There is no doubt that digital media is certainly casting its imprint in the kids market. Just think of all the apps designed for kids, not to mention all the online content that is available to them. Despite this, however, “traditional” toys (aka, toys that aren’t on screens) are still very much present in the marketplace. Perhaps one of the most popular toys for ages 5 and up right now is Shopkins.
Shopkins was launched in June 2014 by Moose Toys, an Australian company that specializes in developing, designing, and distributing toy and lifestyle products for kids all around the world. The company found previous success with their collectible figurine toy line for boys called the “Trash Pack”. They decided to make a collectible line that was geared towards girls and the result? A toy line whose motto is: “Once you shop, you can’t stop!” and whose characters live in Shopville.
Shopkins are small figurine-like toys that depict anthropomorphized objects like food, household items, and clothing/accessories. Just imagine a purse with a cute little face on it and you have “Handbag Harriet”. A cookie with a cute face? “Kooky Cookie”. There are also three female human characters, named Bubbleisha, Jessicake, and Poppete. Shopkins can be differentiated by seasons. For instance, the first season of toys features grocery store items like “Fruit & Veg”, “Health & Beauty”, “Bakery”, and “Dairy”. The latest season launched in December 2015, marking the fourth season of the toy line. While the toy line was originally designed for girls, it has also found appeal from boys.
Nostalgia plays a role in each of our lives. From TV shows, movies, songs and celebrities, there are pieces of our earliest memories which cling in our thoughts well into adulthood. I grew up in a very busy home. I participated in piano lessons, gymnastics, lacrosse, painting and sculpting each week from early years until the end of elementary school. This means that I associate certain events, sounds, or even colours with things plucked directly from my early childhood. My parents, both artistic and sporty in their own ways, made sure to raise my younger sister and I in an environment that would challenge our developing minds.
It was not until recently that I was put on the opposite end of this spectrum: I had the opportunity to play the adult watching young children take part in activities which would surely affect their development and their nostalgic memory. At the boutique baby store that I work in part time, we have a weekly group session led by Sally Jaeger and her daughter Erika Webster of Lullabies and LapRhymes. Their sessions consist of teaching new parents songs of their own creation to sing to and with their babies or young children. The songs span on a variety of subjects: there are songs for getting to bed on time, songs for cleaning up your toys, songs for helping out around the house and even songs for mom or dad to sing to help their babies fall asleep. This session boasts a group of varied parents with children spanning from newborn to pre-school.
The future is already here. 2016 has been predicted to be the year when Virtual Reality will explode, with a series of headsets on sale and enormous amounts of games available for download. The most represented demographic for players may be generation Z, our fellows born between late 1990s and the 2010s. Their adoption of the technology can fast forward a futuristic new world to become reality.
In a millennial culture so intrinsically tied up in visual media, the new mantra for popular storytelling has been explicitly stated: If it can be written in a book, why not show it on the big screen?
This is not to say that film adaptations of novels is a brand new concept, however it has really been over the last ten to fifteen years where the trend of massively popular, big budget book adaptations has taken a firm hold. I think all of us remember the mania surrounding the release of both the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings film franchises. The incredible success of those films seemed to act as a catalyst for production studios to explore other projects of a similar ilk. Before long, adaptations of young adult fantasy/sci-fi narratives — Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Percy Jackson series, Divergent, and The Maze Runner to name a few — started to pervade the landscape of popular cinema. Millions of fans have relished the opportunity to see the fantastical drama and scope of these stories play out visually on the big screen.
However, the act of adapting these stories does not come without a significant detractor; one that can be boiled down to the medium itself. A Hollywood film can only be so long and the significant majority of its running time must be devoted to moving the plot forward. This inevitably means that many of the extraneous details that readers love about these fantastical worlds and the characters that inhabit them, get left out of the final cut.
Fortunately, there are upcoming adaptations of two fantastic young adult series’ that will try to subvert this trend. Daniel Handler’s (aka Lemony Snicket) A Series of Unfortunate Events and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials have recently both had TV projects green-lighted. They will follow in the footsteps of HBO’s hit show Game of Thrones, which has set the standard for the live action, long-form interpretation of a book series. Both are unique in that the respective narratives target a younger readership, meaning that they have a chance to attract a whole new generation of readers and viewers to the brilliant source material.
