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Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Fairy Tale of Tween Angst: New Books — Breadcrumbs

Courtesy HarperCollins
Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

If you’ve read any of my previous book reviews, you may have figured out that I’m a sucker for magical realism (I’m also a sucker for magical magic, but that’s beside the point). I love when I find a story that works so brilliantly as a subtle, slice-of-life drama that you don’t blink an eye at the fantastical and otherworldly elements sprinkled throughout. I have seen the excellent Breadcrumbs (which has already received many much-deserved lauds) described as a modern retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” — and it is — but there’s so much more going on here than just “let’s set an old fairy tale in modern times.”

Breadcrumbs is about childhood friendships — how solid and unchangeable they can seem, how strangely fickle and malleable they can be, and how utterly important they are either way. It’s about the way friendships, especially at that age, help us form a view of ourselves and our world. And the story just happens to have a child-stealing witch in it. And a mystical forest, and a magic mirror. But those Hans Christian Andersonian bits aren’t the story; they just help tell the story. And wonderfully so. After all, your tween years are such a surreal mishmash of hormones, emotions, pressures, and changes that it often feels like you’re roaming through an alternate universe half the time anyway.  In that sense, Breadcrumbs feels like a better bookshelf companion for Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (another masterful piece of magical realism, or more appropriately, sci-fi realism) than anything by, say, Gregory Maguire (whose work is wonderful in a very different way).

To tell her sad and lovely story of friendship, Ursu makes genius use of not only “The Snow Queen,” but an anthology’s worth of other Andersen tales. I don’t want to spoil too much, but as ten-year-old Hazel treks through the dark and danger-filled woods in search of her missing former best friend, she runs into one Andersen character after another — and grows in some way with each encounter. My daughter is just about Hazel’s age and I can’t wait to pass Breadcrumbs on to her. But I’m going to have her read up on her Andersen first. Getting the references only adds to experience.

Best for: Tweens going through rough patches (or anybody who remembers being one); Hans Christian Andersen fans who have been longing to see any of his stories other than "The Little Mermaid" get its due; readers who enjoy their fantasy adventures with more brainwork than fisticuffs or swordplay

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's a Toy! It's a Game! It's Skylanders! – Video Game Review

Skylanders Spyro's Adventure (for Wii, PS3, Xbox 360, 3DS, Mac, and PC)

It’s almost embarrassing how much I enjoy Skylanders. It fills me with a sort of nostalgic glee. Not way-back nostalgia like you get when you encounter pixely old Atari games like Frogger or Breakout; nostalgia for the dawn of 3D gaming and the colorful classics of the Nintendo 64 and the original PlayStation 1. The moment I started playing Skylanders, I realized how much I’d been missing a certain kind of game: Vibrant cartoony graphics, with loads of action and exploration, and whimsical characters adventuring across creatively magical landscapes. Skylanders made me think back to the fun I had playing Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot, and even the original Spyro the Dragon (the star of which is revived nicely here).

Of course, Skylanders has a gimmick: You place toy characters on a plastic “portal” (which is connected to your game console by USB port) and watch them magically appear in the game world for you to use. During a gaming session, all experience, powers, and money earned by your character are stored on a chip within the figure and will be at the ready next time you play. The game comes packaged with three Skylanders (including the titular Spyro) and you can swap characters in an out as often as you want. And while there’s nothing stopping you from completing the game with just those three heroes, there are twenty-nine others temptingly available for purchase at your local toy and video game stores.

Each Skylander has a completely unique set of moves and powers, upping the temptation factor. And to make matters worse, each character belongs to one of eight “element” groups (fire, water, air, earth, life, magic, tech, and undead [they sort of lose me on that last one]}, and each level of the game has bonus areas that can only be entered by members of certain element. So while you can reach the conclusion of the game with only three Skylanders, you’ll never be able to see all the secret areas. But that doesn’t mean you’d need to buy all 32 characters — as long as you have one of each element, you’re good. Still, at an average cost of $8 per figure, that means you’re paying an additional $40 over the typical $70 for the game starter pack.

