Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron Movie Review

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Review:

My kids both love Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, an adventure story about a Kiger mustang stallion in the Wild West, but my feelings are a bit more mixed. Speaking as a bleeding heart liberal tree hugger whose sympathies align almost entirely with the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes of the Great Plains in histories of the Plains Indian Wars of the 19th century, this film is way too overbearing with its Indians=good, white people=bad message. No subtlety or nuance whatsoever.  It also suffers from rather overwrought narration that strays too often from the sentimental to the sappy and maudlin.

That said, it’s an enjoyable adventure story, especially for young horse lovers like my kids, and the animation is absolutely gorgeous. I consider it worth watching for the beautiful landscape art alone.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

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My 10 Favorite Board Books To Read Aloud

My 10 Favorite Read-Aloud Board Books

I’ll let you in on a secret. I hate to read aloud. Always have, probably always will. But the benefits of reading aloud to young children are so enormous and life-changing (PDF) that I do it anyway, day in and day out.

Naturally, reading aloud is most enjoyable for me when it’s a book that I like myself. Read aloud books that are most fun for me have lots of scope for expression – elements such as silly voices, animal noises, dialogue, rhyming text, etc. Good illustrations are also a must – I especially like detailed illustrations with lots of stuff going on in the background that offers lots of opportunities to build and reinforce vocabulary. These types of elements make it less monotonous to read the same book 1,000 times, which inevitably happens when a toddler starts picking favorites.

Here are the top ten kid AND mom approved books from our personal library of board books:

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Melissa & Doug Wooden Sandwich-Making Set

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Review:

We have a number of Melissa & Doug play food sets, as my kids love them and play with them frequently. This is the one they play with least. My daughter likes the hamburger fixings, but seems less interested in everything else, and my son mostly ignores it entirely in favor of his Melissa & Doug Cutting Food Set. It is sturdy and well made, but spends most of its time on the shelf.

My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

Melissa & Doug Grill Set

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Review:

We purchased this years ago as a gift for a young nephew, who played with it for several years before passing it back to our children when he outgrew it. The set has changed slightly in the intervening time – our set has cherry tomatoes, whereas the current set appears to have tomato slices.

My feelings about this set are a little more mixed than most Melissa & Doug products. The kids have a great time cutting up the onion and pepper and skewering the meat and vegetables. They are high quality and have stood up well to frequent play by several children of various ages over several years. They can also be used to help teach basic skills such as colors and patterns.

However, my kids barely play with the grill itself, which is kind of poor quality by Melissa & Doug standards. It consists of a wooden box (no complaints there) with a sheet of sturdy plastic with lines drawn on it to represent the “grill”. The coals are painted on the bottom of the box. I think it would feel more realistic if there were either some play coals to rearrange with the tongs or real bars on the grill (or, preferably, both). As it is, the grill gets used mainly to store everything when not in use.

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My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Melissa & Doug Ice Cream Sets – Help Us Choose!

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I’ve been starting to thing about Christmas presents for my kids and am trying to choose between two Melissa & Doug ice cream sets. My kids both love play food and they had a ball with the Melissa & Doug Ice Cream Scoop Set (right) when they got to play with it at a relative’s house. I was planning to get that set for them when I noticed a similar one, the Melissa & Doug Slice and Scoop Sundae Set (below left), and now I’m wondering if the Sundae Set might be even better.

I like that the Ice Cream Scoop Set has two scoops, two cones, and four flavors of ice cream, making my two children (hopefully) able to play with it together without fighting too much about who does what, whereas the Sundae Set has only one scoop and one bowl, so one child has to serve and the other to eat. On the other hand, if they do squabble while playing with the Ice Cream Scoop Set, the 2 year old might clonk the 7 year old with the wooden cones, which were pretty heavy and solid and might be more painful than the bowl from the Sundae Set.

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I also like that the Ice Cream Scoop Set comes with an ice cream carton to store everything in. On the other hand, I love that the Sundae Set has a banana and strawberry that you can cut up. (The two year old in particular absolutely loves their Melissa & Doug Cutting Food Set.) The Sundae Set also has sundae toppings, which I think they’ll both like as well.

Decisions, decisions… Which set do you think I should choose?

Monsters University Movie Review

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Review:

Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. are my favorite Pixar movies, so I was curious to see  Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters, Inc. Sadly, though Monsters University was enjoyable light entertainment, it was nowhere near the level of the original film.

Even while laughing at Mike and Sulley’s collegiate antics, I could never get over the feeling that the story was just plain unnecessary and the movie, therefore, primarily an effort to liberate more of people’s cash from their wallets. It’s normal in today’s Hollywood to try to capitalize on the popularity of a successful stand-alone film with sequels, prequels, reboots, etc., but you expect something with a little more heart from Pixar.

