Not too long ago, I organized all of the icons on my iPhone and realized that I have a menu page that consists entirely of Toca Boca apps. This prolific developer makes so many apps that captivate both my 3-year-old and my 8-year-old (not an easy age span to bridge). Two recent additions to their app catalog are no different, Toca Cars and Toca Hair Salon Me.
Toca Cars lets you cause all kinds of motor mayhem in an adorable cardboard town. First, you choose whether you want to be a boy driver or a girl driver, but they’re both pretty punk rock so they’re both fun to play. Then, you choose whether you want to drive on an existing course or create your own. The preexisting course and the course that you can create are made up of roads (naturally), ramps, buildings, streetlights and signs, and puddles of paint.
This is not the app for you if your kid likes everything neat and orderly. Your car follows your finger, and unless you’re taking it super slow, you’re going to cause some damage to your adorable town, crashing through signs and driving through puddles. Actually, the puddles are the favorite part for both me and my daughter because you can leave colorful track marks in your wake. It’s also fun to jump the ramps and crash into things when you land. It’s a little tricky to line up your car right, but super satisfying when you do. Toca Cars might have a narrower appeal than some of their other apps, but for kids who like their car play with just the right amount of destruction, this is perfect.
I believe my kids play the various iterations of Toca Hair Salon more than anything else given the sheer volume of colorful character makeover head-shots that appear in my photo album. My daughter in particular loves styling the hair of the different characters, trying out all sorts of crazy colors and looks. Now, with Toca Hair Salon Me, she can try it on herself. It would be cool with a static picture, but the app goes the extra mile. After you take or upload a photo, the app asks you to mark the location of the eyes and mouth. Why? So it can animate you. My daughter giggled as she saw her own face react to the different hairstyles she was trying out.
Like the other Hair Salon apps, you can grow the hair longer and cut it shorter in a variety of ways. You can wash it, blow it dry, straighten it, and curl it. There’s also a rainbow array of hair dye colors. I happen to have pink hair at the moment, so my daughter enjoys trying out different colors for me to try. It’s like Cher in Clueless taking Polaroids of her different looks. I may well take one of the headshots from this app to my hairdresser on my next visit.
Toca Hair Salon Me is worth picking up even if you have one of the other Hair Salon apps. It’s so delightful for kids to immerse themselves in the experience. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go try out Toca Labs with the kids based on GeekMom Kelly’s review.
If you find yourself with time on your hands during your winter holiday, I invite you to join in my latest obsession, the web series Speakeasy with Paul F. Tompkins. Comic Paul F. Tompkins is joined in various well-lit bar settings by a wide range of people from comedy, television, and film in this highly watchable and addictive interview show.
My first foray into this boozy world was an interview with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Kaitlin Olson. Usually in interviews with funny people, especially in late night television, everyone is too busy mugging and cracking jokes to get real. In Speakeasy, though, Tompkins has a generous interview style that shows off his guests and pushes beyond all of the usual questions. I loved learning more about Olson, who is one of the most under appreciated people in comedy.
Speakeasy has been around for over a year and there are a ton of videos to get sucked into. My favorites are when comedy people get nerdy about comedy, like in the interviews with Bill Hader and Key and Peele. There are also plenty of entertaining people from our favorite geeky shows, like Alison Brie from Community and Mad Men, Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks from Breaking Bad, Simon Helberg from The Big Bang Theory, and Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Galactica.
I tend to lose two to three hours each time I start watching a Speakeasy video, even though they tend to be only five to twenty minutes long. Be ready for hours of entertainment.
You know how that classic song goes: “There’s no place like Skype for the holidays…” or something like that.
With little kids in the house, we’ve found it increasingly difficult to travel at Christmastime. The Santa logistics alone are mind-boggling, so we usually stay home with the kids and miss our family far away. Thanks to more ubiquitous technology among my family members, though, we can be at holiday celebrations virtually.
It feels more festive if we make it different than our usual Skype or FaceTime calls. We’ll pick a time to gather everyone together like it’s a special event. The grown-ups will all make themselves a festive cocktail. (Bonus points if you make the same drink on both sides of the call.) The kids will wear their Santa hats and sing the latest holiday songs they’ve learned.
We even do our annual gift exchange this way. Often the gifts are all in one location, and all available kids are only too happy to unwrap presents on behalf of someone on the other end, and then we have them shipped afterwards. Just this week we did an early gift exchange for the kids, and I got to see the look on my niece’s face when she opened her personalized, autographed copy of N.E.R.D.S by Michael Buckley, her favorite author. My sister got to see my son dig in to his new trucks, showing off what they can do.
With family in Illinois, Arizona, California, and soon Hawaii, this technology is a valuable resource to stay connected to our loved ones.
We reached a moment, my extended family and I, where we collectively realized that it was super fun to buy presents for the little kids, but less fun (and considerably more expensive) to buy gifts for all of the adults. That year, I suggested something I had recently experienced at my office holiday party—a Yankee gift swap. I don’t know what makes it “Yankee” other than that it took moving from Chicago to New York to learn about it.
Set a dollar value for the gift. We usually do something in the neighborhood of $25. Everyone should also agree on whether you’re giving serious, thoughtful gifts or tacky white elephant gifts.
Have everyone bring their wrapped present to the party. Display the presents where everyone can see them.
For every participating person, put a number in a hat. Then have each person draw a number. (This is a great activity for the kids, both the making of the numbers and handing them out.)
Person 1 chooses a gift and opens it.
Person 2 can either steal Person 1’s gift, or open a fresh one from the pile. If Person 2 takes Person 1’s gift, Person 1 then opens a new one.
Now things start to get interesting. Person 3 can steal any unopened gift, or open a new one. Say Person 3 takes Person 1’s gift. Person 1 can either take Person 2’s gift or open a new one.
As you get further down the chain of people, the stealing starts to get interesting, and some gifts become quite sought-after. To avoid infinite present stealing, we only let a person steal once per “round” and you can’t steal back a gift that’s just been stolen from you.
It’s good to go last because you get your pick of the presents. If we’re feeling charitable, we let Person 1 go again at the very end.
All this talk of stealing may make this game sound mean-spirited, but if everyone is taking the game in good fun, and it’s more about the togetherness and less about the presents, it’s happy-making. Spiked egg nog can help. It’s also a real point of pride when the gift that you put in is one of the sought-after ones. Some of the gifts I’ve done well with over the years, both to give and to receive are:
* Cookbooks, especially anything by Mario Batali
* Saké set with a bottle of saké
* Scarves and gloves
* A molcajete (that was fun to take on the plane)
* Dishes and glassware
* Kitchen gadgets
* Funny t-shirts
My family happens to have a lot of foodies, so every year has some of the above list. If you have a sports-loving family or a particularly outdoorsy family, I can see this list looking totally different. Just try to shoot for what you think the most people would like. Of course, I’ve been known to employ the opposite strategy and buy something with a particular person in mind. Through gaming magic, that person usually ends up with that gift.
Though I haven’t tried doing the gift swap with kids, I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s hard to get kids focused on “togetherness” and not “the stuff.” We’ve found that it’s good to do this when the kids go to bed. Or we give the kids jobs like shuttling the gifts around the room, and helping to select ones to unwrap. That way we can lazily stay in one spot with our egg nog, the way Christmas was meant to be enjoyed.
When I look up into the night sky, I’m focused only on the light—the moon, the stars, other planets in our solar system—but the new space show at the Hayden Planetarium is all about the dark, specifically dark matter and dark energy.
