John

I've been working as an amateur father with a son since 2000. Several years later I was informed that, due to my adequate fathering skills, I would be promoted to a second child. In addition to my son I've been working with a daughter since 2003. In the interest of full disclosure I will admit that mistakes have been made. However, they do not hate me yet so I am allowed to continue in my current role.

Feb 292016
 

As parents we all turn to Dr. Seuss to help our kids learn to read but there are other opportunities if we look a little deeper. Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was reluctant to begin a new book with the intent of teaching a moral because he said, “kids can see a moral coming a mile off” but at the same time he was not opposed to exploring issues that he felt strongly about. The following are stories that rank highly on the moral allegory scale and should give you and your kids the opportunity to discuss how the world works sometimes.

The Lorax

Unless.

The Lorax (1971)
Lesson: Environmentalism and anti-consumerism.
This has always been my favorite Dr. Seuss book. I’ve always appreciated how the story shows as much as tells the moral and the artwork reflects the progressively darker vision of the world as the Once-ler destroys it in the interest of corporate greed. I will also take this opportunity to, once again, condemn the recent movie version as evil hypocritical consumerist green washing. You do not put the Lorax in a commercial selling SUVs.

“The Sneetches” (1961)
Lesson: Racial and ethnic equality.
This is another perfectly obvious allegory on par with the original Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” you know, the one where the two guys are half black and half white – but on different sides! The Sneetches are either star-bellied or plain and spend the story switching back and forth until no one knows who is which. It’s a ridiculously simple premise but one that you can talk to your kids about from a very young age. This one also works well as an early primer for bullying.

The Butter Battle Book (1984)
Lesson: The arms race.
You would think this one was written in the 1950s during the deepest depths of the Cold War rather than a few short years before the fall of the Soviet Union. With the Berlin Wall gone and the general threat of nuclear war between the US and Russia diminished you might think this story is irrelevant. However, it’s important to consider that the arms race is driven as much by the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower (remember the 1950s?) warned us about. With congressional arguments over cutting the deficit (but not the military) and controversy over government and police use of unmanned drones it seems this can be a good starting point for a conversation with your kids about how the world got in this crazy mess.

Yertle the Turtle (1958)
Lesson: Hitler and anti-authoritarianism.
I didn’t know this before but Geisel once said, “Yertle is Hitler.” Fortunately – or unfortunately as the case may be, the lesson doesn’t stop there. There is no shortage of despotic characters from recent history and even current news who can be put into Yertle’s allegorical framework. And again, the simple premise is the perfect starting point for a conversation with your kids that can easily tie back in with The Butter Battle Book and the Sneetches.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957)
Lesson: The materialism and consumerism of the Christmas season.
Aside from obsessively watching the Chuck Jones cartoon version every year I really like this story because of Geisel’s approach to the moral. The Grinch attacks the Whos through his perception of their materialism, which ends up not only failing because of his misperception, but also makes him a better person once he realizes the truth. Beyond Geisel’s talent for whimsical art and rhyme this book shows his genius as a storyteller.

Horton Hears a Who

Beware American imperialism in the Pacific!

Horton Hears a Who! (1950)
Lesson: An allegory for the Hiroshima bombing and the American post-war occupation of Japan.

Wait, what?

I will be perfectly honest – I did not get that moral from this story until I was researching this post. I was aware of the message, “a person’s a person no matter how small” being co-opted by the right to life movement, which Geisel vigorously opposed, by the way. But I had to brush up on my post-war history to get at the roots of how this story was an allegory for the occupation of Japan. It’s interesting to note that during World War II the scrupulously fair-minded Geisel had a gigantic moral blind spot against Japanese Americans and supported internment. This obviously changed after Hiroshima and we can once again respect Geisel for not only admitting he was wrong but creating a story like this to argue the case for supporting the Japanese. There’s a lot here to talk about with your kids – and, as it turns out, more than I had originally anticipated.

Update: The Dr. Seuss library has been released in e-book format.

Feb 052016
 

Title: Warriors (series)

Into the Wild

Firepaw – a kittypet no longer!

Note: this review was written with the help of my daughter and has the 10-year-old seal of approval.

Summary:

The Warriors series is about cats living in the forest and fighting to survive. The whole series is broken down into smaller groups of books. The first series is called Warriors, the second is called The New Prophecy, and so on. The very first book of the Warriors series is called Into the Wild. It’s about a house cat named Rusty who ventures out into the forest and meets the forest cats. They invite him to join their clan, he learns the ways of the forest cats, and is renamed Firepaw. The author creates a very complex world for the cats with elaborate social organization and customs. The story of the cats and their clans continues from series to series.