Courtesy Activision
So is it worth it? I still say yes. Here’s one of the coolest things about these Skylanders figures and their power portal: They’re truly universal. If you use your characters to play the game on, say, an Xbox 360 and then take them to house of a friend who has the game on a Wii, you can bring your Xbox-primed characters into that Wii game complete with all their earned experience, powers, etc. Same goes for a PS3. You can even use them on the handheld Nintendo 3DS (which has a completely different version of the game, by the way). And whatever game system you have, you can use port your same toy figures into the Web MMORPG, Skylanders Universe (which works on both Mac and PC). This universality is a trend I’d love to see continue.

In addition, the story is fun, the writing can be very clever at times, there are a ton of awesome hidden treasures to find, and the co-op capability makes it a nice game for parents and kids to play together. To be honest, there’s no way I could not love a game in which the villain surprises you with a deathtrap called the Deadly Shark Bath of Doomsharks.

Best for: Gamers keen on early-90s nostalgia; avid collectors; parents looking for light-hearted action for their kids; people with the room to store 32 toy figurines

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Word Nerds Rejoice: New Books — The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman

Courtesy of Dutton Children's Books
The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman by Meg Wolitzer

There simply aren’t enough good suspenseful dramedies that revolve around Scrabble. So I would like to thank Meg Wolitzer for her new novel, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. As a word nerd myself, I thoroughly enjoyed watching her characters drill one another on anagrams, strategize about ways to use a Q, and puzzle over why a word like “za” is legal when no one in the world actually refers to pizza as “za” (although that’s what the Scrabble dictionary says it means).

But I’m making the book sound like a Words With Friends chat board: It’s not. The plot revolves around a national Scrabble youth tournament and the various pairs of middle-schoolers who trek across the country to out-word one another. It has a somewhat similar feel to one of my favorite documentaries, Spellbound (about the contestants in the Scripps Spelling Bee). And the playoffs in Fingertips can be just as taut and suspenseful as the drawn out letter-by-letter spellings in that film.

It helps that the cast of kids here is extremely likable. You’ve got the titular Duncan, a poor, picked-on boy whose cachet in school rises when a popular kid chooses him as his Scrabble partner. And there’s April Blunt, whose geekish love of words makes her the black sheep among her family of workout-mad triathlete types. And Nate Saviano, a Manhattan skateboard buff whose father — a former Scrabble almost-champion — forces him to play. There are others, too. And you’re not really rooting against any of them, so it becomes almost painful knowing that only one duo can win in the end.

Most of the what goes on in these pages is realistic kids-dealing-with-the-pains-of-being-kids Judy Blume-ish material. But there is an out-of-left-field supernatural-ish twist in that Duncan has the power to “see” with his fingertips. He can read letters sightlessly, by merely touching them. Therefore, he should be able to feel the letters on Scrabble tiles and choose a perfect hand on each turn. The question becomes whether he will use this power to cheat or not. And there’s a lot of tension in the making that decision. Which is all the better for us readers, of course.

Best for: Scrabble geeks; fans of realistic kid fiction who can handle a little suspension of disbelief now and then; outsider-ish tweens and the people who love them.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Hail to the Chief: New Music by Caspar Babypants

Sing Along! by Caspar Babypants

If you don’t already know Chris Ballew by his wonderfully ludicrous nom de song Caspar Babypants, you may remember him as the guy who sang that “Lump” song from the ‘90s. The former Presidents of the United States frontman has revived himself as a refreshingly different and wildly entertaining children’s musician. His latest CD, Sing Along! is high on my recommendation list of literal kid pop.

