Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Case of the Tired Novel: On revisiting favorite childhood books

When we first had kids, I imagined our family enjoying together many of the books from my childhood.

In my grandma's basement, green-covered Nancy Drews shared a shelf with the Hardy Boys. Time-crisp dust jackets broke at the creases as if they could no longer contain the adventures of 1950s and '60s kids' pulp. The Bobbsey Twins cheerfully solved crimes while hero dogs saved hapless humans time and time again. I don't think there was any book considered a classic on those shelves. My brother and I read them at every opportunity. They may not have been Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, but I marveled at sixteen-year-old Nancy's blue roadster, keen eye and seemingly limitless freedom.

At my small country grade school, the classics stood shoulder-to-shoulder waiting to fill any unoccupied student minute. Twain and Dickens were some of my favorites. These school's books also came from the years preceding mass market paperbacks.

Books seemed ageless. Of course I felt the distance of the years when reading, but the stories still breathed.

Even after weeding out the obvious twaddle, many books I loved did not stand up to the years when I tried to read them with our kids. And a few that they do like, I now actively dislike.

At present, the kids are obsessed with Encyclopedia Brown audiobooks. We listen to them in the car, the kids rapt in the riddles while Jim and I quietly snark about Idaville being the worst town in America. Despite a high case closure rate, crime is unusually high in Idaville. A known public menace is allowed to keep creating problems with no real consequences. Gambling and theft are high. People hide out from thugs. And worst of all, the police chief relies on his child to solve the crimes.

Often the cases are solved by details that are circumstantial at best. When Encyclopedia "proves" Bugs Meany is cheating a younger boy, Encyclopedia declares a letter and check forgeries because they are dated July 31st. While this may have been grand detective work in my childhood perception, an erroneously dated check now seems less like a smoking gun and more like a common paperwork error.

While social changes may make these old books seem outmoded, I'm becoming convinced that the literature of my childhood was inferior. It may have been the literary equivalent of the buddy parent: pandering and lacking complexity.

When I listen to Encyclopedia Brown with my kids, the books operate on a surface level. The heroes don't fear anything, and there's no moral complexity. Encyclopedia pronounces a verdict that everyone accepts no matter how thin the premise. The stories have all the depth and emotional authenticity of a Scooby-Doo episode.

That approach may have been enough when I was a kid, but there are so many better offerings today. I am convinced that children's literature has improved. It respects the young reader with complexity and depth in the stories and their emotions.

As a parent, I really appreciate this shift. I remember reading stories to try and understand the world around me- particularly the parts that adults didn't discuss. When the stories were preachy, prescriptive cautionary tales, they become predictable, relatively worthless and most offensively, not fun.

Accepting the limitations of my childhood favorites allows us to discover together the rich, new world of children's stories. Every parent who once loved Encyclopedia Brown should take the opportunity to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library alongside their kids.

This BAD summer, we'll discuss some of our other new and old family favorites.

Have you revisited your favorites?
How have your favorite books aged?

***Baby Toolkit is a tale told by a Midwestern gaming family, full of books and adventures, signifying something. We just don't know what. We are Amazon affiliates, so a small portion of purchases made through our links goes to pay for our domain name and general upkeep. Be sure to check out our gaming podcast at

Monday, June 01, 2015

Our BAD summer begins!

This rainy leftover-cake-for-breakfast morning* is the dawn of the kids' and I's summer together.

Our chaos-strewn house already looks like it was invaded by warring troops of toy and paper hoarding monkeys. We have a lot of work to make it a mere shambles again.

I couldn't be more excited. This summer holds so much potential, so much opportunity.

The kids and I decided to go for a BAD summer this year: book a day. We're going to try to read at least one book together every day. Rogue is four and Scout is a new reader, so we're setting our goal of one a day in the field of picture books. We're also planning on reading longer books aloud together throughout the week. Ranger and I will each be reading books at least 15 minutes a day every day.

Jim and I started reading chapter books aloud with the kids some evenings at dinner. There is magic in sharing the experience of books like Elise Broach's great beetle adventure Masterpiece and Doreen Cronin's retired rescue dog J.J. Tully mysteries The Trouble With Chickens, The Legend of Diamond Lil, and The Chicken Squad. As I looked up these titles, I found that both Broach and Cronin have extended these wonderful series with new titles. The kids ran into to look and we called Jim at work to tell him. The books are that good.

This summer we plan to cook, play, game, be creative, visit friends, make our home welcoming for visitors, laugh, dance, game, dream, listen to music, crack jokes,explore, learn, blow bubbles, share, help where we can, be part of our neighborhood and community, picnic, and recharge our souls.

Ranger and I will both be writing about the BAD books we find notable. I'm so excited that he's about to start writing here.

What should we be reading and doing?
What things are you planning?

May your summer be a wonderful adventure, friends!

*Even with leftover lemon cake available, the girls chose Cheerios. Ranger on the other hand, stumbled out of his room asking about the cake.

**Baby Toolkit is the ongoing story of a Midwestern family on the adventure that is life. We are astronauts on spaceship Earth taking in the vast wonder of the universe. We are also Amazon affiliates, so if you purchase after clicking through our links, a tiny bit of the proceeds become resources for future Jones endeavors. Check out our board game podcast at

Friday, January 23, 2015

Looking for a Great Midwestern Family Vacation? Gen Con Registration Opens Today!

Fun is in the eye of the beholder.
Today at noon (EST), badge registration opens for Gen Con Indy, the largest tabletop gaming convention in the United States!

We've been taking kids with us to this incredible event since Ranger was two, and this year he's old enough (9) to need his own badge.

The spectacle of cosplayers, giant games, and innovative interactive displays bewitch even toddlers. All our kids were agog at pirate musicians, belly dancers, superheros and supervillains. The kids have amassed photos with characters like the Mad Hatter, friendly dragons, the World's Tallest Leprechaun (a very talented stilt-walker), Storm Troopers, Waldo and other characters from our collective imagination.

After our first day with two-year-old Ranger at his first Gen Con, he wanted to wear a costume. Year One he kept wearing generic superhero shirt with a removable silver lamé cape. After that, he was a pint-sized Mario who kept growing. His little sister Scout soon joined in as a wee Luigi. A few years later, she became Lola, from the British children's books, and Ranger was even Lola's older brother Charlie for a day. More recently she and sister Rogue have hit the con as princesses. This year we're hoping to engineer some great game-themed costumed, but I'll save those for a later post.

The seemingly infinite opportunity for hands-on play in venues like the games library, demos in the main hall, Rio Grande room, open gaming, and Indie Games on Demand offer families opportunity to play lots of games together and with new people.

Ranger has been enjoying Paizo's Pathfinder Kids offerings. He especially loves how Scotty's Brewhouse offers a Pathfinder Tavern menu and decor. One of their Pathfinder posters was given to him by a kind manager and remains the pride of his room years later.

Gen Con has always had a great family gaming presence. Publishers like R & R Games, Out of the Box, Calliope, and Blue Orange games have long been dedicated to producing games compelling enough for adult hobbyists, but accessible enough for kids and teens. We were very excited to welcome kids' publisher HABA games in 2014.

As hobby gaming grows in popularity, game publishers like Asmodee, Paizo, Rio Grande, Fireside and Stronghold Games are offering more family offerings. Venerable franchises like Catan and Carcassonne are creating kids' editions. With these changes, Gen Con's main hall and events have more to offer families and parents who are bringing up kids in the hobby.

All these publishers producing family games means more great gaming opportunities in the main hall. We love playing giant games (like Out of the Box's Word on the Street and Calliope's Tsuro) and regular sized games in the Family Fun Pavilion of the exhibit hall.

A great game of Wassalpoag's protoype Echidna Traffic Jam

If you want a gaming getaway with the kids, Gen Con is hard to beat. Its Indianapolis location makes transportation and lodging more affordable.

Jim and I will highlight some of our favorite Gen Con offerings for families in upcoming weeks, and we'll post updates on our Gaming for Good presence at Gen Con.

But now, I need to go buy Ranger's first Gen Con badge. See you there?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fighting Monsters: Extra Life 2014

Next weekend, Jim, Ranger and I will fight some real-world monsters in our third annual Extra-Life board game marathon for Riley Hospital for Childen who gave our Rogue a life-saving cranial surgery in 2012.

