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The latest in kids' products

EW reviews the newest books, TV shows, videos, and music for the younger set

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The latest in kids’ products

Wizard of Wind & Rock
Pamela F. Service
Illustrated by Laura Marshall
Atheneum, $13.95
Ages 6 TO 8

Ever since Tolkien, the craze for fantasy has been moving further and further down the reading levels.

This energetic picture book about the wizard Merlin’s childhood in Wales is ideal for young fantasy lovers, especially those who & haven’t the skills or the patience for a full-length novel.

Merlin grows up a fatherless outcast. When other boys tease him for not being respectable (his father was ”an eldritch lord,” a kind of forest spirit), his wise mother reassures him that ”it doesn’t matter who your father is. What matters is who you are.”

Merlin’s lonely boyhood in the Welsh hills, where he learns the secrets of the earth, wind, and wildlife, prepares him for the critical moment when he must defy the warlord Vortigern, who seizes him for a blood sacrifice. He feels ”magic surge through him, as trees feel life in the early spring,” and laughs with joy to discover his real identity as a wizard. Not a bad metaphor for the exhilaration a growing child feels on sensing his new powers.

Laura Marshall’s jewel-colored, full-page illustrations have just the right feel of wild mountain splendor and Celtic magic. B+ (Michele Landsberg)

The Dwarf-Wizard of Uxmal
Susan Hand Shetterly
Illustrated by Robert Shetterly
Atheneum, $13.95
Ages 5 and up

Every now and then, a children’s book appears that is so offbeat and so compelling that you can neither categorize nor forget it.

Dwarf-Wizard is one such book. Based on an ancient Mayan legend, it reads like a blazingly original hybrid of comic book and Latin American surrealism.

A mysterious old woman lives alone in the Yucatán jungle and longs for a child. With the help of a snake called Tzab-Can, she hatches a boy, Tol, from an egg. Tol, as depicted in Robert Shetterly’s bright, detailed paintings, is a comically scrawny guy, with corkscrew curls and a thin, drooping nose.

When the old woman tells him he is really the dwarf-wizard, destined to challenge the governor and reign over the great city of Uxmal, Tol seems like the classic underdog schlemiel.

His bizarre trials of strength, depicted with great comic gusto, include wrestling with a huge, hairy, red-eyed boar; ending a drought with the help of weeping tortoises; and protecting himself with a magic tortilla when the lazy old governor tries to smash him over the head.

As I said, weird. But riveting. The publishers say the book is intended for ages 5 to 10, but I think this richly eventful narrative will fascinate many readers (especially boys) up to, and including, adults. A (ML)

Tales from the Brothers Grimm
PBS

Any faithful adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales has a good chance of being a cut above most children’s fare these days, if only because the Grimms’ tales stir up children’s primal emotions and fears.

Today’s moralistic watchdogs of children’s entertainment probably would be appalled, for example, by the amount of physical and emotional violence that takes place in the Grimm versions of stories such as ”Cinderella” and ”Snow White and Rose Red.”

This Canadian-made adaptation of two Grimms’ fairy tales updates its stories, casts good but not big-name actors in them, and manages to retain the tone and atmosphere of the originals, which is no small achievement.

”Bearskin” is transplanted from its original setting to the Civil War era; it tells the tale of a soldier who strikes a pact with the Devil: If the soldier goes without washing, lives in the wilderness, and wears only a bearskin for seven years, he’ll have eternal happiness; if he fails to do this, his soul will become Satan’s.

The soldier’s seven-year endurance test is portrayed as truly agonizing, complete with long, rotting fingernails and suppurating sores — ew, super-gross!

This is a very spooky, unsettling story, extremely well done, and probably best appreciated by kids who are post-kindergarten age: The ones I know have a new respect for the Brothers Grimm. ”Scarier than Batman!” was one high compliment.

The second tale in this hour is ”Jack and the Dentist’s Daughter,” a retelling of ”The Master Thief” — a legend the Grimms traced back to medieval times — set during the 1930s.

”Jack” is far more lighthearted than ”Bearskin”; it’s the story of a young man who must perform a series of mischievous thefts before he’ll be allowed to marry the girl he loves. Featuring an all-black cast and lots of fast jokes that sound improvised, ”Jack and the Dentist’s Daughter” is boisterous fun.