There are lots of acts out there crafting fantastic rock, folk, bluegrass, and even calypso music for young audiences. But one of the great things about Caspar Babypants is that his songs genuinely sound like children’s songs — he’s got a cover of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and “Ring Around the Rosie” on this album, for Zanes’s sake! — and yet, they remain unalienating to adults. There’s a happy poppiness to all of Sing Along’s tracks, and many — especially the pumping “Spider John,” the rousing “Long, Long Dream,” and the uber-catchy “Wild, Wild Time” — will make you do just what the album’s title asks of you.

The original Babypants tunes are the highlights of the CD, but I also personally love when Ballew layers his POTUS alt-rock sound onto children’s classic, as he does with a quick-picking, driving guitar riff behind “Pussycat, Pussycat.” And I can’t let this review end without a mention of “Sun Go,” Mr. Babypants’s hauntingly lovely acoustic duet with one of my other favorite kids’ singers, Frances England. It’s the kind of family music that may be squarely aimed at the lower age end, but remains happily appealing to those on the upper end as well.

Best for: Young kids who want their music to sound like it’s intended for them; former Presidents of the United States fans; classic kid-tune revisionists

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Don't Read the Jacket Copy: New Books — Stuck

Courtesy Philomel Books
Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

This is a toughie. Stuck is, without a doubt, one of my favorite picture books of the year. I knew the moment I read it that I needed to blog about it. The difficulty comes in figuring out exactly how to review a comic tour de force like Stuck without spoiling the absolutely hilarious running gag that makes the book such a blast to read.

I’ve been a fan of Oliver Jeffers ever since his first picture book, the magically poignant Lost and Found (which was, coincidentally, the very first book I reviewed in the very first issue of Cookie). That book was easy to write about. It is a gorgeously illustrated story about a boy who helps a wayward penguin back home to the South Pole. It, too, has plenty of wonderful subtle humor, but none of it is so intrinsically tied to the plot that a summary of the book would ruin the jokes. And that is the case with Stuck. To explain why Stuck is so wonderfully funny, would be to take away the joy of discovering that absurdist, mildly subversive humor yourself.

Stuck is about a boy who needs to get his kite untangled from the branches of a tall tree. To say more than that would be too much. What happens next is so simple — and so unbelievably silly — that it’s pure genius. Like the best sketch comedy, Stuck manages to take one basic joke and keep building upon it and enhancing it for bigger and bigger laughs. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Stuck releases on November 11th.

Best for: Fans of The Simpsons or perhaps even Monty Python; anyone who understands that humor can be sophisticated and silly at the same time; kite lovers. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween

Electricity has not been kind to me this Halloween weekend (as can be said for much of the Eastern U.S.), but while I've got power, I wanted to throw up a quick post to celebrate this spooky day (made extra spooky by all those fallen trees and downed power lines). Here's a fun video from New York kid-band duo Princess Katie & Racer Steve, who are a lot more rockin' than their Disney-Channel-esque name might imply. The song, "Halloween," which takes on a neat Danny Elfman vibe, should be a nice treat for the kiddies today. And I'll be looking forward to their upcoming album to hear more of the zipping guitar work that Racer Steve usually lays down.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Hipwaders Should Be Way More Famous: Music Review

The Golden State by the Hipwaders

REM may be gone, but at least we still have the Hipwaders. Yes, they’re technically a children’s band, but close your eyes, listen to the track, “Hey, Josie” off of their new album, The Golden State, and tell me you can’t picture Michael Stipe swinging around a microphone stand. And then the song will suddenly surprise you by veering into a Beach Boys-esque ba-ba-ba-ba bridge. It's those sort of style-morphing musical moments that make listening to the CD so exciting. While I stick by the REM comparison — and songs like “Welcome to California” feel like they could have been bonus tracks on Green — the Hipwaders are not mere sound-alikes. Could these guys be an awesome REM tribute band if they wanted to be? I'm sure. But their original music is far from derivative.

