Showing posts with label Don't let them know it's educational. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Don't let them know it's educational. Show all posts

Monday, June 21, 2010

80s and 90s Educational Toys

We’ve spent a lot of time here at Children of the 90s talking about the many, many ways the adults in our lives tricked us into learning things by slipping educational elements into seemingly recreational endeavors. What we’ve glossed over, however, are the many toys our parents and teachers provided for us with the express purpose of education. These toys didn’t dance around their true nature with all sorts of flashy distractions; instead, they made playtime suspiciously similar to school time. Kind of a bummer.

Though our initial instinct for free time was probably not to play with these teaching toys, for some reason or other many of us ended up spending countless hours with them. Whether through parental persuasion or limited classroom free play choices, we often willingly picked up a Speak & Spell or a See n’ Say and engaged in its attempts at educational endeavors. These toys may not have held their own against the mindless allure of a Skip-It or Super Soaker, but for the most part they still hold that endearing nostalgic appeal.

Speak & Spell It’s amazing how quickly technology novelty can depreciate. Once upon a time, a talking electronic seemed incredibly high-tech for a children’s toy. Granted, the novelty was probably subdued a bit by the toy’s strictly educational premise, but there was something distinctly charming about that robotic voice emanating from the Speak & Spell.
Speak & Spell (and its multi-subject counterparts Speak & Read and Speak & Math) were the ultimate device for tricking kids into learning academic material during their leisure time. Cleverly disguised as games like hangman and memory, Speak & Spell bore into our heads valuable lessons about prefixes and suffixes, homophones, and word patterns. It was all just about as exciting as the machine’s monotonous voice.


The original 2-XL debuted in the late 70s--around the same time as the Speak & Spell prototype. Most children of the 90s probably better remember the 1992 reintroduction released by Tiger Electronics that replaced the original’s 8-tracks with cassette tapes. The interactive buttons we used to answer 2-XL trivia questions seem primitive in comparison to today’s highly complex children’s electronics, but we were all still easily amused enough at the time to be won over by the idea that we had our very own robot.

Teddy Ruxpin

Teddy Ruxpin was either very novel or very creepy, depending on your tolerance for animatronics. On one hand, his moving mouth and eyes made the stories he read via audiocassette come alive. On the other, the audiocassettes made him come alive, which for many children bordered on a traumatic experience. For all of us who harbored fears of our toys coming to life (a la Chucky, not Toy Story) Teddy Ruxpin was the stuff of nightmares.
Talk n’Play

For weeks I have been trying to remember what this devi
ce was called; a quick survey of my friends’ childhood memories led me to believe I had possibly made it up and it did not actually exist. Lo and behold, though, through the handy power of Google, its realness has been affirmed. Please tell me some of you owned this device, because I’d hate to be the only one reminiscing about its awesomeness.
The Talk n’ Play came with a variety of books, mostly featuring characters from Sesame Street and Alvin and the Chipmunks. It’s humorous now to realize I was once so wowed by a contraption that allowed me to electronically choose my own adventure with the press of a button--essentially the most basic function of every computer game. Nonetheless, this device once entertained me endlessly; I’m convinced if my Talk n’ Play were reunited, my delight in its reactivity to my responses would be just as exciting. I do think, though, that I would still feel guilty about defying Grover’s moratorium against pressing the red button in the book, “Don’t Push the Red Button.”


Playskool’s Alphie was about as simple as a robot toy could get. It had relatively few electronic functions; most of the learning action relied on interchangeable cardboard cards you inserted into his display window. The Alphie toy was an educationa
l staple in 80s preschools, entertaining toddlers with its low-level interactivity and hard-to-break durability. Playskool still makes the Alphie robot, but its space-age exterior and digital display bears little resemblance to the Alphie of our day.

See n’ Say

I know this came out in the 60s, but they were such a common presence in 80s and 90s homes and classrooms that I couldn’t leave the See n’ Say off the list. Without their handy pull string apparatuses, we may never have found out exactly w
hat the cow or sheep say. For the record, it’s moo and baah. Thanks, See n’ Say!

At first glance, these building blocks may not seem especially educational. However, if any of us made even the vaguest attempt to replicate the awesome full-functioning K’nex machinery from the commercials, we quickly found ourselves in the midst of a learning experience.

The ads made it look so easy: just follow the ins
tructions and you will soon be the proud owner/operator of a spinning ferris wheel or speedy go-kart. In reality, though, these designs were incredibly difficult to duplicate, particularly without the aid of constant adult intervention.

Brain Quest
Though it’s probably incorrect to classify these trivia booklets as toys, their arguably superior educational value in comparison to the other playthings on this list earns them a verified spot. While many of these other toys made some halfhearted attempt to hide their educational elements under a veneer of fun and games, Brain Quest made no efforts to depict its purpose as anything less than a useful learning tool, even including grade level classifications against which we could measure our intelligence. These classifications were useful and ego-boosting when we managed to answer a question from the 6th grade set as a mere 4th grader, but not quite as self esteem-building when you failed to deliver a basic 1st grade fact.

Note: If you’re looking for educational computer games, have no fear: I haven’t blatantly omitted them. There’s an entire post devoted to singing their praises. Check it out.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Children of the 90s is at a Work Conference...In the Meantime, Please Enjoy this Classic Post: Ghostwriter

Children of the 90s is at a work conference this week with tragically limited internet and computer access. Take my word for it, it's totally tragic. I didn't want to leave my loyal readers in a bind, so I am pleased to present you from a classic Children of the 90s' post from way back when I was getting a whopping 14 hits a day.

I trust few enough of you have trudged through the extensive backlogs that this is almost like new. Almost. I should be back in full force by next week. Until then, enjoy the reruns! Hey, it's summertime. I've got to save the good stuff for sweeps. Thanks for your understanding--see you next week!

