In reviewing children’s shows, I often chance upon two types: First, there are the wonderful, niche productions aimed at a specific audience with specific goals. Then, there are the broader, mainstream-aimed shows that are just waiting for their national breakthrough. The Choo Choo Bob Show falls in to the later category.
Based out of Saint Paul, Minnesota, The Choo Choo Bob Show is a live-action comedy show aimed at children 2-7 that has echoes of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody. ’Choo Choo Bob’is set at Bob’s clubhouse, and features visits from his wacky human pals (includes actors with experience at Comedy Central) and puppet friend Charlie Rat. Choo Choo Bob keeps it updated for modern audience with stop-ins from hipster musicians (Ozomatli), humor that will appeal to parents and kids (“Cleaning with Autotune”), and a likable lead host (Sam Heyn) that won’t scare off parents.
And, of course, there are the trains. Executive producer and show creator Bob Medcraft was inspired by his retail storefront Choo Choo Bob’s Train Store, located in St Paul. His knowledge of trains carries over into each episode where the characters travel across the country visiting real working railroads, answering train questions from kids, and watching “guest trains” zoom by their club house. Even if your little one is not train-infatuated, the music, wrap-around plots and characters will keep them engaged. And if they are train enthusiasts, this show will send them roaring down the rails. We had a viewing party with our friends’ sons (ages 2 & 5) who were already in love with all things locomotive. The show resonated with them after the first 10 minutes, and the one DVD we gave them as a sample was surely not going to suffice.
Right now The Choo Choo Bob Show has 46 episodes produced, all airing in the mid-west. But anyone outside those geographic lines can access Choo Choo Bob merchandise online, including, DVDs, CDs, and stuffed animals. Bob Medcraft and team hope to ride their train into other states soon. In the meantime, you can check out some great clips on their YouTube channel.
It’s the season of the witch, and we have been playing our Halloween music and watching our Halloween films since mid-September. We have already rolled out our yearly music playlist, and are ready to follow up with some more ways to get your kid-friendly scares on this Halloween.
Award-winning kids’ musician Andy Z has just released an ambitious musical audio play for kids 8-12 called “The Grand Scream of Things.” The 66-minute music adventure takes listeners on a Halloween day journey with protagonist Andy, his dog Reggie, his buddy Danger Dude and Pleadia, a teenage alien and potential romantic interest for Andie. Interspersed through this “old time radio show” style adventure are stand-alone songs that span the punk, hip-hop, pop and hip-hop genre. Guest kid musicians like Paula Messner (Candy Band) and RhymeZwell show up while production is handled by Grammy-nominated producer Tor Hyams
Bonus Mention: Children’s musician David Tobocman is offering a free Halloween song download called “Spooky Stuff.” This tune was written by David’s 1st grade daughter Zoe.
We are long-time fans of Night & Day Studios’ Peekaboo brand of apps. Each release brings unique artwork and new tricks to their trademark line of apps featuring animals and objects popping out and surprising toddlers and babies. For Halloween, Night & Day enlists the talent of Caldecott award-winning author and illustrator, Ed Emberley (“Go Away, Big Green Monster!”) to create kid-safe interpretations of Halloween mainstays like witches, werewolves, bats and ghosts. In “Peekaboo Trick or Treat,” little ones tap on the colorful “haunted house” and are greeted by a rotating cast of 14 characters with silly sound effects. A simple app with inspired illustrations that allows even the youngest ones to celebrate the season without getting too scared.
The Worst Witch introduced the young, fledgling witch/wizard-in-the-making story years before Harry Potter entered pop culture history books. Based on the book series of the same name, this made-for-TV production focuses on central character Mildred Hubble as she tries to find her way at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. Along the way she deals with bullies, botched spells, evil witches and a meeting with the honored Grand Wizard. While the special effects are slightly dated, the movie’s central themes are ageless, as Mildred overcomes obstacles both realistic and supernatural to become the school’s superstar student. Adult viewers: come for the retro charm, stay for the positive message, and come back again for Tim Curry’s hammy performance as The Grand Wizard and his musical number “Anything Can Happen on Halloween.”
