When I see a quality kid-centric project coming out of my Boston hometown, it is hard not to call it out. And when it is a project with a philanthropic twist, it demands a post.

Zebrafish is named after the fish used for studying diseases

Generation Cures is an online community and content site created by Children’s Hospital Boston and FableVision with the goal of “teaching and empowering kids to give back” and to “use their powers for good.” A quick visit to the site shows this is no partial effort. Both organizations have created a robust experience that includes games, videos, music, webisodes and real-world challenges. The cartoon webisodes center on a relatable tween garage band called the Zebrafish, who work together to help a sick friend. According to Janet Cady, Children’s Hospital’s Chief Philanthropy Officer, the mission of the fictional band is to show tweens “that they don’t have to be an adult to make a difference, and that their good work can mobilize family and friends to help sick children worldwide.”

The “Zebrafish” concept was also Boston-born, dreamt up by author-illustrator Peter H. Reynolds’ FableVision media company. Reynolds, illustrator of the Little Boy and Judy Moody books, has set up both FableVision Studios, focusing on projects like websites, games, animated films, interactive graphic novels, digital books and iPhone apps, as well as the K-12 educational publishing division, FableVision Learning. A quick visit to this organization’s website makes it clear they are used to creating quality educational output for children.

The true impetus for this post was news that the Boston-born “Zebrafish” property is making its way from the Generation Cures website to the printed form. Children’s Hospital Boston recently sent out a press release announcing Atheneum Books, a Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing imprint, is creating a hardcover middle-grade novel of this property. The book itself, to be written by Sharon Emerson and illustrated by Renée Kurilla, will be in a unique “visual novel” format. More specifically, it teams a traditional prose novel with four color graphic novel panels, making it accessible to manga-happy middle schoolers.

The story of Zebrafish will focus on band members Vita, Walt, Jay and Plinko as they support ailing band member Tanya. Recently diagnosed with leukemia, Tanya and the band must deal with the implications of her illness while planning a fundraiser to purchase research equipment for her hospital. Proceeds of the books will go back to Children’s Hospital Boston.

Read more about the Generation Cures project here or learn more about the transmedia Zebrafish effort here. Also, check out the official book trailer below.

By default, we are a Nick Jr. family.  If I ever do have to choose an on-demand category or buy a DVD, I tend to turn to Nick Jr. My daughter Maia’s favorite shows have always been under the Nick umbrella, including Wonder Pets!, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, Yo Gabba Gabba!, Olivia, Max & Ruby and, yes, The Fresh Beat Band. So, most likely I would have missed the debut of Playhouse Disney’s new preschool property Chuggington. However, a review copy was sent my way and Maia and I had a chance to play critic and see what the other stations had to offer.

For those outside the industry, Chuggington is, in fact, not a new show. This train-themed series has actually been a global phenomenon since it made its debut in the UK in September 2008. Since then, it has also found a place on programming blocks in countries like France, Australia, Germany, Japan and Canada. The show was also produced by pedigreed talent with experience in locomotive-themed entertainment. Created by London-based Ludorum, this company was founded by former CEO of HIT Entertainment, rights holder to Thomas & Friends. The other Ludorum co-founder was the former CEO of Learning Curve, the license holder for Thomas & Friends toys. Clearly these guys know their trains.

However, Chuggington is definitely not a Thomas rip-off. This series is completely CGI 3D and with faster-paced plotting than the blue locomotive. The show focuses on three colorful “trainees,” Brewster the diesel-electric train, Koko the electric locomotive and Wilson the red engine train. The characters have their own distinct personalities, as well as individual strengths and weaknesses, as they prepare to become full-service trains. Each episode has them traveling the rails through different locales and meeting reoccurring human and train characters, while learning real-life lessons that will resonate with the preschool audience.

The Chuggington crew
Brewster, Koko and Wilson take to the tracks

My initial thought on watching the Chuggington screener was: “I wish they had this when I was a kid!” A lover of trains as a youth and an adult, watching the trains glide along the roller-coaster like tracks is a locomotive-lovers delight. The show also manages to integrate specific, relatively technica,l day-to-day operations of trains throughout the stories, sure to entertain and educate parents as well. It does this while cleverly mixing the “social-emotional lessons” promised in press materials.

My co-critic, though, is a three-year-old girl. I was excited about the show because of my own personal interest in trains, but I actually doubted that Chuggington would have female toddler appeal, despite the press release’s suggestion that it targeted both demographics. However, to my surprise, Maia seemed to take to it right away. Her first question when watching a new show or film is usually “is there a girl in it?” So, she was quite happy to see Koko, the green and purple bullet-train. She also seemed particularly interested in watching how the trains would resolve each problem, and even enjoyed the “suspense” element which was refreshingly heightened for a preschool show. Most of all, she has been singing the theme song non-stop, something you will find yourself doing whether you like it or not.