Ah, the joys of good, clean multicultural middle-school student supernatural detective work. The television series Ghostwriter, which ran 3 seasons from 1992-1995, was a thinly veiled effort by public television to encourage the development of basic reading , writing, and problem-solving skills among elementary school children. We may have had no idea at the time, but watch an episode now and you will find the educational components are blindingly obvious. The show was remarkably good at tricking us into learning, as well as providing all sorts of feel-good moral lessons along the way.

The show's characters were the live-action equivalent of the names and pictures textbook publishers use to vociferously and repeatedly tout their commitment to racial and ethnic diversity. Though I can recognize this show aired during the blooming of the age of political correctness, they laid it on pretty thick. We couldn't just have a group of relatable middle-class white kids running around solving mysteries. Instead, it was necessary to produce some variation of "We are the World," the children's television series:

That intro shines so brightly with quintessentially nineties special effects, it makes you want to reach for the Vanilla Ice Gautier shades. The cast all seem remarkably surprised to see their names, though I assume they were told by the crew that they were filming the intro.

The premise of the show involves a mysterious unseen "ghost" (represented by a jumpy glowing light) who communicates with the Ghostwriter team by manipulating words and letters in the kids' everyday settings. The team quickly learns that a mysterious spirit has opted to communicate with them through the handily educational use of their reading and writing skills. While this ghost could likely have chosen all sorts of qualified, highly educated people to do his bidding, he insists on using elementary and middle-school aged children to solve his inoffensive and conveniently child-friendly brand of mysteries.

The "team" members, united by their common ability to communicate with the mysterious Ghostwriter, denoted their membership by wearing a special pen on a cord around their necks. That's right, as if they could not shove the educational component down viewer's throats any further, the team's all-powerful ability lay in their ability to write. I wouldn't call it a subtle metaphor, but hey, it worked.

Of course, just like real-life children, they had freakishly neat typewriter-grade penmanship and wrote at the slowest possible pace to ensure that their young viewers could actually grasp what was happening. Fortunately for those with limited literary prowess, each story arc took a remarkable four or five half-hour episodes to solve. Especially in a time before rampant over-prescribing of attention-deficit medications, it's nearly inconceivable children actually mustered the attention spans to follow a single mystery storyline over a weeks-long run. Ghostwriter clearly had some form of hypnotic power over its viewers, as the show was spectacularly popular throughout it three seasons.

Ghostwriter was not merely a television series; it was an educational franchising powerhouse boasting CD-ROMs, books, VHS releases, classroom curricula, and of course, replica Ghostwriter pens so viewers at home could "play along". I never had any luck solving the mysteries, but I do have a mini Lisa Frank notebook somewhere full of all of the clues tirelessly scribbled in admittedly poorer-than-Ghostwriter-team penmanship.

There are hundreds of Ghostwriter episodes floating around on the internet today, but I leave you with the original. As if you were not already convinced that Samuel L. Jackson is in every piece of motion-picture media every produced, he also plays Jamal's father in Ghostwriter. I present to you the first episode of Ghost writer, "Ghost Story:"

Link to exhausting log of Ghostwriter episode synopses: guide

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Sampling of Bestselling School Age Children's Books of the 80s and 90s, Part I

Welcome to part one of what promises to be an exciting and memory-charging series on school age children's books. For many of us now-avid readers, our elementary school years were an influential and formative time for developing and fostering our love for books. Week after week, our teachers or librarians would read aloud to us from some new and exciting children's literary option. As our skills progressed, we took great pride in spending out silent reading period devouring our very own chapter books. It truly was a simple pleasure.

These days, we often take our own literacy for granted. We spend hours at a time blankly staring into the pixelated void of a computer scren, unthinkingly consuming great chunks of information conveniently written at an 8th grade reading level. It can be an effort to recall those times for which a good book was a good cure for what ailed us. Even the most ravenous readers among us can all collectively admit that you just can't cuddle up with a Kindle. Or, I assume, bring it in the bathtub. I've yet to try that one out, but I think it's pretty safe bet you don't want to be reading off the equivalent of a literacy toaster while submerged in a body depth's quantity of water.

This Part I list is, as the name implies, only the beginning. I welcome any and all suggestions for other highly influential books from your formative school age years. Drop your favorites in the comments and hey, who knows? You might just see it in Part II. I'm looking at you, lurkers. Don't worry, though, I won't make you do all the work. I'll get you started with a few gems from my own reading-crazed childhood:

Sarah, Plain and Tall

If there was ever a book with the power to spark the interest of young girls in historical fiction, Sarah, Plain and Tall is a viable contender. Who would have thought that a story about a mail-order bride could be so touching and poignant? It may not sound like a theme that would resonate well with elementary school girls, but author Patricia Maclachlan tells the tale with great skill. Like the American Girl series, Sarah, Plain and Tall fooled many of us into an impromptu history lesson, transporting us to the world of 100 years prior. We may not all have set out with the intention of learning a history lesson, but MacLachlan sets us up to find one by default.

Indian in the Cupboard

We've come a long way, baby. I'm surprised the 2010 edition hasn't been retitled Native American in the Cupbaord. What the book may lack in political correctness it supplements with great imagination and stimulating creativity. Lynne Reid Banks gives us the story of Omri, a young boy whose disappointing birthday haul includes an Indian action figure and an allegedly boring cabinet. Insert one into the other--I'll let the smartest among you figure out which goes where--and the Indian comes to life as the miniature chief Little Bear. Some may rightfully argue it's not the most enlightened view of Native American culture, but the story is a compelling one nonetheless.

