media tie-in

Star Wars Head-to-Head

Oh, the things your child will bring home from school…

I just had a 20-minute conversation with my daughter about who would win in a fight between Darth Vader and Yoda and it was, honest to god, part of her homework. (Let’s give it up for public schools, nerds.) The debate was inspired by a book called Star Wars Head-to-Head: The 30 Wildest Matchups You’ve Never Seen! by Pablo Hidalgo, and I’m not sure if I want to throw the book in the garbage or give it a teen movie-style slow clap to acknowledge it as a subversive masterpiece.

My daughter is in first grade and her class has a daily homework reading program called “Book in a Bag.” Every day, she comes home with a new book (in a bag!) that she’s supposed to read with us that night. After she reads it on her own, we have to decide if the book was “Easy”, “Just Right,” or “Hard” for her to read and fill out an attached form. It’s a good concept, though the books my daughter brings home sometimes can leave a lot of be desired. Occasionally, she’ll bring home a familiar gem (The Princess and the Pizza!), but often, she’s bringing home phonics-focused easy readers that are way too easy for her or she’s bringing home media tie-in books (My Little Pony, Star Wars, etc.) that just seem designed to lure kids away from legitimate works of literature. (Or at least that’s how it feels sometimes, said the grumpy dad with his own kid lit blog.)

But I totally understand why my daughter’s teacher includes those titles in the book-in-a-bag program. Yes, they might not be well written, but the kids love them. They gravitate towards those books and, since those titles appeal to their basest lizard-brain impulses, they feel a sense of ownership when they pick them out and get excited about reading them. I get it. Most of them suck, but I get it. They’re dessert reading. And every kid is entitled to dessert occasionally, right? Just not all the time. Dessert all the time just leads to sloth, rot, and general queasiness. So, if my kid comes home with a Star Wars book from school, it’s no big deal, provided that she realizes that we’re reading Shel Silverstein or Maurice Sendak at bedtime to balance out her diet.

Star Wars Head-to-Head

I refuse to acknowledge the validity of this duel…

That being said, we actually had a very fun time going through Star Wars Head-to-Head: The 30 Wildest Matchups You’ve Never Seen last night. Granted, it’s not the easiest book for a kid to read on their own – each page is set up as stats page for various characters and vehicles, so there’s a lot of small type metadata for kids to sort through. (Did you know that Darth Vader’s height/weight is 2.02 meters/136 kilograms? I do now.) However, the concept of the book is extremely easy to grasp. On each two-page spread, two characters or vehicles are featured and the book essentially asks the question, “Between these two contestants, who would win in a fight?

Yoda vs. Vader? Obi-Wan vs. Boba Fett? Luke vs. Anakin? Jawa vs. Ewok? Star Destroyer vs. Trade Federation Battleship?

And, as much as I hate to admit this, that simple concept inspired a night of very entertaining, very detailed theoretical debate between my daughter and I, a result that I wasn’t expecting at all.

Star Wars Head-to-Head

OK, Billy Dee Williams should be legitimately upset about this.

Maybe I’m just used to the normal kid’s book media tie-in methodology where the book just clumsily retells a story that was previously told better in another medium. But, at its core, Star Wars Head-to-Head has an infinitely more engaging mission. It’s a book designed to be a discussion starter. Yes, it’s filled with clumsy instruction manual-esque prose and photoshopped artwork, but every two-page spread is actually asking its reader a question – “Which one would you pick?” And that one simple question turns those readers into active participants with the book. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Three Investigators

In the old days, kidlit mysteries were solved by plucky tweens charging 25 cents plus expenses…

I love shopping for kids’ books at used bookstores for two reasons – #1). you never know what you’re going to find and #2). it’s a fantastic reminder that the world of children’s literature has always, ALWAYS been gloriously and deliriously WEIRD.

Because sometimes, when it comes to children’s books, we romanticize the past. We look at the current world of children’s publishing – with kids’ books written by celebrities, kids’ books based on toy lines, and kids’ books all about what it would be like if your pets could text you jokes (not making that up) – and there’s a tendency to think, “Sigh, it wasn’t like this in the good old days. Back then, kids read LITERATURE.” Well, I’m here to tell you that kids have been reading weird stuff for AGES, since long before dogs even knew what text-messaging was, and part of the fun of used bookstore shopping is seeing what kinds of literary oddities earlier generations inflicted on their youth.

In my most recent trip to the children’s section at our local used bookstore, I found several books from the 1960s that had odd celebrity tie-ins. There was a dog-eared copy of A Red Skelton in Your Closet: Ghost Stories Gay and Grim Selected by the Master of Comedy, because, if I’m looking for something truly scary to read in 1965, I’m going to hit up a master of comedy… apparently. (Aside from selecting the stories, Skelton also wrote an introduction titled “Of Course I Believe in Ghosts.”) Then there was the pristine copy of Shirley Temple’s Storytime Favorites, with the picture on the cover that made Temple look more like Betty Crocker than the child star she’d been in the 1930s. But, hands-down, the best, the most wonderfully weird ’60s celebrity kids’ book I encountered – and that I just HAD to buy – was all about Alfred Hitchcock, possibly the most acclaimed movie director of all time, teaming up with three kid detectives to solve mysteries.

The Three Investigators: The Secret of Terror Castle

Hitchcock even does cameos on the covers of children’s mysteries…

That’s right. Alfred Hitchcock, director of Psycho and Vertigo, hanging out with three Encyclopedia Brown knock-offs. And did I mention that the kid detectives drive around in a chauffeured, gold-plated Rolls Royce? How could I NOT buy the book immediately? There’s actually a whole series of books in the “Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators” imprint. I picked up the first and seventh volumes of the series, The Secret of Terror Castle and The Mystery of the Fiery Eye, and they’re the best things I’ve bought in a long time.

Here’s a quick excerpt from Hitchcock’s “Introduction” to The Secret of Terror Castle:The Three Investigators: The Secret of Terror Castle

I seem to be constantly introducing something. For years I’ve been introducing my television programs. I’ve introduced motion pictures. And I’ve introduced books of mystery, ghost and suspense stories for my fans to shiver with. [read the rest of the post…]

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Frequent readers of this blog know that I typically give media tie-in children’s books a lot of flack. And, normally, they totally deserve it. For whatever reason, when a publisher decides to adapt a TV show, movie, cartoon, or toyline into a kids’ book, the quality is almost always poor. There are some notable exceptions – Jeffrey Brown’s Darth Vader and Son is transcendent – but, for the most part, they’re fairly awful reads. So, when Megan McKnight wrote her great recent post about her “Rules for Parents Buying Books from Book Order Catalogs or School Book Fairs” and she listed “books based on television, movie, or toy characters” as definite DO NOT BUYS, I nodded my head and intoned a hearty “Here, here!”  I fully support parents who try to steer their kids away from that kind of crap.

But then… I was cleaning out my old bedroom at my mom’s house – enough time has now passed that I refer to it as “my mom’s house” instead of “MY house” – and I found the ONLY book that I ever ordered my school book order catalogs that I MADE SURE that I kept well into my adulthood. I bought loads of books from book order catalogs when I was a kid, but there is only ONE book order title that, over 25 years later, still sat proudly on my bookshelf in my childhood bedroom.

What was that book?

A Ghostbusters storybook, copyright 1984, with 12 collector stickers inside.

Ghostbusters

A cherished tome from my childhood – back before “Slimer” even got his nickname and was known only as the “Ugly Little Spud”

That’s right. It was a media tie-in book. [read the rest of the post…]

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Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1

The children have to learn about The Clone Wars sometime, right? Right?

Welcome to the third installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, a good-natured peek at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out during our last trip to our local library. We’re going in order, so let’s talk about the third book my daughter picked out, otherwise known as “the book I have no control over.”

