How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin & How the Camel Got His Hump
Jack Nicholson and Bobby McFerrin
Rabbit Ears Music (800-888-8544)
$9 Cassette; Ages 4-10
Rudyard Kipling’s animal fables are inventive and funny, not warm and cozy. So the sardonic Jack Nicholson is perfect to narrate them. Telling How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin, Nicholson is amused and detached. When the poor rhinoceros, his skin filled with cake crumbs, writhes with itchiness, our narrator actually lets fly a tiny, sadistic chuckle. Describing how the lazy camel became a beast of burden, he sounds totally unsympathetic. Nicholson probably never should play Santa in a shopping mall, but on tape his cool is mesmerizing.
The stories are powerful not just for their vengefulness — the camel’s hump and the rhino’s skin are punishments — but for their language. Kipling is ironic yet eloquent (”…his hat from which the rays of the sun were always reflected in more than Oriental splendor”) and witty (”Them that takes cakes which the Parsee man bakes makes dreadful mistakes”).
It’s hard to imagine that the music could keep up with the words, but Bobby McFerrin’s score is vivid. The nine short instrumental numbers that follow the stories are full of winds, whispers, haunting vowels — it’s snake-charmer music, the perfect complement to Kipling’s exoticism. A- (Susan Stewart)
A Gentle Wind (518-436-0391)
$8.95 Cassette; Ages 2-4.
Nobody said having kids would be easy. Remember this as your child listens to Rachel Buchman’s Hello Everybody! for the 11th time, and is delighted while you are going out of your mind.
Buchman’s 18 songs and chants, 8 original and the rest traditional, are directed purely at children. There’s absolutely nothing here for adults: no irony, no clever anachronisms or Sesame Street-style malapropisms. Such simplicity is admirable — the great Raffi has it — but when it’s not supported by rich melodies or musical depth, the result is monotony.
Still, toddlers like monotony, and learn from repetition. So they’ll enjoy such ditties as ”I Like to Swing” (which repeats that sentence 16 times).
The best songs are those that invite the toddler to perform along: the finger-counting ”Five Little Ducks” and the pantomime songs ”Pussy Willow Riddle” and ”Up, Up, Up.” Parents, take heart: As boring as counting fingers and hopping around may be for you, it’s just that entertaining for your child. B (SS)
The Incredible Mr. Limpet
Warner Home Video $59.95
99 Minutes; Ages 7 and Up
When the fish-faced Mr. Limpet (Don Knotts) wishes so fervently that he were a fish that he falls off a dock and becomes one (an animated creature with Knotts’ voice), a young viewer will be both relieved and a little scared. After all, things weren’t so great for Limpet as a human — the Navy rejected him because he’s a wimp, and his wife (Carole Cook) is a fishwife if ever there was one. But things are awfully unfamiliar for Limpet in the deep. It’s a good thing he discovers he can make a devastating roar; it saves him, his piscine lady love, and finally the Navy from a mess of trouble.
Though the story takes place during World War II and the bad guys are Nazis, the 1964 movie, just released on videotape, reflects the anti-communist mood of the time.
Limpet becomes a hero after he suggests working for the Navy as a top-secret weapon. The Navy needs Limpet, because it doesn’t know what it’s doing. The only one who does is Limpet the fish, who decides not to return to the human race. He hopes his gene pool (fish with human tendencies) will begin the evolution of a superior species (a paradoxical idea in an anti-Nazi movie).
Knotts, Cook, and Jack Weston (as a sailor) really ham it up. It’s hard to decide who’s most obnoxious: Weston, as Limpet’s cagey friend? Cook, as Limpet’s infantile wife? Or Limpet himself? What’s worse is that the characters — like the movie’s six songs — are uninspiring. The humor is also often flat. C (Valerie Monroe)
Rupicola Productions (800-729-1809)
$49.95; 127 Minutes; Ages 7 and Up
Imagine Monopoly with wings. Or Candyland with feathers. Instead of landing on Park Place and having to pay rent, you’re in Central Park listening to a Tennessee warbler (not to be mistaken for Ernie Ford). Instead of being mired in the Molasses Swamp, you’re in the Okefenokee, looking for a limpkin. Instead of picking up a Chance card that sends you directly to jail, you choose a Rare Bird Alert card and wind up in Nova Scotia, searching for the elusive European storm petrel.