The Way Things Work

Technology and science can be confusing topics for young children. Luckily we had David Macaulay's to unlock their secrets in a comprehensible and engaging way, complete with his useful wooly mammoth sidekick. If you're looking for a way to trick a kid into enjoying perusal of a reference book, this may just be the book for you. They probably know better than to read about building a spaceship straight from the dry and colorless prose of the encyclopedia, but this beautifully illustrated and kid-friendly volume just might do the trick.


Some may not find Superfudge on par with Blume's preceding Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, but it does give us a charming continuation of Peter and Fudge's story with the new addition of younger sister "Tootsie." Browsing Amazon leads me to believe a small contingency of uptight parents spoke out against the book's defiance of childlike belief in Santa Claus. I say give Blume a break. After all, she is Jewish.


Roald Dahl gives us an interesting twist to consider: what if the children are smart, good-intentioned, and moral while the parents act out and carefreely disregard the rules? Such is the case in the wildly popular novel Matilda, the story of an extraordinarily brilliant young girl whose parents could care less about her seemingly limitless potential. The book is funny but also a bit dark, giving it a boost in the edge department. I'm still scared if I mess up at work I'll end up in the Chokey. Thanks, Dahl.


Gary Paulsen's Hatchet tells the story of 13-year old Brian, a brave young boy who encounters an unlikely adventure when the pilot of his single-passenger plane has a heart attack and plunges him into the mysterious depths of the Canadian wildnerness. While Brian is not much of an outdoorsman to begin with, he develops a keen sense of survival through the aid of his trusty hatchet. The book's vivid detail makes us long for wilderness adventures of our own, though my own preference of remote control fireplaces over the real thing leads me to believe the desire didn't totally resonate.

Walk Two Moons

Sharon Creech gives children a relatable and compelling character in her Walk Two Moons protoganist Salamanca Tree Hiddle. Like most children, Sal has problems with her parents, but unlike many of our benign grievances she's truly facing some difficult issues. The book transitions fluidly from the past to the present, weaving a complex tale. The story is pretty complicated for a preteen novel, but unlike many books aimed as young readers, it didn't insult our intelligence. There's something to be said for an author who takes child readers as seriously as they take their own literary endeavors.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Klutz Books

Have you ever longed to fashion your hair in a complicated four-strand fishtail braid? How about learning to juggle beanbags? Perhaps a strong desire to master the game of jacks? Or maybe you were just looking to learn some impressive cat's cradle party tricks? Whatever the highly esoteric interest, it seemed the ever-creative Klutz Press had a book for you. I'm not sure what level of mind-readers they employed throughout the 90s, but it seemed the moment I developed an interest in anything there they were were with a full-color how-to guide. Pretty good.

There was something that felt devilishly forbidden about selecting a book with toys, games, or tricks attached. It felt sort of like cheating. Our parents brought us to the bookstore in hopes of us developing a strong and complex love affair with classical literature, only to leave with a how-to book on cootie catchers complete with step-by-step instructions and origami paper.

The purchase wasn't a total loss--these interactive and highly durable books had the power to entertain us for hours. Some of them even managed to sneak in some science or math learned, though many of books are blissfully unrelated to anything remotely academic. Our parents were usually more than happy to sacrifice our potential intellectual growth for some much-needed quiet time. The pure level of focus and intensity with which these books consumed us were probably worth several times their $14.95 price tag. $14.95 is, after all, a small price to pay for an afternoon of activity fixation. It was by no means a permanent solution to our perpetual juvenile boredom, but the series developed enough kid-friendly titles to keep us sufficiently occupied for long stretches of time.

It's still tough for me to walk by a Klutz display in the children's section at Barnes and Noble without some tug of biblical-level covetousness. Maybe it's just the kid in me, but it feels like even my external adult wants some part in learning to wrap my hair in colorful embroidery floss patterns or cracking road trip boredom-curing brain teasers. Klutz Press has a little something for everyone; their how-to books have the power to convince us we can conquer any task or learn any skill...until we actually sit down and try, of course. It's often far too complicated. Regardless, at least they gave us the license to try. That's got to count for something, somewhere.

Klutz released dozens of interactive children's books throughout our childhood period, so it's nearly impossible to categorize all of the most memorable. We can look at a few examples here, but feel free to share your own favorites in the comments. Just because I never owned Klutz's Most Amazing Thumb Doodles Book doesn't mean it didn't have a disproportionately profound impact on your growth and development.

Some of these were just masquerading as books; they hadn't truly earned their spot on bookstore shelves, they were simply granted it by size default. In reality, books like the Jacks guide were nothing more than a set of game pieces paired with an oversized instruction manual. Nevertheless, it was an easy-to-read introduction to onesies, twosies, the whole shebang. I've yet to conquer sixsies.

The Klutz Book of Magic

I'm still determined to master these tricks. I never really had the patience for them when I was in the book's intended 9-12 age range, but if I had I like to imagine I'd be onstage somewhere freeing someone from an Aztec Tomb as The Final Countdown dramatically plays me out. The Amazon reviewers swear it has given them a career in birthday party and nursing home performance, so I feel pretty inadequate over my post-book lack of magical marketability.

Mock if you must, but I once took a hairstyling class at a children's creative gift shop that came with this book. It was something of a dream come true. This book taught me everything I know about securing my hair into an element-proof braid to disguise its listlessness after a long night of weekday drinking. Thanks, Klutz Press!

The Official Koosh Book: Kooshy Games and Activities

If you've got the word Kooshy as a major descriptor in your title, you've got to know it's going to be nonstop rubber filament-filled fun. From "Koosh the Koosh" to "Where the Koosh at?" it's pretty much a non-stop thrill ride.

Card Games

The guys at Klutz had a seemingly never-ending supply of card games, tricks, and handy attached decks with which to learn some serious skills. I'm sure our parents were so proud when we started referring to ourselves as the book's cover did as "Card Sharks."

Cootie Catcher
Most of us didn't need a book to learn this, but it certainly didn't hurt as a useful guide for variety and style choice. It even came with some preprinted cards that only required folding. Brilliant.

Touted by Klutz as "A Kids' Science Museum in a Book," Explorabook was the perfect solution to a nerdy kid's abundance of spare time. All you needed was a magnet, a mirror, and a few other goodies and you were well on your way to independent science project mastery.

Stop! The Watch: A Book of Everyday, Ordinary, Anybody Olympics

Further proof that children are incredibly easily amused. All we need is a stopwatch and we're set. We're also ready and going, possibly on our marks. Are you feeling any of these stopwatch jokes? I'm laying them on pretty thick.

Who says lanyard is just for summer camp? Klutz encouraged us to engage in plastic lacing year round, leaving our parents to wonder what exactly they were going to do with a twelfth neon keychain.

Devil Sticks

These were a pretty popular pastime in the 90s, but the maneuvers could be pretty tricky. I never managed to master it, but I also never owned the book. Or the sticks. A girl can dream, though.

Kid Travel

We had this one in my family, and it truly was a lifesaver. In the days before portable DVD players, we needed something to keep our attention deficit prone brains occupied. This book more than fit the bill with its puzzles, games, and activities. Parents everywhere rejoiced wildly.

Cat's Cradle
This book taught us the ultimate distraction with the simplest of tools: a single unending round piece of string that we could arrange into various tangles and finger-squishing configurations. It may not have been rocket science, but it was challenging in a mind-numbing kind of way.

These books are just the tip of the Klutz Press iceberg. The company released dozens of books throughout the 90s, most of which provoked our creative spirit and entertained our hard-to-focus minds. And if they gave our parents a few minutes of much-needed sanity, well, that was just icing on the how-to book cake.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Memorable 80s and 90s PSA Campaigns

I wish I could take credit for this picture, but I just found it on Amazon. Funny, though, right?

No matter how hip and focus group-tested you aim to make your public service announcement campaign, it faces pretty dire odds of coming off as incredibly, mockably cheesy. It's just the nature of the medium. There's no cool way to say something totally buzzkillish and square, so you may as well shoot for saying it memorably.

This was the strategy these campaigns took, capitalizing deftly on their 30-second moment of influence over impressionable young people. Through the power of incessant repetition and catchy songs or phrasing, these publicly serving commercials took up residence in our malleable juvenile minds. Whether we were young enough to buy into their message or old enough to snark on their relentless harping, they undoubtedly held enough intrigue to be worth remembering fifteen-odd years down the road.

The Incredible Crash Test Dummies

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had a message for us: don't be a dummy. The clearest way to transmit that message? Actual crash test dummies. Sure, their crash-induced injuries were played for laughs, but we soon learned that driving without a seat belt was no joke. Thanks, Vince and Larry. We owe you one.

Mr Yuk

What easier way to warn non-literate small children of the danger of hazardous noxious household chemicals than with a giant, disgusted neon green grimacing face? I certainly can't think of any. Wikipedia helpfully points out that children may associate the traditional poison emblem of a skull and crossbones with pirates rather than poison, so we definitely need an alternative symbol. Right. I know when I'm trying to break into the yummy candy vials in the medicine cabinet, I'm pretty sure that one with the Jolly Roger on it is full of pirates. It all adds up so perfectly.


I'm still waiting for my opportunity to take a real bite out of crime. I imagine it would be tasty, meaty and substantial, just as McGruff sold it to me in the 80s and 90s. McGruff empowered us to stand up to bullies and engage in healthy behaviors. Plus, we could write him for some free safety-themed comic books and pamphlets. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Smokey the Bear

Smokey's been around for years, so it always surprises me a little that we still have forest fires. I mean, don't these mischievous match-wielding kids ever watch TV? If they had, they would know that they were the only hands on deck capable of preventing forest fires.

The More You Know

NBC really knew how to cut to the PSA core: short, to the point, and featuring celebrity spokespeople. They also threw in a fun shooting star-type logo with a memorable series of tones that I'm pretty sure are supposed to be the instrumental track of the words "the more you know." I've yet to verify this with actual research, but it's the way I've always interpreted it.

This is Your Brain on Drugs

Ah, the classics. Talk about to the point--"This is your brain on drugs" practically invented to-the-pointness in public service messages. This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions? Nope, think I can take it from here. Thanks, ominously sizzling frying pan.

I Learned it by Watching you

"Who taught you to do this stuff?" "You, alright? I learned it from watching you!" Yikes. Talk about a major buzzkill for recreationally drug-using parents. Guess what? Smoke one joint and your kids will turn into hardcore crack addicts. That's just basic science. They learned it from you, alright? They learned it from watching you.

Dontcha Put it in Your Mouth

This one is sort of terrifying. What exactly are those furry things supposed to be? If anyone has any insights, please enlighten me. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when the ad guys were hawking this one to the Concerned Children's Advertisers. What do you think that studio recording session was like? It just leaves me with so many hilarious mental images about the possibilities.

Don't Copy that Floppy

This one truly speaks for itself, though today it would probably need a spokesperson to explain to kids what a floppy was. You know, the archaic giant computer disks from days of yore? Nowadays you can pirate anything online, but in the 80s and 90s your best bet was copying a game you borrowed from the primitive computer lab. If you did, someone would probably rap about it.