Rogue is doing great these days, and we want to help other families who are going through heavy medical concerns like injuries, illnesses and developmental needs.

Riley is a special hospital where kids and their parents are cared for together. My eyes tear up when I remember the parent cart that circulates the hospital dispensing toiletries and other small items for caregivers staying with a patient. The smallest things are monumental when you don't want to leave an infant's bedside even for a moment.

If you want to change a life with your donation, Riley Hospital for Children is a great choice. Not only are they healing kids from Indiana and the rest of the world, they also contribute important research to the global medical community.

Please consider donating to Riley Hospital during Extra Life. Even spare change, added to other's spare change, will change lives for the better.

As an added incentive, if my fundraising goal is met by Sunday, October 25th at 6PM, Jim and I will live-tweet the 1982 made-for-TV movie Mazes and Monsters over Halloween weekend. 

One randomly drawn donor with a Mazes and Monsters note attached to their donation will win our second-hand copy of the movie! I will mail the DVD to the winner or the winner's designee (offer limited to the United States; substitution of Amazon Instant Watch Credit may also be available).

Please help me reach my goal for Riley kids and their families.

How bad is Mazes and Monsters?

That bad. And yes, that's Tom Hanks. We may own the only copy of the movie he hasn't personally purchased and destroyed.

Why is he screaming?
Well, not to spoil anything, I suspect it may be the hats...

Or scenes about painting miniatures...

Share some serious joy- donate to Riley today! Don't forget to note Mazes and Monsters if you want at a chance at the DVD!

Together we can slay real monsters!

***Baby Toolkit is the epistolary adventures of some geek parents and their family.  We're Amazon associates, so if you click on any Amazon links, a small portion of their profits comes to us. We use those funds to keep the digital homefires burning. We have no relationship with whoever produced or distributed this laughably bad film. You can also find us using our big people voices at, a podcast about board games and the communities they inspire. Thanks for reading the fine print. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Hold the Bacon: Preventing Fridge Disasters

Before we had kids, Jim and I rarely prepared meat at home. I'm slightly squeamish about it and we both benefit from a meatless diet.

Now that we have kids, I cook with meat more often. That means packages stored in our fridge. Sometimes those packages would leak and send me into a HAZMAT response.

Who has time for that?

One dedicated Pyrex dish later, if something drips or dribbles, I can just toss the meat dish in the VERY HOT dishwasher and move on with my day. The corner of my eye twitches a little less these days.

***Baby Toolkit is the quotidian revelations of a couple geek parents somewhere in the cornbelt. We are Amazon affiliates, so if you buy stuff through our links, you're supporting our online endeavors. Thanks for reading. My apologies to any vegetarian readers. Hear our voices at

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Hairband Carabiner 2.0: A Hack and a Hitch

I've been a Parent Hacks fan since early days. Way back in 2009, when Asha posted about storing hairbands on a carabiner, my only daughter was mostly bald, but already a rabid anti-hair accessory activist. The only efficient place for our hairbands was in the donate box.

A few years and a second girl later, I'm now corralling two sizes of ponytail holders.

A local friend reminded me of this hack. Apparently her daughter had hair in 2009. The hack worked well in holding the bands, but not in sorting them.

Without really long hair, my kids need two bands each for ponytails. Though I have unintentionally left the house wearing one neon green sneaker and one white one, my daughters are a bit more particular about things matching.

I didn't like wrestling the bands around on a scavenger hunt for identical pairs.

So, some of the bands got hitched.

Please excuse the photo quality. These are the fastest pictures I could get, not the best.

1. Do I know you? You look so familiar.
2. Hanging Out Together.
3. Twister?
4. What a cute couple!
5. Finding community.
For simplicity's sake, I keep the two sizes on separate carabiners. One ring for each kid makes morning prep simpler at home and traveling.

A second ponytail holder can be hooked into a singleton already on the ring. It's pretty easy to reunite recently rediscovered bands.

Happy hacking, friends!

