Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

The Gruffalo, by the same author and illustrator team, has to be one of the most famous picture books of recent years. It just avoided being the most famous picture book of this century, since it was published in 1999. I think it will almost inevitably become the The Very Hungry Caterpillar for this generation - our children will buy it for their grandchildren, and become nostalgic. Time was, Mr M and I could recite The Gruffalo without looking at the book. We possibly still could if forced to (although why either of us would ever be in that situation, I don't know!)

However Donaldson and Scheffler have collaborated on many other books. Our favourite when the kids were little was Monkey Puzzle, in which a monkey tries to find his mum.

I bought The Highway Rat because I absolutely love the poem "The Highwayman" and thought it might borrow from it. It does, a little, with the repitition, and it is a jolly enough tale. C enjoys the fact that the dastardly rat gets his comeuppance at the end, and he also likes the pictures of the cakes. What's not to love about pictures of cakes?

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Biscuit Bear by Mini Grey

I watched a clip of Mini Grey talking about the illustrations to her book Jim last year when it was shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway medal. She seemed like a pleasant, personable lady. However, I think something dark must lie behind this charming demeanour. Biscuit Bear is similar in tone to Jim, and is somewhat macabre. There is a scene of massacre after the dog has been in the kitchen and decimated the biscuit circus. I had to turn the page quite quickly, as C was most upset. In fairness to Grey, the words are quite vague, so I was able to pretend that the biscuits were just slightly dog-eared (excuse the pun), rather than eaten.

However, dark as some of the storylines are, the illustrations are outstanding, as always. Grey is a most fantastically gifted artist. My personal favourite is the oven, which looks just like the one my Nan used to have when I was a little girl.

Penguin by Polly Dunbar

Another of my choices from the picture books section of the library on Saturday. I've seen this book in Waterstones a few times, but, irritatingly, it has never been in The Book People, The Works, or The Red House, hence we do not own it.

The book tells the tale of a boy who is given a toy penguin, and attempts to get it to talk to him. I will not give away the plot but two things are important about it. 1) It is hilarious and 2) it requires a large dose of willing suspension of disbelief. The penguin's face is my favourite thing about the book - it's brilliant.

Highly recommended for toddlers upwards. A greatly enjoyed it, even at the advanced age of 8. I am a great fan of reading "toddler" picture books to older children. Children of this age might well be fantastic readers, but they are still developing their sense of how stories work, and what makes stories funny/sad/exciting and so on. Those who are not fantastic readers can benefit from hearing a parent read the words on the page, which are likely to be large, and match the words to what is being said.

Reading picture books to older children also cements their understanding of what works in stories, and can inform and improve their developing writing skills. Also, importantly, they are comforting and enjoyable, which is not something to be undervalued, particularly at bedtime.

Beast Quest by Adam Blade

It was a bumper evening for reading today. It has been a lovely but very busy weekend, and so bedtime began at 6pm with a bath and then stories in the big bed. First up A had her chapter of Harry Potter. C is really unimpressed by HP so far - he got it in his head that he would not like it, and will not be jollied into listening. We have now decided that when A has her chapter of HP, C will read a Chapter of Beast Quest with Mummy.

We bought the Beast Quest series (well the first 18(!) of them anyway) from The Book People a while ago. C was not really quite ready for them, and so they've been waiting on the shelf for him. We had read the first few chapters of Book 1 (Ferno the Fire Dragon) and tonight we read Chapter 4. I decided to chance my arm and asked C if he wanted to read some of it, so we read a page each and then swapped. He is getting much better at being able to follow the words on the page. I think it is a big step for any beginning reader - going from books with several sentences on the page to a lengthy block of text with relatively small print. He has to follow with his finger, and occasionally gets confused with clauses in some of the longer sentences, but was motivated to continue reading. It would be great if he continues to enjoy the series, since there are plenty more to read!

I am currently reading the Game of Thrones series by George R.R Martin, and really enjoying it. I rarely stray into the world of fantasy fiction, but tend to be glad when I do. I really loved The Assasin's Apprentice trilogy by Robin Hobb, which I read a few years ago on the recommendation of a similarly non-fantasy reading friend. The Beast Quest books strike me as Game of Thrones for small boys. There's something very appealing in the idea of setting out on an epic journey with a job to be done, and C and I are both quite looking forward to finding out what happens to Tom as he goes to do battle with the wizard Malvel. Well, actually, I am more looking forward to finding how Tyrion Lannister gets on as the latest Hand of the King, but I am fairly certain that Game of Thrones is deeply unsuitable for a boy of five...