Check Yourself

In this FOX Kids series of PSAs, the network taught us to check ourselves before we wrecked ourselves while cleverly avoiding copyright infringement on the Ice Cube song. These ads taught us to imagine rewinding our unsportsmanlike actions and replacing them with good old fashioned polite conduct. At the time, we may have thought they were pretty helpful, but watching them now it's clear that they were among the cheesiest of public service ads.

Nickelodeon Orange Apeel

Until I just typed the words now, I'd completely forgotten Orange Apeel ever existed. Now that I've brought the memory to the forefront, though, it's clear as slime. Nickelodeon put its own slant on PSAs, producing a series of brief bumper-like spots teaching us a succinct but nevertheless valuable lesson. If it hadn't been for Omar from Wild and Crazy Kids' plea, I may never have become physically fit. I'm still meaning to do that, by the way.

Saved by the Bell: There's no Hope with Dope

Saved by the Bell - No Hope With Dope
Uploaded by ox-stargirl-xo. -

In one word, would I use dope? Nope. These kids are right! I appreciate Brandon Tarnikoff's hit idea for the new season. I'm not sure how much more of this I can paraphrase of this for laughs without generating any of my own original content, but truly I don't need any. It mocks for itself. From the moment these good looking teens uttered a single word each into the camera with deliberate seriousness, this was pure PSA gold.

Gopher Cakes

How fat did you feel at that moment you realized Gopher Cakes were fictional? Undoubtedly, to many of us they looked legitimately deliciousness, so it was a major let down to find that they were actually just poking fun at our tendency to consume foods that paved the path for our eventual morbid obesity. I still occasionally have dreams of covering one with whipped cream and swallowing it in a single gulp, like a python with a field mouse. Delicious.

These PSAs are certainly corny, but they do for the most part manage to get their point across. Into our teenage years many PSA agencies changed strategies and opted for cold, seriously threatening public service ads in lieu of the beloved lighthearted fare of our childhoods. Scare tactics work sometimes, sure, but we'll never be reminiscing about them in 2024. Stick to what you know, PSA people. Corny cartoons, puppets, and jingles are clearly the way to our still-impressionable hearts.

PS If you're looking for a drug-related PSA that's not on here, check out the full post here. In it I promise to do a part two about something hilarious I must have thought of at the time but have since forgotten, so here's my best shot at it. Not here, really; above. You know. Press Page Up. There you go.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cheesy Made for TV Movies. Alternate Title: Our Favorite 90s Teen Stars Sell Out

Cheesy made-for-TV movies: are there any other kind? The whole idea behind a Movie of the Week is that it probably didn't pass muster to warrant a big-budget, big-screen premiere and thus was beamed straight to your television instead. Lucky for you, you get to watch it in the comfort of your own home rather than being ridiculed at the ticket counter.

As someone whose mother only tunes the TV to three channels (for the record: Lifetime, Hallmark, and Lifetime Movie Network), I am well-versed in the art of the made-for-TV movie. They're not hard to miss. You can usually identify them in the TV listings by title alone. I'll give you a hint: Article Adjective Noun/Verb: The ________ _________ Story. Popular variations of adages ("Too Little, Too Late" "For the Love of a Woman") made good titles, as did vague, overgeneralized cliches ("A Mother's Love" "A Daughter Scorned"). It wasn't exactly rocket science.

The 90s brought us some particularly cheesy TV movies featuring some of our favorite teen stars desperate to be taken seriously as actors. I'll give you a hint: a movie of the week isn't going to cut it. For the most part, viewers just couldn't get over the idea that Zach Morris raped DJ Tanner or that the pink Power Ranger was an anorexic gymnast. I'm still struggling with the idea that Rebecca from Life Goes On killed Donna Martin.

Here are just a few of the many, many made-for-TV movies starring out favorite teen sellouts:

No One Would Tell (Candace Cameron, Fred Savage)

Kevin Arnold, how could you? This one came as a real shock to me. In 1996's No One Would Tell, Fred Savage played high school BMOC Bobby Tennison. He begins dating the eager Stacy (Cameron) and wins her over with all sorts of romantic gestures. In Lifetime movie world, that's actually an ominous sign. Actually, if you're male and you're in a Lifetime movie, it's almost guaranteed you're going to have to rape, kill, or at least abuse somewhere. I think there's a clause in the actors' contract.

Predictably, Bobby grows more and more jealous, and his behavior eventually descends into abuse. Blinded by her love, Stacy refuses to leave, despite experience with her mother's abusive relationships. Bobby ends up slitting her throat and throwing her in the river, and Sally Jessy Raphael shows up as a judge to give us the requisite talking-to: "You have a responsibility to the people you care about. If you see them hurting or you see them in trouble, you step in and you TELL someone, so that this does not happen again." It's not the most subtle of messages, but at least it's a good one.

Fifteen and Pregnant (Kirsten Dunst)

Will they ever stop playing this movie? My guess is no, considering I've probably seen it around thirty times since it premiered in 1998. Kirsten Dunst stars as Tina, who is (you guessed it!) both fifteen and pregnant. Someone in their movie naming department really deserves a medal for this one.

This is pretty much the quintessential impregnated teenage girl movie, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It has it's moments, though like all Lifetime movies it tends to be a bit melodramatic and overwrought. It's not a bad movie overall, though it pales in comparison to MTV's 16 and Pregnant. It's probably not quite as scripted as the MTV reality show.

Without Consent: Trapped and Deceived (Jennie Garth)

Jennie Garth did a lot of these made-for-TV movie projects over the years, but this one may have taken the take for theatrical dramatics. She starred as Laura, a wild teenager who gets into a drunk driving accident. Her parents send her to a psychiatric facility in lieu of disciplining her themselves. The asylum, it turns out, abuses and drugs its patients. The doctors try to hold her down with tranquilizers, but she escapes and tells her parents the sordid tale of her experience there. They don't believe her, she goes back, they do believe her, they try to get her out. It may be based on a true story, but it's an old and tired one.