For one thing, there’s a West Coast surf sound underlying a lot of what the Hipwaders do (appropriate for an album titled Golden State). And bouncy ska beats weave their way in often, tying the ‘80s college-radio vibe to a ‘00s college-radio vibe. Add funky guitar licks and ‘60s-style harmonic vocal riffs, and you’ve got an fantastically distinctive sound.

I’ve been listening to the album on repeat for the past couple of days. And that’s even when the kids haven't been home. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that I’m singing along with songs about pet dogs, standing up to bullies, and playing with toy trains. It’s certainly no worse than belting out, “Stand in the place where you live/ Now face north.”

For a second opinion on Golden State, check out this thoughtful assessment from my friend and colleague, Myles McDonnell, on his blog, You Know… For Kids.

Best for: Parents who think they hate all children’s music; children who think they hate all children's music; fans of REM who would have liked to see the group bitten by Vampire Weekend

Monday, October 24, 2011

Friendly Ghosts: New Books — Liesl & Po

Courtesy of HarperCollins
Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

There’s a very comfortable old-fashioned fairy tale feel to Liesl & Po. Maybe it’s the wicked stepmother. Maybe it’s the Dickensian-style orphans. Or even just the name, “Liesl.” But mostly I credit Lauren Oliver’s soft, lyrical prose. The author does a wonderful job of simultaneously instilling readers with a sense of awe and a bad case of the creeps. It’s rather Spielbergian in that way.

Liesl is a little girl who lives imprisoned in a tiny attic room (with a name like Liesl, where else could she live, really?) and is visited one night by a ghost. That spirit, Po, is one of the more interesting supernatural characters I’ve come across in a long time. Po hasn’t come to haunt anybody; in fact, the ghost isn’t even quite sure why it (gender is unimportant in the afterlife) decided to pop in on Liesl. But this curious spirit is immediately intrigued by the girl's forwardness and lack of fear. Po decides to help Liesl escape. This friendship between a child with no life and a child with no life only becomes more fascinating as the story takes on a kids-on-the-run vibe.

There’s a lot more going on plotwise, too: Lookalike jewel boxes get mixed up, another runaway orphan enters the picture, a greedy alchemist whips up a magical fountain of youth, a musclebound guard carries a cat in a baby sling. The action flows at a smooth pace, but the book always manages to find the time for otherworldly atmosphere. And there’s something about illustrator Kei Acedera’s sketches of Po that I find exceptionally eerie: The ghost is a barely-there shadow with dark, hollow eyes — reminiscent of so many “real” ghost photos you used to see in books with titles like Quandaries of the Unknowable. But with all of its talk of death and loss, Liesl & Po is, in the end, a book about hope and new beginnings.

Best for: Readers who prefer goosebumps over screams; classic folk tale aficionados; anyone who has longed to see Casper in a dramatic role; fans of the name Liesl.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

H is for Hip: New Books — Paul Thurlby's Alphabet

Paul Thurlby's Alphabet
by Paul Thurlby

Years back, when first venturing back into the world of picture books in order to buy reading material for my then-baby daughter, I remember saying to myself, “Why do people bother making alphabet books anymore? What could anyone possibly bring to the genre that would be fresh or different?” Of course, I had my cynicism thrown back in my face by works like Alethea Kontis’s super-clever AlphaOops! and Neil Gaiman’s entertainingly eerie Dangerous Alphabet. Nowadays, I have a special appreciation for ABC books that bring that extra zing. The latest book to fit into that category is Paul Thurlby’s Alphabet.

Graphic artist Thurlby has a flashy retro-mod style that is undeniably cool. Every page of this book — with its faux-weathered edges and not-of-this-era color schemes — carries the instant hipness an old tin diner sign. The illustrations make you think Ed Emberley was working at Sterling Cooper. You almost want to rip them out and frame them — but you don’t have to, because the dust jacket unfolds into a poster (!).

