The latest in kids' products -- EW reviews the newest books, TV shows, videos, and music for the younger set

A Long Way to Go

The latest in kids’ products


Lyle, Lyle Crocodile
Hi-Tops Video (800-645-6600) $9.98, 25 minutes
Ages 4 to 8

In a terrifically charming animated story, narrated by Tony Randall and adapted from Bernard Waber’s book The House on East 88th Street, a family discovers a crocodile living in its new house. The family’s dismay turns to jubilation as Lyle, the croc, proves loving, talented, and helpful, a treasured member of the Primm household. But soon Hector P. Valenti, his former master and song-and-dance partner, shows up to reclaim him and take him on a world tour. The Primms and Lyle are miserable. ”Don’t leave me now,” young Joshua Primm laments in one of the production’s four spirited, appealing songs. But Lyle must go. His sadness is so overpowering that instead of making audiences laugh, Lyle makes them cry, and Senor Valenti must give up on the idea that the two will make a killing. He returns Lyle to the Primms — to great rejoicing. The strength of the video, which originally was shown on HBO, is not in the animation; the simple style of illustration that works well in the book seems drab on tape. But the characterizations are clever, and there’s a buoyancy, an earnest good-hearted tone in the narration that reassures a viewer, as it did my 6-year-old, that, in the end, ”everything will definitely be working out fine.” A-


Strega Nonna and Other Stories
Children?s Circle (800-543-7843) $19.95, 35 minutes
Ages 4 to 9

Any tape that provokes my son to delightedly call out titles of favorite stories is fine by me. The three cross-cultural tales on this tape are adapted from popular children’s books; there also is a winsome interpretation of a familiar folk song. In ”Strega Nonna,” adapted from the book by Tomie de Paola, the good witch of the title hires a helper who, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, fiddles with the witch’s magic. The results are predictably disastrous: an entire town buried in spaghetti. (It’s a serious pollution problem.) The story, set in medieval Italy, is wonderfully enriched by the score of madrigals and other period music. ”Tikki Tikki Tembo,” a Chinese folk tale, is about two young brothers, the firstborn with a long and important name, and the second with a short name that means almost nothing at all. When Tikki Tikki Tembo falls into a well, his little brother, Chan, has a tough time getting help because it takes so long to say Tikki’s full name. That’s why, the narrator says, Chinese children now have short names. The sensitive illustrations and the dramatic dialogue highlight the brothers’ love. In ”A Story — A Story,” an African folk tale, Anansi the spider man (so called because he weaves a web on which he climbs to visit the Sky-God) does some clever bartering to get some of Sky-God’s stories for his own. The modulated cadence of the narration, along with traditional African music and vivid illustrations from the book, delivers a rich slice of African culture. Finally, Pete Seeger rollicks in a folk song, ”The Foolish Frog.” He impersonates chickens, barn doors, and a bubbling brook, among other things. The American primitive style of the illustrations suits the song well, but it is Seeger’s ebullient, even goofy interpretation that makes it so enjoyable. A+


Small Talk
CBS, Fri., May 25, 8-8:30 p.m.

Small Talk is an attempt to cross America’s Funniest Home Videos with the ”Kids Say the Darnedest Things” segments that Art Linkletter used to do. Children — wee ones about 3 years old on up to strapping preteens — are asked leading questions (”What is love?”) or are caught on film doing funny things. At its best, the show offers cute moments. Kids’ lack of self-consciousness is often endearing and humorous. But all too frequently, Small Talk crosses the line and seems to make fun of some very earnest children’s attempts to answer questions while a TV camera is rolling. I suspect also that children are much more media-savvy than they were in Art Linkletter’s day; some responses seem to spring from the minds of kids who’ve already seen one sitcom too many. Either that, or some of these kids were rehearsed: Do you really think a boy whose pants fell down in public would say, as one did on Small Talk, ”Boy, was my butt red”? The host is Roger Rose, who used to be sharp-witted and amusingly smug as a VJ on VH-1. Here, however, he has been turned into a clone of Home Videos‘ Bob Saget. Rose doesn’t seem to have much rapport with children, which certainly isn’t his fault, but it does make for some uncomfortable TV watching. C-