A Friend to Die For (Kellie Martin, Tori Spelling)

Yeah, yeah, I know, in the 90s we were supposed to buy that Tori Spelling was the popular girl because she got a nose job and a dye job and her dad was Aaron Spelling, but I secretly always thought she was more convincing as a nerd on Saved by the Bell. Regardless, here she was in a 1994 Move of the Week playing The Most Popular Girl in School, bitchy cheerleader Stacy. Life Goes On's Kellie Martin stars as Angela, the Girl with Low Self Esteem for whom we should all feel sorry until she stabs someone.

Like many made-for-TV movies, A Friend to Die For is based on a true story, and a juicy one at that. Angela is desperate to fit in and joins the Larks, a club to which many of her more popular classmates belong. Angela idolizes rich cheerleader Stacy, who couldn't want less to do with her. Angela vies for Stacy's attention and eventually gets her alone and confesses her admiration for her. Stacy is justifiably freaked out, and tells Angela she's going to tell everyone at school what a weirdo she is. What's a girl to do? Why, stab Stacy to death, of course. Oh, and blame a less popular goth girl. Eventually the truth comes out about Angela, but the whole thing serves as a sort of cautionary tale against cliques. Ignore a less popular girl and face uncertain homocide. Something like that.

A Burning Passion: The Margaret Mitchell Story (Shannen Doherty)

Biopic made-for-TV movies can be dangerous territory, particularly if the lead actor isn't quite capable of carrying the project. Such was the case of Shannen Doherty in her portrayal of Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, who couldn't even be bothered to read the book (though she did see the movie!). The whole thing reeked of a cross-promotional ploy to promote Scarlett, CBS's miniseries based on the sequel to Gone With the Wind. Doherty's Southern accent was truly, truly awful, and her performance was rightfully ripped apart by critics. Frankly, Shannen, we just didn't give a damn.

She Cried No (Candace Cameron, Mark-Paul Gosselaar)

Candace Cameron just can't catch a break in these, can she? It seems she's always pitted up against some teen superstar as helpless victim. Why they always have to cast the most wholesome TV guys in these awful male antagonist roles is beyond me. I get it if they're looking for an image change, but I just don't know if abusive boyfriend of frat boy rapist is the direction they should be going.

Like all made-for-TV movies that deal with the theme of drinking in college, the message is that it's always, always bad, and you will inevitably end up getting yourself into terrible situations. Cameron plays Melissa, a sweer underage co-ed who has too much to drink at a fraternity party and is date raped by Scott (Gosselaar). Melissa eventually stands up for herself and takes action against Scott, which is great, but I can't let go of the idea that Zack Morris could be so cruel to DJ Tanner. It just doesn't add up.

Perfect Body (Amy Jo Johnson)

Amy Jo Johnson (the pink ranger and Felicity's friend) plays Andie, a rising gymnastics star who develops an eating disorder. She eventually turns to bulimia upon the suggestion of a friend and ends up passing out at competitions. It's all very The Best Little Girl in the World, but overall it's not bad for a cautionary tale. It highlights the pressure young girls (and particularly athletes) to be thin. Still, I just couldn't stop thinking of Johnson as the pink Ranger. You can take the girl out of the superhero outfit, but you can't take the superhero outfit out of the girl.

It seems the formula still holds true: if all else fails for a former teen star, they can always make a buck or two in a tearjerker Movie of the Week. Artistic integrity is always second place to a steady paycheck. Considering Tori Spelling received a whopping one hundred thou for her participation in A Friend to Die For, it's probably the actors who get the last laugh.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Magic of Science: 90s Shows that Made it Fun to be a Nerd

Considering educational science-themed kids shows of today have names like Dude, What Would Happen?, you have to wonder how far this type of programming is going to backslide. In our day, these shows didn't need cheesy gimmicks to pull in our attention. Except science-themed music video parodies on Bill Nye. Oh, and the penguin puppets on Beakman's World. And the swashbuckling sword fights on Mr. Wizard's World. Okay, so I made that last one up, but the underlying point was that no matter what the decade, you usually need a little more than straight educational segments to sell science to kids.

These shows must have had something special, though, to get us to voluntarily subject ourselves to learning in our precious free time. I'm sure some parental coaxing or even in-class watching sessions may have been in order, but no matter the means, we were watching. These shows found a magical point of compromise between education and entertainment and served it to us in a bubbling beaker of science learning. The producers and writers knew that kids are inherently inattentive, so they were sure to throw a fair amount of explosions in the mix.

The straightforwardness of these show's educational value was remarkable. Unlike some of its edutaining contemporaries (I'm looking at you, Ghostwriter), kid's science shows weren't tricking us into learning while we thought we were simply enjoying some mindless show. With science programs, it was all out in the open. Sure, they took pains to make learning fun and interesting, but they never once tried to hide the fact that we were doing what amounted to extracurricular science homework. Whatever the impetus for our spontaneous bouts of learning, our teachers and parents weren't complaining.

Bill Nye the Science Guy

Catchy theme song, right? It's all I can do to not start chanting Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill! alone in the comfort of my living room. The folks behind Bill Nye definitely achieved their goal of making science seem fun and exciting, at least in the opening credits. They take all the vaguely science-y sounding words and use them as mere background noise for the the snappy theme. The things floating across our screens seem vaguely educational, yes, but when they're flashing in a maniacal strobe-light manner, they seem just a tad more exciting than they do in our Earth Science textbooks.

