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Magic Tree House

Fantasy. History. Science. Myth.
It all blended together until your head started to spin.
It spun faster and faster.
Then everything was still.
Absolutely still.
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Mary Pope Osborne really got the perfect blend with this one. The Magic Tree House series has at least one grab for every child be it an interest in fantasy, history, science, mystery, or simply a good adventure, these books are a quick informative read with two satisfyingly engaging lead characters that will keep the kids interested even through some of the stranger additions to the series. Really, this is a fantastic series for any beginning reader with a little curiosity and/or imagination.
Even better, there are a whole bunch of them to choose from!
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Seriously, these aren’t even half of the books in this series.
Now if you’re a parent looking at this series for the first time for your child(ren), you probably think I’m crazy for saying that. After all, it’s a massive amount of material to sort through. So, this is going to break down what these books are about, the different types of books in the series, and advice on different ways to buy and/or read the books with your kids.
One day Jack and Annie find a tree house in the woods by their house. Curious, Annie climbs up into the house and Jack follows. Inside, they find books, lots and lots of books. They also soon find out that they can travel to places in the books by pointing at a page and saying, “I wish I would go there!”(How the traveling happens is similar to the opening of this very article).
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Obviously, this discovery opens up boundless opportunities for adventure for them both. In every book, they travel to the place in the book and try to solve some sort of mystery. Jack is bookish and tries to prepare them for what’s coming by taking notes on what the books say while Annie, who’s his younger sister, just starts exploring- which gets them into trouble. The chapters are short and engaging with a lot of cliffhangers to keep readers interested. It’s well-written series that’s both fact-filled and fun.

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Outside of individual books, the novels are organized into larger arcs, which are typically four books each. For example, in the first arc they’re determining who the Tree House belongs to(it’s not a big spoiler to say that it’s Morgan Le Fey). After that, the next six arcs focus on different missions they go on to help her out. Overall, there are 28 books in this first series of arcs and are good for 6-8 year olds or students from the 1st to 3rd grade reading level. Despite the overall story, each book can function on its own if read on their own.

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The next series of arcs, which starts with Christmas in Camelot, are called the Merlin Missions. They are focused on Jack and Annie’s education in magic under the tutelage of the aforementioned wizard. Because of this, they are a lot more interlinked and have a lot more fantasy elements. Each book still features a separate adventure, but there are a lot more elements of long-range storytelling and the four book arcs that are set up are more involved(they’re also harder to find boxed sets for). As such, I’d say this arc is more for 8-10 year olds (3rd-5th grade) than 6-8, though if your first or second grader wants to read them, don’t stop them.

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In addition to the novels, there are Fact Trackers, non-fiction books about the same topic as the novels. You liked Dinosaurs Before Dark? There’s a book on dinosaurs. Is Vacation at the Volcano your favorite in the series? Here’s a book on Ancient Rome and Pompeii. Or you just loved Summer of the Sea Serpent? Mary Pope Osborne wrote an accompanying book on those too. While there are not books to accompany every novel in the series, most have one(there are 35 Fact Trackers and 55 books). The books are well researched and fairly readable, but they can be a little dense for kids. Still, if they want to learn more about a topic, these books are a great resource and a good introduction to non-fiction reading for kids.

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There’s also the new Supersized edition, but that’s geared to older readers, so I will not be discussing it in this article.
So, as said before: That’s a lot of books.
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However, the bright side, as I mentioned earlier, is most are fairly self-contained, so if you don’t want to get into the series, getting a book on a subject your child is interested in from a library or store will be fine(though I’d recommend starting with one of the first 28 books). If your child says they want to get through the entire series, buy one 4 book arc at a time, that way the kids can get through one book at a time at their own pace, but there’s also another book waiting for them when they’re done. The boxed sets make great holiday and birthday gifts or can be used as a reward for completing a goal. As for the Fact Trackers, get one at a time, as asked. They are wholly independent of one another so you can purchase them in any order. There are also Fact and Fiction versions of the books, which have both the novel and the complementary Fact Tracker if you find your child likes the educational parts of the books more than the adventure parts.
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Overall, Magic Tree House is a series I’d highly recommend for any elementary school reader, both as individual stories to read and as an entire story. They’re good for not only helping children develop an interest in reading, but in history, zoology, mythology, and so much more.
PS: There’s now also a website with a game, to get kids even more involved.
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La La Land Review

So yeah, I saw the movie La La Land this week.