Dark Universe is a challenging yet fascinating look beyond our galaxy. The show provides an overview of the events that led to our current understanding of dark matter: how it was discovered, the technology used to research it, and what scientists been able to observe so far. Dark matter is the substance that makes up most of the mass in the universe. Scientists study this invisible substance by its gravitational influence on the visible. The visible matter only amounts to less that 5% of the observable universe.
This is really mind-blowing stuff.
It was quite convenient that before seeing Dark Universe I had recently watched a TedxColumbus talk by my astrophysicist friend, Dr. Scott Gaudi. Scott talks about the work that he and other scientists are doing in their search for extrasolar planets, and succinctly describes the methods they use. His talk is a marvelous primer for the big themes of Dark Universe.
And, as if dark matter isn’t enough to chew on, the show also describes dark energy. Scientists predicted that the gravity exerted by dark matter would slow the expansions of the universe, but in measuring the speed of supernovas, they found the opposite. The mysterious force of dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe. Pondering this in the dark of the show, I found myself both awed and terrified. Nothing like a rapidly expanding universe to make you feel small and inconsequential.
In addition to the screening of the show, I was fortunate to be in the audience of a panel discussion with the creative minds behind the show, hosted by the narrator of Dark Universe, the marvelous Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The panel included Curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, Director Carter Emmart, Producer Vivian Trakinski, Writer Timothy Ferris, and Composer Robert Miller. As they gave their behind-the-scenes accounts of the creation of Dark Universe, I was struck by their daunting task. It’s a show in a planetarium based on data, tons of data, and it’s about something invisible. They not only had to make dark matter and dark energy visible, but they had to make them understandable and watchable. I think they did a great job on all counts. They also tried to tell a story without manipulating the science. As a non-science civilian, the show gave me a foothold in understanding our dark universe. As for younger viewers, deGrasse Tyson described the scaffolded layers that they try to get into all of their shows—where a 5-year-old can walk away with the visuals of the show, maybe some new vocabulary, and a broad understanding of the concepts that lay the groundwork for future learning.
As narrator, deGrasse Tyson claimed no credit for making the show great, and yet who better to make these abstract concepts so compelling? I mean, don’t you want to sit in the dark and listen to deGrasse Tyson’s Barry White voice describe the universe? One of the reasons he is so infectious is that he and the rest of the Dark Universe team clearly share an excitement about what we don’t yet know. It’s a great quality in both artists and scientists.
I had you at “a Jane Austen endless runner” didn’t I? I’ll keep going anyway… Can you think of a better way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice than with an adorable little Lizzy Bennet as she jumps through the sentences of the novel? Me neither.
There are two different modes in the game. In Survival Mode, you have to start over from the beginning each time Ms. Bennet falls into the abyss. If you’re serious about reading the book, though, check out Reading Mode where you can begin where you left off. Quite thoughtfully, there are settings that let you adjust the color of the text and the background to what’s most readable for you, and you can adjust the speed to either making it a more exciting game or a reading experience with more longevity.
I really hope to reach a point in the app where Lizzy jumps into Mr. Darcy’s arms.
New York Comic Con is an increasingly popular event, and kids day sold out faster than anyone could believe this year. But what happens when you take an 8-year-old voracious reader to her third consecutive NYCC? Comics are hard to find.
Our biggest stop every year is First Second books. This year we grabbed the handful of their books that we didn’t already have. In particular we were seeking Hades: Lord of the Dead and Poseidon: Earth Shaker, the two books in the Olympians series that we don’t have, and were delighted to happen upon George O’Connor signing them. We also bought Zack Giallongo’s Broxo, which has a princess and a young warrior battling the walking dead. I also grabbed Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, thinking it was good for my daughter. It was a little racy and complicated for her, but older kids may enjoy this badass heroine as I did.
But what of straight-up comic books for kids? I’ll admit that my daughter isn’t so interested in the traditional superhero stuff, so booths like Marvel held no interest for her. We did pick up the first few Adventure Time comics because she’s just started getting into the show. Beyond that, though, there wasn’t much for kids on the main floor. We headed to what is usually the promised land for finding stuff for kids—Artist Alley.
My plea to comic creators is to look at these adorable faces of kids at NYCC and think about making things for them. They’re a hungry, enthusiastic audience. And my plea to NYCC is to court more kids’ content. We hope to come home richer in new comics next year.
What would you call an action movie about a vengeful cheese? Revenge of the Curds. How about a romantic comedy about a deep-sea matchmaker? That’s a Moray. A sci-fi movie about a first anniversary? 365 Days Later.
In our GeekMom & GeekDad booth at this year’s World Maker Faire New York, we were joined by the creators of Schmovie: The Hilarious Game of Outlandish Films. Created by Galactic Sneeze, the husband and wife team of Bryan Wilson and Sara Farber, the game challenges players to come up with the funniest titles they can based on a roll of the die and two cards.
Schmovie is designed for up to six players or teams. Players take turns being the Schmovie producer, the all-powerful judge of the round. The Schmovie producer rolls the die to determine the genre of the movie: sci-fi, drama, horror, romantic comedy, action, or producer’s choice. Then the producer flips over a WHAT? card and a WHO? card, and the rest of the players come up with their best movie titles to write on their Title Board. There are a bunch of helpful Schmovie starters on the back of the Title Board to get the creative juices flowing. The Schmovie producer then determines the best title and awards the player a Schquid trophy. The winner has the most Schquids.
At Maker Faire, we saw people of a wide range of different ages play Schmovie, and it’s a hit with all ages. Though the box says ages 13+, Schmovie is great for younger kids. The only thing that makes it a challenge for them is some of the vocabulary in the cards. If they have a grown-up handy, the grown-up can explain the vocabulary. Or you can simply filter the cards in the game for words the kids don’t know.
What’s fascinating about Schmovie is how differently you can play it with different players. Kids tend to be really literal about the titles and subtler puns and references to movies outside of their domain are lost on them. I played Schmovie with two eight-year-olds and they didn’t like a single one of my titles until I started catering specifically to their young producer tastes. With adults, you can have fun with obscure references and puns, and of course, the game can get dirty fast. (The producer’s choice genre is fun when you have to come up with a title for an adult film.) If you play on Schmovie’s hilarious Facebook page, you’re up against the best of the punsters. The titles at the top of this post were pilfered from the Schmovie Facebook page. Expect some stiff competition.
Give Schmovie a try in the comments. What would you call a sci-fi movie about a mutant lunch lady? Go!
I saw a ton of cool stuff at this year’s World Maker Faire New York, but the thing I most wanted to bring home with me was made by a maker friend of mine. Joshua Axelrod is the creator of Popcade, a half-scale arcade cabinet that doubles as a time machine to your childhood.
On the outside, Popcade is a reproduction of a Williams Electronics Joust cabinet, at a scale of 50%. On the inside is a Dell Pentium 4 PC running Windows XP. The computer runs MAME, an arcade game emulator. While MAME is capable of running thousands of games, Joshua has curated about 100 of exactly the ones you’d want.
There are some lovely details, like the fact that all games include accompanying artwork. There’s a second marquee screen that shows the name of the game when it’s loaded, a truly immersive feature.
It was funny watching some little kids play, who have no frame of reference for this style of play. The coin slot was totally lost on them. As I sat down to play, the experience took me right back to the early 80s. That’s the era of my perpetual joystick blisters. It plays beautifully, and I felt victorious as I took the Maker Faire high score in Ms. Pac-Man.
Yesterday I peeked behind the digital curtain at ComiXology, the cloud-based multiplatform digital comics reader, as co-founder and CEO David Steinberger talked through what’s new for ComiXology, what’s been working well according to a recent survey of over 16,000 readers.