Based on Maia’s reaction, and its global success, I have a feeling this show will build a following Stateside as well. With a robust supporting website, toy deals in place, and a big PR and marketing push underway, we won’t be the only home singing “Chuggington!”

Chuggington debuted January 18th on Playhouse Disney and airs Tuesday through Fridays at 10:30 a.m. and weekends at 7:30 a.m.

Despite our love for kindie, as I have mentioned in a previous post, our little one will take a step outside the genre on occasion and listen to “big people” music. When she found out daddy and mama went to a Madonna concert when she was in utero, the Queen of Pop became one of her favorite new singers. Of course, we are selective in which tunes she hears. (“Erotica”: no chance. “Hung Up”: why not?) We also get parental bragging rights because our daughter knows all the words to “Frozen.”

Madonna Thinks Tink

Madonna has actually had a hand in creating media targeted specifically at children, with a successful line of picture books. But while other musicians may have experimented with children’s music, Madonna has not tapped into that genre. However, buried within her quadruple platinum-selling, late 80s release Like a Prayer is a kid-friendly gem called “Dear Jessie.” Also buried in the overblown controversy of the “Like a Prayer” video, or perhaps overshadowed by the success of videos like “Express Yourself,” was an accompanying kid-friendly video filled with animated fairies, pink elephants, mermaids and dancing moons.

Despite its album-track status on our side of the world, “Dear Jessie” topped the charts in the UK and was even remade. Co-written by long time collaborator Patrick Leonard (“La Isla Bonita”, “Like a Prayer”,” Frozen”) this song has no ties to the dance floor Madonna is usually most comfortable visiting. It is all strings, whimsical arrangements and pop vocals, and unlike anything else from her catalogue.

The video itself used to be hard to come by. Created by London-based Animation City, and directed by Derek Hayes, it is now on Madonna’s official YouTube site. Madonna herself does not even appear in this video, except as a Tinkerbell-like animated fairy. Check out the video here or purchase the track and rediscover a forgotten tune.

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Thinking of some of modern music’s best concept albums could be a fun party game. Everyone from Green Day (“American Idiot”) to David Bowie (“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”) to Nirvana (“The Story of Simon Simopath”) has dabbled in the format. So, it makes perfect sense that a kindie artist would have a go at the idea as well.

Wikipedia‘s definition of a concept album is “an album that is ‘unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical’.” Based on that definition, the fourth release from Parents’ Choice Gold Award-winning musician Roger Day surely Gray Mattersfits the bill. Why Does Gray Matter? … And Other Brainy Songs for Kids is comprised of 14 human brain-themed tracks, focusing on both its anatomy and the importance of its use. Press materials and reviews have rightfully been pointing to its Schoolhouse Rock quality, and Roger certainly did his research on this album to make sure all science was fact-checked.

Day is already a well-known face in the family music arena, releasing his first album Rock ‘n’ Roll Rodeo in 1998. Pulling in talent like the Indigo Girls and Nanci Griffith on past albums, Roger’s music background includes studies in classical voice and years of playing college coffeehouses. Other family music cred includes a Parents’ Choice Recommended award for a family concert DVD, appearances on Public Television and heavy Sirius/XM’s Kids Place Live airplay.

So does the album deliver on its wholly unique theme and entertain at the same time? After several backseat and dinnertime listens, it got the thumbs up from our end. “Left Brain/Right Brain” was an instant favorite, where the left side of the brain is a personified as a ridged classical band and the right side is a lawless punk rock band. Brilliant.

The dangers of drinking frozen drinks too quickly is given the pop-rock treatment in the instantly catchy “Brain Freeze.” “It’s A No Brainer” is a mellow ode to math – and a throwback to “Stay” (Just a Little Bit Longer)- that may help your little ones conquer their fear of numbers. Day even brought in the Chief Neuropathologist at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey for the anatomically-correct song “The Brain Train.” This inventive tune takes listeners into the brain of musician Ringo Star. The album is also full of motivational songs (“Shake Up Your Brain,” “Use Your Noodle,” and “Get Your Brain in Gear” ) pushing the importance of using your mind to solve problems.

Why Does Gray Matter? will be released February 9, available at rogerday.com, amazon.com, cdbaby.com, and iTunes. Use your brain and check it out.