I Am the Princess and the Pea; I Am the Wolverine

I was having a horrible night of sleep (again), in pain, and woke up trying to locate the sea urchin that must have been shoved in my bed. I sat up and found the source of my agony: a wrinkle. One wrinkle in the sheet. Just one.

I stared at it and my exhausted brain cursed, “I am the $#@$ing ‘Princess and the Pea’.” A true princess is so sensitive that twenty mattresses cannot keep her from feeling a single pea underneath them all. It really sucks to be a true princess. Can I be a hardy peasant instead? Alas, I have to keep my royal pedigree to rule my vast lands.

If only hyper-sensitivity came with riches and servants. Instead, I get the migraines and sleepless nights without any seeming benefit. But my geeky-themed mind likes to twist my fate to the fantastical. Maybe the “Princess and Pea” was based on an actual princess who was sensitive like me? Spinning her bad physical luck into a badge of honor: Royalty is more perceptive than the average populace. Don’t try to pull anything on that princess because she can detect a tiny vegetable under her bedding!

The world is a lot to handle for the average person, but what about those with super senses? Continue reading I Am the Princess and the Pea; I Am the Wolverine

Back To School 2015: Books To Stock Your Shelves

Minecraft Enchantment Table \ Attribution Some rights reserved by flickr user brownpau
Minecraft Enchantment Table. Some rights reserved by flickr user brownpau.

It’s time to head back to school and I’ve compiled a list of books I recommend you stock your shelves with for a profitable reading year.

Books For the Very Young

The Flowers Primer \ Image Fair Use
The Secret Garden: A Flowers Primer \ Image BabyLit Books

The Secret Garden: A Flowers Primer, and Don Quixote: A Spanish Language Primer ($9.99)
BabyLit, who specializes in introducing kids to classic literature with beginning reader board books, just introduced their latest pair to the series. Author Jennifer Adams and artist Alison Oliver celebrate “Little Miss Burnett” and “Little Master Cervantes” with The Secret Garden: A Flowers Primer and Don Quixote: A Spanish Language Primer.

The Flowers Primer shows young readers flowers featured in The Secret Garden, accompanied by a small quote. The Spanish Language Primer includes characters and items featured in Don Quixote, in both English and Spanish. This book works for both native Spanish and English speakers, with phonetic spellings on the back geared towards speakers of each language.

Both of these little gift books are a great way to get first-time students excited about reading and literature, as well as the natural world and different cultures. [Ages two and up.]

Books For Ages 8 and Up

Hamster Princess \ Image: Fair Use
Hamster Princess \ Image: Dial Books

Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible by Ursula Vernon  ($6.49)
Hamster Princess: Harriet the Invincible is my favorite title on this list. It’s a graphic novel that follows Princess Harriet who learns that she cannot be harmed until her 13th birthday, thanks to a Sleeping Beauty-like curse she received as a baby. It’s a fun story about a young girl who wants the adventure and action usually reserved for the princes. Available August 18, 2015. [Ages 8 and up—though younger children will enjoy this title as well.]

Hilo Book 1 \ Image: Fair Use
Hilo: Book 1 \ Image: Random House

Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth graphic novel by Judd Winick ($6.99) 
A young boy falling from space has no idea where he came from or why going to school in his underwear is a bad idea. Sound like your kind of story? Then, this is the book for you. My son’s only complaint is that the sequel doesn’t come out until next year. It ends on a little bit of a cliffhanger, so if you have young ones who can’t handle waiting till next year (and who can blame them?), I’d use this as an opportunity to have them write their own sequel. Available September 1, 2015. [Ages 8 and up, although younger readers may enjoy this being read to them.]

My Brother is a Superhero \ Image: Fair Use
My Brother Is a Superhero \ Image: Viking Books

My Brother Is a Superhero by David Solomons ($10.61)
Two brothers are hanging out in their tree house, when the younger brother’s life is changed with the four little words: “I need to pee.” When he returns to the tree house, he finds that his older brother now has superpowers and he missed his chance all because “nature” was calling. It’s a fun story that my son loved so much, when I was too tired to read at night, he climbed into bed with me and read out-loud to me. [Ages 8 – 12.]

Mission Explore Food \ Image: Fair Use
Mission: Explore Food \ Image: Can of Worms Kids Press

The Geography Collective
Get kids moving and investigating with unique, pocket-sized books by The Geography Collective. Each one is packed with activities that are made to be marked up and smeared as they’re used. Try Mission: Explore Food, with over 270 pages of strangely enticing ideas. Other titles include Mission: Explore on the Road and Mission: Explore Camping. Perfect for home or travel, and teachers can use these ideas too. Also know that more titles are available in the UK. [Ages 9-12.]