What is Manga?
Manga is one of those topics that you either know nothing about or way too much about, because once you know it’s out there, manga is hard to forget. If this is your first time hearing about it, then worry not. There was a time when I too had no idea these books existed.
A friend introduced me to Manga in my public school — a transfer student in fact — and just as this sort of person was a mystery to me, so was the manga that she spoke of. As this friend described what manga was about, I was very interested in the wide variety of subject matter that was presented in the simple comic book format of manga. I saw these books as not only a new source of entertainment, but also as a learning experience in relationships, friendship building, and just life in general. Suddenly topics that I could never ask my parents about were available for me to read about.
Unfortunately, my library did not know what manga was either, but in a strange coincidence I noticed manga’s TV show equivalent (known as anime), was playing on local children’s television channels. Manga had hooked me once again. These shows were foreign, colourful, different, and managed to teach things without appearing educational.
Anime was also available online. Even before the invention of YouTube, these foreign shows were posted for worldwide availability. I would spend several years watching them. Then my library started to carry the books. In high school, I transitioned back to print manga by reading at my library (and later online), because the original drawn versions had more depth. Today I have watched and read over a hundred series, and each time I think that there cannot be anything interesting left, I find another life changing story.
So now you are probably wondering, what is manga?
Manga is the Japanese version of a graphic novel. Though both embody a larger volume of work containing multiple chapters of artistic storytelling, there are some distinct differences. The American graphic novel is typically bound in a 7in x 10.5in book with an average of 48 – 130 pages (a comic has 22 pages), while a volume of Japanese manga has a size of 5in x 8in and an average of 150 pages. Manga is always printed in greyscale compared to the full color American comic books, and the art style is considered to be more exaggerated and emotionally expressive.
Where is Manga Found?
The unique qualities of manga make it the equivalent of our mass-market paperback novels. That is to say, manga is cheap to produce, cheap to buy, and easy to carry around. Manga is also more accessible than American graphic novels and comics. Not only is much of it free to read online (because of fan translated versions), but it sells in general book stores such as Chapters instead of being limited to specialty comic stores.
Local libraries also more often buy manga than American graphic novels or comics. I believe that manga is more saleable because the stories are larger in terms of shelf space, more chronological and complete, and contain longer story lines.
You will understand what I mean by chronological if you have picked up a Marvel comic such as Spider-man only to realize that it is issue #14 of ”Superior Spider Man”, and you have missed fifty years worth of backstory and crossovers, most of which issues are out of print. Graphic novels are certainly chronological and do have full plot lines, but I often do not see them in the library and I believe this is because they do not contain the mainstream heroes such as Superman or Batman.
I also suspect that they are more expensive and difficult to purchase due to their limited print runs and colored pages. The only barrier to reading manga is that many series retain their back to front, right to left reading direction which is opposite from the way we read in English.
Who is Manga for?
Some people make the mistake of thinking that manga is for children, but that is not the case. The genres of manga expand beyond those of our own books, sometimes into specific age or gender groups such as seinin for young men 18-30 or shoujo for girls 10-18.
Sometimes manga divides into interest areas such as sports, martial arts, or school life. I find it interesting that their romance section is clearly divided to represent different relationships such as yuri (lesbian romance), yaoi (gay romance), ecchi (sexualized characters), and smut (adult romance).
Do not let dramatic cover poses and bright colors deceive you into believing the work is child friendly. While American graphic novels may be violent, manga can contain situational material that you may consider controversial. The main character may be a justice minded killer, romantic relationships may get tangled, or in the case of ecchi the characters may be flashing their underwear.
If you are buying manga for a child it is important that you check the recommended age printed on the back, read the synopsis, and maybe even flip through the pages, because the cover art does not always reveal the whole story.
More than Entertainment
Whether you are a child or an adult, Manga provides a safe and engaging way for people to explore social situations. If a social niche or quirk exists, then Manga express it in a very open and expressive way.
