CBC radio: Peter and the Wolf

Peter, Ivan and Sasha realize that they have c...

The Disney version – from Make Mine Music (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were listening to CBC radio a while back and caught a great children’s concert by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bramwell Tovey. It ended with this terrific version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. There are many versions of this piece available on CD, with a great variety of narrators (from John Gielgud to Dame Edna) and it’s a nice way to introduce your child to classical music.

Perhaps a good choice for a snow-bound winter afternoon sitting cozy by the fire?

(Everything you ever wanted to know about Peter and the Wolf c/o Wikipedia.)


Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (film)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Released: 1940

Rated: G

Length: 120 – 124 min. (varies depending on what version you have)

Age: some parts 3+, others 5+ (see below)  Commonsense Media sez: 6 +

Scary Factor: Mickey attacks renegade broom with an axe and savagely chops it to bits; battle to the death between two dinosaurs; a gigantic devil rises over a mountain commanding a host of demons, the dead rise from their graves

Also: some modest (dare I say artful) nudity among fairies and mythological creatures; much wine drunk by very tipsy god Bacchus

Interests: classical music, fairies, mythology, dinosaurs, ballet

Next: the movie Fantasia 2000; live symphony concerts for children; Nutcracker ballet live or movie version

How to Be a Musical Family (and Why You Should)

I’m linking here to a terrific bit of advice, 10 Ways to Be a Musical Family by Nancy Salwen. Nancy runs workshops for kids and adults and her focus seems to be on helping non-musical adults bring music into their homes for their kids.

One aspect of family music-making that I think is very important is that your children get to see you – the infallible grownup – learning, fumbling a bit, making mistakes. Not always hitting the right note but persevering and having fun along the way. If we jump in like this we get to model what we’re always telling them to do in their classrooms and extracurriculars: don’t worry about not being good right away, have fun, keep learning, keep trying, and keep practicing.

Too often we stop trying new things as we get older, and stick to activities that we’re already good at. Our kids only see us playing sports or making art or playing instruments that we have some proficiency at. They may conclude that we never have difficulty with things like they do*, and this could feed their frustration when they attempt new activities with a significant learning curve.

Personally, I think every parent should take up a brand new musical instrument or difficult sport when their child hits about age six or seven, and is coping with new challenges daily!

I also think there is value in demonstrating the enjoyment of being an amateur at something. Just because a person doesn’t have Broadway-calibre talent doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy singing or dancing. These days any interest in the arts for the young seems inextricably linked to a pursuit of excellence and stardom – winning competitions and clawing your way to the top. It’s always valuable to re-emphasize the fun, camaraderie and joy of making music.

To put my money where my mouth is… we’ve been in our new house for almost a month now, and this afternoon I WILL unpack and assemble my looooong neglected drum kit, which I am spectacularly inept at playing. Woo hoo!

not my drum kit


* Of course I’m talking here about the younger years, pre-adolescence. Once our kids hit twelve or thirteen they know for a fact that we can’t do anything right.

Sing a song. Seriously. Right now!

Here’s an interesting article about the many benefits of singing: “It sounds and feels good” by Hema Vijay.

What particularly interested me was how “MOP” performs –

In his concerts, he simplifies a classical song, breaking it up into phrases, so that even lay persons can pick up the melody and sing it.

I would love to go to a concert like that!

As a related tidbit, when my daughter was a mere baby I remember singing everything as I carried her around, ie. “Now we’re going downstairs” or “Oh the phone is ringing” etc. Now I’m thinking it was doing me as much good as it was entertaining her. (Or maybe I’m overestimating the entertainment properties of my voice…)

on Dickens and school reading

Here’s a good article, it made me want to run out immediately and get Nicholas Nickleby to read to my five-year-old. Hmm, perhaps better to work our way up to it…

“Let’s give our children great expectations” by Allison Pearson in The Telegraph

I’ve jotted down a couple of her suggestions for younger-age introductions to Dickens, namely:

The Muppet Christmas Carol – “admittedly a great work in its own right, but slightly lacking the moral heft of, say, Bleak House” – This is a lighter, funny presentation of the classic story that, nonetheless, doesn’t omit any of the hard stuff… the frightening appearance of the last ghost, Scrooge’s visions of his own death … And Michael Caine holds his own amidst a host of fuzzy muppets.

Oliver! – of course, the lively, fantastic musical by Lionel Bart brought to the screen in full splendour by Richard Lester.

“Gill Tavner’s excellent condensed Dickens Real Reads” – will definitely look these up. (Here’s an amazon search.)

And now that I’m at it, here are a few more suggestions off the top of my head:

A Christmas Carol movie – look up the more classic versions of it, if you don’t want to “muppet” it up. The story is gripping enough to keep young viewers engaged throughout, even without Kermit. Perhaps the most famous is the Alastair Sim version from 1951 (aka Scrooge), though there are many others. (Be aware that the 2009 film with Jim Carrey I’ve heard described as terrifying, so other versions may be better for young ones.)

