Monday, 25 August 2014

Creative Family Home by Ashlyn Gibson

I really want to hate this book.  It's full of smugger than smug families, with wonderfully romantic sounding jobs and huge loft apartments.  "It's just... gah!  I mean, all the names are so trying to be so horribly trendy!", I said to A as I was explaining why I kept tutting and sighing at the book.  I mean, one of them has the same name as my Nan, which all of my cousins and I spent much of the 80s and 90s laughing at secretly.  Karma struck when I turned to a page describing a family of four boys, two of whom had virtually the same names as my boys (different spellings, but essentially the same names). I had to admit that maybe the book was aimed at people like me. Except that, though I liked the party hats that the Dutch lady makes her kids wear for dinner every night ("to spread the celebratory joy of a party throughout the year" gushes the book), I wouldn't pay six quid each for them.  Also, can't you just imagine the kids rolling their eyes as they don the hats once again to tuck into their Wednesday night quinoa? It's all a tiny bit bleak and try-hard.

I think what annoyed me the most is that the message of the book is trying to be "everyone can be this trendy and creative!".  However, although lots of the homes are decorated with kids drawings and stuff picked up in a flea markets for a few centimes back in the 80s, these are "interspersed with design classics". For this, read "I've put a selection of enamel plates I bought in the charity shop on an achingly trendy sideboard which was custom-built for the space and cost me £15,000." I mean, anything would look good on that dresser.  And yes, you let your child paint onto a canvas and put it on the wall.  But you put it on the wall surrounded by bespoke oil paintings custom-made for your apartment by your friend who sells prints for 2 grand a pop.

This was followed close behind by phrases like "Jurgen's high-tops left artfully in the hallway provide a utilitarian reminder of the necessity of wearing shoes for a busy family".  No, Jurgen has left his shoes under a stool in the hallway.  That's not a design statement; that's shoe removal. This is the book for you if you have a spare £500 to spend on cushions that look like pebbles (why yes, I am bitter because I couldn't afford them), and you make lifestyle statements out of things like taking off your hat and hanging it up on a (£67, bespoke) peg.

That said, I did actually get a lot out of this book, other than feelings of rage, envy and a slight sense of hopelessness.  There are some really nice ideas that anyone can use and that make any space look instantly better.  For example our Shelf of Stuff I Don't Want to Get Rid of but Don't Know Quite What to Do With looks a million times better now that things are grouped according to colour and size, in easy-on-the-eye groups of three or five, and the clashing photo frames are arranged in a fetching group.  This has made me feel better about the distinct lack of pebble cushions for my trendily-named children to muck around with, "providing a whimsical note of the great outdoors in this loft-apartment in one of the trendiest districts of Barcelona".  Mine can play with actual pebbles in their garden. AND I don't make them wear party hats to eat their scrambled egg on toast.  Take that Jurgen and Marta.

isms... Understanding Modern Art by Sam Philips

"I bet it's because we've got a membership", is a familiar phrase from C when I cheerfully announce "We're off to [X] gallery in [Y] town (which is generally not really all that close to where we actually live) to see [Z] exhibition of the work of someone we've vaguely heard of, and who the kids might have studied at school.

Well, yes.  I do like to get my money's worth out of these things.  This is why we've explored every square inch of the Tower of London over the past 18 months, drinking it all in until BabyM is old enough to appreciate it, and then we'll probably get another membership.

I had membership to the Tate galleries for my birthday.  A is absolutely thrilled about this, being a bit of a proto-art critic.  She collects exhibitions in her memory, and, even if she doesn't particularly like the art, enjoys adding another exhibition to her list (I used to enjoy visiting football grounds in deeply unpromising parts of the UK, watching extremely average football for the same reason.)

Anyway, it turns out Liverpool is a bit too far from where we live for a day trip on my own with three children.  Lesson learned, next time we'll book a travel lodge.  We were also a tiny bit unconvinced by Mondrian.  "It's kind of like, meant to be the city, and one plane is horizontal and one vertical, so it's kind of showing how the city is a bit bleak", said A, trying to get her proto-philistine brother to show a little bit of appreciation.  "Yes", he replied "but he even used masking tape, which is really, properly cheating.  If he'd have done it without a ruler, I'd have liked it more. Now can we go and do the craft activity?" The craft activity turned out to be C's saving grace, as they had Sharpies in all sorts of different colours, which was worth the two hour journey each way alone. 