Paul Thurlby's Alphabet Book © 2011 by Paul Thurlby. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

But it’s not just that these pics are so beautiful, they’re also wonderfully creative in their representations of the different letters. The subject of each illustration not only begins with the letter in question, but is also made out of that letter. “M” becomes a pair of twin peaks in what looks like a period travel advertisement. “S” is a what-we-used-to-think-the-future-would-look-like space station. “F” is the roaring head of a “fierce” lion. And “A” is, appropriately, awesome. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Theme Park Report: Sesame Place's Halloween Spooktacular

If you’re in the vicinity of Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and have any notions about surprising the kiddies with an impromptu jaunt to Sesame Place for its annual “Halloween Spooktacular” (weekends through October 31st) here are some tidbits I learned from my family’s trip there this past weekend.

1. It’s a great way to introduce your children to the concept of queues. Sesame Place is a theme park, i.e. there will always be lines. But while the waits for rides at Sesame Place are relatively reasonable at other times of year, the Spooktacular crowd was so much larger than usual that trying to move from one attraction to another sometimes felt like we were extras in a horror after they’ve just announced the zombie invasion and everybody’s trying to flee the city at once.

2. Don’t take “preferred parking” literally. It only costs three dollars more than the “general parking” but be aware that there are spaces in the preferred lot that are just as boondocks-far from the gate as the nether realms of the general lot. We had to traverse blacktop, gravel, and dirt, eventually leaving our car on the lawn of what looked like a utility building.

3. There's something for everyone (well, not really). The rides at Sesame Place are designed incredibly well for Sesame's target audience of 2- to 7-year-olds. Adults can get a nice nostalgia kick out of the experience (plus vicarious warm fuzzies from watching the joy on their kids’ faces — if you’re into that sort of thing). And cynical tweens will get plenty of opportunities to roll their eyes — which, let’s face it, is what they’re looking for most of the time, anyway. 

The parks’ many water rides cater to a much more all-ages crowd, but this time of year, they’re off the menu (which is why tickets cost $20 less now than they would have a month ago).

4. The Halloween-specific attractions are cute, but don’t quite make up for the lack of water rides. Of the two mazes, the better by far is The Count’s UN-Haunted Castle Maze (that’s “un-haunted” as in non-haunted; not “U.N.-Haunted” as in plagued by the ghost of Dag Hammarskjold). It’s full of fun little tricks like ghostly looking sheets that end up being Telly’s laundry. The other, Abby Cadabby’s Magical Halloween Maze, is really just a long queue to the place where you can get your photo taken with Abby Cadabby.

5. Sesame Place is about the experience, not the rides. My advice: See the parades and shows rather than spending thirty minutes studying the Prairie-Dawn-as-Biker-Chick tattoo on the tricep of the patron in front of you as you wait to get on the carousel.

The Neighborhood Street Party Spooktacular Parade was far more fun than it should have been. They go all out, with all the major (and some minor) muppets making appearances in their Halloween costumes (though I found Cookie Monster’s clown costume, which gave him a nose, somewhat disturbing). And this is not one of those march-by-and-they’re-gone parades — these floats stop along the way, so the characters can get down and perform skits. 

We also took in The Not-Too-Spooky Howl-oween Radio Show, which featured some surprising good music, like “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” “Weird Science,” and  “Thriller” (complete with Elmo doing MJ moves black-and-read leather jacket). Yes, Sesame Street has long been known for its great pop parodies, but I was still surprised to see that quality carry over to the theme park.

6. Dads will get lost in the Nets n' Climbs playground. One attraction you’ll never have to wait in line for is Nets n' Climbs, a huge jungle gym consisting of several stories worth of climbing nets and rope bridges. Whichever of the Spider-Man-worthy paths you take, you’ll end up at a small green turret at the tippy-top, which will inevitably be filled with out-of-breath dads who were foolish enough to think they could keep up with their kids.