Mission: Explore Food (hardcover $29.90)
Mission: Explore on the Road (paperback $7.99)
Mission: Explore Camping (paperback $7.99)

Medieval Lego \ Image: Fair Use
Medieval Lego \ Image: No Starch Press

Medieval Lego  by Greyson Beights ($11.06)
Take a journey through English history in the Middle Ages with Lego. Written with the help of medievalists and scholars, this title will keep your young knights and princesses interested in the medieval times. [Ages 8 and up.]

The Lego Adventure Vol. 3 \ Image: Fair Use
The Lego Adventure Book, Vol. 3 \ Image: No Starch Press

The Lego Adventure Book, Vol. 3  by Megan H. Rothrock ($18.46)
Follow the story of Megs and Brickbot as they face their toughest challenge: the return of the Destructor. On their journey, the two meet some of the world’s greatest Lego builders and show you how to build a Renaissance house, a classic movie theater, sushi, and much more. Available September 25, 2015. [Ages 9 and up.]

Young Adult

Smart Girls Guide to Privacy \ Image: Fair Use
The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy \ Image: No Starch Press

The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy by Violet Blue ($13.76)
In the digital age, everyone needs to be more careful about what they do online. The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy takes young girls through the various ways they can protect themselves. It’s hard to believe how quickly a photo or video can spread, and this book covers what to do when you are a victim of a compromising photo online, how to fix reputation mishaps, how to act if your identity is stolen, and much more. A must-read for anyone.

Game Art \ Image: Fair Use
Game Art \ Image: No Starch Press

Game Art  by Matt Sainsbury ($28.03)
Video games are not just fun, they are a work of storytelling art. This book is ideal for art students, who will get a kick out of the art from 40 video games and interviews with their creators.

Automate with Python \ Image: Fair Use
Automate the Boring Stuff with Python \ Image: No Starch Press

Automate the Boring Stuff with Python by Al Sweigart ($22.86)
This title is perfect for anyone who has menial tasks they don’t want to spend hours doing. In this book, you can learn how to write simple programs that will help you rename files in bulk, search for text across multiple files, and add a logo to multiple files without opening each one. There’s also 18 chapters’ worth of fun programs to play with.

Math with Python \ Image: Fair Use
Doing Math with Python \ Image: No Starch Press

Doing Math with Python by Amit Saha ($15.79)
I’m all for anything that makes high school math easier. Doing Math with Python helps students learn how to do math with the help of a little programming. It’s like learning two subjects at once. Available August 25, 2015.

Start Where You Are \ Image: Fair Use
Start Where You Are \ Image: Perigee Books

Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration by Meera Patel ($7.97)
Start Where You Are: A Journal for Self-Exploration is a hand-drawn, full-color journal by self-taught artist Meera Patel. Each left-side page offers an endearingly illustrated quote, while each right-side page asks the journal writer to answer a question in words, drawings, or both. This little book can fit easily into a backpack or dorm room, wherever it’s needed. You might want to include a package of colored pencils, because color.

Team Challenges \ Image: Fair Use
Team Challenges \ Image: Chicago Review Press

Team Challenges: 170+ Group Activities to Build Cooperation, Communication, and Creativity by Kris Bordessa ($15.10)
Former GeekMom contributor Kris Bordessa has created the best activity book out there for teachers and parents, as well as leaders of groups such as scouts, 4-H, and other enrichment programs. It’s a perfect resource to keep on hand!

Shakespeare's Star Wars  \  Image: Fair Use
Shakespeare’s Star Wars \ Image: Quirk Books

The Royal Imperial Boxed Set: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy ($26.12)
This beautifully illustrated retelling of George Lucas’ Star Wars in the style of William Shakespeare contains Verily, A New Hope; The Empire Striketh Back; and The Jedi Doth Return. Han shooteth first? Forsooth! Also included is a full-color poster.

Do you have a favorite book to start off the school year? Let us know in the comments!

GeekMom received review copies of these titles.

My Problem With Princesses

Image By Rebecca Angel.

50 Shades of Grey goes back to Twilight, which goes back to the bodice-ripper romance novels, which goes back to our fairy tales of young, beautiful princesses who need to be taken care of by a powerful man. The song “I Will Save Myself” refers to princesses in fairy tales who annoy me as much as Bella. My two children are teens and I can only hope I instilled a strong sense of self and independence. Now that I have two nieces of elementary age, I’m still worried about our culture and the lure of being the sparkly “princess.”

