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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