Top 10 DVDs | 2017

Environmental studies and early language arts were the dominant themes this year. However, there were plenty of surprises from an eclectic range of subject matter.

Environmental studies and early language arts were the dominant content areas in the DVD educational market this year. However, there were plenty of surprises from an eclectic range of subject matter (cue the leaping lemurs). Many titles here stand alone for independent viewing, and all are suitable for classroom use, here listed in ascending order, from the youngest grade levels to high school.

Imagine a retelling of Aesop’s Fables with a brogue. Five Fables (Dreamscape; Gr 2 Up) introduces viewers to the writings of 15th-century Scotsman Robert Henryson, lyrically adapted by Nobel Prize–winning poet Seamus Heaney. The vibrant segments, animated in watercolor, oil, gouache, and acrylic, are narrated by Billy Connolly. The disc is also chock-full of informative behind-the-scenes extras. “Older students will welcome the insights into music composition, animation, and filmmaking. Students of English literature and folklore will be interested in Henryson and in Heaney’s translation,” according to SLJ’s September 2017 review.

This adaptation of author/illustrator Ashley Bryan’s textured picture book Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life (and how!) (Dreamscape; Gr 4-6) offers a completely immersive experience for the viewer, setting it apart from so many other similar works. The author’s note nearly holds equal importance to the narratives of the lives of 11 enslaved individuals. Bryan used a 1828 will of a plantation owner as a springboard into this period of U.S. history. The presentation allows viewers to fully take in Bryan’s absorbing work.

The delightful School’s First Day of School (Weston Woods; K-Gr 2) is a perfect choice for back-to-school programs as it eases viewers into the new year. It’s also appealing throughout the calendar as a celebration of academic life from the point of view of the school. (When a little girl doesn’t want to enter the building, the school observes, “I must be awful”) The jazzy score adds to the buoyant mood, and the smooth animation of Christian Robinson’s crisp artwork conveys author Adam Rex’s infectious sense of humor.

A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent (Dreamscape; Gr 2-5), based on Anne Rockwell and Floyd Cooper’s rich picture book biography, is a terrific and versatile choice for children’s nonfiction, biography, and American studies, as it shines the spotlight on a little-known and important figure of the American Revolution: James Lafayette. The enslaved double agent spied for George Washington’s army and fed misinformation to General Cornwallis. His postwar life is also covered, including how he had to petition the Virginia legislature to finally gain his freedom.

Beautifully made and concise, at 26 minutes, Joe’s Violin (Cinema Guild; Gr 4 Up) depicts a generous and life-changing act, to “pay it forward” in practice. Holocaust survivor Joe Feingold bought a violin for a carton of cigarettes in a postwar displaced persons camp. As part of a New York City radio’s instrument drive for students in need, Joe, now 91, donated his violin to an all-girl school in the Bronx, where it is handed to 12-year-old Brianna Perez, daughter of immigrants. SLJ’s October 2017 review stated, “This is a tender story of perseverance, hope, and music that will strike a resonant chord in the hearts of viewers.”

Few films this year were as inspiring as the subject of Right Footed (Nick Spark Productions; Gr 5 Up): Jessica Cox, who was born without arms. She embraces her body and uses her feet for nearly every activity and thereby shatters stereotypes on screen. In doing so, she leads viewers to confront their own obstacles. Cox earned a black belt in tae kwon do when she was 14 and now as an adult pilots an airplane. She also travels the world as a motivational speaker advocating and mentoring children with disabilities. Adding to the upbeat mood, there’s a wedding—hers.

In Rare: Creatures of the Photo Ark (PBS; Gr 7 Up), photographer Joel Santore travels the globe to snap the world’s most endangered species for the Photo Ark, a comprehensive catalogue of biodiversity. He raises awareness of the dangers of extinction while zooming in on the many ways wildlife has adapted to its environment, such as in Madagascar, home to 100 different type of lemurs. Diverting and informative, this is a photogenic treasure trove.

Provocative and probing, I Voted? (Tugg Educational; Gr 9 Up) asks, how do voters know their vote counts? Or, as director and amicable narrator Jason Grant Smith phrases it, “Are we the country we think we are?” At a breezy 77 minutes, the presentation delves into the 2002 Help America Vote Act and uncovers how vulnerable the voting systems are to manipulation and error. “This prescient examination of the potential hacking of voting machines and the refusal of Congress to investigate the possibility of large-scale election fraud offers insight into the fragile nature of the election process,” says SLJ’s March 2017 review. Engaging and alarming.

The New Environmentalists (Green Planet Film; Gr 9 Up), a series compilation, overflows with ideas and international endeavors to sustain the environment. Ten 26-minute classroom-ready chapters depict how individuals, small groups, or grassroot groundswells can make an impact. The subject matter serves up food for thought and jumping-off points for environmental studies, activism, and thinking outside the box. A natural tie-in for varied curricula.

First Footprints (Dreamscape; Gr 10 Up) takes a revelatory look at the roots of early humans, centered on Australia. The scientific detective work is fascinating—DNA evidence confirms the discovery of the first modern person outside of Africa, Lake Mungo Man. The continent is also home to the first image of the human face in history and the first narrative paintings, among other findings. The multipart program also investigates how we survived the longest drought in human history. An ideal archaeological plunge.

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