I wasn’t really into princesses growing up. I loved Star Wars, and yes, Princess Leia was cool, but I really wanted to be Luke. I wanted to be the one who everyone counted on to save the day. I like that there are powerful women in stories, girls who are main characters; my problem is that it’s considered odd or there’s only one cool girl character to every 10 cool boys.

I wanted to be awesome and not singled out because I’m an awesome girl. If the continual challenge of a girl in stories is to prove she is as good as any man, that’s not high enough for me.

My favorite book growing up was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Except the main character isn’t a princess. It was what her father called her; it became a part of who she was, who she wanted to be. She defined a princess as someone who had the privilege to be generous. Even when her resources were gone, she acted like her father’s definition of a princess. Although this is certainly a “Cinderella” story, the main character is active in fixing her situation. Sarah in that book was another character I wanted to be, much more than any princesses in fairy tales.

In Disney, which has its hands in every facet of media aimed at children, the princess factor is still going strong. In every princess story I know, they are very pretty (and if they are not, that’s the point of the story). I found it annoying as a child. As an adult in the entertainment biz, I completely understand the need for pretty visuals, but I was never a pretty girl, and so I couldn’t relate.

I had a pretty sister who became embarrassed and neurotic about people commenting on her beauty. I felt bad for her, and I was glad to fly under the radar and do my own thing. (This, of course, wasn’t how I felt as a teenager, but that’s a different topic.) So these princesses were pretty (not me), were considered the top of their social heap (not me), and had a lot of money (not me, again). I had more in common with boy characters than any princesses in books and movies.

I know the point of these kind of tales is to fantasize about being someone completely different from yourself. But I liked myself. I had a very healthy self-esteem as a young girl and had no desire to be someone else. I wanted to be me—just more awesome. I liked books and movies that gave me the tools to help me become what I could envision would be the best Becca. Or at least, pretend to be, if I had superpowers. So I needed characters that I could see myself in.

Somewhere in my later childhood years, mainstream media (Disney) did start to reflect different cultures and attitudes towards women, but I think the whole thing became even more ridiculous. Now, they weren’t just pretty, kind, and rich (by the end), but were also clever, strong-willed, and sometimes could fight. And they were princesses?

Does being a princess help the character achieve a goal?

Maybe the definition of a princess has changed. From the press coverage, modern-day royalty hardly live a fairy tale life. Princesses, then and now, are tied to convention, their social class, their money. Their stories have to involve breaking girl stereotypes because the princess one is so ingrained in our culture. Maybe there needs to be some other role our little girls can live up to. There are fantastic stories out there, traditional and new; stories that involve girl protagonists who are both intelligent and kick-ass. They don’t have to be a princess to succeed.

Maybe the entertainment world can learn from A Little Princess: it’s not the title, money, or looks that makes someone a princess, but your character, integrity, and strength.

Cinderella 2015: A Princess in the Golden Age of Hollywood

Cinderella Picture
Image Courtesy Disney

Disney has spent a lot of time re-examining its traditional tales. In Frozen, the not-at-all passive princess saves the kingdom from the evil prince. In Maleficent, the evil queen turns out to not be so evil after all. And we’re not even going to start with Once Upon a Time. By retelling Cinderella, this story could have actually gone back to much older versions of the fairy tale, where the father isn’t so kind-hearted and the stepsisters are willing to cut off pieces of their feet in order to fit into the tiny golden shoe. That would make for some fine family viewing, eh?

Cinderella does not reinvent the basic Disney version of this story. There are no major plot surprises in the retelling. Her stepsisters are still wicked. Her pumpkin still turns into a coach, and our heroine is still the pleasant peasant girl who gets rescued by the prince. The message of the story, we are told perhaps a little too repeatedly, is “have courage and be kind.”

Kenneth Branagh has reinterpreted this live-action Cinderella to feel like a golden age of Hollywood classic (with English accents). Cate Blanchett’s wicked stepmother wanders around in 1940’s inspired hats with veils, pin-curled updos, bright red lips, and “mode de Paris.” The stepsisters don peter pan collars, loud prints, big curly hair, and pink, fuzzy 1950’s inspired sweater shrugs. Cinderella’s ball dress looks as if it mixed the original cartoon dress with a little Scarlett O’Hara and a lot of Swarovski crystals.