Bonus Mention: Scholastic Storybook Treasures: A Very Brave Witch…and more Halloween Stories. Eight classic kid’s books are brought to life in this Halloween-themed edition of the Scholastic Storybook Treasures series. For parents who prefer a mellower, literary approach to television viewing, this a great option. Most of the stories in this DVD compilation are filmed books with simple camera pans, celebrity narration and optional onscreen read-along.
Lucky NYC-ers can go to this special one-off Halloween show on Sun, Oct 28 at 4 pm. The young musicians of the InterSchool Orchestras of New York’s Carnegie Hill Orchestra (ages 8 to 12) and ISO Symphony (ages 12 to 19) will perform horror-themed orchestral classics to get into the spirit of the season. All players will be dressed for the holiday, with a special Ghost Conductor.
Bonus Mention: Be sure to check out musician Alastair Moock’s “Slightly Scary Spectacular” concerts at Jammin Java (Saturday, October 27, 10:30 am) and 92Y Tribeca NY (Sunday, October 28, 11 am).
Artist/poet Calef Brown could be described as a modern-day Dr Seuss, with an edgy folk-art touch. He has even inspired an album based on his previous books. “Hallowilloween” features Calef’s trademark ridiculous rhymes, this time themed around his own brand of monsters. Meet the baseball “Vumpire,” shunken head Duncan, the brain-eating “Oompachupa Loompacabra” and the cowgirl “Witches of Texas.” Age appropriately morbid, Calef Brown’s poems are humorous enough to circumnavigate any nasty nightmares.
Bonus Mention: “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School #1: Professor Gargoyle” by Charles Gilman. A novel for tweens that references the king of horror and “speculative fiction.” Yes please! “Tales from Lovecraft Middle School” tells the story of twelve-year-old Robert Arthur as he navigates his way through a middle school filled with mysterious passages, Lovecraftian beasts, and teachers that are never who they appear to be.
Let’s take a scheduled break from Good Luck Charlie, SpongeBob SquarePants and Kick Buttowski to take a look at some shows that are often over-looked. Below, I present four shows that you should consider sharing with your kids, why they aren’t watching them yet and how you can find them.
Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman
Why Your Kids Should Be Watching It: Your kids are probably already familiar with the reality competition TV genre, and many of the lowbrow programs it has spawned. Why not introduce them to a science-themed one that slips educational bits between the wacky competitions?
Each season of Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman features six tween contestants going on Amazing Race-style challenges and assignments, usually in and around the Boston area. The challenges send them to traditional location such as museums and libraries but also offbeat kid-friendly settings like amusement parks and BMX tracks. Challenges are given out by a wise-cracking animated dog named Fetch that brings a harmless edge to the show. Each season brings a new grand prize winner, giving kids a contestant to cheer for while learning about topics like Astronomy, Carpentry, Food Science, Biology and more.
Why They Aren’t Watching It: While Fetch! can still be seen on PBS during the PBS Kids Go! Block, the series was canceled in November of 2010 after funding was lost. Though it no longer has the fresh appeal or licensing of a new series, it is still worth seeking out.
Why Your Kids Should Be Watching It: Do you have a craft-loving kid on your hands that wants to dig deeper into their interest? This show could be the hidden (stick-on) gem they were looking for. A simple, stripped-down show parents will feel safe leaving on without supervision, each episode features five themed crafts with five steps and five main “ingredients.”
Hosted by renowned crafter Candie Cooper, the most recent season explores a different country each episode with the crafts themed around the culture and traditions. The five steps and five ingredients sometimes calls for advanced crafting tools though they also include basic supplies like scissors, markers and rulers. Thankfully, all projects on the show can be referenced on the official website.
Why They Aren’t Watching It: Hands On can be found on public television stations across the US at scattered times. It is still making its way across the country as the website suggests you “call or write your PBS station” to get it on air. Not a splashy or character-centric show, its selling point is the creative project ideas and the knowledgeable hosts.
Where You Can Watch It: On PBS (with a partial list of stations here), on their website, or on DVD.
Why Your Kids Should Be Watching It: This Emmy Award-winning show uses the docu-series format to explore science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers and education. Featuring a group of middle-school age girls in each episode, the show sends them on specific mission using science, technology and an older female mentor to help solve the problem.