ComiXology just passed the milestone of 200,000,000 downloaded comics. A good handful of those have been downloads in our household. As someone relatively new to comics, ComiXology is my favorite way to read them. I like the shopping experience of having comic book discovery at my fingertips, and the guided view technology used make comics so beautifully cinematic. I’ve been pleased as well with their nice selection of independent and kids’ comics.
It turns out, I’m part of the changing face of comic book readership. In their survey of readers, they found that the core customer of ComiXology is who you might expect:
Has been reading print comics for a long time
But a new customer is emerging:
Newer to comics, with many reading comics for the first time digitally
Of buyers new to ComiXology in the last three months, 20% are women. That’s up from less than 5% when they started the app, and it’s a number that Steinberger says is changing rapidly. Comic book publishers, take note. The survey also found that of the readers who were reading their first comic digitally, many went on to buy comics in print. Again, comic book publishers, take note.
I suspect that the ComiXology Submit program is helping, and will continue to help, cultivate new comics readers. In fact, since its launch, Submit has become a top 20 publisher by revenue. Content creators can deliver their independent comics to ComiXology, and if it’s professionally-created, it will likely get approved. (Unless you use Comic Sans. Be prepared to face certain rejection.) Browsing through the independent comics, you’ll see a huge range of voices and styles represented, including many underrepresented voices in mainstream comics. It’s great for creators. Steinberger said he sees much more risk-taking here than in mainstream comics. And these creators can go from having their comics in a few shops to having an international marketplace to find their readers.
Here’s a handful of things I learned about ComiXology:
* The average ComiXology customer spends about $100/year. A quarter of readers spend over $400/year. A single reader has spent $63,000 and counting. Is it you?
* There’s a line of comics that are Guided View Native (GVN). These comics take deeper advantage of the deeper platform with cool effects on lighting, focus, etc. Motorcycle Samuraiis a good example worth checking out.
* Your local comic book shop can have a digital storefront that allows you to still give your business to the small guy while buying digitally. Stores can even run deals and keep pull lists for their customers.
Naturally, ComiXology also has some launches and deals to align with New York Comic Con, too:
* There’s a new Android Holo release with a refreshed design. HD content will now be offered for the first time on Android.
* Apps have a new Fit to Width function that helps the reading of portrait pages in landscape view.
* DC graphic novels and collections are now available.
* If you’ve ever thought about reading The Walking Dead, now’s the time. Issues #1-114 are on sale for $99.99, or $0.99 each.
* Ape Entertainment is coming to ComiXology, with titles like Sesame Street, Kung Fu Panda, and game-based comics like Cut the Rope. Hurrah for more kids’ comics!
If you’re at New York Comic Con this weekend, definitely check out all that’s new with ComiXology. And have a look around and all of the different types of comic book readers you see.
Toontastic, a creative animation tool for kids, has partnered with MinecraftEDU in a contest called Toon Academy: Minecraft. Using Toontastic, kids create animated “How Toons” explaining to other kids how to play Minecraft, focusing on their favorite things to do in the game and why other kids might enjoy them, too. The contest excites me not just because it brings together two tools that can really spark kids’ creative abilities, but because it’s about kids teaching other kids, a marvelous way to learn. We are not yet a Minecraft household, but my daughter has shown an interest in it. When I showed her the videos kids have uploaded so far, she sat and watched a dozen of them. I think she might be ready.
The contest runs through October 17th, and winners will receive a prize package from Launchpad Toys and MinecraftEDU. Teachers can also get a lesson plan to do this in the classroom. Check out details on the Launchpad Toys blog.
As I walked through Maker Faire New York, I noticed table after table swarming with pint-sized makers—even more than years past—suggesting that Maker Faire is better than ever for kids. This year’s Maker Faire included the marvelous Zone E, a spacious area where parents could relax as their kids had room to make and play. Of course, kids’ stuff was peppered throughout Maker Faire, inviting them in at every turn.
Families were welcomed into Zone E by the Austin Bike Zoo, with their stunning butterfly bicycles and their horse/bike hybrid carousel. My kids loved the carousel. The 8-year-old pedaled feverishly while the 3-year-old chilled out in the little kid holding area in the center.
Once in Zone E, we saw some familiar faces. I know Brian Yanish, creator of ScrapKins, because we’ve got a ScrapKins book in the works for Speakaboos, the story app I’m working on. In the ScrapKins booth, the kids got a lesson in upcycling, making masted boats from milk cartons and straws. Then there was a recycled river to race them down into the ScrapKins lagoon. My 3-year-old could have done that all day. What a great way to build and test a vehicle.
We’re very lucky in New York City to have a bunch of places to take our kids for science play and learning. Storefront Science opened in my neighborhood, and it’s a real treat to have this resource in upper Manhattan. They came to Maker Faire with a creative exercise using batteries, LED lights, and pipe cleaners, letting kids build whatever they wanted. My daughter made a fuzzy creature flashlight.
Robofun and the Brooklyn Robot Foundry are other science resources we have in the city. My daughter loved a robot-building class she took a few months ago at the Brooklyn Robot Foundry, but Maker Faire is a great reminder to work these maker activities into our weekends more often.
We managed to miss this activity completely, but when I saw these creatures sewn together from various animal parts, I finally knew what to do with those two bags of stuffed animals taking up room in the closet. I proposed to my daughter that she take parts from all of her favorites and combine them into one giant Frankenanimal. She’s all for it!
Even though she had one on her wrist from last year, my daughter was excited to make another survival bracelet. Made from one long length of durable cord, these bracelets are easy to make and provide you with a long length of durable cord in an emergency. It’s fun imagining the MacGyver-like scenarios where one would rip open their survival bracelet because a rope was needed. And now we have two of them. Double the survival!
We spent the most time at the LittleBits booth. I love these intuitive circuit pieces. They’re so well designed that I saw several kids plunk down in a chair and get a circuit going within a couple minutes. My ambivalence about them comes with their price and purchasing options, but more on that in a moment.
The task in the LittleBit workshop we attended was to make a Halloween costume; a nice, concrete task to get the creative juices flowing. My daughter already has a costume. She’s going to be Hermione. I suggested that she make something to go with her costume, and she came up with the idea of making Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks. She made the cat out of cardboard, then wired it up with a sound sensor and vibration motor so that when you said “Crookshanks!” the bell around her neck would ring. Like magic! You can see it working in the video above.
We were super excited about it until we started to walk away from the booth and we were told that she needed to unmake it to give all of the LittleBits back. There was no way for me to buy the parts that she used, unless I wanted to purchase the kits that they had for sale, but even that would have required remaking it. We will probably order the pieces individually online (for about $40), but I can’t help but wish they had structured the workshop more in the spirit of Maker Faire. Either charge a workshop fee, or require a kit purchase to be in a workshop, or be clear with kids that they’re just experimenting. Or let the kids keep the parts and chalk it up as a marketing expense. Just don’t make kids unmake at Maker Faire.
Of course, even I as talk about “the spirit of Maker Faire,” that spirit seems to be changing. It’s amazing to have so much inspiration and activity for kids in one place. I loved taking the kids to watch them try new and challenging things.
But it’s hard not to feel a little cynical as bigger corporate sponsors roll in and more and more of the booths are there so you’ll purchase their products. I understand the need for money to help Maker Faire (and its vendors) succeed, but it’s less of a showcase of weird and wild creations and inventions than it used to be.
If you went to Maker Faire this year, especially with kids, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I’ve been fantasizing about getting a 3D printer. I don’t think my husband realized how serious I am about wanting one until he saw me (and our 8-year-old daughter) drooling over the entire 3D printing section at Maker Faire New York.