***Baby Toolkit is the product of a geek marriage in the middle Midwest. We have also produced three children who cannot under any circumstances agree upon the same meal. We have a periodic podcast about board games and the groups they inspire at Our opinions are our own, are organically grown if you don't count the radiation from space, and are harvested irregularly at odd intervals. We are Amazon affiliates, but aren't sure about the future of that relationship. If you buy stuff through those links, we make a small percentage that we'll squander on domain names or internet connectivity. Thanks!

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Little Packs of Fun: Pack O Game's GEM

Almost actual size.
Any trip out to a restaurant with the Joneses quickly becomes an exploration of what we've just happened to bring along for entertainment. As a family, we often engage with each other as much over games as we do anything else. We like to play together and Adrienne is usually the master of ceremonies or, more appropriately, the game master of these excursions. She has a knack for finding simple portable games that can keep our kids, ourselves, and our friends entertained even through a particularly long wait at a restaurant table or at a side table in any waiting room. Over the years, she's put together a collection of everything from kids' games with handy travel games from HABA to portable push-your-luck dice games like Cinq-o to card games like Cabo.

For these games, portability often outranks playability. After all, it is hard to pack a lot of fun or depth into games that don’t have much use or space for elaborate components. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Witness the explosion of “micro games” in recent years and the meteoric rise of the simple game Love Letter ,  a game of sixteen cards about passing a love letter to a princess. Clever design and well thought out game mechanics can make even the most humble of game components sing in the hands of a gifted designer. Chris Handy is one such gifted designer and his soon to be released Pack O Game line of gum package sized mini-games are further evidence that clever design and thoughtful game mechanisms can carry a game beyond its modest packaging.

I first came across a Chris Handy design, when our community game night received a donation of his game, Cinque Terre, for our game library. Cinque Terre is a delightful game of delivering sets of fruits and vegetables from inland farms to the five coastal cities of the Italian Riveria. The game had a very simple and approachable theme that matched the actions players could choose during each of their turns. All this simplicity and loveliness masked a much deeper game that became readily apparent about halfway through our first play session. Not only was the game pleasing to look at and easy to pick up, it was fun… and challenging. Chris is also known for his horse racing game, Longshot. While I have not played it, by all accounts it combines these same elements; simple and pleasing design matched with remarkable depth.

When Chris put out a preview offer on Twitter to try his one of his new ultra-portable games before their Kickstarter, I jumped at the chance. The Pack O Game lines of games is marked by the design constraint of each game having to fit into a package about the size of a pack of gum (Pack O Game… pack of gum). He had a number of demonstration copies to choose from ranging in complexity from one, Casual difficulty,  to three, Challenging difficulty (I know what you are thinking, “a challengingly difficult game in the package the size of a pack of gum? Yeah, right?” Just bear with me).  I chose to try out a copy of GEM.

GEM is a simple auction game for two to four players that is  played across six rounds and lasts about twenty minutes. Each player is a jewel collector trying to corner the market gaining lucrative sets of gems through properly leveraging their assets. The game consists of thirty cards with each having the dimensions of a very flat piece of gum. Twelve of those cards are Coin Cards, while the other eighteen make up the Gem Cards that the players will attempt to acquire during play. Each card has a green marking at one end with a number inside representing its Invested value (how much it is worth when you spend it in the game) and a red marking on the opposite end that represents its Leveraged value (how much money it takes to recover its value and rotate it to its Invested side).

Each player starts with three coins, worth one, two, and three “money” respectively, face up in front of them with the Invested sides up showing that all three cards can be used to bid on and buy gems during each auction phase. The gem cards are spread, face down, in six random piles in the center of the table. During each round a pile of Levereaged gems is revealed. Then each player bids from their non-leveraged assets, at first coins and later any gems they’ve previously taken, for the right to make a selection from the revealed gems. 

Subsequent players can increase the bid (as long as they can pay for it) or pass. After a couple of passes, the highest bidder takes the gem card that they were eying and places it face up displaying the Leveraged side (red) at the top in front of them. The tricky thing is that the bidder doesn’t have to say which card they want. They can choose any one that is left in the pile. Then they rotate the amount of Invested assets in front of them equal to or greater than their bid (you don’t get change) to those card's Leveraged side to show that the player has spent those assets. After all the gems have been acquired in that round, players can spend any left over Invested assets to turn Leveraged gems to their Invested sides. Coins automatically reset each round, but Leveraged gems do not. At the end of the last round, players earn points for every gem on a card that have its Investment side up. They earn two points if they share the majority of any gem type with at least one other player. Finally, they earn three points if they have the sole majority of any type of gem.

