reading aloud

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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April 2nd is International Children’s Book Day, an annual event that celebrates reading, literacy, and the million-and-a-half wonderful things about children’s literature. So, as I was trying to think of something to say on the topic (that I haven’t already said), I kept coming back to one recurring thought – I LOVE READING IN BED.

I do. I really do.

The Under-Appreciated Art of Bedtime Reading

Normally, when we read in bed, we’re both in our pajamas and firmly tucked in, but we don’t invite photographers to those events…

I don’t think beds get enough credit from the publishing industry. They are the IDEAL environments for reading, particularly for reading with your kids. Case in point: There’s a new start-up company in New York, Casper, which sells mattresses made of latex and memory foam – a friend has one and digs it. But the thing that I LOVE about this company that is they not only send you your bed, but, with each mattress, they send you a book to read IN your new bed. (And you can sign-up for email bedtime reading updates on their site too.) They KNOW that their mattresses have more than one use.

I think that’s genius. I mean, I know that’s ultimately just a marketing campaign, but it’s a GREAT ONE. Why don’t more people market books and beds together? Beds and books should always be seen as symbiotic entities. Yes, my kid reads everywhere — at the breakfast table, on the toilet, on a shelf in one of our closets that she calls her “reading nook.” Reading isn’t only for bedtime, BUT some of our best, most memorable reading moments have occurred in bed.

When I bought the final Harry Potter book the morning it was released, I retreated into our guest room, sprawled out on the bed, and only came out for bathroom breaks and to loudly annoy my wife with comments like “OH MY GOD, YOU WOULDN’T BELIEVE WHO JUST DIED!” When I was first introducing our infant daughter to books, we started in our rocker next to the crib (which was intimate and amazing), but I still remember the day she got her first big-girl bed and I could finally squeeze into it with her and read a pile of our favorite picture books until I could feel her fall asleep on my right shoulder. (Her side of the bed is right, mine is left. No idea why, but we never deviate.)

My daughter has been introduced to Hogwarts, Narnia, Oz, and thousands of other precious literary landscapes in her little twin bed, with a hodgepodge pile of pillows behind us, her discounted Muppets sheets from Target below us, and her fire-engine red IKEA desk-lamp next to us, giving us just enough mood lighting to always try for “one chapter more.”

You’ll see a lot of talk online about the importance of creating safe reading spaces for kids and I couldn’t agree more. Kids needs places where they really feel comfortable to curl up with a good book and let themselves explore. But, personally, I think beds are often overlooked as reading spaces, which is a shame. Not only are beds comfortable – sometimes they’re too comfortable and you do more sleeping than reading (I get that criticism) – but they also represent these inviting, safe places, where we spend almost a quarter of our lives. We’re open in bed, we relax in bed, we let our guards down in bed.

Those are just a few of the reasons why bedtime reading with your kids is so important. It’s that symbiotic relationship between bed and books. Lying in bed can make you more open to the ideas, images, and emotions of a book, BUT the right book can also act as the perfect guide into a really restful night of sleep. The rhythms of reading are soothing – they can both expand your mind and relax it. Reading in bed can either give you a mental workout that knocks you out or it can give you a mental massage that lulls you into a deep, deep sleep. I will say that, without a doubt, my daughter always, ALWAYS sleeps better if we read to her before bed.

So, for International Children’s Book Day, here’s what I want you to do – Grab a children’s book, an old favorite, and read it in bed tonight. If you have kids, great. Revisit a classic with them and enjoy the togetherness. If you don’t have kids, no big deal. Find one of your childhood favorites and just try to lose yourself in the images and cadences and the memories of reading in your pajamas.

OH, and, if you are a parent, make sure that your kid has enough pillows, a good bed-side lamp, and a flashlight, so they can keep reading long after you told them to stop. (Some things are more important than sleep.)

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WHAT IF YOU CAN’T THINK OF A GOOD BOOK TO READ AT BEDTIME?