There’s something to be said, though, for all of the smaller companies making 3D printers and printer kits. A couple of the preassembled options that caught my eye are the Solidoodle, which starts at $499, and the Litto, which starts at $999 (add $300 for the assembly). Both are open-source and have small desktop footprints. I have to say, though, I was most intrigued by BotBuilder. Making a printer from a kit on my own sounds like pressure, but BotBuilder offers weekend workshops where you walk away with your finished printer. The workshop, including printer, is $999. I love the idea of building with a community of builders, plus the workshop offers the security that you’re doing it right and in a set amount of time. When you’re finished, you’re also better equipped to troubleshoot your printer.
The next question is what I would make with it once I had it. There are three things I fantasize about most:
Game Pieces: I’m a game designer and I want to inspire my kids to design their own games as well. Making our own game pieces would add a nice level of professionalism.
Jewelry: Every year at Maker Faire I end up coming home with 3D-printed jewelry. Why not try my own?
Party supplies: We throw oddball parties and we’d love to make the things that we can’t find, like cake-toppers, or party favors, or what I dream of most, custom cookie cutters. I’d like to be the mom that brings the narwhal cookies to the party.
Of course, Maker Faire New York had no shortage of great ideas for 3D printing. Here are some of my favorites.
Mixee Labs caught my eye with these adorable Mii-like figures that you create at Mixeelabs.com. You customize your figure using their online software, then for $25 you get it mailed to you. 3D printing has a certain low-tech look to it, but these were something different. They look adorable, totally unique in the 3D printing space, and they feel great to hold, too.
Mixee Labs is also making molecule jewelry that I love. You can customize the material (nylon plastic, stainless steel, silver, and gold-plated brass), the size, and the molecule. Some of the molecules include estrogen, adrenaline, nicotine, and Xanax. I have a pink plastic caffeine molecule that I’ve been wearing often.
Another set of portraits caught my eye, from The Great Fredini’s Coney Island Scan-A-Rama. Outside of Maker Faire, you can visit this photo booth on Saturdays in Coney Island. Portraits range from $60-$100 depending on the number of people in them, and the final result is lovely. In fact, while I was at their table, a couple was being scanned to get a portrait that they are planning to use as the cake topper on their wedding cake.
I had read about the maker classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it was cool to see some of the results from those classes in person. The Met enables teens to take scans of the collections and remix them in new and unusual ways. I love this head attached to a Pez dispenser, by far the classiest Pez dispenser I’ve seen.
Minecraft fans will be particularly keen on this next one. Blokify provides kid-friendly software that lets kids build digitally with building blocks. Once they’re satisfied with their creation, they can send it to a digital printer to make a castle, tower, or anything else they can imagine.
I saw a bunch of other inspiring creations, like robot sculptures, handy objects to windup your earbuds or rest your phone in, toys, and household items, even a toilet-paper dispenser! Maker Faire offered a great glimpse into the possibilities of 3D printing at home. I can’t wait to see the leaps and bounds that 3D printing makes at each Maker Faire. And, more than that, I can’t wait to have a 3D printer of my very own.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is one of my family’s favorite movies of all time. We went through a spell where our 3-year-old watched it almost every day. I liken it to The Big Lebowski–the jokes and gags get better and better with multiple viewings. It’s a marvelously crafted film.
Naturally, we had September 27th marked on our calendar as the release date of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 starts with a recap of the first movie, with a couple of key details added. Our hero scientist, Flint Lockwood, created the Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator (FLDSMDFR) which turned water into delicious food that rained down on the people of Swallow Falls. That was great for an island of people that ate only sardines, until the food started to mutate and eventually drove the people off the island. After Flint stopped the FLDSMDFR from spewing mutated food, the machine crashed down to Earth. One might think it would have been destroyed, but then we would be sequel-less! No, the FLDSMDF is still operational, and it has filled the island with evolved mutations, foodimals.
The trailer gives no hint to the main plot of the movie, one which takes us even further from the source material, the books by Judi and Ron Barrett. Growing up, Flint’s hero was TV scientist, Chester V. Chester V created a food corporation called Monsanto… er, I mean… Live Corp.
The specialty of Live Corp. is a line of food bars that’s a substitute for fresh food. Chester V and Live Corp. came to do the cleanup on Swallow Falls, and after they evacuated the residents, Chester V hired Flint to come work for him. How could Flint pass up an opportunity to work with his hero? But soon we realize that Chester V’s motives might not be pure. He wants the FLDSMDFR for himself. After several teams of Live Corp. workers failed to find it from the jungle of Swallow Falls, he suckers Flint into going back to find it, explaining the machine needs to be destroyed before the sentient food learns to swim. If that happened, why the food would destroy the major landmarks of the world.
Naturally Flint’s friends don’t let him go alone, so our beloved character from the first film return with him, including Sam Sparks, Flint’s Dad, Steve the monkey, Chicken Brent, Manny, and Earl (now voiced by Terry Crews, the only person I can think of who does Mr. T as good as Mr. T.) I could have watched them exploring the jungle of foodimals for hours. Flamangos! Shrimpanzees! Fruit Cockatiels! Meatbalruses! The animation is gorgeous, and it was one of the few times I wished for a movie-toy tie-in. I want a foodimals playset!
Flint makes many of the same mistakes he made in the first movie, so easily manipulated by a greedy individual that would separate him from his friends. This being a family film, you might guess that friendship wins in the end. There’s also nice, not-so-subtle messaging about environmental conservation in the face of corporate greed.
I’d love to tell you that this movie passes the Bechdel Test, and with the addition of Barb the ape (voiced by Kristen Schaal), it almost does. But, in the one conversation Barb has with Sam Sparks, they’re talking about a man. Bechdel fail. Still, Sam Sparks remains an empowered girl character. She’s not only a scientist, but she’s the moral compass of our island explorers.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 may not be quite as good as the first movie, but it’s still very satisfying if you enjoyed the first one. The whole family had moments of laughing out loud, and it was the first time our 3-year-old has been able to sit through a whole movie in the theater. I suspect we’ll enjoy it even more with multiple viewings.
Toolbox Jewelry provides a combination of ribbon, cord, nuts, washers, retaining rings, beads, and earring wires, enough to give every project in the book a try. My daughter had no trouble following the instructions, and she even called my attention to the parts of the books that have handy tips, like how to position a knot. And the resulting jewelry? It’s beautiful. It’s not beautiful in the “that’s nice, honey” way. It’s beautiful in a way that when my daughter was finishing up a bracelet, I pleaded with her to finish it at a size to fit me.
Often with Klutz kits, you’re beholden to the supplies that come with the kit. (Pro tip: you can reorder refill supplies from Klutz in those cases.) With Toolbox Jewelry, our imagination is already running wild. We’re excited to scavenge the closets and hit the hardware store to see how to apply the techniques in the book to different materials. I’m a fan of anything that gets my maker girl excited to go to the hardware store.
If you see us at Maker Faire, have a look at our beautiful accessories. Or make your own mini Maker Faire with this delightful kit.
I recently had the opportunity to join a discussion with some of my fellow bloggers and Thor Freudenthal, director of Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. During the Q & A about the movie, Freudenthal revealed some of the thinking that went into his direction of the movie, such as taking it in a darker direction than the first. (If you’re not familiar with Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, the latest installment in the Percy Jackson franchise, check out my movie review.)
Thor Freudenthal: If you have an ensemble piece like this one, with Tyson’s journey of accepting who he is and coming to terms with it, Percy regaining his confidence as a hero, Annabeth overcoming her prejudice, Clarisse and Percy sort of making up at the end…there are a lot of threads to keep track of. Central to it all, to me, was the story about kids who have all been dealt kind of a rough hand because their parents are gods, and they’re absent gods. It’s up to them to sort of find their own place in the world.