While the update remains consistent with the animated classic, this live-action movie is longer, and the characters are a little deeper. Cinderella, we learn, is really named Ella and given the nickname Cinder-Ella by her wicked stepsisters. Our prince has a name in this story (Kit) and motivations and friends. He’s not just a cardboard figure on a horse (though the love-at-first-sight aspect is probably the weakest part of the movie). Even the wicked stepmother isn’t completely without depth. She’s still despicable, but she’s not a mindless sociopath.

Cinderella is still mostly a passive damsel in distress, but she does have some agency. She claims she remains in the house her parents loved by choice. When she confronts her wicked stepmother, she makes another choice, and movie-goers will cheer at the scene. I would have liked to have seen a stronger princess from post-Frozen Disney, but at least she wasn’t a total doormat. She didn’t seem to want to save herself, but she consistently tried to save others (have courage and be kind).

Lily James (Rose on Downton Abbey) is a very charming and innocent Cinderella. Her fellow Downton Abbey castmember Sophie McShera plays one of her wicked stepsisters (there’s a brief nod with a servant bell scene). Helena Bonham Carter is a wonderfully quirky fairy godmother, and Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) has a brief part as Cinderella’s biological mother. We get a “real” prince (Richard Madden) from Game of Thrones—without any red weddings.

I brought my teen daughter along to the preview to hear her take. She thought the movie was mostly pretty good and the fairy stepmother scenes were fantastic, but she was disappointed that there wasn’t more complexity to the storyline. She also thought Cinderella was “too mellow” in her reactions and should be less passive.

Overall, this is still a fun, family-friendly feel-good movie, even if it isn’t telling us a new story. But don’t take that as encouragement to keep making more movies about passive heroines. Next time give us a little more self-rescuing princess.

Ever After High – Destiny and Fairytales on Netflix Streaming

Image: Mattel, Netflix
Image: Mattel, Netflix

If you have a young daughter who likes princesses, as I do, it’s likely that you’ve heard of Ever After High. Like Monster High before it, these dolls have a unique look that’s somewhere between Victorian princess and 80s punk rock. Now, aside from the book series and dolls, there’s a new show streaming on Netflix that follows the story of the girls in high school.

What’s particularly impressive about the show is that it’s not your garden variety fairytale show. No doubt spurred on by other popular shows like My Little Pony and even the Tinkerbell franchise, the storylines are complex and the central challenges are far more than makeup and crushes. In fact, the central factions in the show — the Rebels and the Royals — fall on two sides of an age-old question: do you follow your destiny, or do you challenge it? If you’re born to an evil queen, does that mean you have to be the same when you grow up?

Sure, it’s a show that the ten-and-under crowd will enjoy. But at the heart it’s a show that makes you think beyond fairytale endings. If you’re anything like me, you were probably the kind of kid who questioned all the fairytales I read, and wanted more satisfying endings. I far prefer my daughter, who’s absolutely besotted with her princesses, to be given a more complicated view. I love fairytales as much as she does, but there’s a real power in changing those expectations and asking the hard questions. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they’re so enduring.

And that’s to say nothing of the fashion on the show. As in their doll form, the characters on the show have a really amazing sense of fashion — and it varies greatly from character to character. I’d personally love to see someone chasing their own destiny in some of these gorgeous outfits.

You can catch both seasons of Ever After High streaming on Netflix.

Natania is part of the Netflix Stream Team.


That Moment Your Wedding Photos Look Ridiculously Dated

The Happy Couple, Image: Nicole Wakelin
The Happy Couple, Image: Nicole Wakelin

How did I reach a point where I now roll my eyes at my own wedding pictures? It could have something to do with being married for 22 years which leaves a lot of room for fashions to change, but it’s not like I’m 80. It wasn’t that long ago!

Still, when I celebrated my 22nd anniversary last week and put my standard wedding picture on Facebook and Twitter for all my friends to see, I was struck by just how dated it looks today. I had a perm. I had puffy sleeves. And I have no explanation at all for my husband’s hair. What a couple of nerds!

Actually, I do have an explanation. It was his worst haircut ever. He knows it. I know it. His Mom refused to buy any photos where he was looking straight at the camera because it was so noticeable. Honestly, at the time I was hardly aware of it in the rush of the wedding day. He got it cut just the day before, so it wasn’t until we were on our honeymoon that I looked at him and thought, “What the heck did you do to your hair?”