Christmas Carol readings – once they know the basic plot, going to a live reading of the original may be fun. (Plus it’s usually for charity.) I took my four-year-old to one a couple Christmases ago. She only lasted halfway through, but seemed to get the drift, and enjoyed the acting and language of it all.

The Magic Fishbone – a children’s story by Dickens. Funny and odd.

A Tale of Two Cities – if you’re child goes crazy for adventure stories, don’t forget about this one! Also a fascinating introduction to the history of the French Revolution.

It just so happens I’ve been reading a book about children’s literature and culture that had the following to say about Dickens:

Like many other books written expressly for adults, these biographical novels [David Cooperfield, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist] became children’s classics, prescribed on children’s school curriculum because of the lucidity and sensitivity with which Dickens treated problems of youth. His writing seemed to dredge from the collective depths of youthful memory a way of characterizing early experience that contained a new sympathy for the child’s struggle to achieve understanding and control unruly feelings. In Dickens’s time this was a radical point of view.

– Kline, Stephen. Out of the Garden: Toys and Children’s Culture in the Age of TV Marketing. (Toronto: Garamond Press, 1993), p. 94

Dickens’ novels provide a perfect entry point for the study of other historical times. What child wouldn’t be interested in finding out how children used to live, ie. working in mines and factories? What child wouldn’t be immediately sympathetic to Oliver Twist and his plight?

As Allison Pearson points out, we often forget that in his day Dickens wrote what was regarded as rather “trashy” reads – cliffhanging, melodramatic serials. The strength of his books are the bare-bones of the stories, the wildly gripping plots, and this is what makes them so loved by so many after all these years. How fantastic it would be to introduce our children to his books in the year of the 200th anniversary of his birth!




Emily Gravett’s Drawing Lesson

A holiday treat from The Guardian: “How to Draw… Dragons” by Emily Gravett, the author/illustrator of Again!, Wolves, and Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears. Part of a terrific “How to Draw” series featuring famous children’s book illustrators.

(Thanks bundleofbooks for this link!)

Top 5: Poetry for Preschoolers

Last week’s list was Poetry for the Very Young, the baby-to-2 crowd, and now we move up to 3 and beyond.

1. When We Were Very Young / Now We Are Six, by A.A. Milne – age: 3+

Published in 1924 and 1927, these two collections successfully walk the tightrope between sentimentality and humour. The danger in nostalgic poetry about childhood for children is that it ends up appealing more to grownups with their own fond memories of a simpler time. The Milne poems are charming for grownups, but the playful energy will still hook children, every very young ones. You can pick and choose as you go (some poems are very long); I was reading these with my daughter when she was three and she had favourites she’d ask for again and again. Now that she’s five I may pull these books out once more… (Available combined into one volume, at amazon.com)

2. Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy, by Michael Rosen, ill. by Quentin Blake – age: 4+

This is a combination of two earlier books, Don’t Put Mustard in the Custard, and You Can’t Catch Me,  which came out in 1985 and 1981 respectively. Rosen’s work is less structured and more conversational, made up of tidbits of children’s speech and a smattering of nonsense. His introduction to this edition is written for children aged 7 or 8, and encourages them to perform the poems out loud and take a stab at writing poems themselves. Rosen has written many books of poetry for children and was appointed the British Children’s Laureate in 2007. (This title available at amazon.com)

3. Alligator Pie, by Dennis Lee – age: 4+

Even more raucous fun. This Canadian classic from 1974 sets the bar high for sheer audacity and infectious nonsense. The title poem must (yes, I say must) be taught to your child and memorized so that the both of you can recite it together at the top of your lungs.

4. Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein – age: 5+

Another much-loved collection, this was also published in 1974 (a banner year for children’s poetry!). This one is perfect for slightly older children, with poems like “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor” and others with less than cheery endings. Still, it retains a light touch and is pretty hilarious. (This one is my 5-yr-old’s current favourite.)

(This title available at amazon.com.)

5. The New Kid on the Block, by Jack Prelutsky – age: 6+

There are many collections by this prolific poet, this one came out in 1984. Slightly sharper-edged humour, more sarcasm, more complex jokes, and a more advanced vocabulary. Of the “Homework! Oh homework! I hate you! You stink!” school of playground humour, this collection is both tougher (“Suzanna Socked Me Sunday”) and grosser (“Jellyfish Stew”) than the others on this list. Still, quite funny and enjoyable.

(This title available at amazon.com)

I had originally intended to include in this list the classic A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885), which is very important historically as a first serious attempt to write poetry from a child’s point of view and in a child’s voice, but it proved to be fairly unreadable cover-to-cover, child-wise. A little too sentimental and nostalgic. And it doesn’t have enough humour to really grab the imagination of a modern reader. It’s possible that a child with more literary tastes might enjoy it – or perhaps RLS’s poems are better encountered individually within anthologies.

Top 5: Poetry for the Very Young

Poetry is a perfect way to introduce your child to the sheer pleasure of words, playing with rhythm, rhyme, humour and imagination. Even a baby will enjoy the musical qualities of poems read aloud, even if they don’t quite understand their meaning.