Now as far as the darkness is concerned, I tried to lean a little bit more on the pacing and the sense of humor in the books. There is kind of a light tone from the chapter heading in the books to Percy’s own voice really narrating everything in the kind of funny, sardonic, irreverent way that we wanted to translate here. The challenge is that you’re also dealing with the death of characters, the sort of looming darkness of the villain, and so forth. It’s a tough thing to kind of all bring under one hat, but that was the attempt.
I felt—at least from what I’ve heard in terms of responses—that people felt the humorous tone was more present in this movie than it was in the first one.
Chris Columbus is the director who brought the first Percy Jackson movie to the screen. Seeing Thor Freudenthal’s take on Percy Jackson is reminiscent of when Alfonso Cuarón took over for Chris Columbus in the Harry Potter movies. Good on Chris Columbus for being the first to bring these huge properties to the screen, but it’s nice when a new director can come in and add more depth. Freudenthal talked about the challenges of making the second movie in the franchise, taking into account feedback from the first movie.
TF: [Viewers] were presented with a series of decisions that were already made, from casting to how the story was sort of left at the end of the first movie, so it’s challenging to pick up the pieces and try to do the book justice. But it’s also very liberating because the setup has already been done, meaning Percy has learned who he is. We’re already in that world. It’s established, so now you can sort of dig a little deeper into it, as far as how you create the different aspects of Camp Half-Blood. I wanted to create more of a life in the camp; I wanted to show different sides of it. And I wanted to sort of widen the scope of it.
Thor Freudenthal is no stranger to bringing book properties to the screen. He was the director of the first Diary Of A Wimpy Kid movie. (I love that movie.) Freudenthal spoke of his different experiences on the two films.
TF: It’s always tough to translate a book to a screen simply because they’re such different formats. A movie is not a book. In the case of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, starting the franchise, we were very, very concerned with casting it correctly. That was the one thing that at some point seemed to be a sheer insurmountable task: Finding a kid that in everyone’s mind matches the stick figure drawing character from the books that sort of embodies the attitude of the character as well as a certain look that you think matches, even though all you have to go by is a circle and two dots.
What maybe both book adaptations have in common is that in a book—and this is specifically in the Wimpy Kid book—you can open the book at any page and read a fun episode or story or a tangent, something awesome or something funny, whereas the movie generally has to be on one particular track. It’s a very singular track. It’s one straight line that moves forward without much deviation. That means you have to find the sort of simple story arc, as we call it, or the goal that the character has or faces, and then group everything else sort of underneath it. Everything that the movie does has to be in service of that story.
In the case of Wimpy Kid, we decided that it should be a friendship story between the wimpy kid, Greg Heffley, and his best friend, Rowley, which is sort of present in the book but really more in the background. In the movie, I wanted to make it sort of the general through-line of the story.
Percy Jackson was even more challenging because the book is a sprawling, multi-hundred page epic. And in a two-hour movie, you can’t really do that. We had to sort of make really tough choices to keep the pace up and create a three act structure. And the result—since the story is about Camp Half-Blood becoming vulnerable and the barrier of Camp Half-Blood being destroyed—that’s where we had to start our movie, rather than start it in school where the second book started and spend a whole lot of time there, which really wouldn’t have amounted to much in the movie. So, it’s fine in the book, but it doesn’t really help the general plotting of the story, which means we have to introduce characters differently and bring them to the table differently.
Speaking of differences between the book and the movie, Freudenthal spoke about the tough choices where the movie is different from the book. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]
TF: It was partially me reading the books and discovering that there is a sort of bigger mythology under the story, mostly having to do with Thalia’s tree and the back story of Thalia. Thalia sort of becomes the beacon of courage to everyone at camp: What the tree means as a symbol, the barrier, the prophesy—which wasn’t introduced in the first movie— we had to somehow segue it into this movie. That in itself was interesting. [It was] essential to have Percy be confronted with his supposed future and make it sort of add in okay. Of course the character’s journey results in [Percy deciding] himself what his destiny is. So, that was a neat thing thematically and something that was not in the first book that I felt should be included.
Now here’s another interesting thing about making a movie like this. Kronos is such a lingering threat throughout that we talk about him in the prophesy. Luke, the villain, talks about him. When you talk about a thing so much through your first and second act, you have to show it. If you talk forever about Kronos, and there’s no Kronos, it doesn’t really work as a one, two, three act. In a book, it’s fine because you’re closing a book and you’re looking forward to book three, and ultimately Kronos will appear. I think if the movie series continues, the movies can adhere very much to the outcome of the prophesy as it relates to Kronos, Luke, and Percy, and so forth. But for this movie, I felt that it needed a finale that delivered on the promise.
And finally, I loved hearing about the inspired casting of Nathan Fillion as Hermes.
TF: Well, I have to tell you, I will gladly take full credit for this because I was prepping the movie, working with the writer, and I was hanging out with my little brother. We’re both Nathan Fillion fans. I mean, I loved Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I love Firefly. I was always a huge fan of comedy. And his pacing, his timing, he seems like a great guy. So, we’re watching Firefly, I forget which episode. I was thinking about Hermes, and Hermes is a guy who’s very much a showman, very much sort of in love with himself, but holds that sort of deep regret with how he dealt with his son and what that might mean for the future. So, he’s a regretful dad. And I was, like, “Oh, my God.” Suddenly it just came to me. What an inspiring kind of lucky thought. What if he’s Hermes?
So, I called up 20th Century Fox. I met him over coffee. He was the nicest guy. When I described it to him he instantly said that he wanted to do it, which was lucky. And so, there he was. And my little brother, being such a fan, he’s, like, “Hey. I’m coming to visit you in Vancouver when you shoot that scene.” My little brother is actually in the scene with him. He’s an extra.
Check out Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters now open in theaters, and you can explain to your book-loving tween about how sometimes directors have to make tough choices.
On a whim, I told the director of my son’s preschool that I’d like to come by during the kids’ outdoor water play time. She put me down on the calendar even as I told her I was going to shoot liquid 30 feet into the air to make it snow… in August.
My day came and the kids gathered outside. First, I showed them a 2-liter bottle of soda. I took it as a good sign that only two kids knew what it was. Then I showed them Mentos candy. I went to each kid and let them touch the hard shell of the candy. If you’ve ever tried this particular experiment or if you’ve ever seen the EepyBird show at Maker Faire, you know what’s coming next.
I came equipped with a Steve Spangler Geyser Tube that I attached to the top of the bottle and filled with Mentos. The kids counted to three for me and I pulled the cord to drop the candy. You should have seen their little faces as the soda hit the trees overhead. Naturally, I came equipped to do it a second time.
Next, it was time to make it snow. The school conveniently has a two-sided water table. We filled one tray with water and left the other one empty. I had my jar of Be Amazing Insta-Snow. The kids came up in groups of three; I put a scoop of the Insta-Snow powder into their hands and poured water over it. The snow ballooned up into a chilly handful. As more and more kids came up, the second tray started filling nicely with snow to play with. The little 3.5 oz. jar made enough snow for each of the 20 kids to try it at least twice.
I knew from a birthday party experience that Insta-Snow gets really, really messy. It was great to do it in a school setting where kids are used to being orderly. They did a great job of keeping the snow contained. Most of the kids were delighted to create snow in their hands, but I confess that I did freak out a couple of the little ones. The product is recommended for ages four and up, so we maintained close supervision of the kids.
I could just as easily see doing this in my daughter’s third grade class as my son’s preschool. Twenty bucks is a small investment to become one of the coolest class parents ever.
