Share the Joy of Reading with Read Across America

Scholastic Book Fair
Scholastic Book Fair. Photo: Maryann Goldman

NEA’s Read Across America was Monday, March 2nd, and schools across the country have scheduled activities all week long to celebrate. Does your child’s school have something planned?

My son’s elementary school planned their first annual Moonlight Reading event yesterday to coincide with Read Across America and the Scholastic Book Fair. Students were encouraged to wear a costume depicting their favorite book character to school for the day and then to return in the evening with their parents for additional activities. Teachers were stationed in grade level groups in classrooms throughout the school, and students and parents used a map to navigate to the reading sessions and teachers they wanted to visit. Each of the three reading sessions lasted 15 minutes, and five minutes was scheduled to move between sessions. At the end, everyone went to the cafeteria for milk and cookies, and a special guest speaker read a book to the entire group. Of course the book fair was open during the entire event, and book sales seemed to be doing well. The event appeared to be a huge success, and I suspect it will be the first of many.

Besides being educational, the event gave students, teachers, and even parents a chance to do some fun book character cosplay.  Students were highly encouraged not to dress as movie characters but instead to be creative and choose characters whose roots are firmly planted in books. That was hard for some to do, but others seemed to excel with creative book character costumes.

I went with The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss because I already had the costume. I’ve worn it to school activities before, and it’s always a hit. Apparently a lot of other folks had the same idea; at times it seemed like a Cat in the Hat convention!

Cat in the Hat
Cat in the Hat meets Cat in the Hat. Photo: Maryann Goldman

One of my favorite costumes depicted the The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. Fish scales were cut out of felt and fastened to an apron. What a great effect!

Rainbow Fish
Costume representing the Rainbow Fish books. Photo: Maryann Goldman

Another costume that I thought was super cool depicted the book A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon. I was blown away by how well the make-up and shirt really showed off the character’s stripes!

A Bad Case of Stripes
Costume representing the book A Bad Case of Stripes Photo: Maryann Goldman

Truly inspiring was this costume depicting the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault. This costume was created using bathtub style foam alphabet letters. Simple and perfect!

Chika Chika Boom Boom
Costume representing the book Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. Photo: Maryann Goldman

If you’re hungry for reading, you might even go with a costume inspired by If You Give a Pig a Pancake by Laura Numeroff. Ingenious!

Give a Pig a Pancake
Costume representing the book Give a Pig a Pancake. Photo: Maryann Goldman

I saw children dressed as cowboys and cowgirls, Harry Potter, Merlin the Wizard, The Tin Man, Thing 1 and Thing 2, and a host of other fun characters too!

Next year I want to be Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus series. A dark blue dress with some felt alphabet letters and solar system cut-outs sewn on should work nicely!

Reptile Round-Up: New Apps From PBS, Dr Seuss, & the Smithsonian

Reptile Apps © Smithsonian/Dr Seuss/PBS Kids
Reptile Apps © Smithsonian/Dr. Seuss/PBS Kids

According to the Chinese calendar 2014 is the year of the horse but a look at some recently released and forthcoming apps tells me that this is actually seems to be the year of the reptiles. Dr. Seuss, PBS Kids, and even the Smithsonian have new apps out filled with dinosaurs, lizards, and snakes so I’ve been taking a look at several of them.

Dinosaur Train © PBS Kids
Dinosaur Train © PBS Kids

Dinosaur Train: A – Z
I’m a big fan of Dinosaur Train, probably because even the name combines two of my childhood passions. The Dinosaur Train A-Z app introduces the alphabet as it teaches kids about 26 different dinosaur species including their habitats, and where and when they lived. In train mode the train pulls into the station pulling carriages labeled from A to Z. Kids can choose any carriage and work their way along the train meeting the different dinos. Each profile begins with the same sentence telling you which branch of the family tree the dino belongs to, the continent on which it lived, and the time period in which they existed. You can choose to look at the skeleton to learn more about the dinosaur’s body, discover its eating habits, and find out what the dino’s name means. For instance, did you know that Xenotarsosaurus means strange-ankle lizard? The graphics are in the show’s style rather than being biologically accurate (unless dinosaurs were actually neon pink and purple), and kids can feed the different dinos or hit a star button to create a list of their favorites.