Bill Nye was a fast-paced, engaging show aimed at the learning resistant tween demographic. The show utilized humor and sight gags while constantly cutting from one experiment to the next. It didn't give us time to get bored and change the channel. If we were nearing that boredom threshold, though, Bill knew just what to do to keep us hooked.

Two words: song parodies. Yes, you heard (er, read) right. Nye offered us Weird Al-esque song parody musical videos with scientific themes. The "Soundtrack of Science" segment was truly ridiculous, but it demonstrated the show's good sense to not take itself to seriously. For your enjoyment, I offer my very favorite Bill Nye parody, the truly absurd "Bill's Got Boat" a parody of "Baby Got Back" sung by fictitious musical act (wait for it) Sure-Floats-A-Lot.

Can't you see she just wants to be buoyant?

To read the full post on Bill Nye the Science Guy, click here

3-2-1 Contact

The visuals in that intro really make you nostalgic for a simpler time. When I see that bar graph on that black screen computer, I just light up. It's kind of cute and kitschy-looking now, don't you think?

The show also made a version especially for in-class use, further blurring the line between formal and voluntary learning. You may have enjoyed watching it in school, but you were still essentially shackled to your desk by law. It's a fine line, don't you think?

3-2-1 Contact
had a variety of segments including features on such exciting scientific topics as volcanoes and robots. My favorite recurring segment was The Bloodhound Gang, which back in the day meant cool scientifically-minded child detectives, but now brings to mind the images of humping music video stars dressed as monkeys. Thanks a lot, musical group Bloodhound Gang. You've tainted the innocence of my intellectually curious youth.

I yearned to answer the phone, "Bloodhound Detective Agency: wherever there's trouble we're there on the double!" I'm thinking of starting to pick up at work that way, just for fun.

This intro is pure mid-to-late 80s, and that song is amazing

Mr. Wizard's World

If that intro just doesn't do it for you, check out this 1990 promo. It just screams excitement. Learn to make clouds! Blow up two balloons at once! Run backwards! Golly, Mr. Wizard, is there anything you can't do?

This 80s and 90s version was a revival of Mr Wizard's (nee Don Herbert) show decades earlier. In the 1950s and 60s, Watch Mr Wizard launched thousand of Mr Wizard science clubs. If you're ever feeling a little nerdy for liking the third version of the show (that's the 80s/90s one), just think to yourself, by 1955 100,000 kids had applied to be club members. Now that's nerdy.

We may not have had local watch-along clubs, but we did get our own healthy dose of fun experiments at which to marvel. Mr Wizard would perform some sort of mysterious trick, we'd ooh and ahh, and then we'd be stuck sitting around for the tedious explanation. The show ran in reruns for several years and often played very early in the morning. I distinctly remember irritating my parents with my wide-awakeness at 6 am and being stuck in front of the TV for some good old fashioned science learning. Oh, the memories.

Newton's Apple

If you thought TV scientists from the 1950s were interesting, just look at the winners we got to host Newton's Apple. An NPR broadcaster, a museum director, and even future MTV News correspondent SuChin Pak. Now there's a selection! Of course, this was all over the span of several years, but you get the general idea.

I admit my allegiance to this show stems from a similar place to my fervent devotion to Mystery Science Theater 3000. Being from Minneapolis, these shows were something of hometown heroes, produced in my own backyard. Well, not literally in my own backyard. Though I do think our shed would have been a lovely scenic backdrop for bottle rocket launching.

Beakman's World

Beakman's World was sort of like a modified Bill Nye. It covered many of the same topics and scientific phenomena, only its eccentric host was fictitious. Beakman was played by Paul Zaloom, a lively pupeteer and actor who brought to life the world of science through amusing experiments. Beakman was quite popular with the lab-assisting ladies; he had three comely female scientific companions throughout the course of the show. He also had a guy in a rat suit. Don't ask, just infer that it was funny.

They also had the aforementioned puppet penguins, which were of course adorable. They were sort of crotchety and judgmental, but then again they lived in a place where it was consistently below zero temperature. I'll cut them some slack.

These TV shows prove that adults needed not be sneaky to try to get us to sit down and watch something educational, they just needed to be kid friendly and have a good sense of humor. Oh, and have lots of explosions. Lots of explosions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Frequently Banned Young Adult Books: 90s Edition

On an aside, this is my 200th post! That's a whole lot of 90s. PS don't forget to enter all and any personal or family Glamour Shots in the Glamour Shots Challenge! Send your undoubtedly embarrassing photos to

Not only did I miss banned books week, this poster is from last year!

I know I'm about a month too late to engage in any sort of nationally conscious discussion during Banned Books week; my complete inattention to detail and timely pertinent bookstore displays is starting to show. It's an important issue at any time, though, and if it means we get to join in on mocking all those who seek to censor our allegedly inappropriate literary content, then all the better. If there's a bannedwagon out there, I'm jumping on it. Get it? Bannedwagon? Anyone?

*Cranes neck and shields eyes from monitor glare to gaze out at bewildered readers through their computer screens*

Painful puns aside, it's an issue many of us may not have been aware of as children but that continues to plague libraries and school systems everywhere. In any given society, there's bound to be a vocal contingency of uptight people engaging in the rectal transport of sticks. In a society that enourages free speech, however, the irony of their existence is no doubt lost on their closed minds. That is, the free speech stipulations that allow them to spout misguided uneducated drivel without consequence is the same ruling that upholds these authors' collective right to publish what they please. Quite a conundrum, huh?

Unsurprisingly, parents make up the majority of literary naysayers. It's natural for parents to be concerned about their innocent children's easily corruptible young minds, but the idea of each of us having our own parents is that families can make decisions for themselves and not society at large. Unfortunately, whoever yells the loudest often gains the widest audience, meaning these book banners garnered a lot of attention for their shouting and finger-pointing.