This edition of Tales from the Brothers Grimm is the last of a three-part series; many local stations will be repeating the cycle of Tales over the next few months; catch up with them. B+ (Ken Tucker)

Peter, Paul & Mommy
Peter, Paul & Mary
Warner Bros., $6.98, Cassette
Ages 4 to 10

Clever of Peter, Paul & Mary to make a children’s album, Peter, Paul & Mommy, back in the ’60s when no one had kids. Saves them the trouble of making one now, when their voices aren’t as potent.

Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers are now Peter, Paul, and Grandma, with Mary sharing anecdotes about her daughter’s daughter at concerts.

Known best for ”Puff (The Magic Dragon),” which is on Peter, Paul & Mommy, the trio always had an ear for future classics. Two Tom Paxton gems here (”The Marvelous Toy,” sung too slowly but with zippy vocal sound effects, and ”Going to the Zoo,” with kids singing back-up) have been done by kids’ artists ever since.

”Day Is Done,” featuring Peter’s sweet filigree on the choruses, is a standout, but the best number by far is ”I Have a Song to Sing, O!,” written by Gilbert and Sullivan — an intricate, melancholic tongue twister about a lovesick fool. Peter, Paul & Mary sing it exquisitely.

The rest of the recording (12 songs altogether) has its ups and downs, but they are Peter, Paul & Mary’s ups and downs-and few performers are at their level to begin with. B+ (Martin Kohn)

Stories to Remember: Noah’s Ark
Hi-Tops (800-645-6600) $14.95, 27 min.
Ages 4 TO 10

This lyrical adaptation of the biblical story is rich with drama. The completion of the majestic ship and the sober procession of the animals as they board are beautifully amplified by the soft, gorgeous illustrations from the book by Peter Spier on which this video is based.

The musical score by Stewart Copeland is stunning; its impertinent rhythm makes a wonderful counterpoint to James Earl Jones’ steady, modulated narration.

The idea that God might decide to kill almost everyone on earth could upset a child still struggling with the concept of a greater power, and the pictures of the people and animals left behind when the ark’s massive doors are closed are very sad.

But the resolution of the story, which includes God’s promise — symbolized by a magnificent rainbow — that He would never again destroy everything in the world, will reassure kids. A (Valerie Monroe)

Foote Prints
Norman Foot
Oak Street Music (414-272-1199), $8.98, Cassette
Ages 3 TO 8

In Canada, singer-comedian Norman Foote is well known for his satirical puppets, among them a Prime Minister Brian Mulroney whose chin grows when he lies. You won’t find that kind of satire on Foote Prints, his second collection, of 15 songs, but you will find a gentle wit. Foote’s specialty is plays on words.

In ”Raining Cats and Dogs,” he makes the figurative literal; it really does rain cats and dogs (”Peter’s little Pekinese is blowing in the breeze/Susie’s little Siamese drip-drying in the trees”).

”Living in a Pumpkin Shell” modernizes Mother Goose: ”I’m living in a pumpkin shell,” Peter’s wife says, ”but, oh, what the heck, it’s not that bad/I’ve got a sister who lives in a shoe.”

There’s an element of the bizarre here, in such songs as Norman Greenbaum’s ”The Eggplant That Ate Chicago,” and an even stronger element of sweetness. Still, the irony in the sweet numbers (listen closely to ”His Majesty the Baby”) keeps them from being saccharine. Altogether, sophisticated. A- (Susan Stewart)

Baby Road
Floyd Domino, Edgar Meyer, & Mark Howard
Golliber Records (800-222-2584), $9.95 Cassette
All Ages

First, this gets my award for Year’s Cutest Cover. Four diapered toddlers cross a street single-file, in perfect mimicry of the Beatles in the famous Abbey Road photo that inflamed the ”Is Paul dead?” controversy. Mimicry, but not mockery. Inside, Baby Road is pure tribute: instrumental versions of 11 Beatles hits.

Is it elevator music? Sure. Is it Beatles blasphemy? No. You may hate hearing a Beatles song on a commercial for athletic shoes, but you probably won’t be offended by these soporific versions of such classics as ”Michelle,” ”Norwegian Wood,” and ”Something.” In fact, you may be soothed by softened versions of the songs of your youth.

I found them so soothing, I nodded off several times. Apparently, this is to be expected. The cover notes dedicate the cassette to ”tired moms and dads.” The tape’s a natural for dentists’ offices, too. B (SS)