I found myself agreeing much more with C's assessment of Mondrian than with A's, which prompted my purchase of the above book in the gift shop. I love visiting the Tate galleries with the kids - the activities for the children are absolutely great.  For this one they made Mondrian pop-ups and acetates to put in their window.  Once at the Tate Modern I had to show them how to record their voices on an old cassette recorder ("Now hold and press play and record at the same time.  No, I don't know why, it's just how you do it.  No, I don't know why you don't just press record - technology was more complicated in the 80s").  They recorded a story which became part of a sound installation, and they were both so excited about it, they still talk about it fondly now. I also love looking at the exhibitions, although I often haven't got much of a clue what I'm looking at.  This book is great for putting many different modern art movements in context.  It will come in very handy for secondary school art homework, and it gives suggestions of where to find out / see more.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Toy Stories by Gabriele Galimberti

As well as being a jolly good museum all round, the V&A Museum of Childhood had one of the most tempting shops of any museum I've ever been in. I had to use every modicum of self-control not to just yell "ONE OF EACH, AND THREE OF THOSE OVER THERE PLEASE!" at the very nice lady at the till.

I was relatively restrained, in the end.  I did buy one or two books, including the very lovely Toy Stories by the photographer Gabriele Galimberti. I bought it for me, but actually have caught the two older kids looking at it for a surprisingly long time, given that it has very few words.

For a book with almost no text, it taught us an awful lot about parents and children.  The book consists of photographs of small children with their favourite toys arranged in front of them, usually in a room in their house.  Our favourite is the Zambian girl who has no toys, but who does share a box of sunglasses that fell of the back of a lorry with all of the children in her village.  They use the sunglasses to play "markets" where they pretend to buy and sell the sunglasses, before putting them all back in their box at the end of the game.

We all felt a bit sorry for her, and then realised that this was a patronising attitude, since actually, they all appeared to be having quite a lot of fun! It's apparent that, even for the children from very rich countries, there are not all that many "favourites". There is, after all, only really space in your heart for a few very special toys.

The book prompted some really interesting questions about cultural values, ownership, and the concept of play.  We also decided which toys we would (have for me!) picked as our favourites.  For A it was her cuddly puffin, musical instruments and notebooks.  C said his teddies and his Lego, and perhaps a slinky (good choice). I'd have gone for my Care Bear, Wuzzle, a couple of My Little Ponies and a Flower Fairy (she smelt of lovely plasticy chemicals, and I used to chew her foot, which was strangely comforting).

Anyway, it's a great little book for flicking through, and has earned a place in the top rank of books in the household - the mooching shelf in the living room. Writers vie for that honour, let me tell you.

Monday, 18 August 2014

What we learnt in London: books can be benches, but, mainly, they are things you buy in gift shops.

We've just got back from the annual long stay in London to look at stuff.  I try to make this looking at stuff which is inspiring and enriching. I like to attempt to ensure that we spend at least twice as long looking at the actual exhibits in a museum than we do in the gift shop.  Sometimes this works. Rather wonderfully, my struggle to make our trips about the culture, rather than about the shopping, was exemplified in a visit to Lucy Sparrow's Cornershop art installation at Bethnal Green.  Lucy's shop stocks items entirely crafted from felt.  She explores the objectification of art, and the concept of gentrification through the replacement of traditional useful shops with art galleries and workshop spaces in traditionally working class areas.  Obviously to show off our understanding of this concept, we bought a felt Boost bar.

We were mainly outside on our first day, dipping our toes in the fountain at Hyde Park and sheltering from the wild winds at the Princess Diana Memorial park in a rather wonderful wigwam.  We did venture into Kensington Palace though, where I bought the Historic Royal Palaces Guide to Kensington Palace and a rather wonderful guide to the Georgians, which I am not convinced even really exists, because I can't find it on Amazon.  The Historic Royal Palaces books are all rather well written and interesting - a rare find in a guidebook, and help to bring the places wonderfully to life.

