So, this is a pretty important week for me.
Not because I’ll be one step closer to forty by the time the week is through, but because a tale that’s been floating in my mind for many years is finally seeing the light of day.
This week marks the release of my first children’s picture book, The Little Lamp. It’s the story of a small table lamp who shines his love on a family for many years. But as their lives change, so does his, and as the years pass, he finds himself old, dusty, and eventually at the curb. And it’s with that he starts to re-think what these changes mean for him and what purpose he might still serve in life – as he has so much more love light to give.
Available in hardcover, paperback and e-book, it’s a story I hope offers some inspiration, some hope, and some, all pun intended, bright light to anyone of any age, going through a life change, doubt, and just wondering how they fit in. It’s beautifully illustrated by artist Ada Konewki, with whom I loved working with and hope to one day get the chance to do so again.
It also holds quite a lot of meaning because The Little Lamp has been with me since I was about nine years old, a doodle inspired by the small table lamp my parents bought for my bedroom, which then became crudely-drawn, xeroxed stories passed around to my elementary school friends.
And now, thirty years later, here he is, for anyone to enjoy.
It really means so very much.
It seemed like an era came to a close on PBS Kids recently, and if you’ve been watching Odd Squad with your kids (or maybe on your own, I do it. It’s okay. It’s a great show no matter how old you are), you know exactly what I’m talking about.
PBS Kids recently aired the Odd Squad special, Odds & Ends, which set out to answer questions that have been looming throughout the show’s entire season of odd-busting, and at the same time, brought one era of the show to a close while leaving the door open for a fresh new start.
Avast, matey! Scroll at your own peril! There be spoilers ahead!!
When the original Odd Squad duo, straight-laced Olive and goofball Otto (Dalila Bela and Filip Geljo), left the show at the end of the first season, audiences were introduced to a brand new dynamic with uber-optimist Olympia and the by-the-book Otis (Anna Cathcart and Isaac Kragten, respectively). From the start of the second season, audiences were told that unlike other Odd Squad cadets, Otis didn’t attend the Odd Squad Academy, leaving the door open to all sorts of questions as to where he came from.
Series mainstay Millie Davis continued to guide agents on their missions and paths as the big boss, Ms O, with Sean Michael Kyer also staying on for several episodes as scientist and resident gadget-maker Oscar, eventually exiting to pass the torch along to his protege, Oona (Olivia Presi).
Over the course of 35 episodes in its second season, Olympia and Otis used math skills to solve a myriad of wacky cases that ranged from houses being covered in jam to a man turned into a spaghetti monster, and continued to rack up Daytime Emmy wins for its cast and crew in the process. And all along the way, they and the roster of changing agents, scientists and others around them, the duo had series mainstay Ms O to guide them.
With this special, the show’s second season came to a close as Otis is put on trial for suspected treason against Odd Squad and on the stand tells the story we’ve been waiting for – just where he came from and how he came to Odd Squad. And in typical Odd Squad fashion, it turns out he was raised by ducks. Villainous ducks that in his heart he knew he had to stop, which brought him to Ms O, and eventually, to joining Odd Squad. Of course, Otis committed no treason and we learn that it’s really been the work of a mastermind under our noses the entire time – Agent Ohm!
Yes, Agent Ohm. The goofy, hapless, mucking up every case he touches Ohm, has really been a genius working from the inside to destroy Odd Squad this whole time. And what a delightfully fun turn of character for the young actor who plays Ohm, (Jaiden Cannatelli) to take on, cackling all the way. When all is revealed (and after some wonderful cameo appearances by regular Odd Squad rogues Mr Lightning, Jamie Jam and of course, Joshua Kilimnik’s Odd Todd along with a wham-bang, over the top opening with David Tompa’s delightful villain, Noisemaker) the dust settles, the end of the world is stopped and Otis (along with Ms O) are cleared. With the mystery solved, Ms O moves up the ranks from running one Odd Squad to all of them, and we get a nice farewell hug among the regulars before duty (and battle against giant Laser Chickens) calls.
Our son got a little misty as the special came to a close and I can’t say I blame him. He’s been watching Odd Squad since shortly after it debuted. More than four years later, he’s grown up alongside the characters he’s watched regularly on TV. He wondered what’s going to happen next, but I told him we’ll all have to find out together. I’m sure only show creators Timothy McKeon and Adam Peltzman truly know what oddness the future holds.