In dinosaur mode, you can choose from a screen full of dinos to view their profiles. You can filter which dinos are on screen by diet, body type (biped, quadruped or marine), time period, or favorites, and these filters can work together. Want to find a carnivorous, bipedal dino that lived in the Triassic? This feature will help you do just that. I was rather disappointed to spot that the game offers in-app purchases to add more dinosaurs to the list, especially as many traditional favorites including Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus are only available in these expansions. However, despite that fact I really liked this app and my son did too.

Miles & Miles of Reptiles © Dr. Seuss
Miles & Miles of Reptiles © Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss: Miles and Miles of Reptiles
The latest addition to the Dr. Seuss Library, Miles and Miles of Reptiles teaches kids all about modern day reptiles via a trip around the world with The Cat in The Hat. On the trip we meet lizards of all shapes and sizes, snakes, tortoises, alligators, and much more. As always from Dr. Seuss, the story doesn’t skimp on the details leaving in a lot more scientific language than you might find in another kids’ book aimed at the same age bracket. I was happy to see that the app was accurate about the reasons why a chameleon changes color, but the app did incorrectly refer to some snake species as having a “poisonous” bite. In case you’re unaware, there is a significant difference between “poisonous” and “venomous” creatures and snakes fall solidly into the latter category, so it was a shame to see that error left in what is otherwise another great app in the Dr. Seuss library.

Velociraptor finds a snack © Smithsonian Institute
Velociraptor finds a snack © Smithsonian Institute

Smithsonian: A Busy Day for Stegosaurus and Velociraptor Small and Speedy 
The Smithsonian Institution has produced a series of dinosaur themed story apps, the two most recent releases featuring Stegosaurus and Velociraptor. Each book focuses on one species and has the option to read it yourself or have the book read aloud with or without automated page turns. The stories have an obvious natural history focus to them and feel similar in style to the BBC show Walking with Dinosaurs as we follow a day with a single individual to learn about the life of its species. This means the stories could be considered violent, nature is red in tooth and claw after all, but the subject is handled sensitively with a focus on presenting the facts as they stand. Clearly some liberties have to be taken for the benefit of storytelling—it’s far more difficult to infer behavioral patterns from nothing more than a few bones than we’ve been led to believe—but nothing seems too outlandish. The illustrations are very up-to-date with current paleontological thinking too, showing velociraptors as feathered, bird-like creatures rather than the more more lizard-like beasties we all remember from Jurassic Park. At the end of the stories we learn some facts about the species including the era they lived in, their size, and how they moved. I wasn’t as impressed with these apps as I was with the others; they simply didn’t seem as involving as the others. My son seemed to enjoy them both, though, and that’s what really counts.

Review: If I Ran the Rainforest Ebook

If I Ran the Rainforest © Oceanhouse Media
If I Ran the Rainforest © Oceanhouse Media

At four years old, my son is starting to develop a strong interest in the wider world around him. He is particularly interested in geography and learning about the different kinds of places there are around the world. The Cat in the Hat e-book series is a great fit for curious young children and the latest edition to the library teaches children all about rainforests.

If I Ran the Rainforest sees the Cat taking Sally and her brother Dick on a journey to a rainforest to learn more about them. What I really love about this book is that whilst keeping the tone simple and sticking to the classic Seuss rhyming style, the book doesn’t dumb down the facts. Inside, children will learn about:

  • The four kinds of rainforests, what they are called, and how they differ from one another
  • The four floors of the rainforest and the creatures who live in each one
  • The basics of transpiration
  • Animals and plants of the rainforest including information about their lifestyles and diets
  • The humans who live in the rainforest and how they survive there
  • How the floors of the rainforest form an ecosystem
  • A very brief discussion on the destruction of rainforests
Thing 1 and Thing 2 teach us about transpiration © Oceanhouse Media
Thing 1 and Thing 2 teach us about transpiration © Oceanhouse Media

There was enough information contained in the story that I was able to learn some new facts too, such as the name of the plants that grow on trees high in the rainforest canopy. Potentially tricky new words like these are written and sounded out clearly; these plants are shown as “e-pi-phytes” and the tallest trees in the rainforest written down as “e-mer-gents.”