On our second day, we visited an exhibition about the Russian Revolutionary artist Malevich purely because BabyM was getting fractious, it was 10am and I knew that the exhibition would be virtually empty, given that the gallery had just opened.  I had a membership of the Tate for my birthday, which was wonderful, as it means we go and see as much as we can, in order not to waste it.  Malevich turned out to be pretty interesting, and BabyM was placated.

We went on in search of the National Literacy Trust's Books About Town benches.  There were some rather wonderful ones.  My favourite was "Great Expectations". We did feel that the benches were not very well spread out, however.  There seemed to be about five in one place, and then none for rather a long time, which is a little tough on small bench seekers. I am disappointed to say, that although I should have preferred these to the Wenlock and Mandevilles that were in London for the 2012 Olympics, given that they were all about books and reading, I felt that the Wenlock tours were somewhat better thought-out.  Having said that, they were probably a bit better funded, to the tune of a few bijillion pounds.  There was no gift shop here, but I did manage to go into the Tate bookshop without buying anything at all, which was an achievement.

We had never visited the V&A Museum of Childhood before, but will definitely be going back.  It is absolutely wonderful. Currently, there is a touring exhibition about the writing of Jacqueline Wilson there, among many other attractions. It's free, and really interesting, even for Mummies and perhaps brothers, who are not really all that into JW.  There's a great deal about the process of writing, and about imagination, and the set is interesting and inspiring. We took part in a brilliant story-building session run by the talented people at Discover! in Stratford, which is well worth a visit.

The highlight (well for me anyway) of our cultural adventure was the British Folk Art exhibition at the Tate Britain,  (Actually, that's not strictly true - the highlight was drinking some extremely exciting cocktails and eating a rather lovely French meal with my in-laws, but that's not really relevant or appropriate for a blog about children's books). British Folk Art is a paid exhibition for adults, although children go free, and are presented with a leaflet on which they can record their thoughts.  Not for teeny children, but this was a wonderful illustration of human ingenuity, and what effort and time can help people to achieve.  Highlights include a cockerel carved from button bones with rudimentary tools by a prisoner of war, and a huge quilt crafted from Crimean War uniforms by ex-soldiers. It was wonderful to see craft celebrated. I loved it so much, I even bought the book (British Folk Art by Martin Myrone and Jeff McMillan), so that I can remember it forever.  Time well spent.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The art book caddy

Having tried to remember to take a photo of our latest book caddy collection, I totally forgot, so am making a note of it here, as it proved to be quite a popular selection.

For the baby:

Miffy at the Gallery by Dick Bruna (admittedly we all read this one)

For the kids:

Creative Hand Art by Sunny Kim
13 British Artists Children Should Know by Alison Baverstock
What is Contemporary Art? by Jacky Klein
The Black Book of Colour by Menena Cottin
The Usborne Art Colouring Book
Usborne Lots of Things to Draw


For the Adults:

What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz

It was most inspiring, as can be told by the innumerable little bits of cut-out paper and artistic creations littering the house...

Next up: Holiday Fun

So far we have The DK Family Guide to Paris, Little London and Nature's Playground.  We are going to scout for more once we've attended to the important business of eating pudding.

Monday, 21 July 2014

You get to read more books without WiFi, but it's significantly harder to blog about them...

More actual books with covers and pages, obv, since, unless you've already downloaded them, it's pretty tricky to download anything without WiFi too.  Ah, modern living.  We are finally connected in our wonderful new home.  Apparently, now the removal man, as well as the postman, knows me as "the one with all the books". Books are quite heavy, it would seem.

However, now we're all settled in, books and all.  We have a shelf and a box in the living room for browsing - there were strict criteria for making it onto that shelf, and I'm pretty pleased with it.  It's already doing its job - cunningly positioned next to the comfy chair, family and friends have been tempted by its bookish charms. I love coming back into the room from making tea to find someone curling up with a book. It's like living in actual Waterstones.

The conservatory holds two shelves of "books I don't want to get rid of, but don't really need people to know I own".  There is a fair amount of Twilight and Philippa Gregory on it.

The dining room holds cookbooks and Bibles (of which we seem to have an inordinate number).  I am not quite sure why Bibles got lumped in with the cookbooks, but I think it's probably because they fitted there).

