Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When Board Books Go Bad

I have too many books. If you've been to my house, you know it's true. They fill up the bookshelves, spill onto the floor and pile up on every flat surface. As a former, current and future teacher, I have at least as many kids books as adult ones, and now that I have a genetic child as well as many honorary ones, I have one less reason to resist that lovely 60 cent hardcover edition of "The Lorax" at Value Village.

Right now, we are in a board book phase. Elijah has mastered grabbing, at least precisely enough to nab Dad's arm hair in a displeasing (to Dad, pleasing to Elijah) way, and papers are some of his favorite targets. So, reading non-board books means holding the pages out of harms way, lest they fall victim to Elijah's literal clutches. And as he is becoming increasingly mobile (though still mostly wiggly), this becomes harder. So, indestructibility is becoming a priority in book choice.

There are three kinds of good board books that I have found:
1. Books with few words and real photographs. We have a whole set of these from the dollar section at Target. Sure, they are lacking in narrative arc, but they make up for that by featuring objects and animals that are really a part of Elijah's everyday life. Well, maybe not so much with the farm themed one. But you get the idea. The key to a good one in this category is real photographs. There are similar books like this with illustrations instead of photographs, but I don't think they're worth the money (even if they cost $1).

2. Picture books made smaller. I think the category is self-explanatory. Obviously, the original can't be too text-heavy, and certain illustrators seem to handle shrinkage better than others, but many full-sized picture books do translate well into baby-proof versions.

3. Board book originals. Clearly made with babies in mind, these have cute or touching illustrations, just a sentence or two per page, and an ear for rhythm and rhyme. Sandra Boynton is, in my opinion the undisputed master of this sub-genre. I often find myself gravitating toward these at bedtime, and sometimes sing-songing the texts throughout the day (especially Snuggle Puppy).

So, you may be asking, if these are the good ones, which ones are to be avoided. Well, I'm glad you asked. Movie and TV tie-ins go without saying. Why would I want a tie-in for someone who has nothing to tie it to? Plus, the stories are usually lame. Also, there are board books that are just too long. I mean, if they could sit through all that, it wouldn't need to be a board book.

But my biggest pet peeve of all when it comes to board books are embodied by a book called Shopping with My ABC's. My friend Su sent Elijah an adorable set of cloth letters with Velcro loops that make for easy hanging on the playmat, crib, etc. Love the letters, but the book it came with is truly awful. I have included a sample page so that you can witness the horror first hand.

Poorly rhymed, boring and just somehow a bit off, it clearly sends the message, "Babies have no discernible opinions about books, so let's just churn out any old crap and see who buys it." In this case, it was sneakily packaged with a cool toy. Babies may not care, it's true, but what about the parents? I am afraid if I donate it, some other parent will take it home and end up where I am, not knowing what to do with this waste of nature resources. And, sadly, it's not the only one of it's kind, or even the only one in this house. I wonder if they are compostable. The plastic shininess of the pages says probably not. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Toys I Love: K'Nex

Other people's husbands buy them jewelry for Christmas. Mine got me a ping-pong set. A few years ago, it was a Playmobile Noah's Ark that captured my heart and proved to me once again that when it comes to gifts, Kurt knows me very well. I love toys. Fortunately, from teaching to mentoring to now, parenting, I have plenty of reasons to keep on playing despite the growing distance between me and the age range listed on the Candyland box.

Building toys were somewhat scarce in our house growing up. There were Tinker Toys and Grandma Jean's, a holdover from my mother's youth. For some reason, we had a set of pink and purple Lego knock-offs. My guess is that my dad's mom, girl-less until we came along, may have been responsible for that one. Kurt tells me that Legos were the media of choice at his house when it came to construction, and they very well maybe for Elijah as well. There is something very satisfying that come from building a tower or house or spaceship out of nice, sturdy Legos.

I am not sure what motivated me to buy the red plastic case from Value Village. Taped shut, the only clue to it's contents was the K'Nex logo etched into the pebbly-textured lid. The price, under $5, was surely a factor. I am not generally one for plastic toys. Also, the twins are four now, and ready for increasingly complex playthings. Whatever it was, I went for it. And I am very glad I did.

K'Nex, for the uninitiated, are basically a set of rods and joints of varying lengths and shapes. One thing that I like about them is that they can be used to make both 2- and 3-dimensional creations. The set I got turned out to be everything needed (including the instruction book) to make lots of vehicles, from an alien spaceship to a tractor. The projects vary in difficultly, but all include highly visual step-by-step direction. Gus, my friend's four-year-old, has helped me test drive the set. He made the helicopter in the picture above mostly on his own. That the pieces are color-coded for ease of use was something that he very much appreciated.

K'Nex have been around for a long time, at least since I was in high school, but they lack the publicity (video games, theme parks, commercial tie-ins) that Legos have. Perhaps that's why I was able to find a complete set at the thrift store for such a steal.

Tell me, what other underrated building toys do you know and love?