While some educational shows may feel like “schoolwork,” this one keeps it interesting with challenges viewers will take interest in. Example missions includes designing an electronic dress for a fashion show, creating May Day Parade puppets, researching dolphin behavior and calculating the ideal horse for an upcoming competition. Each episode includes an animated story line throughout the show featuring the characters Izzie and Jake as they use science to solve their own problems.
Why They Aren’t Watching It: SciGirls was launched in February 2011 with 12 episodes and airs at different times on “most” PBS stations. Similar to Fetch! and Hands On, its inconsistent home on PBS has not made it easy-to-find plus it has not inspired a slew of exciting merchandise. However, it was recently renewed for a second season with ten episodes funded and a slew of “cross-platform games” that tie directly into the show.
Where You Can Watch It: For free as a “podcast” on iTunes.
Why Your Kids Should Be Watching It: While this show may seem like your standard laugh-track filled tween show, it also has another side to it that makes it worth checking out. The show is centered on a bohemian, grounded teen girl named Cake, and her daily comedic interactions with wise-cracking young neighbor Amy, materialistic fashionista Miracle, and tech-happy Benjamin. The twist on Cake is they all work together to create a public access crafting TV show called “Cake TV.” Each episode of Cake has a lesson in their “real life” inspire a craft that is taught at the end of the show during the “Cake TV” program. All the projects are simple for viewers to pick up on and focus on turning regular household items into unique accessories and crafts.
Why They Aren’t Watching It: Cake aired its one 13-episode season in 2006, and could be seen on various stations in reruns until 2009. It currently appears to have no home on TV and no new seasons are planned.
Where You Can Watch It: On Netflix watch instantly.
Open your children’s entertainment slow cooker and throw in some Jack’s Big Music Show, mix it with your favorite Food Network Chef and throw in a sprinkle of Pee Wee’s Playhouse and you have Clare Crespo’s The Yummyfun Kooking Series.
The Yummyfun Kooking Series is part of Clare Crespo’s cooking-themed Yummyfun brand for kids. For those who have yet to sample this delicious project, Clare has put out three themed cooking DVDs for kids (“Spring Has Sprung,” “Monkeying Around in the Kitchen,” and “Spookyfun”) as well as a monthly recipe club for families called The Yummyfun Kooking Club. The brand is also supported by a robust website located at Yummyfun.com.
Clare’s cooking skills have already inspired two best-selling cookbook/artbook mashups (The Secret Life of Food, Hey There, Cupcake! ), regular appearances on morning shows like The Today Show, NPR visits and even offbeat jobs like creating a food portrait of artist Beck. As for her experience working with kids and kids’ entertainment, Clare taught themed cooking classes to kids at The Blue School in NYC and The New School of Cooking in Los Angeles. She has also art directed a segment for Yo Gabba Gabba and designed pirate food for SpongeBob SquarePants. Meanwhile, she has kept busy with her “adult” cooking projects as well as her work as an artist.
As for the show itself, Clare’s love for food and art is clearly on display in this quality independent production that brings together her endearing personality, kid-friendly recipes, puppets and a very cool house band. We watched the “Monkeying Around in the Kitchen” episode and Maia was glued to the screen as “Yummyclare” taught us how to make Monkey Pops (chocolate covered bananas), Banana Dogs (bananas on hot dog buns) and Hawaiian Shirt Punch (fruit punch with pretty fruit slices). Clare’s persona is sweet, pleasant and subtly quirky. Drop-ins from scientist Safari Geoff, a musical visit from The Tastebuds, a few puppets and a unique kitchen set will capture the interest of kids not likely to sit still for a cooking-only show. While each episode turns up a bit short at only 17-minutes, I do hope this project gets attention from a TV network or distributor so we can start to see more episodes.
The Yummyfun Kooking Series is available online (www.yummyfun.com and www.amazon.com) and families can also join The Yummyfun Kooking Club at the official site.
In the meantime, check out some sample clips below!
Realizing the holidays were approaching, our daughter notified us she “only wanted Princess stuff.” She then added to that, “real princess stuff, Disney Princess.”
