With New Year's Eve approaching, and the annual period of reflection and retrospection just beginning, I think we can all agree on one thing: Nothing has changed in the last year and 2016 was super-boring. Just kidding! It was a crazy year, with a lot going on, so you'd be (momentarily) forgiven for missing the rise and proliferation of podcasts for kids. And though Kids Listen kicked off a few months into 2016, there are now so many great and diverse shows that are part of the KL family, it's worth looking back on the year that was and highlighting some favorite episodes. Use this as a sampler for what shows you'll be marathoning during your holiday travels, or using to fill the long winter school break.
Show: April Eight Stories & Songs
Episode: Jemi and the Lost Crown
What's so great about it: My theory about podcasters is that they all have one secret weapon that they bring to their podcast that sets them apart. For April Eight, it's her gorgeous singing voice, which can be heard at the beginning of every episode. But this story is also really fun, sort of like Wind in the Willows with a little fairy magic thrown in.
Show: Book Club for Kids
Episode: Old Yeller
What's so great about it: Oh man. I remember reading Old Yeller as a kid and being knocked dead by it. I still feel somewhat traumatized by it (the movie didn't help). So listening to this episode—where middle-school kids discuss books they love—and hearing fifth-graders talk about their feelings about the book in such a mature way was…humbling. But also great, of course.
Show: Brains On!
Episode: Fire vs. Lasers
What's so great about it: This episode of the veteran science podcast features a debate between staffers Sanden Totten and Mark Sanchez about which is cooler, fire or lasers. The build-up to this debate was like Ali vs. Frazier in my house, and of course the battle lived up to the hype. Proof that fighting with factoids and trivia is almost as dangerous as fighting with fire and lasers.
Show: But Why?
Episode: How Do You Make Paint?
What's so great about it: I'll just come right out and say it: I've never even thought about how paint was made before this episode from this curiosity-fueled show. But the interview with an artist who makes his own paint (and paintbrushes from things like deer fur), is fascinating, and the sound of him actually making the paint while he's describing how to do it is so good, you can see the process as you're listening.
Show: Buttons & Figs
Episode: Portmanteau Words
What's so great about it: Buttons & Figs is a show dedicated to "nonsense literature," and to my mind, there's no other literature worth reading. I really love this show, in no small part because it makes words and books and literature alive and fun in a way that's rarely done these days, and in a way that would make Shel Silverstein proud. And of course, portmanteaus are never not fun. Some great edutainment to chillax to over brunch (see what I did there?).
Show: Chloe's Friendship Circle
Episode: Election Day
What's so great about it: I want to be like Chloe when I grow up. The kid host of this show is like an old-school DJ, playing songs and conducting interviews with family entertainers, and is about as pro as it gets. On this episode, she chatted with singer Robbie Schaeffer, and did something no other broadcaster has been able to do in the last few months: talked about voting and the election in a way that doesn't make you angry. Truly a miracle worker.
Show: Ear Snacks
What's so great about it: Listening to Ear Snacks hits the same pleasure center in my brain as Pee-Wee's Playhouse and Fraggle Rock did when I was a kid. And this episode—from its opening beep song that uses kids' vocalized beeps as lyrics—is a great example of the show's sophisticated silliness and sly weaving in of interesting information.
Show: Good Stuff Kids
Episode: Interview with Justin Roberts
What's so great about it: The Good Stuff Kids show is a much-needed roadmap for parents trying to navigate the cultural landscape and find stuff they can enjoy with their kids. This episode, Mike has a great interview with kindie legend Justin Roberts, where they talk about how he abandoned a career as a historian of religion to write songs like "Yellow Bus."
Show: Little Stories for Tiny People
Episode: The Robot Who Had Feelings
What's so great about it: A beautifully told story about a young boy who's still grappling with his understanding of feelings—his own and others'—when he meets a robot surprised and confused to discover it has feelings. It's a fun story of friendship, but also demonstrates nicely how sometimes the best way to understand something, is to help others figure it out.
Show: Sparkle Stories
Episode: Ten Pair by Twelfth Night
What's so great about it: The Sparkle Stories crew have been making stories for kids since before podcasts were cool, and this one in particular displays a level of storytelling mastery that shows why they've become a mainstay for a lot of families. This episode, part of their "Twelve Tales of a Tullyport Christmas," tells a twist on the fable of the elves and the shoemaker. An instant classic, in my book.
Show: Spooky Troop
What's so great about it: This is a great place to start for this serial from Wonkybot Studios, a richly produced story that features kid actors from around the world portraying a mystery-solving group of kid monsters. This episode, which features original music and a Christmas song by creator Stuart St. John, is like a little bit of Disney and a little bit of Tim Burton.
Episode: Dog King (He's the King of the Dogs)
What's so great about it: Fair warning, the song at the beginning of this episode will get stuck in your head ("His mother was a dog, his father was a king! Dog King!), and sets the tone for how ridiculous and funny this story is. Dog jokes, dog adventures, dog royalty. There’s no way your kids make their way through this episode without rolling on the floor.
Show: Story Time
Episode: The Giant Who Cried Waterfalls
What's so great about it: This is one of those original, contemporary stories that when you listen to it, you feel like it's been a fable passed down for generations. It just nails all of the elements of a classic fable, beyond just having giants in it, of course. Story Time is produced by Bedtime.fm, and this is a perfect bedtime story.
Show: The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian
Episode: Two Heads Are Better than One
What's so great about it: This is my show and I can pick one if I want to. It's a sci-fi serial about four kids living on a space station and visiting ridiculous planets in far-flung galaxies, and no planet was more ridiculous than Planet-bob, with the two-headed aliens named Bob. No other episode has inspired as much listener art as this one.
Show: The Past and the Curious
What's so great about it: A new favorite of mine, there’s something very “live” feeling about this show, which mixes idiosyncratic stories from history with music. It evokes an idealized sense past that I have, where people would sit and tell stories and sing songs. This episode tells two true stories, but the one about the guy who built a test underground pneumatic subway is delightfully insane.
Show: The Show About Science
What's so great about it: Everyone who's listened to this show will tell you that 6-year-old Nate, the host of this show, is the best. Full stop. The best. And this episode, where he interviews a behavioral scientist about phobias and superstitions is really great. Nate brooks no silliness, asking questions like, "So, why are people afraid of the number 13? I mean, it's just 13, right?" But I especially love when he asks if Loki is to blame.
Show: The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel
Episode: To the Stars
What's so great about it: In some ways, it's a little bit evil to recommend this as the best episode of the season. If you haven't been listening to Mars Patel, please do. Go back to episode one and then binge it immediately and then come to this series finale, and then sit back and let the satisfaction waft over you after discovering you just listened to a perfectly realized season finale. And then send it to the writers of The Walking Dead so they can learn a thing or two.
What's so great about it: I hadn't actually wondered why bats hung upside down before I listened to this episode. And then when I heard a kid ask that question, I wondered why I hadn't wondered it before. And the answer is everything science should be: surprising, fascinating and figured out by kids.
Show: What if World?
What's so great about it: So What if World? host Mr. Eric has set himself a difficult task: improvise a story that answers a "what if?" question from a listener. And like any great improviser soliciting suggestions, his audience has thrown him some curveballs, but this one from listener Grace is a dancing knuckleball. The great ones rise to the occasion, however, and the story he crafts from this question is impressively coherent, fun, and features a blues-singing hill. Are you not entertained?
Jonathan Messinger makes The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian.