13 Coolest Socially Conscious Kid and Teen Gifts of 2014
Shopping for kids’ holiday gifts can be a dangerous sport. What the young’uns want isn’t always good for them (hello, gory video games), and many presents don’t entertain for more than a few hours after the wrapping comes off.
We’ve found some quality films, books, and games from the past year that have great social messages for all ages. They won’t get tossed aside come New Year’s Day, and they’ll likely land you in the Most Awesome Parent/Relative/Family Friend Hall of Fame. As a bonus, we’ve thrown in family-friendly movies and streaming picks to pass the time as a group throughout winter break. Happy holidays!
1. Underwater Dreams (Unrated, ages 10 and up)
It’s the ultimate underdog tale: A robotics team from a low-income high school takes on students from MIT in a 2004 national underwater robotics competition and wins. Best of all, it’s 100 percent true. This charming documentary gets high marks from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that publishes age-based media reviews and advocates for greater awareness of the impact of media on children. “You see the kids get super excited about this competition, and it really shows that if you work hard, you can beat anybody,” says Betsy Bozdech, Common Sense’s executive editor of ratings and reviews.
Also notable is that the film’s young smarties were all undocumented immigrants at the time. Regardless of one’s stance on immigration reform, the story is a wonderful example of how disenfranchised students can perform with guidance and educational support.
2. The Short Game (PG)
Kids don’t have to enjoy the game—golf, in this case—to get a kick out of this film. The doc follows eight seven- and eight-year-old phenoms from all over the world as they vie for the top spot at the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship.
From Anna Kournikova’s wealthy kid brother Allan to a working-class female Tiger Woods wannabe nicknamed Tigress, these pint-size stars are living proof of how the sport’s young talent has transcended class and racial barriers. The kids are as charming and inspiring as you’d expect; the parents are pretty cool too. “They support the kids but aren’t awful stage parents, which is a nice thing to see when parents are often nightmares in these kinds of movies,” says Common Sense’s Bozdech.
3. Belle (PG)
Tween and teen Jane Austen fans will love this account of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was the mixed-race illegitimate daughter of British Admiral John Lindsay and transformed from enslaved African woman to activist. Living without a defined place in the class system (she can dine neither with lowly servants nor with aristocratic guests), Belle is a bright heroine who yearns alternately to fit in and to be recognized for who she really is.
Though the plot isn’t exactly faithful to the truth—little is known about the real Belle—this is a fine historical romance that provides insight into the highly restricted society of the late 18th century. The acting is also top-notch; Gugu Mabatha-Raw, who plays Belle, is poised to become the next Kerry Washington.
4. Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour (Ninth grade and up)
Brokenhearted after splitting with her girlfriend, 18-year-old Emi immerses herself in her sweet Hollywood set design internship. The gig leads her to an intriguing letter from a recently deceased film icon, a search for its recipient, and a love story that’s fit for the silver screen.
LaCour’s writing is exceptional. “She could decide to start ghostwriting those Nigerian prince scam emails and I’d get mad when they didn’t win National Book Awards,” says Cristin Stickles, children’s and young adult book buyer at McNally Jackson Books in New York City.
What distinguishes this novel from much of its YA ilk is its openness about the protagonist’s orientation without weirdly fixating on it. “Emi is one of the best-written YA characters I’ve ever encountered, and the fact that she’s gay is just one of the many, many exceptional facets of this book,” Stickles says.
5. Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson (Fifth grade and up)
Winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, this stunning free-verse memoir centers on Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood in South Carolina at the end of the Jim Crow era. As Veronica Chambers wrote in The New York Times, “I suspect this book will be to a generation of girls what [Nikki] Giovanni’s [Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day] was to mine: a history lesson, a mash note passed in class, a book to read burrowed underneath the bed covers and a life raft during long car rides when you want to float far from wherever you are, and wherever you’re going, toward the person you feel destined to be.” It’s an essential add to any budding writer’s bookshelf. Really, every kid who cares about Ferguson and social justice should read this personal take on our country’s long legacy of prejudice.