Remember, in my introductory post to this series, when I said that my daughter gets to pick put one book every time that I can’t veto? Well, per usual, for her no-veto pick, she went for a book based on a movie or a TV show. Usually, that means Scooby Doo, but this week it meant… Star Wars.  Specifically, a Star Wars comic book anthology called Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1.

And, as a big pop culture geek, Star Wars is kind of a hot button issue with me. Like a lot of people, I adore the original trilogy, despise the prequels, and beyond-despise the various unnecessary and artistically-suspect revisions George Lucas has made to the original trilogy. But, after observing my daughter’s first year of kindergarten, I have to say – there is NO other pop culture property that is more prevalent in the minds of young children than Star Wars right now. Maybe it’s the due to the popularity of Star Wars Legos or maybe it’s because the children of the ‘80s grew up, had kids, and decided to share their favorite trilogy with their offspring at a very young age, but, man oh man, in my experience, five- and six-year-old boys and girls will NOT stop talking about Star Wars.

(I said “boys and girls” right there to be inclusive, but I will say, in my limited sphere of experience, boys do seem to be WAY more into Star Wars than girls. And I don’t know why. It might be the guns. It might be that the overwhelming majority of Star Wars characters are male. It might be the big, glowing, phallic swordfights… who knows? But I will say, earlier this year, my daughter was the only girl invited to an all-boys Star Wars birthday party and… yeah, I’m still brimming with pride.)

Darth Vader and Son

Being a parent in the Star Wars era isn’t easy… (Image taken from the very funny “Darth Vader and Son” by Jeffrey Brown.)

However, the Star Wars issue is difficult in our house because, while it is VERY much on my daughter’s radar, I won’t let her watch the movies or the Clone Wars TV series yet. I just think she’s too young and it’s too violent. And that’s hard because almost ALL of her friends watch the movies frequently. So, instead, since she is really, really eager to learn about Star Wars, we talk about the Star Wars universe A LOT. (Fortunately, as a card-carrying geek, I have an almost-photographic memory about Star Wars lore.) I’ll flip through Star Wars books with her and she has some Star Wars toys (including some of mine from my childhood). I also show her a decent amount of YouTube clips – a selection of short glimpses of Star Wars-related material that I deem appropriate.

For example, there are some pretty funny animated Lego Star Wars videos online at the moment. Or there are these crazy “Star Wars Dance-Off” videos from the Disney Studios Star Wars Weekends that have to be seen to be believed. (You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Chewbacca’s Axl Rose impression.) Or, at times, I will show her small clips from the actual movies. I normally keep these short, but I have given her brief looks at lightsaber fights, space battles, Ewoks, etc. Since it is SUCH a front-of-mind topic with her peers, I have no problem sharing with her knowledge of the Star Wars universe – showing her videos, having discussions, letting her play with the toys – but I’ll be damned if I let peer pressure force me to show her the movies before I feel she’s ready for them.

Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1

How do I explain Jedi haircuts to my daughter?

That’s a long preamble to say that, when my daughter showed up with a Star Wars book in her hands at the library and asked if she could check it out, I definitely went through some conflicting emotions. (Particularly since it was a Clone Wars book. Why did my child have to be born in the age of the prequels?) I eventually let her check out the book in question – Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures, Volume 1 – and here are the three reasons why:

1. It wasn’t a mindless retelling of the movies. It was a new story. Granted, Clone Wars Adventures is set during the Clone Wars – the dumbest of all wars – but nothing is worse than a corporate-produced kids’ book that just recounts what happened in a movie. At least, the author had to try to create something new and not just say “and then this happened… and then this happened…”

2. It was a graphic novel – a format that I really love and that my daughter is really enjoying. She’s very into comic books right now and Clone Wars Adventures is a neat little Star Wars comics anthology series, published by Dark Horse Comics, with three separate stories per volume. The format is also pretty cool for young readers – big readable text, only 2-3 panels per page, and the library-binding editions are hardcover and super-tough. [read the rest of the post…]

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