One of the biggest challenges of parenting can be to find entertainment that works across a range of ages and interests. Meeting that challenge is one of the secrets to the success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter franchise. As we head into the leisurely days of summer vacation, I am reminded of how nice it is to have videos that everyone-younger kids, parents and teens-can relate to or at least tolerate. This month, I have selected three videos with broad appeal, two of which should work on different levels for kids from 2 to 14.
SESAME STREET: WHAT'S THE NAME OF THAT SONG?, rated G, 2004, $9.98 VHS, $12.98 DVD; ages preschool and up. Believe it or not, "Sesame Street" has been around for more than three decades. And although the prime-time special has already aired, the actual 35th anniversary of this groundbreaking program is in November.
One of the neatest things about "Sesame Street" is the variety of stars eager to make their mark on the program. That means you, your tweens and your toddlers can all have a great time with this special offering of "Sesame Street" songs. The television program uses musical skits and songs to make it possible for viewers to see a different side of popular performers and gain insight into different cultures. It also preserves popular culture history by capturing performers from past eras.
All of this is evident on the video, which spans genres from the Dixie Chicks' country twang (performed alongside three Muppet hens) to jazzy Diana Krall to Broadway's Nathan Lane. Talk show super stars Katie Couric and Conan O'Brien also pay a visit, and, one of my favorites, Patti LaBelle, infuses her songs and Muppet duets with sincere passion. Queen Latifah and Ben Stiller are fun to watch as well. But wait-there's more! Ernie, Elmo, Big Bird, et al, bring back memories. But you don't have to rely on your memory to sing along: The DVD is packaged inside a book with the words to some of the songs. In true "Sesame Street" fashion, the book is decked out in primary colors and replete with educational questions and messages.
Sylvia says: A, and worth the pay. Sales benefit the nonprofit Sesame Workshop, which puts the proceeds right back into programs for children around the world.
BZOTS: ESCAPE A GO-GO!, unrated, 2004, $14.99 DVD; ages 8 and under (but older kids will enjoy it, too). What do you get when you mix music, robots, Monty-Python-esque art and a sly wit? Well, maybe you didn't know it until now, but you end up with Bzots, a locally produced DVD and the second of this month's selections that work for different ages.
The creator, Dave Skwarczek, says "Bzots: Escape A Go-Go!" is for youngsters 8 and under, but I agree with viewer testimonials in the press kit that say older children will enjoy the DVD. Older kids will get the more mature references (a corporate bully's overblown title, for instance) and also like the original industrial hip-hop-style tunes. The robots are the right mix of cool and adorable for fans of different ages. Skree and Wkewke make a friend-pun intended-when they create a third robot who joins them in their escape from the factory and the evil leader who runs the Globocrud company.
Bzots has some nice finishing touches; I like the intergenerational "factory workers" who make lively and colorful extras in their factory jumpsuits. One of the best features is the "Power Down" song. This is a soothing melody with images of bedtime and shows the importance of "powering down," resting to recharge your batteries. If this is not a tricky and useful naptime or late slumber party tool, I don't know what is. Overall this is a delightful and unique mix. One of the songs, "Three of Us," is a hit on satellite radio and a CD is available.
Sylvia says: A a go-go. My college-bound daughter predicts this will be a cult hit among teenagers (she was captivated by it, for once taking a break from talking to her boyfriend on the phone) and I wouldn't be surprised-it's a fun and inventive. Available online at www.bzots.com and from Amazon.
WE SIGN PLAY TIME, rated G, 2004, $14.95 VHS; ages 2 and up. It may surprise you to know that American Sign Language is one of the most widely used languages in the country. In another life, I worked at an independent living center that offered services and advocacy for people with disabilities and their families. The highlight of the year was always the annual holiday party, where all of our kids watched a performance of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" in sign language. I have forgotten most of what I learned, but I always enjoy watching songs done in sign.
"We Sign Play Time" is a wonderful way to experience sign language. This is an obvious choice for caregivers and family members of those who use sign language, but it is really great fun for all kids. This is one of those videos that gets viewers off the couch and moving, singing and signing. Young children will enjoy watching other moms and kids sharing signs in old favorites such as "Wheels on the Bus" and "Old MacDonald." The creators quote studies that show significant gains in vocabulary, language, memory retention and IQ scores for preschoolers who sign.
My guest reviewers this month agreed with my enthusiasm for this video. Dorothy, age 8, gave it a B+. Her brother, 5-year-old Harold, had to think about it a second. "What's the highest one?" So A+ from him.
Sylvia says: A-.Sylvia Ewing is a Chicago journalist and the mother of Eve, 17, Matt, 14, and Wally the wonder dog.