7. If you’re going to wait in line for one ride: Super Grover’s Vapor Trail. It’s the parks only rollercoaster, and while it’s definitely on the gentle side, it builds up some pretty decent speed, especially on a series of downward spirals. It’s the rare coaster that won’t necessarily terrify preschoolers, but can still make a tween shrug and concede: “That was kinda fun.” 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Sweet Victory: New App Game — Muffin Knight

Courtesy Angry Mob Games
Muffin Knight (for iPhone and iPad)

You’d be hard-pressed to find two words that sound more intriguing together than “muffin” and “knight.” But the new app game, Muffin Knight, has appeal beyond its spectacular title. The game’s wonderfully ridiculous background story surrounds a hungry young boy who tries to snatch a baked treat from the picnic basket of an indisposed fairy. The enchanted muffins end up scattered across the world and the repentant boy (i.e., you) is charged with the task of recovering them. But this is no task for an average little boy — there are all sorts of terrifying creatures between you and those cakey treasures, like sheep and turtles — so the fairy magically provides you with a host of battle-ready alter egos. Each time you collect a muffin, you randomly switch personalities. You may go from being a knight to a dragon, a wizard to a grizzly bear, a shotgun-toting gnome to a unicorn that poops explosive rainbows (Did I mention that some of the humor is pretty juvenile?). 

So much about Muffin Knight, from the squat Bubble Bobble-esque characters to the floating-platform level design, feels very old school. With all the on-your-toes quick turns you need to pull off, you almost wish you had a joystick in your hands. Anyone who’s ever stood in an arcade playing Joust or Dig-Dug is bound to get a blast of nostalgia from it. Especially when you enter the two-player dueling mode. You can compete with a friend via local WiFi, or get matched with a random, anonymous player online. Whoever grabs the most muffins wins.

There is a bit of a role-playing-game aspect to Muffin Knight — as you play, the points you collect will earn you more characters and the ability to upgrade the powers of those characters — but casual players shouldn’t let that scare them away. That whole feature is handled through an incredibly simple interface. And even if you were so addicted to the gameplay that you completely forgot about leveling up, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. Also, while this app (like oh-so many others) offers the opportunity to buy points via an in-app purchase, you don’t need to: Keep playing and you’ll earn enough points on your own to upgrade those characters nicely for nothing beyond the very reasonable 99¢ price tag.

Best for: App gamers who are not offended by manure bombs or acid-puking zombies; fans of SpongeBob or Ren & Stimpy; old mall arcade denizens who are now looking for a game they might be able to beat their kids at 

Monday, October 3, 2011

Things Get Hairy: New Book Series — Wereworld

Courtesy Penguin Books
Wereworld, Book I: Rise of the Wolf
by Curtis Jobling

Here we have one of those books that adult readers may feel a bit sheepish about reading in public. Just look at that cover. No arty lupine silhouettes here, like on the passably sophisticated covers of Maggie Stiefvater’s brooding teenage werewolf stories. This is full-on, in-your-face lycanthrope action — the kind of illustration that, at age ten, would have had me trembling in anticipation of the complete and total awesomeness that obviously waited within those pages. As an adult, however… well, let’s just say I might get some odd looks. Especially since Fifth-Grade Me was right: Wereworld is a blast — and I probably had a stupidly giddy grin on my face while reading it.

Quite surprisingly, the story comes from Curtis Jobling, who up until now has been best known as the designer behind preschool TV’s favorite plow whisperer, Bob the Builder. Whatever you may know about Bob doesn't apply here, though. Jobling has revealed his feral alter-ego to present us with a fantasy-horror-action mash-up that takes place in a pseudo-medieval world where the ruling nobility are all shape-shifters. The tale's hero, Drew, is the last of the werewolves, a clan thought to have been killed off by the despotic werelion king. Yes, this world has all sorts of werecreatures — werebears, wereboars, even wereotters. Following Drew’s quest to uncover his heritage and eventually begin a rebellion against the tyrant (I love that the traditionally noble lions are the worst of the lot here), the book moves at a breakneck pace from one battle/chase/escape scene to another, but with very nice character development woven into the action.

