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The latest in kids' products

The latest in kids' products -- EW reviews the newest books, TV shows, videos, and music for the younger set

The latest in kids’ products

TELEVISION
SING! SESAME STREET REMEMBERS JOE RAPOSO AND HIS MUSIC PBS, WED., MAY 16, 8-9 P.M.

Joe Raposo, musical director of Sesame Street, died in February 1989; Sing! is a salute to his varied, witty work. Raposo wrote ”Sing!,” recorded by everyone from the Carpenters to Barbra Streisand; Sesame Street’s wistful, friendly theme song; Kermit the Frog’s soothingly melancholic ”Bein’ Green”; and virtually every piece of incidental music you can remember from Sesame Street.

Sing! makes a point of noting Raposo’s other work — the grown-up pop ballads he wrote for Frank Sinatra, the zippy commercial music he wrote for everyone from Polaroid to Ralston Purina — but as interviews here with his colleagues, friends, and family make clear, Raposo blossomed as a composer of children’s music, which he created with a playful sense of humor but treated as a serious formal challenge.

The best moments in Sing! are the excerpts from Sesame Street that let you hear Raposo’s crisp, jazz-inflected music while watching the visuals it was designed to accompany — the antics of the Muppets, educational lessons in the alphabet and math, and specialty songs for such guest stars as Lena Horne, Placido Domingo, and Ray Charles.

As you might have gathered from all this, Sing! isn’t just a kids’ program; with its anecdotes about Joe and Frank Sinatra, Joe and Ronald Reagan, Joe and any number of celebrities, it’s also a show adults can enjoy.

But Sing! probably will be most valuable for children, who frequently aren’t even aware that the music heard behind their favorite TV images was actually composed by a real human being. Sing! will introduce them to that real human being. B+ (Ken Tucker)

MUSIC
IMAGINE YOURSELF TO SLEEP BETT SANDERS AND CHUCK CUMMINGS
AUDIO OUTINGS (800-955-5991)
$10 CASSETTE; AGES 4 TO 10

Plenty of children’s tapes put you to sleep; Imagine Yourself to Sleep (subtitled A Getting to Sleep Tape for Kids) actually means to. Does it work? Only one way to find out.

We began, my toddler and I, with Side 1, a half-hour of pseudo-hypnosis called ”Be a Bird and Fly.”

”Let’s help get your body soft and saggy,” the narrator murmured, leading exercises familiar to anybody who has taken a Lamaze class. Soon we were birds: ”Your feathers are ruffling…Oh! It feels so good to be a bird!”

Ten minutes in, I was one relaxed bird. Soft and saggy? I was limp. By the time we had flown over a gently lapping ocean — the sound effects are terrific — I was groggy. But I was not too groggy to notice I was being pelted by big Duplo blocks. The toddler was not buying this bird stuff, but she wasn’t yelling either. As narration gave way to the gentle lapping of a peaceful stream, I heard the best sound of all: the gentle lapping of a dozing, thumb-sucking child.

Side 2, ”Be a Ball and Bounce,” which relaxed the toddler and put her father out cold in 12 minutes, is more of the same. Introducing the idea of ”bouncing” to a tot at bedtime sounds counterproductive, but eventually the ball bounces to that peaceful stream, and you’re home free. Last stop is the beach: 14 minutes of ocean sounds.

Sanders and Cummings are clinical psychologists, a fact that you might guess from the narration: ”If you have different pictures in your imagination than I have, just be sure to listen to yours…If anything is bothering you, just let it bounce right off.”

Will this gimmick help your child to surrender his consciousness at your convenience? No guarantees in the sleep game. But it beats driving around the block for an hour. B+ (Susan Stewart)

PRINT
BLACK AND WHITE
BY DAVID MACAULAY
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN, $14.95 AGES 8 AND UP

David Macaulay is one of the wittiest children’s author-illustrators alive (The Way Things Work, Why the Chicken Crossed the Road), and with Black and White, he has outdone — or maybe even outwitted — himself.

The picture book tells four separate and concurrent stories in four separate panels on each page spread: stories about a boy on a train, an escaping convict with a herd of Holstein cows, a crowd of delayed commuters, and two children with distracted parents.

Though the little narratives seem unrelated, and each is illustrated in a different style, mysterious cross-overs begin to happen both on the page and in the reader’s mind. Fragments of one story — torn newspapers, the black-and-white patterns of a dog’s coat, a convict’s uniform, and the Holstein cows — begin to turn up in a neighboring tale.

So far, so charming. And what Macaulay does with those Holstein cows (udder hilarity) must be seen to be believed. The patient reader who takes the trouble to piece together the stories-within-the-stories will be diverted along the way with lots of graphic dazzle.

Unfortunately, though,the story doesn’t add up to anything very interesting; this book’s punch is all in the pictures. B (Michele Landsberg)

MUSIC
FINGERPLAYS AND ACTION CHANTS, VOLS. I & II
TONJA EVETTS WEIMER PEARCE-EVETTS PRODUCTIONS (800-842-9571)
$8.95 PER CASSETTE; AGES 2 TO 6

There’s nothing fancy about Fingerplays and Action Chants, but it gets the job done. The two tapes, between them, take 40 minutes and comprise 27 of the chants, songs, and finger games that traditionally have proved spellbinding to toddlers. About half of these games will be familiar — breathes there a parent who doesn’t remember ”This is the church/This is the steeple” or ”Where is Thumbkin”? The other half will be entertaining.

Tonja Evetts Weimer, a child-development specialist and a restrained presence on these tapes, takes you through these ditties at a proper pace, running through many of them twice, which helps if you lack hand-eye coordination.

Volume II: Family and Friends has a few weak offerings, and Volume I: Animals seems a little heavy on the mishaps: Children are always falling off beds and bumping their heads, cats are eating mice, and alligators snapping up monkeys. But then, maybe you’re never too young to learn about the food chain…

Another minor quibble: Some of these finger plays require manual dexterity so far beyond this adult’s grasp, she wonders how a 3-year-old could even attempt them. But the illustrated booklets accompanying the tapes are helpful. And if you never catch on, your kid will be wildly amused to learn that you’re a klutz. A- (SS)

SHERLOCK HOUND IN THE WHITE CLIFFS OF ROVER
JUST FOR KIDS VIDEO
(800-445-8210) $39.95
2 HOURS; AGES 5 TO 8

The plots in the five mysteries on this cartoon tape are convoluted, the animation is just average, and the music is incidental. Why, then, is this the video my 6-year-old watches over and over, howling at the slapstick and repeating the unpoetic dialogue?

I think it’s because he’s fascinated by the characters — all dogs — whose personalities are distinct. Sherlock is clever and determined; Watson, his loyal friend, is endearingly befuddled; and Moriarty, the wily villain, is just wicked enough to be interesting. The drama in the stories, such as when Sherlock saves a horse from falling off a cliff, is powerful because the characters seem realistic.

The four Sherlock Hound tapes are popular, as are all tapes about little animals, a spokeswoman at Just For Kids said. My son corroborates. ”I love inspectors,” he says, ”but especially when they are animals.” These are smart, interesting animals. B (Valerie Monroe)

PRINT
MUSICIAN FROM THE DARKNESS BY CLAUDE CLEMENT ILLUSTRATED BY JOHN HOWE
LITTLE, BROWN $14.95; AGES 5 TO 8

A caveman with ”sky-blue eyes” hangs back from the hunt, plucks a reed, and creates music. In lush illustrations, we see lightning crackle behind a looming mammoth; we see dawn come up over the marshes as a boy listens, enraptured, to the new sound of music. Sound wonderful?

In fact, there’s much that’s disturbing — even sinister — about this pretty picture book. First, this is an all-male version of prehistoric life. Researchers have told us repeatedly that such ”caveman” talk gives children a false picture of human origins.

Second — and here’s where the sinister part comes in — the sensitive blue-eyed caveman and the boy who shares his wonder at nature’s beauty are an ashy white color with Caucasian features. The other cavemen, who shout brutishly, wave spears, and kill birds instead of inventing music, look African.

The book has racist overtones and is, scientifically speaking, nutty. It was published in France last year, and should have stayed there. D (ML)

THE CLASSICS SHELF
TUCK EVERLASTING
BY NATALIE BABBITT
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, $13.95; AGES 8 TO 12

Tuck Everlasting was heaped with honors when it was first published 15 years ago — deservedly. Babbitt offers readers, in the innocent guise of an exciting story, the chance to play with immense, heady ideas. And she captures those ideas in images as earthily pungent as wild mint.

The heroine, Winnie Foster, is an overprotected 10-year-old on the verge of adolescence. One August day in 1880, she wanders into the mysterious woods and meets handsome Jesse Tuck, who looks 17 but is really 104.

The Tuck family is frozen in time, having accidentally drunk from a spring that made them immortal. Hot on their trail is a Faustian character who wants to market the magic springwater. But, as the Tucks sadly explain to Winnie, that would be the worst disaster ever. The scene in which kind old Mr. Tuck explains the rightness of mortality to Winnie — the whole achingly lovely, growing, decaying cycle of nature — is one of the most vivid and deeply felt passages in American children’s literature.

Despite its resonance and poetically rich language, the plot gallops: Winnie is kidnapped, helps foil Faust, takes part in a jailbreak, begins to discover her own identity, and makes a hard choice: natural life or immortal love with Jesse? This book is as shapely, crisp, sweet, and tangy as a summer- ripe pear. And the elegiac ending will make your eyes sting with loss and inevitability. A+ (ML)