''Curious George'' on TV, Fraggles on DVD, and more: Eileen Clarke, Tina Jordan, Marc Bernardin, and Jeff Labrecque review new shows, videos, CDs, and books aimed at your wee ones

By Eileen Clarke
Updated September 07, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Abbie in Stitches

  • Book

”Curious George” on TV, Fraggles on DVD, and more


Curious George
(PBS Kids; series debuted Sept. 4; check local listings)
It’s amazing how a creature that utters no words can convey so much. Such is the case with George, the lovable monkey whose curiosity often gets him into a fix. Based on the best-selling books by Margret and H.A. Rey and narrated by none other than William H. Macy, Curious George imparts lessons on math (the Man in the Yellow Hat sends George to the bakery to buy one dozen doughnuts, but after the morning’s discussion about adding zeros to numbers, the rascal ends up ordering 100 dozen and proceeds to hide them imaginatively all over the house) and science (after being taught to use deductive reasoning like a scientist, George solves the mystery of how the banquettes in his favorite Italian restaurant were being scratched, clearing Gnocci the cat). All this is done with nary a syllable from George, something parents of toddlers can relate to: A point and a grunt is worth a thousand words. A-Eileen Clarke
Recommended ages: 2 to 6

Note: Introducing Curious George and PBS Kids’ new preschool block of It’s a Big Big World, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Dragon Tales is performer Lori Holton Nash. The Chicago-based mother of three, along with Hooper, a CG guinea pig, will introduce the day’s theme — sharing, big brothers, recycling — with song and movement. ”I have a really strong intuitive sense of how children are going to react,” to certain material, says the cheerful Nash, who took time out recently to visit EW’s offices. Ah, but what’s the crucial quality Miss Lori, who has a background in musical theater, brings as a mom when entertaining preschoolers? ”I can multitask.” Enough said.


You Are My Little Bird
Elizabeth Mitchell (CD, Smithsonian Folkways)
On her third children’s album, following You Are My Flower and You Are My Sunshine, clear-voiced chanteuse Mitchell celebrates winged creatures of all kinds, covering songs from Woody Guthrie’s ”Who’s My Pretty Baby” and ”Grassy Grass Grass” to Velvet Underground’s ”What Goes On” to the Spanish-language charmer ”Los Pollitos.” I defy even the ”coolest” of kids not to join in on the infectious ”Little Liza Jane.” Her interpretations, at turns gentle and catchy (and accompanied by her daughter Storey and her musician husband Daniel Littlejohn), are perfect for family sing-alongs or just quiet time. B+EC
Recommended ages: 1-6


Fraggle Rock: The Complete Second Season
(720 mins., 1984)
There’s plenty of Muppets DNA in Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock. Begin with the lovable Fraggles themselves, who resemble psychedelic hybrids of Kermit, Gonzo, and backstage gofer Scooter. Living beneath an absentminded inventor’s house, the Fraggles ”dance their cares away” with wild, song-filled adventures. Cleverly disguised within the frivolousness are practical lessons about friendship and sharing that every child can understand. The HBO show (which ran from ’83 to ’87) cultivated ”global, political, economic themes in a peculiar way,” remembers writer David Young. ”It was like The Economist for kids.” Too bad the bonus extras, especially the tribute to late co-creator Jerry Juhl, favor lifelong fans pontificating on the show. Tykes can at least join Traveling Matt for a montage of his global journeys, but where’s a menu shortcut to all the catchy sing-alongs? C’mon, ”Let the music play… down at Fraggle Rock!!” B+Jeff Labrecque
Recommended ages: 4-9

Angelina Ballerina: All Dancers on Deck
(50 mins., 2006)
Mouseland’s most talented (and troubled) dancer takes to the high seas as Angelina, who never met a tutu she didn’t like, prepares to perform in Dachovia, home of her esteemed dance teacher Miss Lilly (always expertly voiced by Dame Judi Dench). And while this direct-to-video release, based on the books from Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig, has plenty of non-related dance drama (will the captain make Yuri walk the plank?), it does, in its extras menu, impart a nice little bit of ballet history in connection with its Build a Ballet Game: Tchaikovsky trivia and the ability to change sets and tutus. Encore! B-EC
Recommended ages: 3-6


Frommer’s 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up
By Holly Hughes
I’m all for traveling with children, exposing them to the wonders of the world, opening their eyes to the marvelous diversity that surrounds them. So the idea of a travel book for parents, highlighting destinations that kids’ll dig — or should dig — is a fine idea, especially for folks who want to avoid the standard Disney World/Sesame Place/Six Flags corporate trip-a-thon.

But the trips this book suggests seem a tad ambitious. To say that any kid (they recommend for ages 6 and up) would get a kick out of visiting LBJ’s Texas Homestead (the tots will thank me, allegedly, because they’ll get ”the entire cycle of a President’s life in one countryside”) is kind of ridiculous. As is the idea that when sitting around with my family, we’d just flip to a random page and decide, ”Yeah, Angkor Wat sounds perfect for spring break. C’mon, gang — Cambodia, ho!”