Granted, Wereworld caters to a very specific taste. There’s some seriously bloody violence (throat-rippings and the like) and a surprising amount of pantslessness (well, they are werewolves after all). This is sword-and-sorcery epic and creepy monster-tale woven into one. It might be a tad much for some readers, but I was certainly left — please forgive me for this — howling for more.

Best for: Anyone who gets excited (either openly or secretly) by that cover; Lord of the Rings fans disappointed by the lack of lycanthropes in the series; people who would have liked to see Remus Lupin get his own spin-off; anyone curious to see how the Bob the Builder guy handles bloody maulings

Monday, September 26, 2011

War is a Beast: New Books — The Midnight Zoo

Courtesy Candlewick Press
The Midnight Zoo
by Sonya Hartnett (Candlewick Press)

I picked up this quiet-looking, unassuming book with no expectations whatsoever. I hadn’t heard anything about it. There was no pomp and circumstance surrounding its release. But the jacket copy sounded interesting, so I started reading. And I was almost immediately blown away. Sonya Hartnett’s The Midnight Zoo is without doubt one of my favorite books of the year. 

The story is harrowing from page one as two preteen refugee brothers (toting their infant sister along with them) struggle across a bomb-ravaged WWII landscape and stumble into an abandoned zoo. Hartnett’s prose is a thing of beauty, and I was so transported by it that I had a brief moment of worry as soon as the kids encountered the inhabitants of the zoo: Oh, no, the animals are going to start talking.

And they did. But my concern was completely misplaced. The book never gave in to gimmickry, never got the least bit cheesy. It is the best kind of magical realism: A story in which the supernatural elements barely register as being out of the ordinary.

The Midnight Zoo is a bold book, too, daring to tackle literature-course-worthy topics like the folly of war and the meaning of freedom. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up on elementary school curricula somewhere (or maybe middle school — there are a couple of pretty rough flashback scenes showing how the boys became refugees). But please don’t take that to mean that the book is even remotely wonky or didactic. It isn’t. It is emotionally powerful and thought provoking in a way that should make Newbery judges sit up and take notice. 

Best for: Lovers of magical realism, parents who want to make sure their kids are reading quality literature, anyone who enjoys their historical fiction with a touch of Dr. Dolittle.

Confession: I Like Kid Stuff

Have you ever taken the dust jacket off a book you were reading so other people wouldn’t see the cover illustration of a teenager riding a dragon?

Illustration: Christopher Healy
There should be no shame in an adult enjoying a bit of entertainment that just happens to be targeted at younger audiences. In fact, the lines between children’s entertainment and mainstream pop culture have been blurred more than ever before.

This comes as a blessing for parents who are captive audiences to their kids’ pop culture choices (i.e., all of us). When you read your children a book, chaperone them to a movie, or listen to a playlist at one of their parties, you hope you can get through the experience with your sanity and good taste intact. And if you make the right entertainment choices, you can. You can even genuinely enjoy yourself.

But wait! Those of you without kids — don’t leave yet. This blog is also for any non-parent whose bookshelves sag under the weight of Harry Potter hardcovers. Or who goes to late night showings of Pixar films. Or who knows the actual channel number of Cartoon Network.

This blog is also for those parents who happily use the existence of their kids as an excuse to engage in children’s pop culture for themselves. Like the mom who bought a copy of The Hunger Games to save “until her daughter is ready for it” — and her daughter is two. Or the dad who plays post-bedtime games of Lego Star Wars on the family Wii, so he “can give the kids a hint if they get stuck.”

Of course, some kid stuff is just for kids — as it should be. And when a bit of media falls into that category, I'll be sure to point that out. In the meantime, I invite all of you to join me in the search for that holy grail of children's entertainment: Crossover appeal.