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The latest in kids' products

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

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FRANK AND ERNEST PLAY BALL
BY ALEXANDRA DAY
SCHOLASTIC, $12.95; AGES 5 TO 8

Frank, a bear, and Ernest, an elephant, take over the management of the Elmville Mudcats baseball team. That’s the pretext for this rather plodding picture book, whose real purpose is to teach kids some colorful phrases of baseball slang — from ”ducks on the pond” to ”smoke artist.”

The lingo is fun. You don’t have to be a fan to enjoy the inventiveness of expressions like ”frozen rope” (a line drive). But Alexandra Day (also author of the popular Good Dog, Carl) was more deft in her earlier book about Frank and Ernest, when they ran a diner and learned to ”paint a bow-wow red” (put catsup on a hotdog) and order up a ”nervous pudding” (Jell-O). Maybe food talk is just more imaginative than sports talk. Or maybe Day began to take it all too seriously: To cram in enough definitions of the lingo, she resorts to framed dictionary excerpts on nearly every page and uses dialogue devoted to wordy explanations (”I’ll bet you’ve never seen a fungo bat before, Frank and Ernest. . .”).

The result is jarring: lively slang, alternating with a dull, stilted narrative and solemn definitions. Still, kids might enjoy the extra gimmick: A packet of ”baseball cards” (with pictures and definitions from the book) is included. This isn’t a home run; maybe a single. C (Michele Landsberg)

MUSIC
MAIL MYSELF TO YOU
JOHN MCCUTCHEON
ROUNDER RECORDS (800-443-4727) $9.98 CASSETTE

Confidence counts. John McCutcheon’s second children’s album has 13 tunes, only three of them originals. This is a singer so sure of himself he took the title not from his own work, but from a Woody Guthrie song. McCutcheon is not out to prove anything, only to entertain. It shows: There’s not a weak song, or a gimmick, in the bunch.

His specialty is bluegrass, so Mail has a country twang, most evident in such traditional numbers as ”Over in the Meadow” and ”Hambone.” But this is no theme album: Two songs were written by a special-education class in a California high school. And there’s the pop standard ”Turn Around” (”Oh, where are you going, my little one?”).

For sheer beauty, though, nothing beats Lorre Wyatt’s ”Somos El Barco” (”We are the boat/We are the sea/I sail with you/You sail with me”). Given material this sentimental, a singer with less presence would be overwhelmed and simply turn to mush. McCutcheon never succumbs. A fine album. A (Susan Stewart)

MUSIC
THE ALPHABET OPERETTA
MINDY MANLEY LITTLE
MVO RECORDS (206-567-4831) $9.95 CASSETTE; AGES 4-8

Sometimes you have to be there. The 26 tiny songs on Mindy Little’s Alphabet Operetta are so subtle and diverse, and fly by so fast, that describing them is as difficult as describing one of Robin Williams’ frenetic stand-up comedy routines.

Punning and dense, these alliterative ditties — one per letter of the alphabet — are almost dizzying. To begin near the beginning, the ”E” song is a fable involving an elephant, an egret, and the silent ”E” rule. A mouse shows up, somebody shrieks, ”EEE!” and before you know it you are listening to a tiny morality play that encompasses themes both behavioral and grammatical. All this happens in less time than it takes to explain it — and remember, she’s singing.

The music samples everything from smoky ’40s jazz (Sam Spade would love the ”V” song) to blues to basic rock. Little has a strong, pleasing voice. Operetta won’t teach children the alphabet — by the time they’re old enough to understand this recording, they’d better know the alphabet — but it will help with another lesson: that letters, and thus language, have personality. A (SS)

TELEVISION
SUPERBOY
SYNDICATED; CHECK LOCAL LISTINGS

When it started last season, Superboy looked like another disappointing syndicated half hour: slow-paced and skimpy on characterization and special effects. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who helped bring Superman to the big screen, didn’t seem to be lavishing as much care on these TV adaptations of the comic book that feature the Man of Steel as a teenager.

This season, however, Superboy has become reasonably super. The best thing the show has done is free itself of many of the comic book’s conventions: Gone are Superboy’s dreary Earth parents, Ma and Pa Kent; now the boy from Krypton (Gerard Christopher) is in college and lives in the same dorm as Lana Lang (Stacy Haiduk).

In the comics, Lana is a brat who’s in loooooove with Superboy. In the TV show, she’s far more sympathetic, a smart young woman who always just happens to be around when Superboy takes to the sky for an adventure. It’s a change that makes Lana more amusing, and Haiduk plays her with knowing cleverness.

Gerard Christopher clearly has studied Christopher Reeve’s Superman work; like Reeve, he plays alter ego Clark Kent as a sensitive fellow just this side of being a wimp.