I realize I am the parent, I could put my foot down, maybe even sneak in some wooden puzzles. But, in truth, it is not like she asked for a Tiffany bracelet or a Hannah Montana doll. And on the positive side, Maia’s favorite princess is currently Mulan, teaching her some other (slightly Disneyfied) culture than that which exists under the sea and in a castle. Plus, underhanded plans are already in the works to sneak in some non-Disney branded Princess paraphernalia, and as long as it is pink and royal-looking she will be a happy toddler.
So, on my excursions to hunt down various Princess presents, I came across some licensed products that lend themselves quite naturally to the brand (Barbie-style dolls, pajamas, DVD players, pop-up castle tents, even toothpaste). However, I have chanced upon a few that left me with a slight feeling somewhere between bemusement and professional curiosity. I wondered how important it was to stay true to a classic brand, respect the back-stories and remember the magic that originally made these films so successful.
Before I share my list of Perplexing Princess Products, let it be known I am in no means an anti-Disney anarchist. I can’t wait to bring Maia to Disney World, show her all the movies I watched as a kid, and take her to each new one as it comes out. But, it is hard not to poke fun at some of the licensed products coming out of the House of Mouse, whether or not they are ringing up sales at the registers.
Ten Perplexing Princess Products
1. “The Princess and The Frog” Comfy Throw Blanket – Yup, it’s a Princess Snuggie, or Snuggler to be more accurate. The current As-Seen-On-TV product we all love to laugh at is now available at your local toy store with your favorite new princess image on it.
2.My 1st Disney Princess Baby Ariel Doll – With this release, Disney is going “retcon” on us. If I recall, Ariel did not have legs until her later years. I understand this may be categorized as nitpicking, and the target demographic may not be so concerned, but ignoring a classic back-story devalues a much-loved license.
3.Princess Ariel Bride Dress - I am okay with princess dress-up, but a bride’s dress borders on “Toddlers and Tiaras” level creepy. I understand the value of role-play, and Maia loves to pretend her Princess dolls are getting married. But seeing her walk down the “make pretend” aisle in a white dress that “includes a bonus veil to make you feel like you are headed down the aisle with your own Prince Eric” is messing with my head a bit too much.
4.Any Disney Princess Enchanted Nursery Toy - This whole line is based off the concept that Belle, Beauty, Cinderella and their princes all played together as toddlers. Seeing The Beast as a toddler in his outfit did make me chuckle, but the words “brand erosion” come to mind when seeing some of these dolls.
5.Enchanted Nursery Sea Shore Snow White - A build off of the previously mentioned line, this has Snow White “dressed up and ready to go” for a day at the beach. Sunglasses and sparkle bathing suit are included. Again, I go back to the story of Snow White and question whether she had access, deep in the woods, to the latest Ray-Bans and La Blanca products.
6. Snow White Vacuum & 7. Snow White Ironing Board Seat – Speaking of Snow White’s resources, I am sure she would have loved this vacuum and ironing board when cleaning up after those 7 slobs. Unfortunately, the “real” Snow White had to do with her helpful animal friends and some elbow grease. Fortunately, today’s girl has more options, and the little Snow White of tomorrow will have some practice with these Princess-branded toys.
8. Disney Princess: A Christmas of Enchantment – After borrowing this from a friend, I anticipated the Princess crew would help us celebrate the season with some new holiday content. But watching it, all I found was recycled bits of old Disney content with brief intros. We are given a chopped version of the previously-released Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas DVD, an edited short from Fantasia 2000, some above-average 1930′s era cartoon shorts, a Little Mermaid story with no animation and two songs with clips from the Princess films.
9.Disney Princess Plush Rocker – No direct tie-in to any princess is clear here, as we know none of the royal girls were riding flamingo-colored horses. The color pink seems to be the only connection to anything princess.
10.Disney Princess Nursery Doll Set – Sure, girls love playing mommy to little baby dolls. So, why not slap a Princess logo on a doll and sell it as a branded Princess item? Also available to keep your baby comfy: princess branded cribs, swings, beds, feeding sets and more.
Your thoughts? Any Princess products you love? Or think are over-the-top? Feel free to comment!