Our A.V. Club Field Guide To Parenting is designed to guide you toward the best kids’ books, shows, movies, and music, just like we do with The A.V. Club for adults. Every month or so, we will feature a new subject with a few essential pop-culture takes parents should know, saving you from the mountains of kids’ dreck out there.
M Is For Monsters
Ah, Halloween, the push-me/pull-you of children’s holidays. Pro: Candy. Con: Scary monsters. Pro: Playing dress up. Con: Nightmares for the rest of the year. So what’s the best way to ease your child into the Halloween fun without giving them fear complexes that they’ll spend years of therapy getting over? Once again, The A.V. Club parents are here to help with some kid-friendly entry points into the world of monsters: a rebooted beloved series, some friendly and familiar furry faces, and a variety of kid-friendly monster books and games. Some are scarier than others, but keep this in mind as a general rule: Michael J. Fox’s Teen Wolf is hardly ever a bad idea.
Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated is a surprisingly fun take on a classic
Reboots are rarely a good idea (we’re still reeling from the news that CBS has ordered even more episodes of nü-MacGyver), so this new version of Scooby-Doo and his Mystery Machine pals from 2010 (the 11th version of the series!) is downright surprising. Namely because the show creators’ clear unabashed love for the original Scooby-Doo doesn’t prevent them from poking not a little fun at this source material: Fred’s love for both ascots and traps, for example. The relationships only previously alluded to take center stage here, as both girls (Daphne and Velma) have unresolved crushes (on Fred and Shaggy, respectively), the kids’ parents come into play, and instead of traveling around on a variety of back roads, the team centers its explorations on the creepy town of Crystal Cove. Sometimes they even go to school—a definite departure from the original.
Yes, the “show the parents will love as much as the kids!” is a trope at this point. Still, there’s no way your offspring will appreciate the two new English Beat songs, Vivica A. Fox’s character pulled right from The Warriors’ narrative deejay, the nods to Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground, or all the inside jokes aimed at the previous series, complete with nostalgic nods to ’70s cartoon superheroes you forgot even existed (Blue Falcon and Dynomutt!) as much as you do. Matthew Lillard reprises his role as Shaggy from the unfortunate live-action movies; Facts Of Life star Mindy Cohn resurfaces as Velma; and you’re bound to recognize other familiar voices in the series like Patrick Warburton, Lewis Black, and Gary Cole.
Still, there’s lots here for your kids to enjoy anyway, as there’s a reason why these characters have been around since 1969. The monstrous villains that show up in Mystery Incorporated are a little creepier than their predecessors, so the show would likely be better for third- and fourth-graders than first- and second-graders. Start with the first episode of the series, “Beware The Beast From Below”: If your kid can handle the crazy cocooned victims trapped in Fruitmeir’s gelatinous dessert, they should be able to handle the whole saga, all the way through to a series-ending finale that culminates in a showdown with ultimate evil that even Buffy herself might envy. All 52 episodes are available on Netflix, so get cracking on your perfect Halloween family binge-watch. [Gwen Ihnat]
Making Teen Wolf your kids’ first monster movie
Staying in a spooky cabin seemed like the perfect opportunity to show my sons their first monster movie. Unfortunately for the mood, our little Wisconsin cottage was tastefully decorated by an author/theater-owner couple who had a mild obsession with antique teddy bears and mid-century suitcases. But we were watching Teen Wolf, so I didn’t exactly need Camp Crystal Lake. (And for the record, I refuse to recognize the existence of the MTV Teen Wolf blasphemy.)
As we snuggled up in a lovely handcrafted quilt, I answered a few pre-movie questions. No, Teen Wolf is not too scary for 6-year-olds. No, no one gets ripped apart or eaten. No, Michael J. Fox will not be kissing his own mother in the past.
Teen Wolf is a nice, dopey story about a dopey kid (Fox) who dreams of being something more than just a dopey kid. He also happens to be a werewolf. Instead of wreaking gory havoc on his small town, Fox’s monster plays great basketball, scores underage beer, van surfs, and gets to have sex with his rival’s girlfriend. There’s a message about being yourself, but the movie is simply a vehicle for the greatest onscreen basketball coach in the world, Coach Finstock, played by genius Jay Tarses.