Frankly, some of these destinations I wouldn’t waste on a kid. What is an 8-year-old gonna get out of visiting the Kremlin besides being bored and/or sick? What’ll they say about walking through the Forbidden City in Beijing, beyond ”This looked cooler in Mulan”? Does flying for, like, a day without any of your own liquids to get to Japan, so you can climb Mount Fuji only to find that there’s no place up there that sells chicken nuggets sound like an ideal vacation? Perhaps if this book were more focused — say, 50 Great Places Near You to Take Your Kid — it would hold some real value. (And they could make more money: one for each state!)

Of course, exposure to the world is crucial for the development of young minds. But a book like this ought to keep in mind that such far-flung destinations as Africa, Prague, and, yes, the Arctic Circle are out of reach for most families, unless they already live there. And if they decide to go, it won’t be because a book told them to. CMarc Bernardin

When Owen’s Mom Breathed Fire
By Pija Lindenbaum; translated from Swedish by Elizabeth Kallick Dyssegard
One morning, Owen wakes up to find his mom has been transformed into a giant dragon. What’s more, she’s a dragon that has sort of forgotten how to be a mom. She can’t cook. She doesn’t remember how to pay for things. When she can’t figure out how to use the dishwasher, ”she licks the dishes clean instead.” The buzz of her cell phone annoys her, so she ”takes it out and stomps on it.” When they stop for an ice cream cone, Mom says she doesn’t like the taste, and ”finds something to eat in the grass instead.” How to cope with a mom who breathes fire and snacks on bugs? Owen, suddenly placed in the role of parent, does a pretty good job of caring for her, but he’s easily distracted by the lure of the zoo (where something very, very bad almost happens) and the park (where, gratifyingly, his mom terrifies the bullies). Every childhood has its Kafkaesque moments, of course, but Owen’s is a little more literal than most. ATina Jordan
Recommended ages: 2-6

While You Are Sleeping
Written and illustrated by Alexis Deacon
Any child who sleeps at night with a passel of tattered, patched stuffed animals will be enchanted — and comforted — by this charming tale about a plucky sock monkey, a teddy, a tiny lion, a pink dog, and an elephant. What do favorite cuddly toys do while children sleep? Well, for starters, they walk the perimeter: ”Each night the whole room must be checked. Every cupboard. Every corner. We even peek behind the curtains…..” And, of course, the toys take care of the child, pulling up blankets and scaring away bad dreams. A wonderful book, one I think could soothe the nighttime fears of the most jittery toddler. And I absolutely love the illustrations. ATJ
Recommended ages: 2-5

Abbie in Stitches
By Cynthia Cotten; illustrated by Beth Peck
In colonial America, young girls had to learn how to sew and do decorative needlework (as evidenced by the many fabulous samplers hanging in museums around the country). But Abbie is no good at sewing. She hates it. She pricks her finger and bleeds on the linen. Her stitches straggle. When she tries to make a horse, it looks like a dog. (And not a very good dog at that.) She would much rather get lost in a book than pick up her embroidery hoop. ”I’m sorry,” her mother tells her, ”but stitching must come before books.” So Abbie puts the book aside, and finally, laboriously, finishes her first sampler. Beneath the alphabet she has stitched an open book, with the words ”I would rather read.” Her mother is dismayed — ”What will people say?” — but her father understands: ”They’ll say she’s a girl who’s not afraid to speak her mind.” And so, as her mother gives Abbie her very own sewing box, she gives her something else as well: a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. Inspired by a sampler reportedly sewn around 1800 (”Patty Polk did this and she hated every stitch she did in it. She loves to read much more”), this gem is both a little history lesson (albeit an effortless one) and a big lesson about outspokenness and strength of character. ATJ
Recommended ages: 4-8

Castle: Medieval Days and Nights
By Kyle Olman; illustrated by Tracy Sabin
Anyone who reads this column knows I’m mad for pop-up books. This one is no whiz technically, but that’s okay, since it’s really for older kids. What it lacks in mechanics it makes up for in information: Open up the interior of a castle and learn what went on at every level, from the towers down to the wine cellars; turn to the dinner page and see what was eaten, and who served it, and where everyone sat. Check out a knight’s armor, and find out who could become a knight and how. It’s actually a nifty way to deliver this kind of history. BTJ
Recommended ages: 12 and up

The Constitution of the United States of America
Inscribed and illustrated by Sam Fink
Fink’s beautiful rendering of the Constitution was first published in 1987 in black and white; this new edition of his pen-and-ink classic is in full color, giving it even more vibrancy and urgency than ever before. Each hand-lettered page is illustrated in a manner so arresting and intelligent that even a child, reading it, will immediately grasp the meaning of a complicated passage. I love the introductory page, which shows nothing but a finely detailed human spine. ”This is a backbone,” writes Fink. ”Man cannot stand erect without one. Neither can a country. The backbone of the United States of America is her Constitution.” And it would be presumptuous of me to grade it. —TJ
Recommended ages: 12 and up

Abbie in Stitches

  • Book
  • Cynthia Cotten
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux