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Two adventures for young ears

July 02, 2008|Lynne Heffley | Times Staff Writer

Here are some noteworthy recent releases of entertainment product aimed at children and families.

Michael Reisman

"Simon Bloom, the Gravity Keeper" (6 CDs; 7 hours, 22 minutes; $34;

Audio books

First-time author Reisman spins a wildly imaginative yarn about a sixth-grader who learns how to control the laws of the universe when he discovers the "Teacher's Edition of Physics."

Reisman does this so adroitly that real information about gravity, electricity, friction and such seems as magical as the adventure that catapults Simon Bloom and his two friends into a struggle for domination of the universe. Theater veteran Nicholas Hormann is a wry delight as the "narrator" who finds that he is part of the story too.

Philip Caveney

"Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools"

(7 CDs; 8 hours, 25 minutes; $37;

In Caveney's juicy first book for young adults, a half-elf, half-human young man tries to follow in his jester father's mirth-giving footsteps. He ends up fighting brigands, falling for a princess and uncovering her evil uncle's plot to seize her throne. Sebastian's stalwart allies: a small but fierce warrior named Cornelius and a wisecracking "buffalope."

Caveney dishes out an enthralling mix of comedy, romance and derring-do, complemented in full measure by stage and screen actor Maxwell Caulfield's tour-de-force performance.


Barenaked Ladies

"Snack Time"

(Desperation Records; CD: $10.98; book and CD: $15.98;

Oh, yes. The influx of adult-market indie rockers into family music happily continues with these inventive original songs in a smooth and sunny groove from Canada's eclectic, witty rockers, Barenaked Ladies.

Popcorn, vegetables, raisins and allergies are some of the subjects delightfully covered in 24 tracks. Salmon and "spinny rides" make an "I Don't Like" list. The "Crazy ABCs" go far beyond "A Is for Apple" -- try, "M Is for Mnemonic" and "Q Is for Qat." It's unlikely that any other kids' song defines a "frenulum" (look it up), and never has the lowly eraser been serenaded with such sincerity and panache.

Accompanying lyrics are a bonus, decorated with quirky illustrations by band member Kevin Hearn, as is the group's separate storybook of the same name. Barenaked Ladies aren't making the crossover permanent, but here's hoping for another visit.

Frances England

"Family Tree"

(Paper Bird Records; CD: $14;

Frances England proves that her lovely debut album, last year's "Fascinating Creatures," was no fluke. The San Francisco-based mom's first CD was intended only as a preschool fundraiser, but word of mouth brought it to a wider audience and critical accolades.

England is, quite simply, an original, treating young listeners with the caress of soft, folk-rock authenticity in her expressive voice.

Ralph's World

"Rhyming Circus"

(Disney Sound; CD: $14.98; store/)

A welcome new album from Ralph’s World, a.k.a. indie rocker Ralph Covert, a bona fide children's music star for his high-energy, funny and smart songs and deftly layered tunes. Here, with his top-flight band and expert rock and jazz vibes, Covert re-imagines the world as a musical playground.

Everything's grist for his quirky mill: a delicious phonics lesson ("Abby's Alphabet Soup"), the dreams of pig and pachyderm ("Rodeo Peg" and "Edward the Tap-Dancing Elephant"), and swinging insects ("Bad Bug Ball").

Part of the fun for adults is to identify the Ralph's World band's signature tributes to musical icons. Look for bits of Prince and Thin Lizzy, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Ziggy Stardust and a whole lot of Johnny Cash ("Folsom Daycare Blues").

Hot Peas 'N Butter

"Vol. 4: The Pod Squad"

(CD: $14.95;

Created by Danny Lapidus and Francisco Cotto with other solid jazz, Latin and pop pros, Hot Peas ’N Butter, featured on Noggin's "Jack's Big Music Show," serves up a satisfying mix of good-for-you messages, layered arrangements of traditional songs, infectious tunes and a hot -- and mellow -- multicultural groove. The soulful "Beautiful Dream" is just one of the tasty highlights for ears of all ages.


"Hiya, Kids!! A '50s Saturday Morning"

(Shout Factory;Hot Peas ’N Butter 4 DVD set: $29.99;

And finally, for baby boomers and their curious offspring or, ouch, grandchildren:

Even the glow of nostalgia can't hide the fact that much of what passed for children's entertainment in the 1950s seems truly bizarre in retrospect.

Expect unintentional campy fun, the truly surreal and blatant product placements, in full episodes of "The Howdy Doody Show," "Flash Gordon," "Time for Beany," "Captain Z-Ro," "The Rootie Kazootie Club," "Winky-Dink and You," "The Pinky Lee Show" and others, many in a live format rife with potential disaster.

The DVDs include the hilarious "Juvenile Jury," in which kids ages 4 to 10 offer opinions on loose teeth, family cars and misguided junior veterinarians, while host Jack Barry barely hangs on to the show. Despite the poor sound quality, it's worth the ride. Please, won't someone bring back this gem?


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