As the artist Jennie Wood says, “Emotions are often exaggerated for comedic purposes, like a vein popping out of a character’s forehead to show stress, or sweat drops to signify worry”. This exaggeration makes the intentions of characters clear to the audience as the emotions and worries of the characters are laid bare.
Manga also does a better job at exploring the cause and finding realistic solutions of these social troubles with characters that are more relatable compared to American graphic novels. To understand what I mean by relatable, take a moment to think about who the big American comic hero’s are and what they do for a living:
- Batman – a rich adult trained in combat who uses expensive tools to hunt criminals
- Superman – an alien adopted by a couple on a farm who is constantly saving Earth
- Green Lantern – a reckless jet pilot is given ‘will power’ to fight evil in the galaxy
- Spiderman – a teen bitten by a radioactive spider decides to protect his entire city
Okay, maybe that last one is relatable. Still, these people do not go to school, hardly see their parents if they have any, do not search for romance, and hardly ever go out for a normal day of fun. Heck, most don’t even have real jobs.
There are certainly graphic novels about more ordinary heroes, but you do not hear about them as much. In comparison, most manga heroes are young teens who attend school, fight with their parents, ask their friends for romantic advice, and go out for fun. This makes the manga character and their problems more relatable, and while the big American heroes push personal issues aside to save the world, Manga heroes often find that saving their friends and saving the world is the same thing. This is why I believe that manga provides a social experience that kids can learn from.
The gap has finally been bridged! Those new parents who dread putting down their favourite Tolstoy, Poe, Shakespeare, Bronte or Austen can now rejoice in the possibility of teaching their new babies the joys of classic lit from day one! BabyLit books has released an interesting new spin on classic literature, allowing new parents to read classic stories of importance to their little ones. The “Little Master” series takes all of the works of classic literature and simplifies the stories for an accessible and easy to teach alternative for those parents who hold onto the importance of teaching their children works of classic lit in lieu of grabbing the typical Dr. Seuss.
Though Dr. Seuss books are amazing works of children’s literature, there is something special about transforming these classic titles into more child friendly versions WITHOUT losing the nuance and intrigue of their adult counterparts.
I first came across these books at my part time job working as a sales associate at a niche baby boutique store in Toronto. Prior to properly displaying them around the store for purchase, I took a moment to read them all. As an avid reader of literature myself, I found these books to be a very overdue breath of fresh air in an industry that otherwise seems to overuse simpler tropes of talking animals and magical kingdoms to appeal to young audiences. Though the “Little Master” books definitely still contain elements of fancy and of magic, these books hold onto the more adult tones if not only through the few choice words but with the beautifully clever illustrations which are scattered throughout the books. These books are definitely going to hold the interest of baby and parent alike during bedtime snuggles.
Will Puppet Shows Ever Be ‘Out Of Style’?
“The fight [with puppets] always is: “Why is this better as a puppet show than something else?” And if you can’t answer that, then you should do the ‘something else’!”
From leading roles on Sesame Street, and The Muppet Show, to supporting characters on Mr. Dressup and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, many adults today can reminisce about their favourite puppet characters from the shows they watched as children. The 80s and 90s presented a particular plethora of choices in North America with everything from Lamb Chop and Under the Umbrella Tree, to the re-introduction of the Muppets in Muppets Tonight. But what do today’s Canadian children know about the surreal world created by puppets?
Today, it is believed that CGI (computer generated imagery) is the only thing kids are interested in watching; even 2D animation is perceived as outdated by many children. That is the thinking that created the (almost) puppet-free zone that is children’s television content in the 2000s. But fear-not nostalgic puppet-lovers! There are currently some creators working to re-introduce the magic of puppetry to the screen!
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Lawrence (Larry) Mirkin, producer of Marble Media’s newest hit Hi Opie! and long time veteran of puppet-featured productions, including work with Jim Henson’s gang on Fraggle Rock. As I spoke with him, it quickly became clear that puppets will always have unique value as a medium for kids’ television, and there will always be methods for making them relevant to future generations.
