I originally kicked off this column with a review of “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Chipettes” back in January 2009, intending to regularly sit down with my daughter, watch whatever DVDs of child-friendly programming came into the Bullz-Eye offices, and get her take on them. Seemed like a great plan at the time, but if you click on the category for “Kids Today” at the bottom of this posting, however, you’ll find that I, uh, haven’t actually written another column since I kicked it off. The problem, you see, is that Ally, God bless her, is a lot like me…which is to say that, when it comes to TV, she has a short attention span which is only lengthened when we’re watching one of what she refers to as her shows. Although this list of shows varies, some of the stalwarts over the course of her 4-year life span have included “The Simpsons,” “Sesame Street,” “Curious George,” “Arthur,” and the God-awful “Caillou,” along with relatively recent additions like “Sid the Science Kid” and “Dinosaur Train.” For better or worse, however, we don’t tend to get those titles, and the kid stuff that we do get…? 9 out of 10 times, she simply can’t be bothered.
But Ally’s a smart kid, and an observant one as well, so you never know what’s going catch her interest. Take, for instance, her fascination with the President of the United States. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she was intrigued by last year’s Presidential election, given that she had to endure people talking about Barack Obama and John McCain for quite a few months there, but she’s continued to ask us about this President and that, even picking up a few names and facts about previous Commanders in Chief along the way. With this being the case, I thought that, for once, I might actually be able to hold her interest with a DVD that was being offered up for review: So You Want to Be President…and More Stories to Celebrate American History, the latest release from Scholastic.
When the DVD arrived, I showed it Ally and explained that it contained animated readings of four stories: “So You Want To Be President,” by Judith St. George, “My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, DC,” by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, “Madam President,” by Lane Smith, and “I Could Do That! – Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote,” by Linda Arms White. She seemed cautiously optimistic but warned me ahead of time, “All right, but I only like George Obama.” Yeah, I know, that’s the sort of silly-kid punchline that even “Family Circus” would throw into the reject pile, but she was really tired. As a proud father, I must assure you that she knows that Washington was the first President of the United States, can identify Obama as the current President and George W. Bush as his predecessor, and – courtesy of her mother – can identify a piece of trivia about Abraham Lincoln, which you’ll read about in a moment.
First up: “So You Want To Be President,” narrated by Stockard Channing. Although it was made in 2000 and therefore doesn’t include President Obama, both father and daughter were still entranced by this fun little bit of animation, which offered up fun little kid-friendly bits of trivia about the White House (it has a pool and a bowling alley, and if you’re the President, you can get anything you want to eat at any time of day or night), along with factoids about the office of President itself, such as how many guys named James and John have held the top office in the land (six and five, respectively). It’s not always as reverential as it might be, but, hey, William Henry Taft could’ve stopped eating anytime he wanted, so if the animators want to show him being lowered by a series of ropes and pulleys into his specially-made bathtub…and while he’s holding a turkey leg in one hand, no less…well, that’s just the way it goes. Granted, it did seem a little untoward to prove the “looks didn’t used to be as important” premise by describing our 16th president as “a homely man,” but since Ally doesn’t know what the word “homely” means, she merely glowed as she cheerily reminded me, “Abraham Lincoln is my favorite, because he created Thanksgiving!” (It’s true: look it up.) She remained entertained by the proceedings throughout, showing legitimate awe at the revelation that, amongst the menagerie of animals maintained by Teddy Roosevelt, there was a guinea pig – seriously, the idea of a guinea pig in the White House blew the child’s mind – but by the time things wrapped up with an epilogue about the Gore / Bush battle of 2000, she was ready for it to end.
Next up: “My Senator and Me: A Dog’s-Eye View of Washington, DC,” which was narrated by its author, the late Sen. Kennedy. I had high hopes that the shenanigans of a dog named Splash in the streets of our nation’s capitol would prove even more entertaining than the story that had preceded it, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I thought it was pretty cute, but Ally had already begun to nod off before they’d even finished relaying the back story of how Sen. Kennedy came to pick out Splash in the first place. If I had to guess the reason why, I’d bet on the narration. The ringing familiarity of a Kennedy’s voice means nothing to a 4-year-old, even one who’s convinced that she’s already seen and heard it all.
Fortunately, after a gentle reminder that she was supposed to be helping Daddy with his review, Ally made a comeback for “Madam President,” which was not narrated by Lane Smith, but this is possibly only because he was tired from having both written and illustrated it. Fortunately, Anna Chiodo filled in nicely for him, and the cute story of a little girl imagining what things would be like for her if she was the President of the United States (three words: Secretary of Pizza) revived my daughter sufficiently for her to stay awake for the whole thing.
Not so, however, for the final story, “I Could Do That! – Esther Morris Gets Women the Vote,” narrated by Joan Allen. It’s an interesting historical tale, but it’s definitely one for older kids. I don’t think we’d made it more than two or three minutes into this one before Ally was shifting in her seat and asking to watch “The Simpsons” instead…so we did. My apologies to Ms. Allen, Ms. White, and, of course, Ms. Morris. I should also mention that there are special features which I didn’t for a moment consider forcing my daughter to sit through, but parents may be interested in checking out the bonus interviews with Mr. Smith and Sen. Kennedy.
What was Ally’s final verdict? Well, she liked “Madam President,” but in the end, her favorite by far was the story which gave the DVD its name, which is possibly not a coincidence. “It was good,” she said, definitively. I tried to press the issue a bit more and pin her down on her favorite moments, but she just shrugged and said, “Really, all of it. I liked all it the same. The whole thing was good.” I should also add that, although she lost steam during Teddy’s tale, she was sufficiently excited by the end of that first story to ask me outright, “Can we watch another one?” So if you’ve got a child who’s shown even the slightest interest in history, they’ll probably really enjoy this collection, but if they’re a little on the young side, don’t be surprised if their excitement ebbs and flows a bit during the proceedings.
Click to buy “So You Want to Be President…and More Stories to Celebrate American History”