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You may have heard of it.

Before I start, I’m going to preface this by saying that, though young, I grew up with old musicals. When I was in the second grade I got a boxed set of all of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals for the next year. In the third grade, I got into West Side StoryWhite Christmas, and Singin’ in the Rain. I would dance along with Gene Kelly, sing with Bing Crosby, and cry with Natalie wood. As I grew older, I’ve been introduced to countless others ranging from Umbrellas of Cherbourg to Chicago to Doctor Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog and have loved them all.

Needless to say, I have a bit of a bias when it comes to musicals.

Still, while I don’t think the movie quite lived up to the hype(though really, what movie could?), I do believe it was a transcendent experience whether you like musicals or not.

If you aren’t already aware, La La Land is a modern musical with old school sensibilities about two dreamers in Los Angeles: actor Mia Donlan(Emma Stone) and pianist Sebastian Wilder(Ryan Gosling). It follows their relationship through the four seasons of the year. They meet, they’re mean, they meet again, he’s mean, they meet again, and start to fall in love. From there he comes to her work and they set up a date, one whichMia abandons her current boyfriend for. Over the evening they fall in love and the emotion takes them to the stars. The just add water recipe for onscreen romance!*

But wait there’s more!

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Because it’s what comes after this first act(winter and spring) that’s getting all the hype.

While the first act is a confectionary sampler of the Hollywood Golden age musical, the second act takes the two characters into a realm that’s a little more somber, a little more Jacques Demy. Instead of the colorful production numbers featured in the first half, the songs are more somber or have a darker context and are less likely to have a big dance break(except for the last number).

The first part has the two leads pursuing their dreams romance and art while the second explores how those dreams clash with the real world in a way that’s nuanced and, largely thanks to the actors, incredibly emotional.

However, it’s the last number that’s the real sucker punch to the gut. Let’s just say it’s a fantastic, crazy montage carried by masterful storytellers and a talented cast, lent that extra ounce of emotion by a score laden with musical motifs that built up to that moment. It’s hard not to be moved by the sequence, even if the stuff that came before it is not really your thing.

The entire production team deserves an endless amount of praise for this movie. There are several one-shot takes, tiny background details, and narrative finagling that had to make all stages of this production an absolute Hades(I’m using instead of h**l). Seriously, I hope everyone gets a bonus or something for working on this film, because it is a technical miracle and, as a result, an absolute delight to watch and listen to.

Despite all of this gloriousness, the movie is not perfect. As a work of visual storytelling, La La Land is a masterpiece, but from a character and social awareness perspective, there are some big problems. The movie mostly focuses on the two leads- in fact, I can’t really think of a character beside them having more than three to four scenes in the film unless they were a backup musician- who are largely archetypal and mostly sold by the actors. This isn’t necessarily problematic, but it sticks out in a film that treats almost everything else with such nuance.

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Mia has very little background(she’s from boulder city, dropped out her second year at college, likes classic films, her aunt is a big inspiration to her). Anything else we know or like about her is from knowing and liking Emma Stone on screen. While the scenes where she’s auditioning are hilarious, we don’t get much else. She does a one-woman show that we see her write, produce, and advertise amongst other tasks. Still, when she does her show, we don’t see any of it. When she goes home, we see her sitting at a table with one her parents at one point and it’s hilariously obvious that they’re just sitting there waiting for the next cue, not speaking or working on anything or eating like one would expect parents to. Still, better to have Emma Stone’s personality than Sebastian’s.

