Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My son's top 10 things of 2013

My son turned four earlier this month. Like most modern kids, he's already cultivated a savvier, more sophisticated appreciation of pop-culture than my generation possibly could have attained at that age. I'm kind of bored with year-end best-of lists compiled by grown-ups, so I thought I'd attempt to pull together some of his favorite discoveries of 2013. These aren't necessarily new releases, and they're in no particular order. They're just things that helped color the boy's world in his third year of existence.


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
He already dug Judy Barrett’s books (especially the rather dry Pickles to Pittsburgh, for some reason), but when we rented the excellent movie adaptation it took things to a different level, and the sequel made him a full-on fanboy. It was the first film he saw in a theater. He went in worried that the burger spider and taco monster in the commercial would be too scary, but he left declaring them his favorite parts of the movie. The taco monster in particular has been a staple of playtime for months now. He has good taste – the movies are really kind of great. Another landmark: left alone with my phone for three minutes one morning, the boy managed to download the e-novelization of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, which then became the first chapter book we read together. 


Yellow Submarine
This one is actually a triple threat, as the Yellow Submarine movie, album and song all qualified for his 2013 hot list. The boy generally avoids any entertainment featuring what he deems “mean guys,” but somehow he made an exception for the Blue Meanies. There was a long stretch where I was called on to recount the entire plot of the movie on a daily basis, and lord help me if I skipped over a single beastie from the Sea of Monsters. To this day, no matter what album I put on, he invariably asks if we can listen to the Yellow Submarine soundtrack when it’s over (skipping “Eleanor Rigby,” of course, because that one is “too sad”). Just last week the boy asked if we could invite George Harrison to his birthday party. I couldn’t bring myself to explain exactly why that wasn’t going to happen.


Sushi
The boy had had sushi before 2013, but this year it was firmly established as his favorite food, tekka maki (tuna rolls) specifically. His favorite place is Sushi Station, a small chain in the western suburbs of Chicago that offers self-service sushi on an endlessly scrolling conveyor belt, but he'll settle for Sakana, a pleasant little Saint Paul place that recently moved into a vacated KFC on Cleveland Avenue. He even requested sushi for his fourth birthday party. When we told him that some of the other kids might not care for raw fish, he suggested we order pizza and sushi. And so we did.


The Cat in the Hat's Learning Library
The death of Dr. Seuss paved the way for a lot of disheartening officially licensed knock-offs, from Danny DeVito pimping SUVs to Martin Short's shrieks of terrifying whimsy to Mike Myers disappearing under a death mask of face paint and latex. At least one good thing has come of the doctor posthumously passing the mantle. This engaging series of educational books employs the Cat in the Hat and Things One and Two to impart lessons on nature, anatomy, cartography, even rocket science. Author Trish Rabe makes marvelous use of the familiar Seussian meter for a rhyming, learning experience that's pretty much unmatched.  Sure, there are occasional clunky verses, but I'd like to see anyone describe the embryonic development of a bean seed in rhymed, grade-school-level vocabulary with perfect poetic grace. The boy loves to hear these books almost as much as I love to read them, and he can quote every scientific fact by heart. I'd say he even prefers them to the original Seuss books.

Things that eat other things (in theory)
It's a common little boy trait to be fascinated by carnivores, from sharks to dinosaurs to jungle cats to venus flytraps (the boy is nuts about a book on carnivorous plants we found at the library). Something about the intersection of power, fear and cool-looking teeth makes killer animals a source of endless excitement. But he'd prefer not to be reminded of the flesh-tearing, blood-dripping specifics of animals eating animals. He loves watching nature documentaries until the carnage begins. Then the nervous, high-pitched squealing starts and he buries his face in blankets until we fast forward or turn it off. There's probably some commentary here about the hypocrisy of human carnivorism but I don't want to make it a whole thing.

Fishtronaut and Lunar Jim
The boy's television tastes are nothing if not mercurial. He picks up all-encompassing obsessions that dissipate within a week and are never spoken of again. One week it's Busytown Mysteries, the next it's Bubbleguppies, the week after that old episodes of the Mr. Men show. Some of his friends have single-subject fixations that would drive me loony, so I'm glad he's inherited some eclecticism from my wife and I. Probably his longest-running favorites of the year were these two curious imports.



Fishtronaut is a Brazilian cartoon about a spacesuit-wearing fish who regularly visits the surface to help a little girl and a monkey solve environmental mysteries. Lunar Jim is Canadian stop-motion animation set at a research station on a distant moon populated with a variety of alien life. It's kind of like a pre-school Star Trek minus fighting and danger. I wouldn't call either show groundbreaking children's programming, but they're both gentle and clever and weird enough that I can find plenty to dig in them. The boy could definitely do worse.

Not Kevin and Micah
The boy is now at an age where he's cultivating actual friendships based on specific qualities and personalities of the kids around him. He has a few close friends who are very important to him. He also has a couple of enemies who are even more important. When we asked who he wanted to invite to his birthday party, he named one friend and followed immediately with "NOT Kevin and Micah." I don't know if a 3-year-old can really be classified as a bully, but these were the boys in his old class most likely to hit, kick and, in his words, "do bad things." These guys were a major source of stress for him in 2013. In any number of situations, the absence of Kevin and Micah* was more important to him than the presence of people he liked. We've recently moved him to a different school, but he still occasionally voices concern that Kevin and Micah are being mean to his old friends. Bad news, that Kevin and Micah.

*Names changed because I don't want to get into slandering pre-schoolers.

Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm
Alice and Martin Provensen would be in my hall of fame even if they'd never done anything but illustrate The Color Kittens. As it stands, they collaborated on dozens of classic kids' books, including this soft-spoken masterpiece. The inscription on our copy indicates that I got it as a sixth birthday gift from my aunt Char. I'd forgotten all about it until my mom passed it along to the boy and a thousand deep-seated memories came flooding back. It's a simple story, more an illustrated tour of the Provensen's hobby farm than an actual narrative, but it's so serenely straightforward and evocative. The final pages, where the Provensens quietly remember the animals who've died over the years, brings me near tears every time. The boy took to the book immediately. I couldn't be more delighted about that. It's the most reliable tool in my literary arsenal, the one book that will always get both of us to sit down and immerse ourselves for an enthralling half-hour or so.

Russian Tea House
It isn't just the half-block proximity to our house that makes it the boy's favorite restaurant. It isn't just the friendly in-house accordion player who gave the boy a now-treasured copy of his CD. It isn't just the piping hot pelmeni (meat dumplings) in chicken broth or the tangy, beet-heavy potato salad that the boy reliably devours with gusto. It isn't just the cup of Jelly Bellies the amiable owners always have waiting for him when we walk in the door. OK, that last one has a lot to do with it. But it's all of those things together.

David Bowie's "Memory of a Free Festival"
I've been singing the boy to sleep with my favorite David Bowie song since the day he was born. He still asks for it every time he lays down for a nap. I will never, ever tire of singing it to him.

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