Fans of Rick Riordan and Percy Jackson rejoice! The second movie installment, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters hits theaters this week. I recently attended a press screening and brought with me the biggest Percy Jackson expert I know, my 12-year-old niece.
If you are new to the Percy Jackson juggernaut, here’s a quick recap. Percy Jackson thinks he’s an ordinary boy, but then finds out he’s the son of Poseidon. He meets other half-human, half-god kids at Camp Half-Blood, sort of an outdoorsy Hogwarts for demigods. In the first installment, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Percy goes on a quest to recover Zeus’ missing lightning bolt. By the end of the movie, [spoiler for the first book and movie] he discovers Luke, disgruntled son of Hermes, is the Lightning Thief.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters begins back at Camp Half-Blood. The heroic luster of retrieving the lightning bolt and saving the world has worn off, and Percy is full of self doubt. Clarisse, daughter of Ares, the god of war, fuels his doubts by being generally awesome in camp activities and snarky and competitive with Percy. Percy’s friends Annabeth, daughter of Athena, and Grover the satyr, try to bolster his confidence, but it’s the help of his absentee father that he seeks. Instead of getting his father, though, he gets a half-brother he never knew he had: a brother that happens to be a cyclops.
When there’s a serious threat to Camp Half-Blood, it’s Clarisse, not Percy, picked to go on the quest to save it. The tree that protects the camp has been poisoned, and only the Golden Fleece can heal it. Now it wouldn’t be a movie if our heroes didn’t go after it, too, so Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and his new cyclops brother, Tyson, start a quest of their own. The villainous Luke is back, and he wants the Golden Fleece for a wholly other purpose — resurrecting Kronos to bring about the fall of Olympus to make room for a new generation of gods.
The movie is an entertaining, action-packed adventure with comedic touches to keep it from getting too serious. I enjoyed Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters much more than Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. The first movie was goofier and had cheeseball special effects. Sea of Monsters features more sophisticated movie-making, with effects that are actually worthy of being in 3D.
The performances are all great. This may mark my age, but Logan Lerman who plays Percy reminds me of a young Christian Slater. He just the right mix of dreamboat and nerd. Brandon T. Jackson as Grover steals every scene he’s in. He really needs to be the star of his own movie. And the movie grownups have casting that will make many GeekMoms very happy. Anthony Stewart Head plays Chiron, a sort of Giles to Percy’s Buffy. Stanley Tucci is perfectly cast as Mr. D, also known as Dionysus, the god of wine. In the best casting of all, Nathan Fillion places Hermes, a smooth-talking businessman and messenger to the gods. Firefly fans will enjoy a little side joke he slips in about cancelled shows.
I wish I liked the girls a bit more. Annabeth and Clarisse have such similar smart-talking styles that it can be a little hard to tell them apart. It’s nice that they’re both powerful, though, and thanks to them, the movie passes the Bechdel Test. I also appreciate that though there are clearly sparks between Annabeth and Percy, there’s no action on those sparks. She’s not there to be a love interest. She’s a friend, a hero, and a demigod.
I’ve only read the first book, but my niece was generally pleased with Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters‘ faithfulness to the book. She was very glad to see Annabeth’s hair restored to blonde after being a brunette in the first movie. [Spoilers ahead] She was a little bit put out that Kronos, who doesn’t make an appearance this early in the book series, makes an appearance in the film. The scene he’s in really called for it, though.
For the non-Percy fan, I also brought my 8-year-old daughter. It may be scary for some 8-year-olds, especially with a scene that gets all Arc of the Covenant, but this is a girl that’s read and seen the entire Harry Potter series. She’s not easily shaken. She enjoyed the movie but isn’t in a hurry to read the books. Instead, she’s been devouring George O’Connor’s Olympian series. That’s fine by me, but I’m going to go read The Sea of Monsters now.
Some of the GeekMoms are big fans of First Second books, and their recent books include a couple that are great for tweens and teens.
Tweens will enjoy Dave Roman‘s Astronaut Academy: Re-Entry, his follow up to Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity. When last we left the Hakata Soy, he was headed to holiday on Earth with his new friend Miyumi. The re-entry into Astronaut Academy begins a new semester right after the holiday break. Hakata has a broken heart, because he loves Princess Boots, but she’s now with his arch-nemesis, Rick Raven, leader of the Gotcha Birds. He had even given one of his hearts to Princess Boots. You see, at Astronaut Academy, the kids have multiple hearts to give away, but when they lose all of their hearts, just like a video game it’s game over. Unfortunately, Astronaut Academy has been infiltrated by a dangerous entity that feeds itself off human emotions. It’s disguising itself as the girls at the academy as a way of taking hearts from the boys who love them.
One of the things I really enjoy about this series is that it’s told in a bunch of vignettes from different points of view. You get to see the perspective of both the boys and the girls. It reminds me quite a bit of the Origami Yoda series in that way. These books are great for tweens who are starting to navigate the crazy emotional ups and downs of tweendom.
Jane Goodall is first. She began as Leakey’s secretary, but then was sent to Nigeria to study chimpanzees because Leakey believed women were better at these long-term primate studies. Goodall, of course, studied the chimps and discovered their use of tools, which required people to rethink their terms of what it meant to be human.
Next comes Dian Fossey, who heads to the Congo to study gorillas. It’s fascinating to see how she crossed paths with Jane Goodall, and later with the youngest member of their star circle, Birutė Galdikas.
Of the three, I was least familiar with Galdikas, so I enjoyed following her to Indonesia where she studied orangutans. Ottaviani does a wonderful job letting us get to know these three very different women, celebrating their different personalities. I also found that the book inspired me to learn more about these three women and the primates they studied. Of course, it’s also a great look into human behavior and relationships as we see how these women’s passion for primate research affected their relationships, and how Louis Leakey’s wife was none too happy with his fascination with women researchers.
Ottaviani helpfully adds an afterword about what it means to create a fictionalized account of true events, something the kids reading this book should think critically about.
I recently attended IDC 2013: the Interaction Design and Children conference in New York City, presented by The New School and Sesame Workshop. This conference is designed to bring together researchers, educators, and designers who are investigating in meaningful and innovative ways to engage kids with technology. I work on the commercial side of the industry, so I was fascinated to get a deeper dive into what’s happening in the academic community. Here’s a sampling of some of the interesting things I encountered.
LightUp showed one of of the best uses of augmented reality I’ve seen for kids. Their snap-together circuits are reminiscent of Little Bits and Snap Circuits, but go one step further with the augmented reality app that can show the flow of electricity in a working circuit and can help troubleshoot a nonworking circuit. Their recent Kickstarter campaign well exceeded funding, so we can expect to see these moving forward.
Speaking of circuits, Blockuits is a product concept designed to introduce circuits to the toddler set. These plush building blocks stack together to model circuitry concepts, as kids make the blocks light up, vibrate, and make sound. I can imagine these being a hit in preschools.
In other news for young kids, Louise Flannery of Tufts University let us know that Scratch Jr. is in the works! This is in partnership with Trufts and the MIT Media Lab, making Scratch accesible to kids in Kindergarten through 3rd Grade. Woohoo!
David Sengeh of the MIT Media Lab captivated the auditorium with his work. With all of the amputees he saw from the war in Sierra Leone, he saw a need for a way to easily create customized prosthetics. He uses 3D printing to create the customized sockets for multi-material prothestics. He extended that maker/problem-solving sensibility to the children of Sierra Leone, with Innovate Salone, where thousands of kids submit ideas for projects that will benefit their community, and they select finalists to help realize their projects. As Sengeh said, “Don’t solve problems for kids, give them tools to solve problems themselves.”