The app has the option to switch between “read to me” and “read it myself” options so it can progress with your child as they get better at reading alone. You can also choose to record your own narrations, perfect for parents who are frequently away and unable to read bedtime stories themselves, or for other relatives who are not around as often as they’d like. Tapping on objects causes the word to be spoken aloud and words in bold, e.g., equator, can be tapped to see a simple definition.

This is another great release from The Cat in The Hat’s Learning Library and one that will be of use to children at a variety of levels from curious toddlers to grade-schoolers needing a basic introduction to the subject for homework projects. It makes learning fun and that’s one of the best things we can ever hope to do.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

The Butter Battle App

All Images: Oceanhouse Media

For quite some time now, I have been a fan of OceanHouse Media’s Dr. Seuss bookshelf App. They make the well known, and the neglected, Seuss classics available for a digital world. While my family still prefers a trip to the library for the most part, having these titles available all on one device has been a big help on long trips. Books are being added to the collection all the time, and you can access a tentative schedule of titles on their website.

One of this year’s Spring additions, The Butter Battle Book, is a favorite of my husband’s. When we recently decided to explore the Zook-Yook world with our pre-schooler for the first time, we used the app instead of the book.

IMG_0599If you are not familiar with the tale, The Butter Battle Book tells of the long standing feud between the Yooks and the Zooks. Much like The Sneetchess, the difference between Yooks and Zooks is trivial. While the Yooks eat their bread with the butter side up, the Zooks eat their bread butter side down. In a not-too-cold-cold-war they develop weaponry that grows more and more extravagant in each incarnation, until they are quite ready to destroy each other.

“Grandpa!” I shouted. “Be careful! Oh, gee!
Who’s going to drop it?

Will you …? Or will he …?
“Be patient,” said Grandpa. “We’ll see.

We will see…”

They are left in a cliffhanger of a situation, each waiting to drop the bomb on the other. Now I’m sure my three year old didn’t pick up any of Theodore Geisel’s political views when we read this to him, but he did know that they were “being silly”.

Reading Dr Seuss with my children just makes me like the stories more. Where I see the world at large, they see their daycare friends, their buddies. Where I see the cold war, they see a fight about who has sneakers and who has crocs. I cant wait for Yertle the Turtle!

The Dr. Seuss bookshelf offers three options for each story:

  • Read It Myself This option is most like a traditional book. Each page appears on the screen to be read by your child or youself. You swipe the screen instead of turning the page. When you touch part of the screen a  voice tells you the name of the object you have touched: Zook, Yook, Butter etc, depending on the title you are reading. This can get extremely annoying if you are trying to read the book and all you hear is “Yook. Yook. Yook.” as little fingers reach for the screen. It is also exceptionally cute to hear that little voice repeat the words back to the narrator.
  • Read To Me. This portion of the app offers you the opportunity to record yourself reading the book for later use. It has surprising clarity, and offers the chance for multiple family members to be involved, for example a different member of the family could read each page. I like this option despite never having been intrigued by the record-your-own storybooks that are so popular in Hallmark these days.
  • Auto Play This option is the one favored by my son these days. The pages are turned for you, and as each word is spoken it is highlighted in a different color, allowing your child to follow along. Even when the story is in progress, it retains the functionality of the Read It Myself screen. When you tap the screen, the word pops up without interrupting the story and you are shown the word instead of hearing the word. You can select the app’s original narrator, or any of the pre-recorded voices from the Read To Me option.

IMG_0608One downside of auto play with regards to this particular book: the voice actor is a little too upbeat for such a heavy story. Think how awful The Grinch would have been with Alan Alda instead of Boris Karloff! Someone with a voice like William Morgan Shepherd would have been a much better sound for this war story.

The latest offerings from Oceanhouse seem to offer more fluidity of image on the page than previously. The story pans and zooms across the images, seemingly to focus more on the artwork. You get to see details for longer, but I’m a traditionalist at heart, and would prefer a static screen. In a similar vein, while my son loves the words popping out of the screen at him, I find them distracting. His is the opinion that truly counts, however.

For children who are bothered by this feature, it would be nice to have an off switch.

The Pinault parent pre-schooler test:

  • Requested several nights in a row – check.
  • Requested after being hidden from sight – check.
  • Story retold by child while on a long car journey – no.
  • Child acts out scenes from the book – no.