Fair question. Here are a few of my favorite bedtime kids’ books. Some are soothing, some are beautiful, some are uproariously funny and actually wake your kid up, which sounds counter-productive (which it is), but it’s a whole lot of fun too… [read the rest of the post…]

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B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures

Take that, Caldecott committee!

One of the many reasons why I love picture books is because they’re one of the few forms of literature that actually anticipate that you won’t be reading them alone. Sure, there are picture books that are made for kids to read on their own, but there are also those wonderful picture books that are designed specifically for parents to read aloud to their children. They’re almost more like a play-script than a traditional book. It’s this lovely little monologue, a screenplay with storyboards included, a script for your onstage debut, performing your lines for a bedtime audience of one. (Or two or however many kids you have.) And, if you’re looking for a great script for your next storytime performance, I would definitely recommend B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures. Even if the book did made me scream “Blork!” and admit to my daughter that I’m really a “robot monkey.”

Let me explain…

You probably know Novak from NBC’s The Office, so I know what you’re thinking – celebrity author. It’s a total vanity project, right? NOPE. This is a great, great book, which isn’t that surprising because Novak released a collection of short stories earlier this year, One More Thing, which, I have to say, was excellent. So, we’ve established that the guy’s a good writer, but what’s remarkable about The Book with No Pictures is how well Novak understands the nuances of a great read-aloud book.

B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures

I’m a what-now?

Any really, really amazing kids’ read-aloud book, first and foremost, has to turn the kids into engaged listeners. They can’t be passive. They have to be part of the performance. How do you do that? You give them POWER, or, at the very least, the illusion of power. Look at Mo Willems’ Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The book opens with the bus driver handing over his authority to the listening children, telling them “whatever you do, don’t let the pigeon drive the bus.” The parent then takes over the role of the curious pigeon and, while they get to ham it up as the pigeon, the kids participate by screaming “NO!”

Or look at perhaps the best read-aloud book EVER, Jon Stone’s The Monster at the End of This Book. It’s a genius bit of reverse psychology. Grover appears and essentially tells the listening kids, “If you turn the page, terrible, TERRIBLE things will happen!” (Which might be the best incentive for reading I’ve ever heard.) [read the rest of the post…]

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I’ve told this story before, but, when my wife told me that we were going to have our first child, the following day, I drove to the bookstore and I bought my yet-to-be-born daughter a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer.

It was the very first thing I ever bought her. We hadn’t bought any clothes or toys or diapers yet. We hadn’t even gone to the doctor’s to confirm that the pregnancy test was right. But the moment that I found out that I was going to be a father, that I was going to be responsible for bringing a child into the world, an impulse in my brain clambered above the fog created by all of my worries, fears and anxieties, waved its arms and proudly announced, “HEY, the kid needs a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth!”Tom_Burns_RR_Pic

And I listened. The best part was I already owned a copy of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I wanted her to have her own copy. It felt important to me and, to be honest, it still does.

From that first moment, I KNEW, I knew in my bones, that reading was going to be an absolutely essential part of being a father and I wasn’t wrong. During my wife’s pregnancy, as I sat there thinking about what could I EVER impart to a young child that would ever be worth a damn, my mind kept coming back to the same answer – BOOKS. I could give her books.

That didn’t mean I had to BUY her a lot of books (even though I did). It just meant I had to introduce her to books. I had to lead her to books. And that responsibility unlocked something primal in my brain that I didn’t know was there before. For the first time in a long while, I was driven. I had purpose. I was a DAD and I had a job to do.

Other dads might hunt or fish or work at a bank for their families, but me? I knew what I had to do. I had to make sure that my kid knew that, yes, there IS a monster at the end of this book, but, you know what? It’s not what you think. (It’s better.) [read the rest of the post…]

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The Berenstain Bears and the Big Blooper

If Sister Bear can be fallible, can’t we all?

I write a lot about the joys of reading aloud to your kid. This is a cautionary tale about what happens when reading aloud goes wrong.