Our screening got off to a rough start when my sons discovered Fox’s basketball friend Chubby was the same actor as Pee-Wee Herman’s nemesis Francis (Mark Holton). I managed to steer us back on track just in time to see Fox transform into a werewolf. I thought this may be the one moment in the film that would frighten the boys, but they simply shouted, “Chewbacca!”
Despite my efforts to push Coach Finstock as the emotional center of the film, the boys’ favorite character was Stiles, played by Jerry Levine. This was their first exposure to an honest-to-goodness 1980s movie best pal, those scheming, beer-loving, lecherous (but harmless) confidants who populated movies from Risky Business to Revenge Of The Nerds. This party advisor archetype always seemed to be played by Curtis “Booger” Armstrong (in both of those movies, plus Better Off Dead), but you could argue Levine was the greatest, clad in his “What Are You Looking At Dicknose” T-shirt. Stiles truly embodied the movie’s “be true to yourself” message. Stiles was Stiles and didn’t need to hide behind copious body hair to be cool. Take that, Michael J. Fox.
In the end, I don’t think the movie left any lasting horror scars, but my son did spend the next day repeating this over and over to anyone who would listen:
Non-scary monster picture books
Kids tend to be scared of and fascinated by monsters at the same time, and the genre of “monsters who aren’t scary” nicely merges those inclinations into something non-threatening for the easily rattled. Two monster-themed picture books my little girl has liked are The Monster Who Lost His Mean by Tiffany Strelitz Haber and Leonardo, The Terrible Monster by children’s book powerhouse Mo Willems. Both stories follow monsters who fail at the primary job of being a monster, i.e., being mean and scary.
In The Monster Who Lost His Mean, the monster loses the “m” in his name, which stands for “mean,” so he has no choice but to become a helpful monster to all the children he previously scared (which makes him an outcast among his peers). In Leonardo, The Terrible Monster, Leonardo actively wants to be a big, scary monster, but doesn’t scare anyone. When he finally manages to spook a kid, he discovers it’s not as fulfilling as he imagined. There are a million books that follow monsters who subvert their monster ways—including Kate Clary’s whole My Monster Farts series—so it’s a deep well to explore. The Monster Who Lost His Mean and Leonardo, The Terrible Monster are two of the most charming, making for excellent entry points. [Kyle Ryan]
Zombies have returned from… you know
Some soft and cuddly subject matter just automatically lends itself to children’s literature: Ponies. Muppets. Talking dogs. Rotting corpses. You know, kid stuff.
For whatever reason, the zombie renaissance spawned by the film 28 Days Later and the book World War Z, and spurred on by the runaway success of The Walking Dead, expanded into the world of children’s entertainment. Sure, a shambling mound of undead flesh that never sleeps, feels no pain, and never stops coming for your brains is a gimme for a top spot in the horror pantheon. But somehow the stuff of nightmares has been made cartoony in the Plants Vs. Zombies games—which you probably got hooked on when your kids installed it on your phone without asking—or had their creepiness pixelated away as the go-to monster in Minecraft, which, assuming your kids are awake, they’re playing right now in the other room.
There’s at least an obvious explanation to video game zombies: You can’t kill people without getting slapped with an M rating. But zombies? Kill away! We have to protect the kids from violence against the living, but teaching them to destroy hordes of the undead? That’s just a good life lesson.
Less obvious is how zombies made their way into kid-lit, even elementary-grade stuff like My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish and the unrelated Night Of The Zombie Goldfish. (Apparently undead goldfish are silly enough to not give 7-year-old readers nightmares). For middle-grade readers, zombies are probably tame after Dementors, Inferi, and Professor Umbridge, so zombie apocalypse tales like The Last Kids On Earth, The Undertakers, and Dead City seem less like midnight movie material and more like typical kid adventure fare.
Lest we forget, zombies have also made their way into cartoons: In the very first episode of Adventure Time, “Slumber Party Panic,” we’re introduced to Finn and Jake fighting off zombified candy people (not for the last time) due to one of Princess Bubblegum’s typical horribly unethical science experiments. Regular Show also got into the act in season two with “Grave Sights,” in which Mordecai and Rigby accidentally raise a bunch of zombies by playing a horror movie backwards.