Of course a great many picture books are written in rhyme – Each Peach Pear Plum, the Madeline books, Drummer Hoff, Mister Magnolia, and the entire works of Dr. Seuss for example! Here are some poetry collections and classics to begin with, suitable for infants on up. (Click on links for full reviews.)   Coming soon: poems for preschoolers (3 to 6).

1. The Mother Goose Treasury, ill. by Raymond Briggs (Hamish Hamilton, 1966) – Ages: infant +

There are many, many collections out there to choose from. This one is particularly comprehensive (and a Greenaway Medal Winner). A nice big book of nursery rhymes is also a perfect baby shower gift!  (Available at amazon.com)

2. The Rooster Crows: A Book of American Rhymes and Jingles, Maude and Miska Petersham (Simon & Schuster, 1945) – Ages: infant +

Another collection of old folk rhymes, including such classics as “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a Bear”. The kind of rhymes you don’t remember anyone teaching you… you just feel like you’ve always known them. (Available at amazon.com)

3. All Join In, Quentin Blake (Jonathon Cape, 1990) – Ages: 2 +

Rollicking rhymes that invite everyone to “all join in!” Poetry at its most accessible: loud, raucous and fun!

4. The Owl and the Pussycat / The Quangle Wangle’s Hat, Edward Lear – Ages: 2 +

Lear’s classics of nonsense and word-invention (runcible spoon?) successfully stand the test of time. The Owl and the Pussycat is especially lovely and romantic. (NB. Lear’s limericks are rather more problemmatic, fairly violent and dark, but these two poems are blissfully serene.)  (Owl on amazon; Quangle on amazon.)

5. A Visit from St. Nicholas, aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas – Clement Clarke Moore (1823) – Ages: 2+

Don’t forget this seasonal classic, available in many, many editions. (Here’s one on amazon.com)

Check out my follow-up list – Top 5: Poetry for Preschoolers (3-6).

Top 5: Ballet Stories for Preschoolers

A great way to introduce a child to ballet is to start with the stories. There are many storybooks based on famous ballets, I’ll include a few specific editions that we’ve read. (All are probably suitable for about age 3 and up.)





1. The Nutcracker – This most perfect first ballet for children is a Christmas story with many familiar tunes, adventure and drama, a battle with the mouse king, fairies, magic, and toys come to life. There are many picture book versions out there, one I liked is by Maurice Sendak, who also designed a production of the ballet which I found on video at our library.

Nutcracker, by E.T.A. Hoffman, ill. Maurice Sendak

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – It’s a Shakespearian play! It’s an opera! It’s a ballet! It’s a terrific old movie! Another story with lots of magic and comedy, crazy mixups, fairies and a guy with a donkey head. The ballet was based on the incidental music that Felix Mendelssohn wrote for the Shakespeare play.

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, retold by Bruce Coville, ill. Dennis Nolan

3. Sleeping Beauty – Of course, of course, everyone knows this story. The ballet music was written by Tchaikovsky and is wonderful – many of his musical themes can be heard in the Disney film Sleeping Beauty.

Sleeping Beauty: The Ballet Story, by Marian Horosko, ill. Todd Doney

4. The Firebird -A Russian folktale turned into a ballet by Igor Stravinsky. A prince saves captive maidens from a demon with the help of a magic bird.

The Firebird, by Jane Yolen, ill. Vladimir Vagin

5. Swan Lake – Dreamy beautiful ballet by Tchaikovsky – you know the main tune. Absolutely gorgeous illustrations in the edition below, which I also like because Zwerger tells the story with the happy ending Tchaikovsky originally had to his ballet, rather than the later, better known version with the lovers drowning in the lake.

Swan Lake, retold and ill. by Lisbeth Zwerger

Ballet companies are always eager to win over the next generation of audience members, so they do a lot of outreach work. I found ballet stories and a ‘Ballet ABC’ at the NYC Ballet website, and I’m sure there are many other similar offerings to be found online.

The next step after picture books may be finding ballet clips online, watching ballet DVDs or videos (like the Sendak Nutcracker I found at our public library), and finally going to a Christmas-time Nutcracker performance. One other possibility for the very young is to go to a ballet school year-end concert: less formal, less expensive, but still very exciting for a first-time experience!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Black & White
Rating: USA: Approved
Length: 133 min – other versions: 117 min (edited version), 142 min (with overture and exit music)
Age: suitable for 3, but for plot comprehension 4 or 5

Scary Factor: Oberon in black and his bat-people minions are a little unnerving, particularly when they seem to be rounding up the beautiful fairies at the end. Other than that there’s nothing violent or threatening. Viewers may wonder about the small orphan boy fought over by Oberon and Titania, but the toddler keeps smiling whether he’s with one or the other and seems to be treated well, so it shouldn’t be an issue. (He weeps only when Titania ignores him during her fascination with Bottom.)

Interests: magic, fairies, Shakespeare, old movies

Next: MOVIE: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999) is more for 12+ crowd (PG-13); BOOKS: traditional fairy tales, Peter Pan, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles & Mary Lamb, Shakespeare’s The Tempest (in a picture book version)

Preparation: picture books or other abridged versions of the Midsummer Night’s Dream story – helpful to know the plot first!


All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.