These are the sorts of avian adventures awaiting players of Gone Birding!, an entertaining, educational game that involves identifying more than 360 species of North American birds videotaped in 60 places. Players try to identify as many birds as they can on trips to birding hot spots. The tape has 10 games, each with 6 video trips.
Gone Birding! appeals for several reasons. Because the rules allow handicapping, players of different experience levels may play together. Novices, for example, need identify birds only by their common names, while experts must provide full species and scientific names. Also, the game lets birdwatchers travel vicariously to see birds they might not otherwise encounter — quickly and in comfort, in minutes instead of hours, and without chills or chiggers.
Two reservations: The rules are too complex, and the price is a bit steep. But birders are a determined, dedicated flock; many will consider $49.95 a modest price for such a grand tour. B (Jeff Unger)
Winter Holding Spring
by Crescent Dragonwagon
Illustrated by Ronald Himler
Macmillan, $11.95; Ages 7 to 10
Some adults think that children’s books are like pills: quick, specific remedies for whatever ails the little tyke. Divorce? Death? Quick, find a story with the appropriate theme. We’re never this presumptuous with adults. Who would slip a copy of Anna Karenina, say, to a friend having an adulterous affair?
Winter Holding Spring is about death, but I hope no one gets the bright idea of giving it to some newly orphaned child. Like any good novel, its real value is not as specific medicine but as general illumination.
This is a poignant account of the way 11-year-old Sarah and her father cope with their grief in the year after the death of Sarah’s mother. The country setting, with nature’s cycle of continuity and change, provides the central image. Sarah notices the first yellow leaf of fall as she and her father pick the ripe summer tomatoes. That token of ”things always ending and beginning” becomes the theme of the book, leading to a mood of reconciliation and hopefulness at the end of the story.
The earthy images, the vivid, affectionate dialogue between father and daughter, and Ronald Himler’s soft pencil drawings all combine to make this an unusually sensitive handling of a difficult subject. B (Michele Landsberg)
The Stupids Have a Ball, The Stupids Step Out, The Stupids Die, The Stupids Take Off
by Harry Allard
Illustrated by James Marshall
Houghton Mifflin Company $13.95 Hardcover, $3.95 Paperback; Ages 4 to 8
Little kids love the word stupid. Maybe it’s because they’re not allowed to use it when describing their little brother or teacher. That’s why Harry Allard’s four Stupid books are so much fun. Finally, a legitimate excuse for saying the word stupid. Each book has its own particular charm. Plus, the Stupid family events chronicled in these books (the first of which was published in 1974) leave everyone feeling more than a little bit smart.
In The Stupids Have a Ball, for example, Stanley Q. and the Mrs. are ecstatic when their kids, Buster and Petunia, come home with report cards that indicate they’ve flunked everything. ”That’s hard to do,” Mom says with pride. The parents decide to have a costume ball in celebration. While addressing invitations, Mom forgets how to spell cousin Dottie Stupid’s last name. And so on.
James Marshall’s wacky watercolor drawings fill chez Stupid with lots of interesting touches — a bathroom sink with toothbrush and a matching tube of anchovy paste, a picture of the Swiss Family Stupid hanging proudly above the fireplace, and a family asleep with heads under the covers, feet nestling on a large pillow.
Kids love reading these books, and I love watching them and laughing along. When I presented one 5-year-old boy with some Stupid volumes, he was nothing if not grateful. ”Thanks for the books,” he said, getting ready to laugh at his own joke. ”They’re really stupid!” A- (Kate Meyers)