The most frequent reasons cited for protesting a book are sexuality, language, or "unsuitable material". In short, our intellectual freedom to grow and mature as eager young readers is most often suppressed by a bunch of prudes. Because why encourage a child to enjoy reading when you can teach them the value of complaining?

Here's a light sampling of the most frequently banned young adult books during the 90s. Many of the books were written decades earlier, but remained in the forefront of the censorship agenda:

The Giver

In this 1984-esque Utopian science fiction novel, Lois Lowry outlines a world of compliant individuals content to languish in their colorless world. The protagonist Jonas is stuck in a frightening sterile world where people are tightly controlled and exist without emotion. They even take pills to quell the sexual "stirrings" they feel beginning from puberty. You'd think our book banners would be all for that with all of their anti-sex rhetoric, but apparently what comes next is too inexcusable to give the book any merit in their eyes.

The Giver was banned largely for its themes of community-sanctioned suicide and euthanasia, the "release" characters receive if they fail to fit into the well-ordered society. Admittedly it's a pretty heavy issue for young children, but the book touts these behaviors as a negative consequence of an overly uniform society. In more common terms, they're saying it's bad. Don't do it. The book has a strong message of individuality and personal freedom, which we all know censors don't like one bit. It's no wonder they don't want us thinking for ourselves; they want us thinking for themselves.


Oh, and pretty much every other book written by Blume over the span of the preceding few decades made the list. Some authors really know how to cause a stir amongst conservative morally straitjacketed PTA types. Forever was a shoo-in for raising a ruckus with its explicitly sexual content, detailing the experiences of a high school girl and her boyfriend's foray into physical intimacy. Let's put it this way: the book was released in 1975 and remains in one of the top spots on the banned books chart. I'll give you a hint why it remains so popular among young readers: it's about sex.

On an aside, some statisticians speculate that the dip in popularity of the name Ralph is in direct correlation to the fact that that's what the protagonist's boyfriend names his, er, private parts. Now that's a lasting impact.

Go Ask Alice

This story has a seriously awesome punchline. After years of speculation over the identity of the anonymous author of this drug-addled teenage memoir, it was revealed that it was actually penned by a Mormon youth minister. One of the censor-mongers' own! Ba-Dum-Ching!

Okay, so that didn't really kick the censorship habit. If anything, it just added fuel to the fire. As an anonymous diary, the book was provocative in its depictions of sexuality and extensive drug use. As a book written by a Mormon youth minister, it lost a little of that street credibility. Just a tad. Author Beatrice Sparks allegedly based the novel on the diary of one of her real psychiatry patients, but still. Regardless of the fact that the book is a cautionary tale against drug use, some parents obviously their kids will be drawn to try drugs after reading descriptions of the main character trying to bite her fingers off on a bad trip. Right.


Not all banned books were contested on sexuality. Some were just plain unsavory. At least that's what parents claimed of the wildly popular Goosebumps series. The books had kids delighting in reading, but apparently at the cost of exposure to some cartoon-grade violence. The horror!

Alice Series

A book about teenagers with sex on the brain? Why, I've never heard of such a thing! On her own blog just a few weeks ago, Reynolds Naylor addressed the issue of parents protesting the content of her book:

It’s usually parents who want their children kept “pure,” as many parents tell me, “from harmful influences.” The mother of a ten year old girl was very angry with me for talking about how babies are conceived in Lovingly Alice. She wrote that since her daughter read that book, “the words penis and vagina will be forever ingrained on her mind.” Another mother tearfully accosted me because she found the word “condoms” in a novel for teenagers, and said, “My eighth grade son doesn’t know what condoms are and I don’t want him to know.” Whenever I hear comments like these, my heart really goes out to their children.

Well put, Phyll. Parents are entitled to raise their children however they see fit, and they certainly don't need to check this one out of the library for their kids if it's in contention with their moral values. It's general right to exist, however, is a whole different story. (That story is called Achingly Alice, available at bookstores near you!)

The Boy Who Lost His Face

The Boy Who Lost His Face was written by Louis Sachar, the author behind the Wayside School books. The protests against insinuations of witchcraft I may support, but I can understand them. My favorite challenge, however, was the inclusion of "obscene gestures". Yes, you read that right. The reader doesn't actually see any obscene gestures, he or she just reads a description of them.

Harry Potter

This one is probably sort of a given. Sorcery, witchcraft, magic: all that good stuff is more than enough ammunition to set off religious protest groups. Despite the fact that the novels fell into the fantasy genre, many censors fear that that faithful children will abandon their Biblical aspirations in favor of a career in the dark arts.

Many parents also feared the books were a bit too dark and scary for young children, which is a reasonably legitimate concern. I'd advise for those parents to not let their six year olds read it. On the other side of the banning spectrum, some critics contended Harry and his pals set a bad example for their kids. He gets into all sorts of mischief and doesn't always obey his elders. You know, he has fun and he's a kid. Quick, hide the book!

Scary Stories

They're too scary. We get it. Let's move on.

The Face on the Milk Carton

The "sexual content" charge, though minimal, I can kind of understand, but the "challenging of authority" allegation? I mean, the book is about a girl who's been kidnapped by her own grandparents. Whose authority exactly is in question? Is it just the general notion that adults can make mistakes, commit crimes, or otherwise act unwisely? It's a bit of a stretch, to say the least.

Everyone has the right to their own opinion, and my disparaging remarks about the tightly wound moral crusaders is just another blissful exercise in free speech. Let me freely say that most of these challenges are the most ridiculous, asinine ideas ever to spew from the mouths of overzealous overprotective over-meddling parents. You, of course, have the freedom to disagree with me. That's the beauty of it. Embrace it. Freely.

Digg This!