I’ve read online that a Season 3 is already in the works.. What that will look like, I have no clue, but it certainly will be a challenge to carry on in a post Ms O world. Young Mille Davis has been with the show since the very beginning and has been nothing short of a delight to watch in every scene she’s in. But then, I wondered how the show would carry on with the loss of Bela and Geljo as Olive and Otto, and went on to find Cathcart and Kragten incredibly charming as successors Olympia and Otis. Hopefully they’ll stick around, regardless of who’s in the boss’ chair, along with Presti, who has found all the comedic quirks over the course of Season 2 that developed her character, Oona, into a wonderful source of awkward comedy moments. So whatever the show’s creators choose to do, it’ll no doubt be fun. And odd.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Odd Squad is the best family show for all ages on TV. Whether it’s our three year old, our six year old, or me, every episode is cleverly written, delightfully acted, and brilliantly put together in a way that delivers action, humor, and some great math lessons along the way. Did I mention that time that ⅗ of the Kids in the Hall appeared in a first season episode spoof of Clue?
So, seriously, tune in to your local PBS or PBS Kids station, download the free PBS Kids app to your television or electronic device and delight in all the oddness and fun. I promise, it’s hard to resist and you might just find yourself watching well after the kids have left the room.
What are you waiting for? Go!
Our two and a half year old daughter has a book she adores called 5-Minute Pinkalicious Stories, filled with 12 different stories featuring her favorite animated counterpart, Pinkalicious. It was found in her Easter basket, a gift from that hippity hoppity Easter Bunny, and has become a staple of almost every evening storytime.
Twelve stories and adventures in imagination to choose from. Yet, of those twelve, we’ve probably read three. And of those three, two have been read only once. Instead, we’ve read “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day” several nights a week for the past two months. At times I feel like I could recite it in my sleep and tell you all about Pinkalicious getting chosen to be Principal for the Day before getting sick, or Principal Hart getting sick, or having pink tea with mommy while home from school. For a while I had tried to encourage, perhaps, any of the other stories inside the book collection as I grew slightly weary of this same tale over and over again, or our 5 ½ year old son growing impatient with the same story and losing focus, moving about the room with attention anywhere but the story he’s sat through as well for so many times.
I just couldn’t understand why we were doing this again, and again, and again, but I obliged and we read “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day” night after night upon her request. Then one night, I got it. It took some pointing out from Meg, but I got it.
One night, within the past week or two, our daughter insisted that she wanted to read the story to us. “Okay…” we said, agreeing but unsure of what we were in for, handing the book over to her excited little hands. “Pinkalicious and the Sick Day!” she happily shouted and then….began telling us the story. No, she wasn’t reading it, but she was telling it, following along on each page and illustration, giving us an abbreviated, but still accurate story, with complete sentences taken right off the page as had been read to her.
She was retaining, she was remembering, and she was comprehending it.
That was the power of repetition on her young mind.
A study out of the University of Sussex has shown not only the vocabulary benefits of children hearing the same stories over and over, but that they actually may receive more benefit from fewer stories on repeat than newer stories all the time.
“…each time a child hears the book they are picking up new information,” says Psychologist Dr Jessica Horst who led the study. “The first time it might just be the story, the second time they are noticing details of description, and so on. If the new word is introduced in a variety of contexts – as happened with those who were read three different stories – children are less likely to focus on the new word.”
So, the next time she wants to hear about Pinkalicious’ Sick Day for the 79th time, or once again “read it” to us, I’m all ears, because I know she is too.
The crinkle of leaves, the windy nights.
You can go ahead and enjoy all the pumpkin spice whatever you like. I’ve never been a fan of pumpkin other than decoratively.
For me, other than the aesthetics of a neighborhood or roadways lines with multi-colored leaves, the thing I look forward to the most this time of year is Halloween specials. I’m not a horror movie guy, so Jason, Freddy, the rest of you will have to sit this one out. The old, original Universal crew of Dracula, Frankenstein and friends? Okay, those I’ll get behind. And maybe one day I’ll talk about the wonder that is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Or how I have to watch Arsenic & Old Lace with Cary Grant at least once a season.
But beyond those, there’s something I really, really dig this time of year on the same level of those classics, and that’s watching family-friendly Halloween specials with the kids. I love it. Absolutely love it and look forward to it every year. Sometimes it’s a weekend, nighttime treat with a big bowl of popcorn for all of us and some apple cider to sip on. Or, it’s just a spur of the moment afternoon viewing because it’s Autumn and why not?
Either way, Fall and Halloween specials with the kids are my bag, and I wanted to pass along some of my personal favorites to recommend for anyone looking for some non-scary, but intensely entertaining treats for the eyes of your little ones, or even just you.