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Sebastian’s purist obsession with jazz sounds more like a bundle of cliches than someone an actual interest in the genre. Also, I find it funny that a musical that’s essentially ‘saving’ the movie musical by mixing the old and new takes the side of a purist who’s against that very sort of evolution. If it weren’t for his undeniable talent playing the piano and Ryan Gosling’s natural charm, he’d come off as a pompous a**hole. Being frequently describe as a pain-in-the-a** to work with because you’re an amateur musician who only wants to play one kind of music is ridiculous and really shouldn’t be romanticized.

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Not wholly separate from this, others have complained about the movie being racist or at least not representative of the population of LA, mainly citing how Sebastion(a white man) wants to be a savior of jazz(a primarily African American type of music) and how the only black character(Keith, played by John Legend) is villainized for wanted to move the genre into the 21st century. To the first accusation, Sebastion’s entire obsession with jazz is problematic, race implications included.

As for the second, while I understand the concerns, I think it’s not really a race thing and more of a there aren’t that many speaking roles outside of the leads. The featured performers in the production numbers are diverse by race and gender(I can’t speak for sexual orientation). Outside of this, there are maybe 5 roles with any decent amount of screen time and at least one is related to one of the white leads. What would’ve been great(and would’ve solved most of the complaints) is if an African-American had played Sebastian, but that’s a different discussion.

Needless to say, this is a fantastic film that you should see if you can. Just don’t go digging too deeply.

The Short version:

La La Land is a brilliant, if imperfect, film that manages to be both an escapist and an emotional whirlwind.

***

What do you think? Agree or disagree? Whether you liked it or not, any bets on how soon there are talks about a Broadway adaptation?

Leave an answer in the comments.

Captain Underpants

Captain Underpants
Target age group: 5-8 years old
First book published:1997
Last book published: 2015
Number of books in series: 12(not including spinoffs)
Want to get your kid into chapter books?
If this doesn’t work, I don’t know what will.
It has everything: comic books, old-fashioned pranks, age appropriate toilet humor, superheroes, supervillains, and the famous Flip-O-Raaaamaaa(imagine that last part being announced like a wrestling cage match).
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Summary of the books events up to a certain point in comic form.
These books center around George and Harold, a pair of unabashed pranksters and amateur comic authors. After their principal, Mr. Krupp, gets footage of them in the act of single-handedly making a farce of the school’s big football game, they are blackmailed into not only becoming model students but also essentially his slaves. In a last bid for freedom, the boys order a 3-D Hypno-Ring in order to turn the tables on the toupee-topped tyrant. Using the ring, the boys accidentally convince Mr. Krupp that he is the hero from their homemade comics: Captain Underpants(Tra la laaaa!!!)
From that point onward whenever someone snaps their fingers, Mr. Krupp becomes Captain Underpants sans super powers(until the third book). In the books, he fights against giant toilets, alien lunch ladies, and truly crazy teachers. These adventures span twelve novels with an increasing number of sci-fi elements, with several spin-offs featuring the Super-Diaper Baby, some Kung-Fu Cavemen from the future, and a Dog Man.
Now, I know that there are parents who object to these books and I understand their reasoning. The humor is on the cruder end of elementary school comedy. Authority figures are demonized. And George and Harold are . . . not the best role models in the world.
However, give me a minute to make a case for these books.
These books encourage kids to truly engage in the story. Be it through the Flip-O-Rama, little in-book games, the comic books within the book, or details that encourage kids to pay attention such as the way George and Harold always rearrange what the signs around the school say into humorous messages. And because the books have such abrasive jokes, kids are drawn in to play the games and catch these details.
I’d argue that not only do they encourage reading, they encourage kids to write and take on creative endeavors of their own. George and Harold write and draw their own incredibly imaginative comics with original characters and storylines then make money selling them at their school. How many kids would do something like that today? However, the making and selling of these comics are what makes George and Harold truly cool. Their imagination is what drives the story forward. Kids read these and go: If I make up my own stories, I can be cool like George and Harold too.
And on the other end of that spectrum, there are many bad qualities that George and Harold possess: they are unquestionably bullies, really lack empathy on occasion, and have no respect for the rules.
However, this doesn’t necessarily condemn the books because it’s generally these qualities that lead to the main conflicts in the books:
  • The machine made by their nemesis which they dismissed at the beginning of Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Talking Toilets leads to the creation of the Talking Toilets from the title.
  • When their pranks drive the normal cafeteria ladies to quit in the third book, the Incredibly Naught Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space are able to get positions then proceed to turn the entire student population into zombies
  • Repeatedly, their humiliation of teachers and fellow students leads to the teachers and students becoming super-villains straight from the boys’ comics.
This is a great starting point for a conversation about bullying and treating people properly as well as a discussion how to properly deal with being teased or treated badly. This can be a great way to start a dialogue with your child about a very common issue.
And there’s one more thing if you’re still interested after all this. Well actually, it’s two things you find out in the last book that I should warn you about. Both can also start a great dialogue with your child about different issues and lifestyles. However, I’m saying these are warnings because some people will find the revelations objectionable or deem them inappropriate for discussion with their children. In the last book of the Captain Underpants series it is revealed:
  • Both Harold and George have ADHD
  • In the future Harold is gay
Honestly, if you are the kind of parent who doesn’t think your six year old should be reading this sort of thing just look over the book before your child reads it or if they read it on their own, be prepared for a conversation.
Now that we’ve discussed the pros and cons of this series I would like to present some additional evidence on the merit of this series:
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Now if your kid reads these and likes them here are some recommendations for further reading:
  • Ricky Ricotta’s Mighty Robot by Dav Pilkey
  • Judy’s Blume’s books for younger readers, especially anything with Fudge Hatcher
  • Any of the Ramona novels
  • Roald Dahl, particularly Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Fringe Introduction