Dave Menkin of the Center for Digital Music at the Queen Mary University of London showed remarkable music technology for kids with complex needs. These MoosikMasheens used the most simple iPad app interface to activate modified instruments, providing socializing and therapeutic benefits like self-confidence and peer socialization for kids with severe physical or cognitive impairment.
The work of Kanjun Qui of the MIT Media Lab will especially delight my fellow GeekMoms. She and her colleagues are attracting girls to STEM with e-textile workshops. Kids sew together conductive textiles using conductive thread and program their creations with a Lilypad microcontroller. Finding that the text-only interface was turning off some of the kids, they created a Modkit, inspired by Scratch, built on Arduino. Qui will be publishing her curriculum as a book, Sew Electric, which I’ll be anxiously awaiting.
Some concepts had tech razzle-dazzle but weren’t yet implemented in a way that’s going to hook kids. Bridging Books are a book and app hybrid, where when you turn the page on the physical book, it turns the page of the virtual book as well. Illustrations extend from the printed page to the virtual page. In its current prototype iteration, it suffers the same problem as many books brought to electronic devices—why? There’s no interactivity or illustration purpose shown that makes the sum better than the parts. That’s not to say the potential for innovation isn’t there; it’s just not yet realized.
My favorite IDC moment was when everyone in the room was handed a packet of 6 Lego bricks, and we were given 45 seconds to build a duck. I finished my duck handily in the 45-second window, certain that I had built it “correctly.” Of course, I soon realized that being right or wrong wasn’t the point. Everyone immediately around me built their duck differently. With only six bricks, I was amazed at the variations. It was a terrific exercise in creativity, and an interactive way to announce that IDC 2014 will be taking place in Denmark, in cooperation with The Lego Foundations. That’s going to be a good one.
You can read much more about IDC2013 on the conference website. And I encourage you to think of work like this whenever anyone is dismissive of tech for kids.
Among the GeekMoms, there are avid fans of all of those shows. Of them all, I think Game of Thrones had the best season. I came late to the GoT party, but I’ll be wrecked about that Red Wedding for a while. I’m secretly hoping for House of Cards to win, though. Netflix has really stuck its neck out to change the landscape of television and deserves to be rewarded for it. Hopefully, it means more quality shows headed our way.
My money’s also on Kevin Spacey to win for House of Cards, though there were points in the series where his character Francis Underwood sank so low I almost stopped watching. Game of Thrones was woefully not represented in the Lead Actor in a Drama category, unfortunately. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau had a great season as Jaime Lannister.
30 Rock is a favorite here, celebrating one of my favorite geeky women, Liz Lemon. It’s hard not to love some of those other choices, too (Louie!), though I’m the lonely geek that doesn’t love The Big Bang Theory. What’s sorely missing on this list, though is Parks and Recreation, with my favorite geek couple on television, Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt. Did you see the episode where Ben’s eBay username was Tyrion Lannister as he tried to by Leslie a waffle iron? Adorable. Better yet, see how Amy Poehler would recast Game of Thrones with Parks and Recreation characters. I’ll take comfort in the fact that Amy Poehler is nominated for Lead Actress in a Comedy Series.
Emmy also snubbed Nick Offerman. His Ron Swanson is one of the best characters on television. Speaking of best characters (and Tyrion Lannister), I’m rooting for Peter Dinklage to win Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. (Sorry, Mr. Carson.)
The category I’m most looking forward to, though, is this:
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Anna Gunn as Skyler White, Breaking Bad
Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess of Grantham, Downton Abbey
Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones
Morena Baccarin as Jessica Brody, Homeland
Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, Mad Men
Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart, The Good Wife
That’s right, people, the Dowager Countess is up against the Mother of Dragons.
What could be better? Of course, I love all of those other women, too, though Christina Hendricks was woefully underused last season. (You hear me, Matthew Weiner? Need. More. Joan.)
You can see all of the Emmy nominations on the Emmy website, and wait with me until September 22 when we’ll find out who wins.
Good news for summer readers! StarWalk Kids is making their digital library free for the entire month of July with their Summer Pop-Up Library. StarWalk Kids is the brainchild of founders Seymour Simon and Liz Nealon. Seymour has written over 250 science books for kids and Liz’s extensive career in kids’ media includes being Executive Vice President of Sesame Workshop. And they’re lovely people. [Disclosure: I consulted on a couple of titles in the Starwalk Kids library.]
The StarWalk Kids library includes a vast array of nonfiction on high interest topics, including many of Seymour Simon’s books, with some fiction titles thrown in for good measure. The books can be accessed on the web, on interactive whiteboards, and on tablets and smartphones with the SWKids Reader app.
Within the StarWalk Kids Reader there are three different reading modes: Read to Me, Let Me Read, and Auto Play. In Read to Me and Auto Play modes, there is audio narration and the text is highlighted as it is read. Additionally, there is a suite of tools to zoom in and out, navigate the book, and highlight the text.
The library has books for kids from PreK through 8th grade. For educators, there’s also teacher information and correlation to the Common Core Standards.
LeapFrog was in New York City this week showing off some of their exciting new wares, including their foray into the 7″ kids’ tablet market, the LeapPad Ultra, and an exciting new development to their Tag Reading System, the LeapReader. It’s a pen…that writes!
More on that innovation in a moment.
First, the LeapPad Ultra. If you have the LeapPad1 or LeapPad2, some of the changes will be obvious. Most noticeable is the 7″ high-resolution screen, suddenly making it more of a contender with any iPad or Android tablet you may have around the house. It behaves more like a capacitive touch screen, allowing for kids to use their fingers with a lighter touch, but still offers stylus play. It’s also more durable, with a protective shell that allows for dropping. (LeapFrog was sure to show a drop as part of the demo.) LeapFrog said that their number one request from parents when talking about the LeapPad was a rechargeable battery, which now comes with the LeapPad Ultra. The rechargable lithium ion battery should last for nine hours of play.
The other big development is that the LeapPad Ultra is wi-fi enabled. This lets kids dabble in the connected world without going too far. The LeapPad Ultra will find other LeapPads nearby, allowing kids to play games with one another and chat using canned responses and emoticons. They also now have kid friendly search, powered by Zui. All content for this search is filtered in—all content has been screened. There’s no typing, and kids will be able to access sites like PBS Kids.
Other features for the LeapPad Ultra include:
8 GB of memory
Front and back cameras and video recorders
Backwards compatibility with the LeapFrog library (including cartridges)
11 included apps
How will it stack up against other kids’ tablets in the increasingly crowded space? In the kids’ market it comes down to content. While the LeapPad Ultra may not be able to access your favorite apps, what is has over the App Store and Google Play is content curation. The content doesn’t get an educational label just because a developer claims it’s educational, the LeapFrog eduction team is either an integral part of the game design or vets the content coming from external parties. I can vouch for the thoughtfulness of this process as someone who’s produced a number of games for this platform. (If you’re interested in checking out my games, I Spy Super Challenger and Super Animal Genius are two of my favorites that I designed for Scholastic.)
Just when I thought the touch screen devices would plow right over all of LeapFrog’s other learning initiatives, they had a really interesting tech breakthrough with their Tag Reading System with the new LeapReader. Again, LeapFrog reached out to parents and learned that they really wanted that thing to write, but not destroy the books and products that came with the Tag pen. No problem. The new LeapReader writes only on special paper. This is great for kids to develop their fine motor skills, doing things like handwriting practice. We tried it out, and it even responds to heavy and lighter touches.
LeapFrog is also looking at broader reading skills with the LeapReader. It does all of what Tag could do, touching words to hear them read and play reading and learning games. And now it can write. But there’s also what they’re calling “Learn through Listening,” with an increased audio component that features audio books, from short ones like Clifford the Big Red Dog to chapter books like the Magic Tree House series, and music. I confess that when it started playing the KidzBop version of Ke$ha, my impulse was to hold it like a microphone and sing along. (Do not judge.)