With kids all over America craving braaaains, is there a logical endpoint to the trend? Probably not. Look for Daniel Tiger Raises The Dead and SpongeBob SquareBrains on next fall’s TV schedule. [Mike Vago]
Why Sesame Street went the monster route
Monsters have been a staple of kids’ imaginations (and the dark spaces under their beds) for a long time. But in 1969, a stroke of genius from Jim Henson did what centuries of parental reassurance couldn’t: made monsters friendly. While Sesame Street revolutionized children’s television in any number of ways—drawing from research from educators and child psychologists, imitating commercials to sell educational concepts to kids, the “magazine” format that moved from one short segment to the next—one of its most unexpected educational tools was to have both educational and moral lessons come from friendly monsters.
The show very nearly didn’t have puppets of any kind, as the creative team didn’t want a puppeteer; they wanted Jim Henson. Had he said no, the show would have stuck with live-action and animation. To start, Henson had Kermit and Rowlf—his two best-known characters—sell the show in a pitch reel for PBS. Then he sketched two human muppet characters—one with an oblong head, one with a football-shaped one—then a wide-eyed 7-foot bird. Henson could have stopped there, content at having creating several lasting TV icons.
But in Sesame’s second season, looking for more background performers, Henson dusted off a furry blue monster he had created for a Frito-Lay commercial years earlier, who gobbled up snacks. In his second incarnation, the monster focused on one particular snack: cookies. In Frank Oz’s hands, Cookie Monster became a breakout star, and despite being a ravenous, energetic monster, Henson was certain he wasn’t merely creating nightmare fuel for his young audience: “[Children] can get to know these monsters and understand that they are not things to be frightened of. It’s a scary image, but the child can learn to handle it.” Oz’s next character was even easier to handle: Grover, the friendly, sweet, overenthusiastic monster whose personality Oz based on his dog. Nearly 50 years later, monsters are still a staple of Sesame (and shows like recent spin-off The Furchester Hotel), and for the under-5 set, monsters like Cookie and Elmo are more likely to elicit squeals of delight than screams of terror. Those scarier monsters can wait until your kids are a little bit older. And if you have a newborn and are already scared of Elmo, rest assured: “Elmo’s World” isn’t nearly as annoying as you’re dreading, and your kid will likely embrace it eventually as their first TV show. [Mike Vago]
Bridge the picture/chapter book gap with The Notebook Of Doom series
Of all the skills mastered in the early years, right behind walking, talking, and riding a bike, you’re probably most excited about your kids learning to read, looking forward to future hours of silent screen-free time this talent may offer you if they turn out to be bookworms. There used to be a huge gap between picture books and chapter books, the distance between rhyming couplets and full-color pages, and mobs of black and white text. But fortunately for today’s early grade-schoolers, a type of hybrid book has emerged. It has almost as many words as a chapter book, but with a lot more illustrations. Look at Diary Of A Wimpy Kid as kind of the leader in this field.
Wimpy Kid aside, these hybrid books often offer loads of princesses and pets and possibly things that are girl-friendly, not so much for boys. Hate to be gender-normative, but with boy-girl twins, my whole life is like a Ph.D. thesis statement on how things fall down traditional gender lines. So it was a real find when our local library selected the first volume in The Notebook Of Doom series, Rise Of The Balloon Goons, as a monthly book club selection. Since then, both of my kids have devoured the series.
Offering interesting clues, maps, and monster descriptions alongside its engaging narrative and illustrations, The Notebook Of Doom series follows the plight of young Alexander Bopp, who moves to a new town, the ominously named Stermont. Soon monsters that basically function as creepily tweaked versions of everyday items, like piñatas, ant farms, or those crazy puffy balloon figures that advertise the car wash. The regularity only heightens the suspense: What else could turn into a monster when we’re not looking? The garlic press? A stop sign? The series combines this mild horror with valuable mystery as Alexander and his resourceful friends learn how to defeat beast after beast. After this, your kids may even be ready for Goosebumps… and then the real fun begins. [Gwen Ihnat]