. I was never outright disturbed by gore, frightening images, violence, or other hallmarks of the horror genre. On the contrary, there is a mysterious dread that builds throughout the novel, from Coraline’s unusual interactions with her neighbors in the real world through her climactic confrontation with the Other Mother. In my opinion, this is what makes the book scary, rather like a slowly building ghost story where the listener discovers that things are firstly a bit off, then moderately alarming, then horrifyingly wrong.

This is not the defining feature of Coraline though. For me, what makes the book great are the characters–Coraline is an extremely well-rounded character who cares deeply for her family, even if she doesn’t realize quite how much she cares for them until after she has to save them. She has a strong sense of justice for others as well, as demonstrated by her efforts to free others held captive by the Other Mother. Although those good qualities would be enough, Coraline’s most important traits are her courage, resourcefulness and ability to quickly out-think the Other Mother.

The strong world-building and fantastic characters (unfortunately, I don’t have room to talk in depth about any others) along with the remarkable and admirable quest Coraline embarks on make this a great book. However, I cannot deny that it is frightening, which makes me hesitate to recommend it. Gaiman himself commented on this in an interview with Gavin Grant:

“Adults completely love it and they tell me it gave them nightmares. They found it really scary and disturbing, and they’re not sure it’s a good book for kids, but they loved it. Reading audience number two are kids who read it as an adventure and they love it. They don’t get nightmares, and they don’t find it scary. I think part of that is that kids don’t realize how much trouble Coraline is in — she is in big trouble — and adults read it and think, ‘I know how much trouble you’re in.’

I think kids and adults are reading a different story, although they both happen to be the same book.”

I don’t know any children that have read Coraline, so I guess I have to trust Gaiman on this one. Take that quote as you will. When will I let Samuel read it? I don’t know yet. It’s such a great book that I know I want him to eventually, but I’ll just have to watch him grow and see when I think he’s ready for it. I think I have to recommend that adults read it for themselves–not only because no one can decide what is right for your child other than yourself, but also because it’s a worthwhile book to read even as an adult.

REVIEW: Pitchcar

Since it’s still board game week for Mommy Is At Work, I wanted to talk about one of my favorite games that adults will enjoy but kids will love: Pitchcar.

Image

There is very little more exciting to kids than a race or chase (in college I did a lotof children’s theatre, and my professor always emphasized the importance of a goodchase scene), and car races fit the bill perfectly. Witness the success of the Pixar movie Cars, the immense popularity of NASCAR, or the high prevalence of racing games on any video game console and you’ll see how much kids love races. After all, it’s simultaneously one of the simplest and most exciting events humans do on a regular basis.

Enter Pitchcar (also known as Carabande, or found in a 1/3 size smaller edition as Pitchcar Mini), the dexterity racing game. Like other dexterity games—like Jenga, Billiards, Darts, or Carrom—Pitchcar relies on players using their physical abilities to take their turns and improve their positions. However, in Pitchcar, players aren’t building a tower or trying to land their playing pieces in a particular spot. Instead, players are racing around a track (built from scratch before every game) to see who can cross the finish line first by flicking their cars (wooden discs about the size of a nickel, although much thicker) with their fingers.

Pitchcar is a TON of fun! I love this game, and it would probably rank in my top 5 favorite board games, in part because it’s that simple. It’s a very basic type of fun that everyone I have ever played with enjoys–furthermore, this simplicity makes it ideal for kids.

When we lived in Tennessee, our church had semi-regular board game nights where Pitchcar was always a huge hit with the under 8 crowd (of course, please remember that this does have small pieces and is certainly NOT a game for children too young to understand not to put pieces in their mouths!). Frequently, I’d see a handful of kids take the box and play with it until the night was over. Granted, I don’t know how well they followed the rules of the game, but whether as a toy or a game, Pitchcar works really well.
Unfortunately, that brings me to the negative side of this review. Pitchcar is expensive. Compared to most board games, very expensive–as of publication of this post, Pitchcar costs over $70 on Amazon, and Pitchcar Mini runs over $40. And those are both for just the base games, no expansions included. I will say that Pitchcar Mini is still a lot of fun (it’s the version I own and the only version I have ever played), and the base game still has an enormous amount to offer, but it’s still a bit much for most people.
However, even at the high price point, I still recommend the game. I have never played another game that manages to create a fun, high-energy experience solely out of building a track and then flicking wooden discs around that works well for all ages. If you’ve never tried Pitchcar, take the first opportunity you get to do so, and I promise you won’t regret it.