Other LeapReader features include:
Library of 150+ books, workbooks, audio books, and more
Sampler books and three apps included
USB rechargeable battery
Storage space for up to 40 books or 175 songs
Lastly, LeapFrog is releasing a free parent app in the fall for iOS to make it easier for parents to stay connected to their child’s progress on the LeapFrog learning path, should they be so inclined, and to get activity ideas to enhance the skills their kid might be learning. They’ve already got a ton on interest for Android, so it probably won’t be too far behind.
LeapPad Ultra has an MSRP of $149.99 and is available in August (preorders start on July 17). LeapReader has an MSRP of $49.99 and is available now.
My daughter’s big gift for her 8th birthday was getting her ears pierced. We did it the weekend before her birthday, but then I was afraid her birthday would be a let down on the day itself. All we planned to give her to open was an earring holder and a multi-pack of inexpensive earrings.
What could we do to make the birthday seem more special without spending any more money? A birthday scavenger hunt was in order.
Here are my steps for this birthday scavenger hunt, and I hope this will inspire you to make your own scavenger hunts. The trick is to make clues that are age appropriate without being too easy—you don’t want it to be over in a minute or two.
Aha! A little Harry Potter there. I hid the next pair of earrings in Order of the Phoenix. That one took her a little while. I think for a moment she thought a real Room of Requirement might materialize.
You found the owls! They’re friends of Hedwig.
They said to look next in a truck used to dig.
The next pair of flower earrings was in my son’s bulldozer toy.
What are those? I see flowers you’ve dug.
Now in the plant I see some kind of bug.
Then a pair of dragonfly earrings was hiding in one of the plants.
Now look for a picture of mom’s niece.
If you find her, you’ll also find peace.
This one was tricky for her, too. A pair of peace sign earrings was on the refrigerator held in place my a magnet photo of one of my nieces.
This last clue has a lot of heart.
Look on top of some cute Olive art.
My daughter’s name is Olive, and after first searching all around art that she made, she found the last pair on a painting someone made of her. The last pair of earrings came with this message:
We love you, spy girl. Hip hip hooray!
You found all the presents for your birthday.
I’ve made a bunch of I Spy games in my time, so I felt compelled to rhyme all the clues. Habit. Rhyming isn’t important, but it’s good to make your clues enigmatic. It’s good if there’s both an obvious response and a less-obvious one, so there are places where your child will look first and then have to think harder. Each clue doesn’t have to come with a present, either. A series of clues could take your birthday boy or girl on a chase to find the location of a single present.
I think the scavenger bug is spreading because my daughter also made her dad a scavenger hunt for Father’s Day. This may become a family tradition.
BookExpo America took place earlier this month in New York City, and it’s always one of my favorite events. I always need to leave myself a few days to see the show because I’m constantly stopping to read in the booths and waiting in autograph lines. This year my autograph lines included many of my kidlit favorites, including Jon Scieszka, Oliver Jeffers, Bob Shea, Betsy Lewin, and Peter Reynolds, all of whom have new books out.
Kids who love Angry Birds can convince their parents that the games are educational with the new National Geographic books that use Angry Birds to teach about physics and space.
I had a lovely chat with Bob Der, Director of Time for Kids, about getting kids excited about reading (especially nonfiction) and how Time for Kids is finding a home in the classroom. Their books are about topics kids get excited about, like dinosaurs and sports and crazy, weird facts and information. They also have digital versions of many books to have a presence on interactive whiteboards in the classroom, “high-impact versions” made better with video. When I think about all the nonfiction requirements in the Common Core Standards, I’m glad for things like Time for Kids.
Cozy Classics are an adorable line of board books that attempt to tell classic tales like Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick through a handful of photographs of felted characters paired with single words. It helps to have read the original to be able to fill in some detail for your tot. I can imagine giving two copies of Pride and Prejudice to a new mom—the grownup one for her and the Cozy Classic version for baby.
As a kid I was a fan of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not segments that appeared in my Sunday comics, and I’ve stayed intrigued all these years. Ripley’s had a great presence at BookExpo this year, including the gigantic Dare to Look! book. Scan pages with your smart phone to see more videos and images.
There was much to salivate over in the Chronicle book, including Carnivores, a hilarious book by Aaron Reynolds and Dan Santat, a bunch of new Taro Gomi books, and this cool Make Your Own Robot kit that looks like a ready-made birthday gift.
I wish I could tell you this was a real Monster Book of Monsters, but alas it was just a box. What a great place to store your treasures, though. People would think twice before opening.
I lived in Williamsburg before it was cool. True story. If you’re not familiar with this hipster pocket of Brooklyn, it’s filled with trucker hats and beards and ironic t-shirts and retro sunglasses and paying way too much for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Now there’s a way of sharing this hipster paradise with your whole family, with an app called Williamspurrrrg. It’s as easy as adding hipster accessories to cats—Or is it?
When you first begin, you must simply slide a mustache onto a cat. Level up! Then you gradually work your way up to adding multiple accessories to multiple cats. Suddenly it’s not so simple, not because it’s hard to figure out where everything goes, but because you have to hold everything in place at the same time—nothing will lock into place until everything is in place. Unless you’ve got super long double-jointed fingers, you’re going to need another pair of hands. Time to grab your kid. As my 8-year-old daughter said, “This game is hard with just one person.”
Williamspurrrrg is the brainchild of my friend Dr. Carla Fisher, an advocate of co-playing with your kids. She designed this app specifically to promote dialogic play, where you do more that play with your kids, you talk about the play that you’re experiencing together. She has many tips for promoting dialogic play with your average app, but with Williamspurrrrg she puts her money where her mustache is. You get about five levels in before you realize you’d like this game so much more if you played with another person.
My daughter and I previewed the app, and sure enough, I found us having some interesting conversations about the levels. The level design surprised us when the biggest mustache went on the smallest cat and the smallest mustache went on the biggest cat. And sometimes, it just made us laugh.
The app has just hit the app store. Grab it now at its introductory price of $0.99. It’s awesome to play with your kids. It’s also awesome to play with your hipster pals while sipping your Pabst in a rooftop bar with views of Manhattan.
You can fold Yoda, of course, using the fancy green and brown paper provided, and you can learn how to draw the characters of the Origami Yoda series and draw like the characters. I love a section called “Tommy Can’t Draw” where there are rectangles with a few crudely drawn lines and you have to guess what they are. Origami Yoda fans will love this book.
Apparently Star Wars and origami now go together like Han Solo and Chewbacca because in the Workman Publishing booth I noticed Chris Alexander’s Star Wars Origami.
If you’d like more hands-on Star Wars action, Chronicle will set you up with Star Wars Lightsaber Thumb Wrestling. Velcro the lightsabers on you thumbs, choose your battle stage, and then add your own sound effects.
All these Star Wars books will be very handy come October 5, with the return of Star Wars Reads Day. Look for a location near you on the Star Wars Reads website or Facebook page. May the literacy be with you.
Disney recently invited me to have a closer look at their new app, Story. You may hear Disney and assume it’s an app for your kids. Nope, it’s an app designed for you as Disney looks more closely at the broader family market.
I am not a scrapbooking mom, but the Story app has scrapbooking appeal. Disney envisions its user as “mom on the ground as a storyteller pulling moments together in a capital-S Story.” Essentially, Story lets you pull images from your iPhone’s photo gallery and edit them together within a themed album that you can format and caption into a coherent story to share with your friends and family.