My Husband and The Best Man, Image: Nicole Wakelin
My Husband and The Best Man, Image: Nicole Wakelin

Russ is sporting a bad haircut, but at least he’s not dated. Crooked is crooked no matter the decade and the barber is more to blame than my husband. I also blame my brother-in-law, John, because what kind of Best Man doesn’t immediately see that and make the Groom march right back into the nearest barber shop? Also, John is totally bald now so I guess that’s payback.

My husband is wearing a pretty generic tux which hasn’t changed a heck of a lot over the years. Guys are lucky that way unless you were unfortunate enough to have a formal affair in the ’70s with those ruffled shirts. Those poor guys didn’t stand a chance.

I, however, fully embraced the year 1992 on my wedding day. I swear to God, permed hair was a thing. We thought it looked awesome. One look at my bridesmaids confirms it wasn’t just me. I know, we look laughable today and I don’t know how we fit all that hair in the limo, but it was a thing, people!

See, the hair was a thing! Image: Nicole Wakelin
See, the hair was a thing! Image: Nicole Wakelin

Also, puffy sleeves. The world was fresh out of the Big ’80s and those sleeves were cool. I was all princess-y with my puffy sleeves and permed hair and just shut up and let me have my moment. I think of them as Snow White sleeves, so, yeah, a Disney nerd even on my wedding day.

It’s been 22 years and fashion has thankfully moved on from perms and puffy sleeves and hopefully that barber has moved on to another career. I look very young, and the photos are very dated, but crooked hair or no, I love my husband even more than I did the day we were married.

But he’s not allowed to pick a barber without my approval. Ever.

Once Upon a Screen? A Look at Disney’s Ultimate Dream Castle

© Mattel / Disney

As big of a fan as my daughter is of staring at video games and apps, her favorite thing in the world is to play is with her Barbies and princess dolls. I’m always on the lookout for ways to spice up our time huddled around the dollhouse to keep both our attentions captured and get the most out of our play time together.

The Ultimate Dream Castle from Disney and Mattel offers a chance to combine the imaginative play of a dollhouse with the technology of an iPhone app to create a magical experience. But with my unending effort to get her away from the screens to make full use of her imagination, is that even an option I want to give her? My daughter and I put the Ultimate Dream Castle and its app through the princess paces to see if screen time and play time can live happily ever after together.

To begin with the obvious, yes, this castle is a lot of pink and purple plastic. Any princess-loving little one would be delighted to find a three-foot tall castle under the Christmas tree this year, so it’s immediately a safe bet to get one if you have ample room in the budget.

The layout of the palatial dollhouse is open and wide, which was nice for getting my comparatively giant hands in there with room to maneuver, an ability we lack in our current dollhouse. On each of the three floors, there are rooms themed to favorite Disney princesses, which are accompanied by accessories like an oven or little friends like Pascal from Tangled.

The biggest hit of the Ultimate Dream Castle was the elevator fashioned out of Rapunzel’s hair, which spins princesses up and down the outside of the castle. My four-year-old spent the most time with that feature, concocting elaborate reasons why a doll might need to travel by hair, and then making the princess promptly throw up from motion sickness. Play-time gold.

Magic Mirror‘s AR in action.

She was so enamored with the elevator and castle, in fact, that she had very little interest in the iPhone/iPad Magic Mirror app made for the castle. I wasn’t particularly saddened by that, as playing with her Barbies and princesses is a fantastic way to engage her imagination, but I wanted to check out the app to make sure we were getting the most out of the castle.

Magic Mirror includes games and activities, as well as effects triggered by the castle’s rooms that can be viewed through the iPhone’s camera. Like most AR apps, there is a struggle with getting the app to respond in just the right spot. It might be because the room didn’t have enough light, but after several frustrating tries of attempting to get the app to recognize an area of the castle, my daughter wandered away and went back to playing with her dolls. The times the app did work, it did little more than give her a smile, and didn’t add much to the overall play experience.

As the games in the app can be played without the castle, and a code to get Magic Mirror free comes with the toy, it’s not a complete lost cause, but our time with the Ultimate Dream Castle showed us that she prefers to keep her dollhouse play time and screen time separate. Even if the app worked 100% reliably each time, nothing can trump her limitless imagination and the adventures with (dizzy) princesses it creates.

The Ultimate Dream Castle comes with more than enough “real life” accessories and play time possibilities that the interactive app shouldn’t be the main reason to pick this castle over any other dollhouse. The Magic Mirror app would work well as a pause between playing sessions or when the family is out and about, but the Ultimate Dream Castle stands on its own as a dream-come-true dollhouse for any lucky kid who loves to play with dolls.