Tim to the Lighthouse
Edward Ardizzone
Oxford, paperback, $4.95
Ages 4 to 8

Tim to the Lighthouse, first published in 1968, is part of an enduringly popular series that included the award-winning Tim All Alone in 1956. The Tim books have the same breezy, sweet-natured naïveté that inspires children’s affectionate loyalty to Doctor Dolittle and Curious George. For Tim and his faithful friends Charlotte and Ginger, who live in an English seaside town, the normal rules of child life don’t apply: They dash into the storm to perform daring sea rescues, jauntily ship out as cooks and cabin boys, and come home to a cozy cup of cocoa when the nautical adventures are done. It’s pure wish fulfillment laced with rare charm. Edward Ardizzone’s renowned illustrations work a lot of the magic. In sketchy pen-and-ink, alternating with nostalgically Edwardian watercolors, they invite child readers to put themselves right into the picture. (We never clearly see Tim’s face, for example: He could be any resourceful, true-blue, brave, kind, sea- loving 6-year-old.) And Ardizzone’s habit of adding speech balloons to the drawings works brilliantly to bring the sketchy characters sharply alive and advance the action in a minimum of words. In Tim to the Lighthouse, Tim, Charlotte, Ginger, and their old friend Captain McFee row out to sea one stormy night to find out why the lighthouse is dark. They find that the keeper has been attacked and the light turned out by evil ”wreckers” who hope to loot a passing ship. Naturally, our stalwart pals foil the villains after some suspenseful derring-do. The action may seem as farfetched as a comic book, but the narration has an almost quaint gravity, and there’s hardly a child alive who will not emerge from the stories feeling brave, hopeful, and awfully salty. A


Unbearable Bears
Kevin Roth
Marlboro Records (800-541-9904) $9 cassette
Ages 3 to 8

Why would anybody devote a collection of songs to bears? If you have to ask, you’ve never owned a teddy bear. Bears, unlike dogs or cats, have no particular personality. They’re the tabulae rasae of the stuffed-animal kingdom, ready to be anything you want. In Unbearable Bears, mountain dulcimer artist Kevin Roth keeps the slate clean. His animals, who inhabit 8 of the 13 songs here, have a cuddlesome sweetness — and not much else. Roth is never cloying — but his songs are. The ballads ”Honey Bear” and ”The Bear You Loved” are so romantic they’re embarrassing. There is some humor and whimsy here, but mainly Roth sticks to the inspirational. All the sweetness and light made me more than ready for the one out-of-character offering: a fine cover of Elvis’ ”(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear.” A bear of a song, a gnat of an album. C+


In the Hospital
Peter Alsop and Bill Harley
Moose School Records (800-541-9904) $9 cassette
Ages 5 to 15

In the Hospital consists of 10 songs and 2 stories on every topic related to illness you’d like to avoid thinking about: shots, harried doctors, using your imagination to kill your cancer cells, and, yes, death. Fortunately, Peter Alsop and Bill Harley remain playful. In the narrative that wraps around these songs and stories, they pretend to be hospitalized: One has appendicitis, the other a bump on his head. Both are goofy. When they meet truly sick kids, the scene is realistic, but not distressingly so. The songs are poignant (”Is it really my family if it doesn’t have me?”), fun (”If needles were noodles, we’d cook up caboodles”), and insightful (”Why do grown-ups say ‘sleep,’ instead of saying ‘dead’?/That only makes kids nervous, when it’s time for bed”). But the two stories are interminable and awkward. Time to fast-forward. Scrupulous, thorough, and tough, In the Hospital isn’t something you’ll want to listen to every day. But if your child or your child’s friend experiences serious illness, it could be a comfort. A-


A Long Way to Go
By Zibby Oneal
Illustrated by Michael Dooling
Viking, $11.95
Ages 7 to 11

Everyone agrees that kids need to know more history, but how to bring alive all that dull stuff about dates and wars? Fiction, of course. Zibby Oneal, an accomplished novelist, knows how to tell the story of America’s suffragists through character and colorful anecdote. Lila is a properly brought-up 10-year-old who lives in New York and chafes at the restrictions of ladylike behavior and clothes. When Grandmama is arrested for picketing the White House in 1917, Lila is troubled, then excited. Then it dawns on her that her ”dumb baby brother George” will grow up and be able to vote just because — boy. Unfair! But Lila gets an unexpected taste of independence when she visits her nursemaid’s bustling Irish family in the slums, where she helps a newsboy hawk his papers. Lila is spunky and appealing. When she wins her battle with her parents to march for suffrage, the excitement of momentous historical change comes alive. Too bad the publisher dimmed the fictional immediacy by appending historical notes. B+


Daniel’s Dog
By Jo Ellen Bogart
Illustrated by Janet Wilson
Scholastic, $11.95
Ages 5 to 8

Daniel has a great idea: He invents a ”ghost dog” named Lucy to comfort him when his mother spends too much time with the new baby. Gradually, Daniel fantasizes that he looks after Lucy the way his mother cares for the baby. He even invents an imaginary dog for his friend Norman, who’s sad because his father is going away on a business trip. It’s a convincing depiction of the way very young children turn a new sibling’s arrival into a positive step. This is an absolutely lovely book. Its small, square shape and simple design are just right for the beginning reader; the narrative is honest and affectionate, and the illustrations are knockouts. Rarely have paintings caught children’s facial expressions and gestures with such vivacity and tenderness. The unspoken message is one of deep acceptance of children’s feelings, and an affirmation of their capacity to love, grow, imagine, and become more independent. A+

A Long Way to Go
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