So, let’s hope into this leaf pile of nostalgia and spooks, shall we?
Silly Symphonies – The Skeleton Dance
The Skeleton Dance, a Walt Disney short from 1929, in all its black and white glory, is simply that – a group of skeletons that come out of the cemetery when the sun goes down and dance the night away, with macabre music made on their very own bones.
Mickey Mouse in Lonesome Ghosts
Lonesome Ghosts is a 1937 Disney short featuring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy as ghost hunters tricked into an old house by a group of mischievous ghosts looking for some entertainment. This one, in full-color, is another Disney classic.
If you possibly get iffy at times about the use of firearms in old cartoons, as I tend to be a bit wary of, know Mickey does bring a shotgun with him into the home. Standard for cartoons of the day, it’s good to know upfront should you want to put it into both a historical and safety context for any young ones, as I’ve tried to while we enjoy. Or, if unlike me, you don’t care about that sort of thing, then enjoy all on its own.
Donald Duck in Trick or Treat
Capping off the Disney trio is my favorite of the three – Trick or Treat from 1952, featuring Huey, Dewey and Louie enlisting the help of a witch named Hazel (voiced by the late, great voiceover legend June Foray) for some Halloween comeuppance against their Uncle Donald, who proves to be the worst uncle in the world with the tricks he plays on the boys.
The opening and closing song of “Trick or Treat” will get stuck in your head, but it’s so much fun to sing, you won’t mind.
Halloween is Grinch Night
I’m always intrigued by the fact that the Grinch was one of Dr. Seuss’ most popular characters, but only appeared in that one published tale when he stole Christmas. Other than that, he’s been relegated to screen appearances, perhaps fueled by the adage about small doses. With its typical Seussian rhymes, it focuses on a young Who from Whoville who confronts the Grinch on Halloween/Grinch Night in an effort to stall him from making it to Whoville and scaring the entire population.
There’s familiar canine companion Max, and a lot of bizarre, surreal elements during the scare-sequence that might seem like something out of a Dali painting brought to life, but in the end, this sing-song tale of facing your fears is a fun Halloween romp that was actually written by Dr. Seuss himself! Minus Karloff this time around, Hans Conried, a familiar face to TV audiences in the 50s/60s and prolific voice-over actor, brings his refined diction to the titular Grinch.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Come on, does this one really need much of a write-up? This one has been a classic for decades.
Though no matter how many years go by, you can’t help but ask why this group of kids are so incredibly mean to poor Charlie Brown (and in this case, Linus, too).
Linus waits in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to arrive on Halloween night, while the rest of the Peanuts gang go trick-or-treating in ghost costumes, where ol’ Chuck gets nothing but rocks. While yes, moments in it serve as a great reminder to not be so mean to people (what is your problem all the time, Lucy?!) the classic animation and characters still make it a fun tradition each and every year.
Curious George Halloween Boo Fest
I refer to this as a contemporary classic and it’s quickly become one of my staples of the fall season.
Seriously. I will watch this whether kids are in the room or not. And it’s not just because the Man in the Yellow Hat is my spirit animal.
Taking place primarily at the Man’s country house (my favorite setting for the PBS Kids Curious George TV series, which alternates between their city apartment and the man’s family home in the country), George is intrigued by the neighborhood tales of No-Noggin, the scarecrow whose head disappeared years and years ago and now comes back at Halloween to kick off people’s hats and take them as his own.
Great songs, great characters, and just enough spooky Halloween atmosphere without being scary, this has become such a favorite of mine that when it recently came off of Netflix, I had to go out and buy a copy on DVD so we could have it.
So there’s your homework this season. To enjoy some fun viewings with your little ones or on your own that still stand the test of time in my opinion and are the perfect on-screen companion to the month of October.
Grown-Up Bonus Viewing: Send the kids to bed and delight in all the kitsch of 1970s pop culture with the Paul Lynde Halloween Special, where Mr. Center Square himself guffaws his way through a haunted castle with Margaret “Wicked Witch of the West” Hamilton at his side and cameos by everyone from Betty White, to Florence Henderson, to KISS and H.R. Puffenstuff’s Witchiepoo.
Did you watch PBS when you were a kid?
I did. I certainly can’t remember all of my viewing habits, but I can tell you unequivocally how comfortable, safe, and accepting it felt even as a toddler to be joined by furry friends on Sesame Street every afternoon. Or how I would run to grab my sneakers to tie and sweater to zip up when Mister Rogers would come walking through his door to open up windows to the world around us and remind us what it mean to be a kind, caring person throughout this thing called life.