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REVIEW: Prokofiev: Peter And The Wolf / Saint-Saëns: Carnival Of The Animals

One thing I plan to do on a weekly basis is give a review of a book, cd, game, movie, or some other product that appeals to families or children. This is the first of those, and for your convenience, I will include a link to Amazon’s listing for the product.

 

Peter and the Wolf is a quintessential childhood experience—whether you first experienced it through Disney’s classic (if somewhat bowdlerized) animated short, at a concert, or by listening to this or one of the many other recordings of the piece—it serves as a wonderful introduction to classical music to young children. Of course, Prokofiev is one of my favorite composers as well, so Peter and the Wolf has a special place in my heart, and I look forward to sharing it with Samuel as he grows older too. I admit that I was not as familiar with Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals; however, that is a favorite of my wife’s, and I enjoyed listening to it as well. At three and a half months, Samuel didn’t seem to appreciate listening to this album as much as I did, but I think he will when he’s older, and I know other children will as well.

The album begins with one long track (over 27 minutes long) consisting of the entirety of Peter and the Wolf, featuring Leonard Bernstein as the narrator. Bernstein assumes that the listener has some knowledge about the piece, which works for me—rather than pedagogically explain what each instrument represents in the symphony, he begins by having a “quiz”, which works well as a bit of interactive theatre as well as a nice reminder/explanation for how to interpret the piece. I also found Bernstein’s narration throughout the entire piece engaging and informative. However, the narration is ultimately a garnish in my opinion—the main attraction here is how the orchestra plays the symphony, and I have to say that I think the New York Philharmonic was on their A-game the day they recorded this. Everything is tight and expressive, easily detailing the action while remaining as beautiful, playful, and—when the wolf-like French horns come in—as menacing as ever.

Following the conclusion of Peter and the Wolf, Bernstein continues the narration on the album by giving some background on The Carnival of the Animals and the musicians playing on the album. Bernstein explains that Saint-Saëns intended the piece for amusement and as something that young people could appreciate, so Bernstein arranged for a number of young musicians to play for the album as well, even performers as young as 13. Although the music continues to be quite good in both the quality of composition and play, Bernstein’s narration and introduction of each movement (which are typically only a minute or two long, not counting the narration that prefaces every movement) grew tedious for me. Being largely unfamiliar with The Carnival of the Animals, I appreciated learning more about the symphony and (to a lesser extent) the performers, but I was excited about hearing the music, which was interrupted far too often. As an adult, I would have much rather been able to read about the movements in the CD liner or, if I were attending a performance, in the concert program. However, this is intended as an introduction to classical music for children, who will not have the reading ability or comprehension that I do as an adult. In that respect, I have to give Bernstein credit for reaching his audience at their level.

Ultimately, if you do not have a copy of Peter and the Wolf, this album is worth buying for that alone. Consider The Carnival of the Animals as a bonus for as long as you can appreciate listening to the narration—something that children may be able to appreciate for many years. I have to say that I will be looking for a version of Carnival of the Animals without any narration, and ultimately I think I would like to find an un-narrated recording of Peter and the Wolf as well. However, even if I never find those, I know that I will enjoy listening to this album with Samuel for many years to come, and I highly recommend it for you as well.

 

Do you enjoy Peter and the Wolf and/or the Carnival of the Animals? If you are familiar with this recording, how do you feel about Bernstein’s narration? What other music did you enjoy as a child, or what music do your own children enjoy?

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