Almost everyone had a teddy bear growing up. I know I did. Bears are a common theme when we are children — from stuffed animals to TV shows. I remember watching many shows with bear protagonists: Little Bear, The Berenstain Bears, Winnie the Pooh. These shows portrayed bears with friends and families, at “home”, cooking meals, attending school, reading newspapers! They were relatable and lovable bears because they were so human-like. Portraying bears this way transitioned them from “scary predators” to lovable family characters. In reality both are incorrect, but one is clearly better for bears than the other.
I believe those shows are where my fascination with bears originated. I was surrounded by the idea and imagery of bears my whole life. This fascination didn’t really take root until a few years ago during my time at Centennial College. In 2013 I visited the Toronto Zoo and photographed the male Grizzly Bear, Samson. During my last year in the Fine Arts program, we had a large final project. For this project I decided to focus on bears, and use Samson as my model. I started thinking about bears, their role in our culture. Typically bears make the news when they venture into an urban area where they can feed on garbage and scare the residents, thus labelling them as pests, like raccoon and mice. We also regularly hear stories of bear attacks and how dangerous they can be.
For today’s tech-savvy kids, computers, tablets and smartphones are the new paper, pencils and crayons. Long gone are the days of writing everything on paper and learning cursive in the 4th grade. Technology didn’t play a prominent role in my life from the minute I was born, and therefore, my peers and I had to slowly incorporate these techniques into our daily practices — especially as they began to contribute to our educational success.
I’ve gained a lot of insight about the modern-day classroom, thanks to my younger cousins. The fact that one of my cousins got her first laptop when she was in grade 6, says a lot about its relevance. I didn’t get my own laptop until I was in grade 12!
Let’s make some more comparisons. In 1998, when I was in kindergarten, the teacher taught us on blackboards. Today teachers use smart boards. Until I hit high school, most of my assignments were to be handed in via paper. Today, it’s Moodles and Google Docs. I used poster boards; they use multimedia platforms like PowerPoints and Prezis. Cellphone and technology agreement forms are a necessity today; they were never an issue in my world until I reached high school.
Of course, every generation likes to compare themselves to the younger generation, but what makes education intriguing today, is the effect these advancements have on children’s learning processes. According to Jason Hames, a Toronto District School Board teacher of 7 years, “[Technology] allows students to grow their community beyond the constraints of distance or time, and it is truly amazing to watch [the students’] discussions deepen as they extend their learning skills.”
Bringing these new teaching tools to the classroom also creates a “win-win situation… [because] student engagement often correlates with achievement,” says Hames. On the other hand, he also points out the importance of setting boundaries so that children understand the difference between using technology for entertainment versus, “think[ing] of them as toolboxes to be used constructively”.
From what Hames has told me about his ever-changing experience as a teacher, the words “immediate”, “interactive”, and “collaboration” really stand out to me. These words resonate as he describes the environment and outcomes offered in elementary schools today. Today’s technology allows students to get in touch with their teacher or peers outside of the classroom, giving them the chance to do work at home just as they would at school.
Considering all the positives of having this new system of learning, maybe making comparisons to when I was a kid isn’t the best approach. Rather than looking at technology as a change, we should perhaps look at it as a development – one that brightens the current generation, and of course, will probably seem out-dated to the next!
Interstellar Book Reviews
If possible, outer space is even more popular now than it was during the first moon landing in 1969. Today, we have endless online content about the universe being thrown at us, including Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield’s kid friendly series of videos shot on the International Space Station.
Hadfield makes a peanut butter and honey tortilla, squeezes water from a washcloth and even plays a game of space darts. His videos are fun and inspiring and most importantly, set in space.
Even as adults, we never lose that feeling of awe when we look at a sky full of stars. It’s like looking up at a billion possibilities and our imaginations can’t help but run wild.
Thanks to this wave of space popularity, authors can take advantage in fun and educational ways.
Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort, includes two all-time favourite children’s book subjects in a fun-filled rhyming story about creatures from space who come to your house and play with the underwear hanging on your washing line.
You Can’t Eat a Princess! by Gillian Rogerson and Sarah McIntyre has Princess Spaghetti rocketing through space on a rescue mission to save her father from the aliens who are all set to cook him for dinner.
Princess Spaghetti is a strong female character; she rather forcefully makes the aliens let the king go, and then suggests the aliens come to her birthday party where she introduces them to chocolate cake.
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