Appropriate for:

Ages 10 and up

Because of the complexity of the personal interactions and the social structures as well as some of the issues that are dealt with in the relationships these books are better for somewhat older kids.

Content Warnings:

There’s nothing particularly objectionable about the content of the books but there is some violence. The descriptions can be graphic so parents should be aware that kids who are sensitive cat lovers might find it too scary.

The Scoop:

A friend of my daughter recommended these books to her over a year ago and she didn’t really get into it. This year, however, it seemed as if all of her 10-year-old friends were reading it. We had the first book of the series, Into The Wild, on our shelves so she gave it a try and has become obsessed. Fortunately there are twenty-four books in the original Warriors series (six books each of Warriors, The New Prophecy, Power of Three, and Omen of the Stars) plus eight special editions, thirteen manga, and completely separate series about bears, and another about dogs. At this point I should point out that the author, Erin Hunter, is actually five people, editor Victoria Holmes, and authors Kate Cary, Cherith Baldry, Gillian Philip, and Tui Sutherland. This arrangement works well for turning out a high volume of books but my daughter has noticed that there are sometimes small inconsistencies from book to book. It’s only mildly distracting and she has a good time sharing the discovery of errors with her friends (and Merran). It has also given them fodder for imaginative games they play during recess at school and when they get together – games, I should say, that are as epic as a series of twenty-four books. If your kids can get into it they’ll have compelling reading material to last them for months.

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment or have something to add?

Scroll down just a little…the comments are Right There!

Let me know what you think.

Feb 022016
 

Title: Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Summary:

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I have to push the pram a lot.

King Arthur and the knights of the round table seek the Holy Grail. Along the way they encounter a wide variety of medieval and legendary comic situations that unfold in a uniquely Pythonesque way. From an anarcho-syndicalist commune of peasant mud-farming to the knights who say, “Ni!”, the dread Rabbit of Caerbannog, a black knight who proves particularly resistant to flesh wounds, French invaders who are uniquely skilled at insults, and many many more.

Appropriate for:

Ages 13 and up

When Monty Python and the Holy Grail first came out in 1975 it was rated PG because the PG-13 rating had not yet been created. There is some sexual content and plenty of violence but it’s all mild enough by today’s standards, or treated so comically, that most 13 year olds should be fine. It’s also a perfect movie for teenagers as opposed to a younger audience because teenagers are better equipped to get some of the subtler references and they will love all of the over-the-top silliness.

Content Warnings:

There is violence but any blood is comically exaggerated. There is sexual innuendo, which for the most part may go over younger viewers heads – except for the Castle Anthrax scene. It’s easily skipped over if you think your kids aren’t ready for the bits where its innuendo crosses over into overt sexual references. There is also a little swearing.

The Scoop:

When Monty Python set out to make Holy Grail in 1975 the small budget forced them to cut corners in ways that turned out to be a tremendous benefit. Almost every castle set is the same castle, redressed and shot from different angles. The inventiveness this required is reflected in the final film and created the opportunity for humor beyond the original script. Iconic jokes like the knights pantomiming riding horses while being followed by lackeys with coconuts would not have happened if the production could have afforded horses.

Another testament to the genius of Monty Python and the serendipity of the circumstances is that the film has aged remarkably well over the years. It has remained a cult classic and kids today are just as likely as their Dad to be heard saying, “It’s just a flesh wound!” Merran, as a representative of moms in general, is less inclined to engage in the very nerdy quoting of Monty Python (although the Parrot sketch may be tempting).

The successful 2005 stage adaptation, Spamalot, by Python member Eric Idle is further proof of the film’s enduring appeal. Who knows, Spamalot may be adapted back into a movie like The Producers but unless they severely restrict the budget I can’t imagine that it would be able to match the hilarious charm of the original.

Jan 152015
 

This is a companion piece to my recent post Five Outdoor Adventure Movies to Connect Kids With Nature. It’s one thing to show kids movies that demonstrate how fun/challenging/rewarding it can be to get lost in the wilderness but if you’re planning to get stranded in the bush they should know something about the wildlife they’ll encounter. If it’s inconvenient to get to the jungles of Borneo to see wild orangutans for yourself, documentaries are a great way to introduce kids to the wonders of the natural world beyond your local woods. Check out these documentaries to see where in the world your kids might want to go next.

Born to be Wild

Adorable

Born to be Wild
Recommended for ages 5 and up
Originally shot in IMAX 3D this documentary switches back and forth between orangutans in Borneo and elephants in Kenya. The story centers on the efforts of scientists to protect, nurture, and release into the wild young animals who have been orphaned by poachers. There is no violence shown but it provides an opportunity for families to discuss the plight of these endangered animals.