I remember when Big Bird and I both needed clarity about Mr Hooper not being on Sesame Street anymore and how it’s okay to feel sad about someone leaving our lives, that grieving is a natural part of our emotions when someone dies. To this day I can’t see that scene where the grown-ups tell Big Bird that Mr Hooper isn’t coming back without feeling the same thing I did all those years ago. The handling of the topic, from producers to writers, to cast and crew, remains incredible.
Beyond those shows, I can’t recall too much else that I watched. Maybe Romper Room, and when I was older a show called Square One, mostly because of a series within the series called Mathnet, a Dragnet spoof where math problems were used to solve mysteries.
And now 30+ years later, I can say with certainty that there’s never been a better time to be a PBS parent.
We still get new editions of classics like Sesame Street, going strong at almost 50 years old and still teaching not only basic skills like shapes, numbers, and letters that prepare a child for school, but lessons to hold onto our entire lives, such as kindness, acceptance, and staying true to yourself. And my wife can attest to the childlike glee I get when we see familiar faces like Bob or Gordon pop into even some of the newer episodes.
Likewise, the values, compassion, and wisdom of Fred Rogers live on in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood as the residents of the Neighborhood of Make Believe, previously known in puppet form on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, spring to life in full-color animation. From sharing, to helping, to dealing with feelings like sadness, jealousy or anger, the lessons of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are essential not just to a child, but to all of us. Our daughter is only starting to speak, but one thing she’s almost guaranteed to utter is the musical tones that accompany the songs in Daniel Tiger when it’s on.
Of course, there’s so much new and exciting on PBS too. While my son enjoys the derring-do and superheroics, I laugh at all the hilarious situations and jokes as WordGirl tries to put villains, bad grammar and misused words to rest.
Ready, Jet, Go has not only kindled a fascination with space exploration in our son, but it has captured the attention and awe of our not quite two year old daughter as well. And, I for one, feel I’ve learned so much as an adult about our universe and the vast possibilities that await us beyond the stars thanks to Jet, his parents and friends, and Astronomer and Host Amy Mainzer.
Nature Cat revels in its silliness while showcasing how much fun can be had and how much can be learned simply by heading out to one’s own backyard, along with a little help from our imagination. It also features, I’m convinced, at least half of the cast of SNL.
Chris and Martin Kratt leap from live action exploration of the animal kingdom into an animated world that stresses the valuable balance of our ecosystem and the role that each animal plays within it. Along with that, of course, comes with the threats to that delicate ecosystem by human kind and those who wish to prey upon the animal and natural world for their own greedy gain. The Kratt Brothers have not only transformed our son into a walking animal encyclopedia of habits and interaction, but have made him aware at such a young age to think about his actions or the actions of others, affect the world around us.
And of course, there’s my favorite, Odd Squad, which I’ve gushed over many a time before, about an agency run by kids that uses math skills to solve problems of oddness in the world. If it’s a man with a fireplace in his stomach, a person with a laugh track following them around, or dog-obsessed villain looking to take over the world, Odd Squad is on the case. With it’s clever writing, excellent acting, and delicious sense of humor, any adult should be watching this show, regardless if there’s a kid in the room with them.
Then, there’s PBS Kids Family Night, which, in our household at least, has become the modern day equivalent of The Wonderful World of Disney that my wife and I enjoyed watching each week as kids. Family-friendly specials, movies, or marathons every Friday night (and rerun Saturday and Sunday night if you miss it) on the 24/7 PBS Kids Channel that have become ritual viewing for us. I pull out the air popper I bought almost 15 years ago, make a bowl of popcorn and we all gather in the living room for anything from Tiger Family Trip to Odd Squad the Movie, or Wild Kratts: Hero’s Journey. Our kids are already chomping at the bit to see the upcoming Ready Jet Go: Return to Bortron 7 coming up on a Family Night edition soon.
We have basic cable, and when we downsized (long before we had kids), we never looked back, finding all we needed in our television viewing right there on that handful of stations. And when we did have kids, PBS (and now PBS Kids, their 24/7 accompanying channel) became the default for children’s programming.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
PBS matters. It offers a gateway to the world for anyone with a television set. No premium channels and the associated pay along with it. Whether it’s arts and culture, or math, science, and reading – knowledge never goes out of style. It’s what allows us to understand one another, to find new ways to think, to move our world forward. And I can’t think of a greater way to use the power of broadcasting than to by empowering our children and future generations with the tools to keep our world, our society, ever moving.