You can grow up to be...
When I was a kid, two of my favorite books were The Arrow Book of Presidents and Abe Lincoln Gets His Chance, both of which I read into tatters. Now that Barack Obama has made being the president cool again, February's upcoming President's Day holiday and the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth are good occasions to take a closer look at the office.
Can anybody grow up to be president? If you're a dog, maybe you should start with something smaller, like running for mayor. LaRue for Mayor: Letters From the Campaign Trail by Mark Teague (Blue Sky Press) chronicles the adventures of Ike LaRue, a mischievous Jack Russell. He hopes to combat the anti-dog policies of the incumbent. Ike's message of dog-friendliness and the lively, cartoonish illustrations should engage younger kids (ages 4-6).
Madam President by Lane Smith (Hyperion) is another spritely picture book addressing the most important office in the world with good humor and contemporary illustrations. Smith details some of the many tasks of the president - being diplomatic, keeping calm. In this case, the prez just happens to be a girl who also needs to think about cleaning her room.
Madam President: The Extraordinary, True (and Evolving) Story of Women in Politics by Catherine Thimmesh (Houghton Mifflin) is for slightly older readers (grades 3-5) and gives more background on the women who paved the way for figures like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi in U.S. politics, including Jeanette Rankin, Margaret Chase Smith and Frances Perkins. There's also a look at important women politicians worldwide, figures like Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Vigdis Finnbogadottir. What, you don't know who they are, Mom and Dad? Maybe you need to read this book.
For the good old-fashioned parade of U.S. presidents numbers 1 through 43, try Our Country's Presidents by Ann Bausum (National Geographic). Its visuals are a great improvement over my old Arrow Book of Presidents, featuring official portraits but the same log-cabin-to-the-White-House tales, with special inspiration from asthmatic T.R. and polio-stricken F.D.R.
If your family is just plain stuck on Barack, President Barack Obama: A Coloring & Activity Book (Really Big Coloring Books) will fill up a sick day or a cold afternoon indoors.
And for the television-inclined, don't skip American Experience: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which will air on PBS Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. It centers on the events of March and April 1865.
- Linda Falkenstein
The Other Side of the Island
By Allegra Goodman (Razorbill)
The Other Side of the Island takes place in a dystopian future when the earth has flooded, leaving only a scattered archipelago. Near the shore of one tropical island where "the air reeked with rotting mangoes and mushy breadfruit" live Honor and her parents, who have been recently transferred from an island farther north. Their memories of this previous existence are ominously hazy, but we learn that there they lived independently, whereas here, nearly every aspect of their lives is controlled by a paranoid and order-loving entity called "The Corporation."
Fronted by the image of a grandmotherly woman known as Earth Mother, the Corporation uses the threat of the continued deterioration of the environment to terrify the population into submission. Watchtowers with spies are everywhere, and at Honor's school the librarian spends her days snipping officially undesirable facts out of books. Even the sky here is under the Corporation's control - by day a perfect blue sky is projected onto the protective shield that covers the island, and by night a moon tidily encircled by seven stars.
The broad outline of Honor's story - the conflict between freedom-loving individuals and a hostile totalitarian government - isn't particularly original (though children might not notice). But Goodman, a distinguished writer of novels for adults (Kaaterskill Falls, Intuition), makes it memorable by the accretion of tiny and vivid details. A carousel tiger staring up from under the sea, a tiny golden jar of apricot preserves discovered in a pyramid of identical jars of grape jelly, an octopus clamped fiercely to a girl's arm in a bid to escape from his tank - they turn what might have been a formulaic science-fiction story into a celebration of the individuality that the Corporation tries to deny.
- Melissa Allen
Pint Size Polkas Volume One
Uncle Mike and His Polka Band
In the liner notes to his band's first children's CD, Milwaukee's Mike Schneider admits that as a kid he fell in love with polka music "at first sound." Now he's hoping to introduce a new generation of young people to the genre with the 29-minute first volume of Pint Size Polkas.
These songs (a combination of originals and Frankie Yankovic tunes) should put a bounce in your offspring. After all, many of them are built around already-familiar lyrics. There's the "Alphabet Polka" and an accordion-fueled version of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," plus "Numbers Schottische" and "Tiny Bubbles in the Tub" (which borrows from the song Don Ho made famous, while also reinforcing the importance of good hygiene).
One listen to Pint Size Polkas can make for wholesome family fun. Repeat spins, however, may convince non-polka-minded parents that it really is okay to let their toddlers dance around the living room by themselves. (Mike Schneider will perform at the Essen Haus on Feb. 21 and 27.)
- Michael Popke
Best of Both Worlds Concert: The 3-D Movie (Extended Edition)
Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus (Disney)
It wouldn't be fair to either artist if we tried to draw comparisons between Miley Cyrus and U2. So let's just say they both made 3-D movies and leave it at that.
Best of Both Worlds marks the teen star's transition from television alter ego Hannah Montana to real-life pop star Miley Cyrus. This polished production features a tight backing band on an elaborate, humongous stage usually reserved for, well, artists like U2. (Note: Miley rocks more than Hannah, but both send positive messages in weak singing voices to prepubescent audiences.) The film, which also features behind-the-scenes footage with Miley's dad, former achy breaky heartthrob Billy Ray Cyrus, hit theaters in 3-D, and this double-disc DVD comes in both 3-D and 2-D versions. Your kids might get a kick out of seeing a bunch of audience members' arms waving in their faces, guitar picks flying at them, dancers spinning in and out of focus, and KISS-worthy pyro displays licking their eyeballs. But the uncomfortable 3-D glasses that come with the DVD deaden the video's color and make the images grainy.
The unintended highlight of the 82-minute film comes when the Jonas Brothers join an often out-of-breath Hannah Montana on "We Got the Party" and then perform two songs from their self-titled 2007 album, "When You Look Me in the Eyes" and "Year 3000." A Cheap Trick for today's tween generation, the real brothers play their own instruments, write their own material and, in this case, upstage the headliner. In fact, among Disney's growing stable of young artists, the Jonas Brothers prove they deserve the pop-star treatment way more than Ms. Cyrus.
- Michael Popke