Before we begin, for the record, I am a fan of The Berenstain Bears. While I know some parents who find their books to be provincial and occasionally preachy, I think, for the most part, Stan and Jan Berenstain are extremely skilled at crafting very engaging and accessible stories for early readers. (I should note that I, personally, very much prefer the earlier Berenstain Bear books – Old Hat, New Hat; The Berenstain Bears’ Science Fair; The Berenstain Bears and the Sitter, etc – to the newer editions that Jan co-wrote with their son Michael.)

The Berenstain Bears series was the first example of series fiction that my daughter really fell in love with, and I think that’s a pretty common occurrence. Many parents are comfortable buying their young children Berenstain Bears books for a variety of reasons – the stories are well told, the art is consistent, the books are inexpensive, the characters are captivating, the quality of the storytelling greatly outshines the other books on that one spinning rack at the bookstore (normally, cheap Barbie or princess books) – the list goes on and on. Berenstain Bears books have become a foundational pillar of modern children’s literature because they’ve created this very warm, very safe place for young readers to return to again and again.

Which was why I was so surprised when a Berenstain Bear book made me say the F-word in front of my daughter.

LET ME EXPLAIN…

The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies

It looks SO innocent on its cover, doesn’t it?

OK, in reality, the incident was maybe 90% my fault, 10% the book’s fault (maybe more like 70/30). The book in question was The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies, a fun little tale of Brother and Sister Bear learning not to expect toys, candy, and presents every time they go out to the store. It’s a book designed to tell children not to lose their minds in front of the candy rack at the supermarket checkout, so I fully support Stan and Jan‘s intentions behind writing the book. It has a great lesson at its core. HOWEVER, it also features a tongue-twister that completely got the better of me one night at bedtime. [read the rest of the post…]

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Dr. Seuss' ABC

A, B, and then C? SO predictable…

While I’d like to think that any good book is timeless, there are certain kinds of books that you end up buying for your children that do seem to come with a very implicit “best if used by” date stamped on their side. For example, I know many children who, once they reached a certain age, refused to read board books anymore. To them, board books = baby books. And, regardless of the book itself (we have board book versions of older-skewing books like Olivia and Madeline), some six-year-olds just won’t be seen dead reading a board book. Another example of a kind of kid’s book that comes with a very distinct shelf-life is the Alphabet Book.

Alphabet books are possibly one of the most common kinds of picture books you can find for younger pre-readers. Their mission is simple and true – reinforcing kids’ knowledge of the alphabet from A to Z. This can be accomplished through pictures, rhyming couplets, you name it. Start at A, end at Z – they come with their own structure built in. No wonder there are so many alphabet books on the market. However, what happens to the book once a kid learns their alphabet backwards and forwards?

Unlike storybooks, alphabet books can be fairly utilitarian. They normally don’t feature stories, characters, or emotions for children to encounter and revisit. Most alphabet books just want to make sure that kids know that J comes before K and, once that’s accomplished, it’s O.K. (letters 15 and 11, respectively) to put them aside. However, there are classes of alphabet books and some are much more expertly executed than others. Some alphabet books transcend mere letter instruction and can stand on their own two feet much longer than their more cheaply produced brethren.

So, if you’re looking for a good alphabet book and you’ll like it to have a longer shelf-life than the crappy paperback A-to-Z book that came with your Happy Meal, here are six really great examples of alphabet books that do a whole lot more than just teach kids about letters.

1. The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

The Ghastlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Simply a classic.

Let’s get this out of the way right at the top – the greatest alphabet book of ALL TIME is Edward Gorey‘s The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

Granted, it’s more of a commentary on alphabet books than anything, but it is one of the most brilliant, oddball, most often-copied books I’ve ever read. (Fair warning – there are a LOT of lame “parodies” of The Gashlycrumb Tinies out there.) But it is dark. And it is macabre. It is really, really macabre. And if your kid is into that, they might LOVE it. Personally, I know my daughter is far too easily creeped out to really enjoy a line like “X is for Xerses devoured by mice” without it giving her nightmares for a week. In regards to your own kid, you can read the whole book online here and decide for yourself. But, even though I can’t imagine ever giving The Gashlycrumb Tinies to a still-learning-to-read three-year-old, there is such genius and humor in Gorey’s work that it’d be a shame to keep this alphabet book away from kids entirely. As such, there’s a copy of The Gashlycrumb Tinies sitting on our “Books My Kid Will Read in the Future” shelf that’ll be waiting for my daughter whenever I think she’s ready for it.

The Ghastlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

Hands down, the greatest literary death of all time.

2. On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrated by Anita Lobel

On Market Street

Using capitalism to teach kids the alphabet…genius.

I’ve known about Arnold Lobel since I was a kid thanks to his classic Frog and Toad books, but I’ll admit that On Market Street, a truly wonderful alphabet book, was my first introduction to the work of his wife, Anita Lobel, a hugely talented children’s book creator in her own right. On Market Street is one of those rare picture books that you’ll find your kids revisiting again and again, if only to re-appreciate and re-explore the depth and complexity of the artwork. The premise is relatively simple – a young child heads down Market Street “to see what I might buy”. The Lobels then lead us past an A-to-Z series of wildly imaginative merchants who all have bodies constructed out of whatever it is they’re selling. Thus, the apple vendor is made entirely out of apples, the book seller is made entirely out of books, etc. [read the rest of the post…]

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I’ve taken to calling November “Building a Library‘s Month of Failure” around the house. First, my daughter tells me that she wants to “pause” our reading of The Phantom Tollbooth. (Sigh.) Next, she tells me that she doesn’t want me to read her any more chapter books at bedtime, even though my wife – my wife who, in case you were wondering, did NOT start a blog all about how much she loves sharing books with her daughter – gets to read her Harry Freakin’ Potter at bedtime, a book that my kid is LOVING. And, finally, THIS happens…

My daughter, who is lovely and amazing and is such a fantastic reader, comes to me and says, “I want to write a fan letter to my favorite author.”

I perked up IMMEDIATELY. She’d never asked to do this before.

“That’s great!” I said. “Who are we writing to?” In my head, I began thinking about how I could get the mailing addresses for Lane Smith, Kate DiCamillo, Cressida Cowell, Mo Willems, Adam Rex, the estates of Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl, etc. And then she hit me with the bombshell.

“I want to write a fan letter to Daisy Meadows who writes the Rainbow Fairy Books.”

Daisy Meadows. The Rainbow Fairy Books.

MONTH. OF. FAILURE.

Rainbow Magic

Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion…

“SERIOUSLY?” I replied in an immature tone, practically guaranteed to send her further into Daisy Meadows‘ open and waiting arms. “She is seriously not your favorite author. Seriously. She’s not, right?” [read the rest of the post…]

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Hey Readers – Remember all those posts back in September where I was so excited about finally reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my daughter? You know, the book that single-handedly inspired this blog and that I’ve been DYING to read to her for almost six years now? I even posted my initial “Phantom Tollbooth First Read” article where I recounted my experience reading the first two chapters with my kid at bedtime. Wasn’t that a fun article – an article that promised to give you a day-by-day breakdown of our joyous experiences reading The Phantom Tollbooth together for weeks to come?

I should’ve smelled the jinx coming a mile away.

Quick aside – Our family does a lot of road-trips together and, almost every time we’re on the last leg of our drive home, if we’ve had an easy day of driving so far, I inevitably say something like, “Boy, we’ve hit no traffic today, have we?” and you know what happens? Five minutes later, we hit construction or an overturned car and BAM – four extra hours are added to our trip. And, like an idiot, I do that almost EVERY single time. I jinx the end of the trip.

This is all a very long-winded way for me to tell you… sigh… we have officially stopped reading The Phantom Tollbooth for the moment.

The Phantom Tollbooth

Yeah, we know, Milo. We’re disappointed too…

And, yes, I am a little bit heartbroken. And, yes, I think I jinxed it. [read the rest of the post…]

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The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth

Perfect for Tollbooth obsessives…

Back on September 20th, we celebrated Building a Library’s first anniversary and announced that, the following week, I was finally going to start reading The Phantom Tollbooth – the book that inspired this blog – to my almost six-year-old daughter. And then… I took the following week off. Anti-climatic, I know, but it was a crazy week with swim classes and TWO soccer games and I was exhausted and blocked and I apologize. But, now that all my excuses are out on the table, I DID start reading The Phantom Tollbooth with my daughter last week and, so far, it’s been a pretty positive experience.