This will probable be a staple in our house for a short while, at least, though I doubt it will have the attention holding capabilities of his favorite Oceanhouse app, Little Critter. I haven’t been able to pinpoint why yet, but he loves that story app more than any of the others we’ve looked at.

Disclaimer: This title was received for review purposes. 



Dr. Seuss at Pottery Barn Kids

My daughter's bedroom.
My daughter’s bedroom. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

I grew up in a French-speaking town so Dr. Seuss was just not part of my childhood like it is for many kids in the US.

When I moved to California, I took a job as a mother’s helper while I attended college. One evening, their 5-year-old son asked if I could read to him a Dr. Seuss book. It was my first ever exposure to Dr. Seuss so I didn’t know what to expect. At the time, my English was not so great and my tongue stumbled on every other word throughout the book. All the repeating sounds, unusual sentence structure, silly made-up words, and tricky tongue-twisters were a foreigner’s nightmare. The little boy kept asking me to “read it faster! faster!” Meanwhile I could hear the parents in the next room dying of laughter at my train wreck of a reading session.

I have to admit it was pretty funny, but I still labeled Dr. Seuss as evil in my head and dismissed his books into the category of Things I Most Definitively Do Not Like, where it stayed for a very long time.

Then many years later I had a baby. Through gifts, Dr. Seuss sneakily made its way into my home. I read a few of the books with a fresh perspective and could not believe how fantastic and non-evil they really were after all!

My husband and I strive to expose our daughter to shows and books that demonstrate facts and the scientific method, without necessarily being educational per se. We love Curious George and the Cat in the Hat very much for that. We watch a little bit of Curious George on PBS almost every day, and own most of the Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library books. Both provide a huge focus on problem solving (most often through hypothesis testing, analogy, trial and error, and divide and conquer) and critical thinking skills (like evidence through observation, data collection and interpretation, reasoning within and beyond given assumptions, and clear communication without explicit language skills).

Plus, they’re just really fun!

When we bought our first home a few months ago, it was the perfect opportunity to upgrade our toddler from her nursery room to a big girl room. We browsed around the internet to decide on a theme for her new room, and were happy to find two of our favorite characters at Pottery Barn Kids: Cat in the Hat and Curious George.

Curious George Bedding.
Curious George Bedding. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

If I was a normal person, I might have chosen one or the other. But because I have strange commitment issues with seeing the same bedding every single day, I bought both so we could switch back and forth. I also bought the Pottery Barn Kendall bed while it was on sale.

Then I waited for my items to be delivered and figuratively cried a little about how much money I had just spent. It was my first Pottery Barn purchase, mostly because I never before had the guts to spend that much money on home goods. However, I had made a couple of cheap bedding set purchases at discount stores that were definitively not even worth their discounted price, so I decided it was time to bite the bullet. I took a leap of faith into the Pottery Barn kingdom-o-mania. I wanted to buy a high quality item once and be done with home good purchases for a long time.

My one lucky break: I also received a Cat in the Hat quilt from Pottery Barn Kids to review for GeekMom. Now, I could review only the quilt — which was lovely in every possible way — as I was intended to do. However, I can’t stress enough how impressed I am with all of the items I also purchased, the bed especially. Everything is gorgeous, the bedding sets are holding up wonderfully, and the white wood bed feels like soft silk. And of course, my daughter is delighted to see her favorite characters on her bed.

Dr. Seuss Bedroom 2
Dr. Seuss Bedroom. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

Color me a fan. I know not everyone can afford the luxury of purchasing high priced home goods for the sake of saving themselves a little time and sanity, and I would still recommend waiting for a sale to the extend that it might help take the plunge. Nevertheless, I am thrilled with my purchases, all things considered.

My daughter walking around with her Cat In The Hat quilt.
My daughter walking around with her Cat In The Hat quilt. Photo by Ariane Coffin.

And if that’s not geeky for you, Pottery Barn Kids also offers bedding with: Batman, Star Wars, and Spider-Man. You want to know the best part? They even come in sizes up to a queen bed. My daughter doesn’t have a queen bed, but I do! Clearly, Pottery Barn is saying it’s ok for adults to own these sheets too. Clearly.