Long-lost but familiar books, games, and toys can be a revelation when re-experienced through the eyes of children, and one of the most amusing reunions I’ve had in recent years is with the people and puppets of Sesame Street. The library is a great place to find anything Sesame Street, from classic picture books like The Monster at the End of This Book, to songs like “C is For Cookie” and “I Love Trash”. Among my favorites are DVD compilations of the animated shorts dedicated to specific letters and numbers my sister and I always used to call “commercials.” They hold kids as spellbound today as they did when first broadcast, and it turns out my sister and I weren’t far off the mark, since Sesame Street’s creators, who hoped for the first time to harness the educational potential of catchy 1950’s and ‘60’s advertising jingles, called them commercials, too. Read More..
The stereotypical 20th century office secretary—taker of dictation, orderer of flowers for the boss’s wife, getter of coffee—was a silent participant in whatever glory or tragedy befell her employers. Such secretaries rarely found themselves subjects of historical interest, except perhaps in studies of the marginalization of women in the workplace, and characters like Mad Men’s Peggy Olson have portrayed the heartbreaking limitations of the job with an empowered twist hopefully more reflective of today’s female labor force. But in two of the best movies I’ve seen recently, real life secretaries quietly performing their duties became involved in the most momentous historic events of the last century. Read More..
Nearly 20 years ago, Roberta Brown Rauch retrieved from her attic what editor Amy Gary describes as “the treasure of a lifetime”: a trunk crammed with manuscripts typewritten on onionskin paper and bound together with countless, rusty paperclips. Rauch had become their owner when her sister, Margaret Wise Brown, died in 1952. Twelve were published for the first time earlier this year in a beautiful new bedtime book, Goodnight Songs. A dozen of today’s top children’s book artists, including Jonathan Bean, Eric Puybaret, and Dan Yaccarino, illustrate the rhymes, and a CD of musical adaptations accompanies them. Read More..
One of the great joys of parenting toddlers for me has been the newly acquired skill to perform basic human functions while half asleep. Specifically, I’ve found much pleasure in recent years reading aloud to my kids, and silently to myself, in a state approaching unconsciousness. Having never come close to mastering the art of lucid dreaming, which always sounded so fun, this may be as close as I will get to operating in the plane of the surreal (unless you count an ill-conceived game my 3-year old and I play sometimes called “Food Coloring and Shaving Cream”). I find the benefits—strange connections between the text and various subconscious flights of my own weary, wandering mind—usually outweigh the drawbacks, which have included the replacement of P. D. Eastman’s deathless prose with my own inappropriate word salad. My biggest complaint about reading half asleep is the simple inevitability of falling totally asleep within a few paragraphs or pages, and frequently forgetting most of what I’ve read. But I figured there must be writing that lends itself to this mode of consumption, and after a brief quest for the perfect book to read in a half asleep state, I believe I’ve found it. Read More..
As parents of small children, my wife and I were not surprised when our style of travelling changed. Last summer’s trek to Salina, Kansas, for Aunt Clara’s 100th birthday party summed things up: Perfect travel moments like our Roman sunset on the Campidoglio had been replaced by a sightseeing tour through the hallways of an assisted living facility led by my 2-year old son, a connoisseur of the little ceramic dogs, cats, and Jayhawks occupants keep outside their doors. La vie quotidienne, perhaps, but a perfect moment nonetheless (although it does help this grounded traveler to throw a little ornamental French in to describe it). If, like us, the only foreign tongue you hear spoken these days are snippets of the exotic Gumballic family of languages, such as may be overheard on a transatlantic flight (seated next to a toddler attempting to chew 3 gumballs at the same time), the library has a number of great travel DVDs to remind you either how much fun you may have had in your glory days of international travel, or just how lucky you are to be safe on your couch with your kids tucked neatly in their own beds, instead of accompanying you on a 24-hour train ride to Ulan Bator. Read More..
No one has ever accused me of being a good businessman, or having great taste in movies, so it’s no surprise that a recent inspiration to locate a sufficiently boarded up movie theater, purchase it and inaugurate an annual Watergate Film Fest fell on uninterested, and possibly appalled, ears. However, the response I received to this suggestion–that it was a good thing my work in a library limits me from doing too much damage in the so-called “real world”–may not actually have been correct. To wit, the following is a list of movies recommended for anyone out there in the real world who may want to embark on personal Watergate Film Fests in their own homes. Read More..
At least here in Lawrence, Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction this year for 6 more weeks of winter seems to have been on the money. Not a Groundhog Day goes by without fond recollections of its namesake movie, a comedy which, due to the profundity of its central problem—a man doomed to repeat the same one day of his life until he gets it right—has arguably recast the meaning of the holiday itself. Just a month past New Year’s Day and its resolutions, Groundhog Day, as symbolized by Bill Murray’s struggle to break free of banality, is a day to reflect on how difficult it can be to change. It’s another testament to the movie that, for all its lightheartedness, the title itself has become shorthand for bad habits and repetitive situations.
This fall, in a sudden windstorm, one of our trees lost a limb. As it happens, it was pretty much our favorite limb, since it was the one from which my son’s swing hung.
Luckily, just a few weeks before, he had been obsessed with a great children’s book, Our Tree Named Steve, by Alan Zweibel. Zweibel, a multiple award-winning writer for television (he was a co-creator of the character Roseanne Roseannadanna on the original Saturday Night Live staff) and print (his comic novel The Other Schulman won the Thurber Award in 2006), frames this picture book as a letter to his grown kids on the occasion of the death of a beloved tree in a storm similar to the one we had just experienced. Read More..
I guess it’s never been much of a surprise to the children in my life when they receive books from me as gifts, but over the years I’ve tried to come up with ways to avoid having my presents tossed in the “boring pile” alongside Great Aunt Flora’s annual knitted snood and the 1000 piece Norman Rockwell puzzle sent each year by that distant cousin no one has ever met. One strategy I hit upon a while back was to give books that work parallel to popular toys, and year in and year out, there is no type of toy hotter than LEGOs. So, when the LEGO lover in your life is ready for a break from engineering her latest monument, or looking for some bedtime reading related to his greatest obsession, having one of these ten LEGO-related titles handy may actually represent a larger gift: the lesson that reading a book is really just another way of playing.
Recently a friend and I were discussing holiday movies—not just Christmas movies, although they probably make up the largest category—but also movies attached in some way to any other holiday. We figured in terms of sheer numbers Halloween may be a close second to Christmas , with New Year’s and Independence Day duking it out for 3rd place. Then there are the classics tied to more obscure holidays, Groundhog Day king among these. But we struggled to come up with a really good Thanksgiving-related movie until my friend remembered that the thwarted travelers portrayed by Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles were headed for Thanksgiving destinations. We also remembered Peanuts tackling Turkey Day (where would we all be without Linus to explain the true meaning of each holiday, after all?), but it wasn’t until later that evening, in a state somewhere between waking and sleeping, that I remembered the ultimate Thanksgiving movie, and one of my all-time favorites, Barry Levinson’s Avalon. Read More..