Wings of Life
Recommended for ages 5 and up
The birds and the bees – literally – as well as bats, butterflies, and flowers. This documentary focuses on the complex relationships between plants and the flying creatures that aid in the process of pollination. While a film like Earth takes the long view in its sweeping vista of a continent Wings of Life gets close-up and in slow motion to provide a detailed view of the delicate processes and structures involved in the interrelationships between plants and animals.

Earth

Saves having to watch all 11 hours of the series.

Earth
Recommended for ages 7 and up
This is the 90-minute version of the epic 11-hour BBC/Discovery Channel series Planet Earth. This gorgeously filmed documentary follows animals on each of the seven continents over the course of a year. Like all nature documentaries life for these animals can be hard and death is always present. While there’s nothing particularly gruesome in this one you do see predators actually catching their prey so sensitive viewers should be aware.

Chimpanzee
Recommended for ages 7 and up
Nature documentaries often push the line of anthropomorphizing their subjects. And never more so when dealing with the most human of animals, apes. The first time I saw the trailer for Chimpanzee I thought there was no way I was going to show this to my kids. They would be reduced to weeping puddles of sorrow as we watched adorable baby Chimpanzee Oscar orphaned by a rival troop and then adopted by the alpha male in his group, Freddie. As it happens, Tim Allen’s jokey and sometimes inappropriate narration distracted from the pathos of Oscar’s story.

African Cats

Baby predators – still adorable.

African Cats
Recommended for ages 8 and up
I considered making this age recommendation older because this documentary, due to the predatory nature of its protagonists, is more consistently violent than the others. It’s not particularly gory but death is present in African Cats in a way it isn’t in the others. It doesn’t help that the narration plays up the human characteristics of the main cats. Having said all that, however, there is also plenty of footage of adorable cubs frolicking through gorgeous cinematography, so if big cats are your thing this is definitely worthwhile.

Jan 052015
 

Kids need to get outside as much as possible but in the dark winter months it can sometimes be too cold and wet to have much fun. After taking your kids for a tromp through the muddy woods strip off those wet clothes, climb into some pajamas, and prime the pump for more outdoor excitement with these movies about wilderness adventure.

Swiss Family Robinson

Seriously, who would not want to live in that tree house?

Swiss Family Robinson
Recommended for ages 8 and up
The ultimate family outdoor fantasy. After all, who wouldn’t want to build an incredibly elaborate tree house on a tropical island, play with friendly animals, and defend it all against marauding pirates with even more incredibly elaborate booby traps? The 1960 Disney version of the classic tale is great fun for kids although parents will cringe at some of the stereotypes and the youngest son Francis needs to stop trapping every animal on the island for his own personal menagerie.

Wilderness Family

Hmm, perhaps we should have considered the bears…

The Adventures of the Wilderness Family
Recommended for ages 8 and up
The Swiss family Robinson was shipwrecked and therefore didn’t have a choice with their outdoor immersion. In 1975 the Los Angeles family Robinson (you see what they did there?) chose to leave their stressful city life behind and move out into the wild. No pirates this time but plenty of animal attacks and natural disasters to go along with the groovy 70s message of the benefits of a simpler way of life.

Nim’s Island
Recommended for ages 8 and up
One thing you’ll find a lot of in nature are scientists studying it. Nim’s Island starts from that premise with the girl Nim and her scientist dad living on their own private island. After her dad goes missing in a storm Nim seeks help from an agoraphobic author whose journey from urban shut-in to outdoor adventurer demonstrates the healing power of nature.

Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog
Recommended for ages 8 and up
When considering good children’s stories of the wilderness I always think of My Side of the Mountain. Unfortunately, there’s not a good movie version of the book (yes, there’s a movie, but not good). However, there is Far From Home. It’s not in any way an adaptation of My Side of the Mountain but its story of a shipwrecked boy and his dog surviving in the Canadian wilderness carries many of the same themes. Self-reliance, practical skills, and the value of knowing how to survive in nature are principles shared by all of the movies on this list.

Never Cry Wolf

One thing you’ll find in nature – scientists.

Never Cry Wolf
Recommended for ages 12 and up
More scientists! Based on Farley Mowat’s book of the same name Never Cry Wolf is a realistic portrayal of a government researcher’s efforts to determine if wolves are a threat to caribou in the arctic. Field research might not seem like the most enthralling entertainment for kids but this movie, which unfolds with almost no dialogue, is gripping. It’s more appropriate for older kids because there are some bloody scenes of animals eating and one of a half-crazy scientist running around the tundra naked.