Hello World!
Sorry, but considering that this is the introduction to my hopefully deep and complete analysis of the TV show Fringe, that seemed appropriate.
That’s right, I’m going to analyze Fringe, a rare Sci-fi show which probably went everywhere a Scifi show could go then ended on its own terms. When it was great, it was great. When it wasn’t, it really depended on your tastes. However, from my perspective, it always remained thematically cohesive, even if the mechanics around that were at times more clunky than anyone could expect the writers to manage. It’s a show about family, identity, sacrifice, and redemption. That it uses technology to both examine these themes and ponder how its development will effect our humanity(specifically in relation to the aforementioned themes). More unique, it concludes on the side of humanity, connection, and the possibility of redemption.
Now why fringe? If it’s ever on any top TV show lists, it’s at the very bottom. It pushed the envelope in terms of how weird a show could get, but otherwise it was generally just a procedural that was a tad . . . grosser than the average viewer might like. I mean, it had great characters(Walter!), more ambition than it could handle(Alternate Universes! Time Travel! Soul magnets?), and  a style all it’s own(film noir+modern tech). But by the time it aired, all that had been done before. It was the same show, different wrapping. As such, no one’s going to look at it closely from a literary standpoint. And as someone who enjoys reading analyses of shows, as many as I can get my hands on. Books too, but I can analyze a book on my own. I want to give analyzing a TV show a try. Fringe is a show that I originally watched in real time, in middle school and high school, rewatched repeatedly on its many long hiatuses, and remains very close to my heart. Also, there’s meat on dem dere bones and if no one else is gonna pick em, then who the hell am I to stick my nose up at.
It might now strike you another reason this show appeals to me: I’m possibly as crazy as it is.
As such, I figure I’ll try to do 2 episodes a week, one on Wednesday and another on Saturday. I’ll do the analysis and have a separate section for any observations, a real science section(I’m a biochem major, I have to), and at certain pivotal points I’ll also include an in depth look at certain characters, separate from the episode.
So with that out of the way: grab some red vines, a root beer float, and let’s begin.
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