Let me state up front that I was a little worried that my daughter was too young for The Phantom Tollbooth. Norton Juster expertly plays with language and various abstract concepts throughout the book and I was concerned that aspects of the text would go over her head. As far as I can remember, I probably first encountered The Phantom Tollbooth when I was eight or nine, so I will admit that I am (still) concerned that I might be trying to introduce the novel to my daughter at too early an age. But, regardless of those concerns, I wanted to give Phantom Tollbooth a shot in our coveted bedtime reading slot last week and I’m going to periodically give updates on how the reading is going so far.

I’m calling this series “Phantom Tollbooth: First Read” and I’m planning to structure the updates in a similar style to the re-read or rewatch series that you can find on Tor.com or The Onion‘s AV Club. For those unfamiliar, in those series, the websites pick a book or a movie and a person episodically blogs their reaction to revisiting those works. For example, the blogger might post their ongoing reaction to rewatching all three seasons of Arrested Development or re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, chapter-by-chapter.

For Phantom Tollbooth, I’m going to adopt a chapter-by-chapter model, although some nights, we’ll be reading multiple chapters. For our first week, we started slow, only making it through the first four chapters. In the future, we may be moving through the book at a different pace, largely determined by what we’ve got going on that week. (Fair Warning: A trip to NYC will limit our progress this weekend.) I’ll give a quick summary of the chapter, my thoughts, my daughter’s reactions, and I might even toss in a few pieces of trivia from Leonard S. Marcus’ fantastic The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth as well.

Are we all set? Excuses made and plans delineated? Great. And, with that, let us begin…

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH FIRST READ: CHAPTERS 1 AND 2 – “Milo” and “Beyond Expectations”

CHAPTER ONE: “MILO”

“I do hope this is an interesting game, otherwise the afternoon will be so terribly dull.” – Milo, The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth, Chapter One

Santa got my letter!

The opening passages of The Phantom Tollbooth were what sold me on the book as a kid. In a few short paragraphs, Norton Juster wonderfully captures the itchy, nagging boredom that can easily consume a child in the wrong frame of mind. I love comedian Louis C.K.’s inspired riff on how “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy” and it shares some nice thematic parallels to initial mindset of Milo, the protagonist of The Phantom Tollbooth. To quote Juster:

There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always.

When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’s bothered. Nothing really interested him – least of all the things that should have.

It’s an incredibly powerful opening and, after reading into it a few paragraphs, I turned to my daughter and asked, “Do you ever feel like that?” “Yes,” she replied. “I get bored a lot.” [read the rest of the post…]

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Bink & Gollie: Two For One

Having a best friend is awesome…

In my last post, I waxed on and on about Bink & Gollie: Two For One by Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee, and Tony Fucile, even though, pretty early in the article, I commented, “How can I possibly convey the depth of the warmth and humor in Bink & Gollie in a simple blog post?” (And yet I still tried. Was it passion or hubris? You be the judge…) So, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that I failed in my attempt to really convey how endearing the two Bink & Gollie books are and you, as the skeptical blog lurker, need more empirical evidence to sell you on my recommendation. You need more evidence? No problem.

Below are two videos that, I think, do a nice job of showing off the quirky charms of Bink & Gollie. The first is a book trailer for the original Bink & Gollie, put together by Candlewick Press. The second video is a very cool, very home movie-esque clip of illustrator Tony Fucile reading Bink & Gollie to a group of children at a bookstore. It is not the most professionally-produced video ever, but I actually find it charming as hell. The camera moves all over the place, kids interrupt and ask questions, and Fucile does his best to read the story and explain his illustrations with unflappable good humor. The shaky-cam nature of the video and the iffy sound might make it hard for some to watch, but I find it to be a wonderfully real glimpse of a creator really connecting with his target audience. If these videos can’t sell you on Bink & Gollie, I don’t know what can.

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