I really have enjoyed my time with GEM. We have a demo copy of the game, which doesn’t usually fully reflect on the final production quality of most games. However, even the demo copy is of incredible quality. It is obvious that Chris has put a lot of time and attention into both the design of these games, but also into its promotion and early marketing. He’s paying attention to the small details that make for great Kickstarter campaigns. When I told him that I was impressed with our copy of GEM’s flexible plastic coated cards as we would likely be playing it at restaurants, food courts, and coffee shops, he assured me that the final production copies would be even better. That’s impressive for a game of this size and it helps with the “table appeal” of the game.

I am a huge proponent of “table appeal.” As many long time readers, and our Great Big Table podcaster listeners know, Adrienne and I put a bunch of effort into evangelizing the board game hobby. To that end, we write about gaming with our children and in our community both here and on Great Big Table. We co-host a monthly community board game night to try to encourage members of our community to play games with each other and with their families. I also run a weekly game group that plays in public places where I work and I have been known to set up games in food courts with signs to invite people to come and play those games with me. “Table appeal” is the quality of a game that gets a non-gamer to take a second look and ask “hey, what is that?” And that’s the question that starts a conversation about board gaming that can potentially introduce a newcomer into our hobby.

There are a number of aspects of GEM, and the other Pack O Game titles that lend to that table appeal. First is the size. Generally larger board games or games with a gimmick, like Rampage for instance, pique the general public’s curiosity. They just have to know what it is that they are witnessing. In some cases, like that of toy furniture or functional miniatures, being small can also get us to take notice. Such is the case with these games, People want to know what those little cards on the table are all about. It helps that the cards are beautiful in GEM. The brightly colored gems on a dark background speak to the “ooo... shiny” magpie nature that lives within many of us. HUE, another game from the line, looks like a proper painting from Mondrian when the game comes to an end. Finally it is the motion of play combined with the groans and celebrations of the players that are the linchpins of, at least, GEM’s table appeal. Few people have seen a game where you slide cards around the table and rotate them to confer some action of the players. From a distance, it is intriguing and if one starts to pay attention they will notice people enjoying themselves centered around that very activity.

GEM is a great game. From its portability to its production values to its table appeal to its devilishly clever and challenging game play, it is a great value in a small package. Chris is launching a Kickstarter to fund the production of a commercial version of the Pack O Game line of games. There are a number of backer levels that can get you anywhere from one game for a $6 pledge to all four Pack O Game titles (plus any stretch goal games that get unlocked) for $24. There is also a 48 hour early bird special that will allow you to get these already affordable games for an even better price. You get even more from there, but I will let you explore those options on your own.

Just head over to to be directed to the Pack O Game Kickstarter. I believe the Kickstarter will launch on Monday, 8/4/2014, and will run for twenty nine days. You can also sign up for Chris’ email list to be kept up to date about news and information related to the Kickstarter over at There’s also a video on the Kickstarter page (which I’ll embed here once it the campaign goes live),  where Chris makes his pitch. It’s worth watching.


Let us know in the comments if you pick up GEM (just a $6 pledge) or any of the other Pack O Game titles. We’re always looking for new games to add to our portable game library. Let us know what games you keep in your car or backpack or pocket that you bring out to entertain yourselves, your kids, and your friends when you are out in public.

***Baby Toolkit is an assortment of words compiled by two geek parents between the requests, interruptions, and digressions that arise in a family of five. Broadcast from the Midwest, our incremental plan for world domination starts here and includes affiliate links to A small potion of purchases made through those links goes to blog upkeep. We also podcast about board games at While we received a free copy of GEM (and all the paper jewels therein), we have no financial interest in or agreements with Pack O Games, Perplext, or Chris Handy. Gold star for reading the tiny print! Should I make it even smaller next time?