Monsters University teaches us nothing particularly new or surprising about the characters or the interesting parallel world they inhabit, nor does it offer a particularly interesting twist on any of its moral lessons. (I was pleasantly surprised when, after telling Mike and Sulley that they would be expelled, Dean Hardscrabble actually stuck to her word and expelled them, forcing them to work their way through the ranks of Monsters, Inc. via the mailroom, instead of having them be rescued from their bad behavior at the last minute by Hardscrabble’s change of heart and/or a deus ex machina of some sort.)  Arguably, the film’s very existence contradicts Mike and Sulley’s backstory as laid out in Monsters, Inc., where Mike tells Sulley, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade,” suggesting that they met each other in elementary school, not college.

As a result, Monsters University is a pleasant enough way to while away 90 minutes of your life, but a far cry from Pixar’s best.

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My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

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Work Bench ‘N Box

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Review:

Any time I get out the screwdriver to work on something, my two and a half year old son is sure to be close behind, begging to have a turn. Sometimes he’ll even open the closet and ask me to get it down for him. Since a real screwdriver isn’t a safe toy for a toddler to play with unsupervised, I decided to get him a little toy toolbox of his own so he could play with screwdrivers whenever he wanted.

This proved somewhat easier said than done. Most of the initial toy tool sets I researched were plastic and didn’t sound well made. Then I looked into the Melissa & Doug Take-Along Tool Kit Wooden Construction Toy (24 pcs), which seemed much closer to what I had in mind. Melissa & Doug are generally reliable purveyors of high quality toys, and the price was very attractive. However, I was put off the set by the reviews complaining that there were no threaded holes for the screws. What’s the point of a toy screwdriver if it can’t screw anything in? So I went looking for better options.

Finally, I found it with the Work Bench ‘N Box set by Wonderworld. The Work Bench ‘N Box has a hammer, wrench, and screwdriver, nails, screws with washers, and more, as well as a sturdy tool box to carry the set in that also doubles as the work bench. The bench includes a variety of holes on the top and sides, including both threaded and non-threaded. Everything is made of eco-friendly sustainable rubber wood except the two nails and the head of the wrench, which are plastic.

The toy was an instant hit with my son, who immediately started banging away with the hammer. He had a little more trouble with the wrench and screwdriver, but the toy should be excellent to help him develop his fine motor skills. It has held up well to the banging so far and seems like a very sturdy and well made toy. My only complaint is that the nails are a bit difficult to remove, so I will have to do that for him, but otherwise I am very pleased with the purchase so far, and so is he!

Note: Wonderworld makes a similar toy toolbox called the Wonderworld Little Tool Box Set Best Learning Toys Improved Skills Kids Toy that also appears to be an excellent choice and which has a saw with a velcro block that children can “saw” apart in addition to the hammer, screwdriver, and wrench. Although I’m pretty sure my son would love the saw, I thought the other tools in the set looked more juvenile than the tools that came with the Work Bench ‘N Box and I wanted something that my son would get several more years of enjoyment out of, plus there were fewer holes for the nails and screws, so I decided to go with the Work Bench ‘N Box.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Chicka Chicka ABC Board Book Review

Review:

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This is an abridged board book version of the classic Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. My kids like the “chicka chicka boom boom” parts, but except for that, it’s a very boring read aloud. The text starts off rhyming, but by the end, it just becomes a list of letters. It reads like the author lost interest halfway through. For example:

A told B and B told C, “I’ll meet you at the top of the coconut tree.”

But:

Look who’s coming! L M N O P! And Q R S! And T U V!

Whoop de doo. Four exclamation points in a row doesn’t make a boring list of letters any more exciting. If I wanted that, I’d just go with the alphabet song.

It stops shortly thereafter with the letters all falling to the ground, leaving off the second half of the original book.

My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

I recommend getting the full version instead, as it contains more rhyming in the second half.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (Paperback)
by Bill Martin Jr., John Archambault

Price: $6.00
217 used & new available from $0.01
4.8 out of 5 stars (2354 customer reviews)

Your Personal Penguin Board Book Review

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Review:

A cute sing-along book about a penguin who wants to be best friends with a somewhat befuddled-looking hippo. The song, performed by Davy Jones, is available as a free download.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Endless Alphabet App Review

Endless Alphabet (AppStore Link) Endless Alphabet
Developer: Originator Inc.
Rated: 4+5
Price: $8.99 Download from the App Store

Review:

This app gets great reviews, so I decided to give it a shot after noticing it on sale one day.

It is now my two year old son’s favorite app. I was amazed by how quickly he got the hang of matching the letters, and he laughs and laughs over the funny scenes designed to illustrate each word’s definition. After a couple months of playing this game several times a week, he has started to point out a few of the letters to me (O is his most consistent so far) in other contexts, such as when we’re reading bedtime stories together and I’m inclined to credit this app, as we haven’t yet begun to put a lot of emphasis on teaching him his letters while reading.

My 7 year old also enjoys the scenes, although the letter matching and most (possibly all) of the words are too easy for her.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)