One recent Superboy featured a funny turn by comedian Gilbert Gottfried as Nick Knack, a villain who can’t stop nattering about what an evil fellow he is. The smart script seemed to allow Gottfried to work in some amusing ad libs and improvised lines.

Superboy doesn’t hammer its audience over the head with moral messages; it just zips along, telling its stories with humor and concision. The show isn’t a classic or anything, but it’s better entertainment than you might expect. B (Ken Tucker)

THE CLASSICS SHELF
THE BEST OF THE BABYSITTERS: THE BABYSITTERS
VANGUARD(800-541-9904) $10.98 CASSETTE; AGES 1 TO 6

Doris lived upstairs; Lee lived downstairs; Alan and his wife, Jeremy, would come to visit. They all liked singing to Doris’ baby, and one day they decided to make a record.

That’s how, back in the ’50s, the Babysitters came to be. It helped that Lee was Lee Hays of the Weavers and Alan was Alan Arkin, an excellent guitarist and singer (and, it turns out, an even better actor). It also helped that the Babysitters were good. Despite shortcomings — Doris Kaplan sang flat, Jeremy Arkin sang thin-the quartet projected a breezy sweetness.

The Babysitters recorded four albums; their first two are combined on a single cassette. Among the 40 songs are old favorites such as ”Hush Little Baby” and ”Skip to My Lou,” interspersed with such Woody Guthrie songs as ”Take You Riding in the Car” and ”Pretty and Shiny-O.” Also included are the Arkins’ ”In My Garden” and the Kaplan/Alan Arkin alphabet song ”’A’ Was an Archer,” wherein Hays sings for those in the know: ”’W’ was a Weaver, at home and on tours.”

The Babysitters used a toy piano, a toy xylophone, pots, pans, and jars as instruments. Hays and Alan Arkin whistle and sing harmoniously, and Arkin is a whiz at pursing his lips and popping them with an open hand to produce a melodic line. The Babysitters are highly entertaining and, even in the age of TV as secondary care-giver, the quartet holds up as, yes, babysitters. A- (Martin F. Kohn)

VIDEO
THE STORY OF THE DANCING FROG
FAMILY HOME ENTERTAINMENT (800-752-9343) $14.95, 30 MIN. AGES 4 AND UP

In a lovely, animated opening, a mother tells her child about Aunt Gertrude, married to a sailor who is lost at sea. She is so despondent she goes to the river to drown herself and notices a frog dancing on a lily pad. She takes him home, digs him a pond, introduces him to music — to which he moves exotically — and becomes his stage manager. He then soars to fame, and he and Aunt Gertrude travel the world — the frog, George, in a bucket. It’s an exciting but tiring life.

This story, adapted from a book by Quentin Blake, has a wonderful subtext about the value of making untraditional choices. An English lord is determined to marry Aunt Gertrude. When she chooses to stay with George, she is opting for independence and a less socially acceptable relationship. But the choice is right, symbolized by the lord’s kind smile and white rose, and by the story’s happy conclusion: George and Aunt Gertrude retire to a cottage in the south of France.

The rich narration by actress Amanda Plummer, as the mother, conveys a confidence and warmth that fit nicely with the story’s final message: ”You can do all kinds of things if you need to.” Though the music is not memorable, it suits the story y th unpredictable melodies. The gentle lines and soft colors of the animation and the sensitive rendering of the characters’ faces contribute to the tale’s emotional pull. A (Valerie Monroe)

VIDEO
THE ROTTEN TRUTH
CHILDREN’S TELEVISION WORKSHOP (800-822-1105) $17.45, 30 MIN. AGES 6 AND UP

What could be more fun than watching your child learn something interesting from a videotape? Learning something interesting yourself. And you will if you watch this engaging tape from the award-winning public-. . . . . .television series 3-2-1 Contact.

The subject is garbage: what it is (from banana peels to newspapers to discarded sneakers), where it goes (to landfills, incinerators, or recycling plants), and how we can generate less of it (by not being wasteful and by buying simply packaged products).

The young host, Stephanie Yu, goes to the fictional Museum of Modern Garbage, where she explains how long it would take the showcased treasures to disintegrate in the forest: 300 to 500 years for a disposable diaper, a million for a glass bottle. At a real landfill, she drives a plow pushing mountains of garbage to the tune of a dainty waltz. She explains how the landfill is constructed and why it’s not the perfect solution to our garbage problem (because trash that is not exposed to air decomposes extremely slowly).

Most interesting of all, though, is a visit to a recycling plant, where viewers learn how waste is separated by type (glass, plastic, and aluminum) and how each material is transformed into a recycled product.

The producers have simplified a complicated subject without making it simplistic or boring — no easy task. Like an effective teacher, the tape is instructive and stimulating. Best of all, it helps us see things we take for granted — glass bottles, disposable diapers — in a new way, not just as useful objects but also as potential threats. A (VM)