Our bedroom has a small wood and glass bookshelf that my Great Nan bought at the Ideal Homes Show in the 50s. My Nan gave it to me when I was a student, and it has always held my comfort reading (basically The Darling Buds of May and lots of history of food.) Also a book that's been on the shelf since I was actually at uni.  I was meant to read it in my first year.  It's called Holy Feast and Holy Fast and is about food and control among medieval women. I am sure it's very interesting, and I really quite want to read it - I have just never quite got past the first chapter. I am wondering how many decades I can keep it on my shelf without actually finishing it. 

The kids all have a bookshelf each in their bedrooms. The baby's belonged to my lovely friend, and was made for her by her Dad when she was a small girl.  Just the right size to hold his favourites (although to be honest, he is only really interested in Amazing Baby Baby's Day (about 37 times a day) at the moment.

There were some territorial disputes over Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, but they were mainly resolved through the medium of pointing out that their rooms are actually only a few metres apart, and they can, in fact, read books that are not on their shelves.

So we've all been reading some rather wonderful books.  My favourite two recently have been The Child's Elephant by Rachel Campell-Johnstone, which, to my mind, should have won the Carnegie Award, and First Class by Christopher West, which is a history of Britain through it's postage stamps.  Sounds unpromising but is wonderful. 

Now I'm back online, I will probably mainly be reading Mumsnet.  But will try and make some time for the odd book too.  But probably not Holy Feast and Holy Fast...

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Little London by Sunshine Jackson and Kate Hodges

I have never really been one for travel. When I was little, families didn't really do travel in the way that they do now.  Very few of my friends went abroad, and if any of us did it was pretty much to the bits of Spain that are like hot England. I once made my parents laugh by saying that I wanted to go somewhere "cold and interesting". I now realise that that pretty much sums Britain up, so I was probably born in just the right place.  My disillusion with hot foreign holidays springs mainly from the fact that sand sets my teeth on edge and gives me goosebumps, which makes the beach pretty much a no-go area for me.

I've always thought that surely the point of travel is to go to some out-of-the-way places and see what the country is actually like for the people that live there.  Which is, of course, really quite hard to do somewhere where you don't know where the people go, or where the interesting out-of-the-way places are. However, for me, my best holidays have been to places where I have been able to return and visit places more than once, to feel that I know the place a little more deeply.

Luckily, we are able to visit one of the world's most interesting cities, London, regularly. We are able to do so as tourists, since, in London we don't have school or work or anywhere really to be at any set time.  Bliss.

The last time we were in London, at Easter, I was talking to a local Mum on the bus about the play area at the new Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (which is excellent by the way), and saying how impressive it is, and all for free, of course.  "Hmmm," she said "normally you get nothing for free in London!". Now, OK.  I know London is ridiculously expensive to live in. However, I really don't think it's fair to say that there is nothing to do for free in London.  There is plenty if you know what you're looking for, and where to look. This is why I have an entire shelf of guides to London. Some give specific walking routes, some give broad-based ideas for activities, others are more explicitly touristy type guides.

This book appealed because it is cheap and newly published (which means that the info about opening hours etc is likely to be up to date). My first thought was "Sunshine? Really?" Once I'd got over this ridiculous and unnecessary prejudice, I was struck by the fact that I liked the weight of the pages, and the pictures, both of which are reassuringly expensive looking. (NB the book is relatively expensive on Amazon, but cheap as chips with the Book People).

It's ONLY downside as a travelogue is that it's quite heavy, and not ideal for stashing in your bag.  My favourite London guide for bag stashage is Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness London Family Guide, which I picked up for virtually no money in The Works, and is excellent.

What is fantastic about Little London is that it is written by people who have lived the life they are writing about.  They have invested a great deal of time and energy finding things to do for little or no money in and around London.  You can tell they know what they are talking about.

Also, it's arranged by month. If, like us, you are seasonal visitors to our great capital, you can turn to the relevant chapter to find things that you might not have known about that may be happening during your visit. For example, the Imagine Children's Festival always fits in with February half-term, and is well worth a visit.

I've already added a few activities to my extensive to-do list. A must-buy for Londoners with children, or those who are regular visitors.