6. The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang (Seventh to 12th grade)
Even the most voracious comic book fan may be unaware of the Green Turtle, the 1940s character thought to be the first Asian American superhero. Yang resurrects the legend in this sharp, funny graphic novel about a 1930s teen in Chinatown who fights evil gangsters.
The old-school backstory and Sonny Liew’s dramatic illustrations create a lovely, knowing homage to the golden age of comics. The book also upends stale tropes about Asian Americans, teaching kids just how far we’ve come culturally since their grandparents pored over comics.
7. Child of Light (E10+, available on several gaming systems)
Part quest and part coming-of-age story, this 2D role-playing game centers on a girl who finds herself in a mysterious new world after her unexpected death. The game stands out for its intriguing fairy-tale premise as well as its differentiation from so many RPGs that objectify women. “She’s a strong heroine who’s caring and independent, and there’s no sexualization of the female characters,” says Common Sense’s Bozdech. The gorgeous art doesn’t hurt either.
8. Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth (E10+, PC)
Beyond Earth is the latest installment in a much-loved PC franchise that lets players build famous civilizations from the Roman to the Zulu. This time around, players leave the earthly realm to colonize an alien world in the cosmos.
“It requires strategy and thoughtful choices,” says Bozdech. “You have to make your citizens happy but also expand the world.” It’s a must-have for any kid fascinated by Interstellar, and it could spark important conversations among tweens and teens about humanity and responsibility.
9. Broken Age (Unrated, PC and iOs, ages 10 and up)
A hidden gem with a beautiful look and a strong story line, this episodic point-and-click adventure video game has two distinct narratives. One is about a young man itching to go on real missions while living alone on a spaceship run by an overprotective computer. The other is about a young woman who challenges her village’s tradition of sacrifice. Tweens and teens will relate to the characters’ pursuit of autonomy. Younger kids should appreciate characters with honorable intentions, along with a few scary monsters, says Bozdech.
For Group Enjoyment
10. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (PG)
In this animated feature based on a Japanese folktale, a mysterious princess grows from a bamboo stalk and is raised by an elderly childless couple. You guessed it: It’s from the studio that made Spirited Away, and yes, it’s just as good. “It’s really a nice look at what kids need to thrive—not material things but love, encouragement, and the freedom to be yourself,” says Common Sense’s Bozdech. (Fun fact: The older duo are voiced by James Caan and Mary Steenburgen, whom kids may recognize as the dad and mom from the holiday hit Elf.)
11. The Book of Life (G)
This sleeper animated film from the fall is an engaging look at Día de los Muertos, a cultural tradition that may be new to many families. Amid the peppy, colorful visuals and sly humor are thought-provoking themes that will resonate with kids of all ages. “It’s about doing what’s right, the importance of family, and celebrating the past but also looking toward the future,” says Bozdech.
12. Gortimer Gibbon’s Life on Normal Street (TV-G)
Amazon’s foray into children’s programming has gotten raves for good reason. Its teen characters are quick-witted, their adventures are engaging, and its themes are unilaterally positive. Adds Bozdech, “It doesn’t have that frenetic energy of a lot of live-action stuff for tweens on Disney and Nickelodeon.” Crucially for any parent of an eight-year-old going on 25, the dialogue lacks annoying, easy-to-imitate back talk.
13. Big Hero 6 (PG)
If you haven’t seen Disney’s latest animated flick, get thee to the nearest multiplex. Not only is it rollicking fun, but it’s also a better advertisement for STEM education than any PSA could muster. Centering on a teen robotics prodigy and his inflatable health care provider (much cooler than it sounds, really), the film shows a boy and his bot forming an indelible friendship that’s touching on many levels. Trust us, you’ll be doing their special fist bump with your own little ones for days on end. Points, too, for the film’s perfectly merry multicultural band of geeks.