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Monsters: An Owner's Guide by Jonathan Emmett

We visited a library we haven't been to for a few years today, the Central Library in the city where we live. It used to be our local, but since we moved out of the city we have tended to go to the suburban libraries more often.

C was most taken with the Central Library, saying that there were lots more books for him to choose from than usual. He spent a happy half hour sitting cross legged on the floor looking through the books. A was also impressed, and we came out with quite a weighty bag full of books.

I chose from the big book boxes. A and C always claim that they are "for babies" but this does not stop them enjoying the books I sneak into the bag. Today I snuck Monsters: An Owner's Guide by Jonathan Emmett in the bag. A spent the whole journey home sneakily reading in the car, and almost made herself sick. She loved the different names for the monsters, such as "Mr Giggles" and "Beezyblub" and kept saying "Mummy, look at this bit!", which is always the sign of a good book. Luckily she also managed to make it home without a vomit incident on Daddy's red leather upholstery, of which he is quite fond. Bonus.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Mr Wolf's Pancakes

In yesterday's sleepy haze I forgot that we'd also read Mr Wolf's Pancakes by Jan Fearnley, as is traditional for us on Shrove Tuesday. It's a lovely picture book, with lively images and an interesting plot. Mr Wolf has become good, and decides to make everybody pancakes. But nobody will help him. When he eventually struggles through and makes the pancakes, all of his friends come round, wanting to eat some. The first time I read it to A, and asked "What do you think happens next?", she said "Mr Wolf will eat all of the pancakes himself." This is a fair guess, given that's the plot of another story of which she was very fond, the Little Red Hen. However, there's a twist in the tale, which both A and C find hilarious.

It's a great book for talking about the way in which stories interlink with each other, and borrow elements, or make allusions to other stories. What do we expect a wolf to be like? Why do we think like that? What other stories does the wolf appear in? Why is it good to be surprised by a story? Why is good to have stories which are not surprising? Thinking about these things can lead to some interesting discussions about what stories are for.

I think this is why A loves Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes so much, and why I loved it too. It's interesting to be surprised by characters which behave diffrently from the way we expect, or to hear a familiar story turn out differently sometimes.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

First News

We had an evening at work tonight where we meet with parents and talk about ways to encourage students . I was asked to talk about a publication I feel very passionately about, and ask the parents in attendance to complete an activity related to it. At work and home we subscribe to First News, a newspaper written specifically for KS2 and KS3 students (so ages 7-14 ish). I would say the reading age is around 10 years old, but the articles are well researched, interesting and snappy, so there are no vast tracts of text for the reluctant reader to manage.

The paper is set out similarly to an adult newspaper, with different sections covering different geographical areas or topics. Unlike a conventional newspaper, however, you can be sure that the material in it will be suitable, and potentially disturbing stories will be edited sensitively.

It's a brilliant resource for students to dip into and is something a little different and potentially more interesting than reading a book for some kids. C is a little young for it, but A enjoys having a flick through, and is a fan of the puzzle section and the book reviews and shopping columns. The parents seemed to enjoy working together to complete the News Quiz, which can be found in each copy of the newspaper, an activity which we often complete with the students.

I have seen teenagers who abhor reading curl up on a sofa with First News and voluntarily read for extended periods of time. This newspaper works at motivating kids to read, and they are aware of what young people want to read. It's available on subscrition or at large newsagents and some supermarkets, and is a bargainous £1.30 an issue.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Scout and Ace

I have been up for many, many hours, so excuse me if this is not particularly coherent. This is partly why I have only started a blog in the past year. There was a LOT of sleep deprivation going on in this household in the early years. I was messaging a friend the other day, saying that motherhood really makes you appreciate the little things in life, such as drinking a cup of tea in peace, going to the toilet in peace, or having an unitnerrupted conversation. However, THE thing it makes you appreciate most is the gift of being able to get enough sleep. I remember being tortured by the feeling that I was in some kind of sleep prison, where other people dictated when I could sleep (never when I wanted to) or couldn't sleep (pretty much all the time).

I have always been a massive fan of sleep. It does not seem fair that, as a baby who slept through the night from FIVE WEEKS OF AGE, I should have two children, neither of whom slept through the night consistently until they were five YEARS of age. I used to ask to go to bed when I got home from school. One of my favourite things as a teenager was going to bed whilst it was still light to read my book and drop off again (yes, once again I am harking back to those party years). Yes, I have always liked getting up relatively early, but 3am used to be a regular morning wake-up time for me, and that is beyond early. That is dark, lonely, stagnant dead time which should be spent dreaming about going out to dinner with Gethin Jones.

In those days, I would not have dreamt of starting a blog. Getting up, eating, wearing clean clothing and having some positive interaction with my immediate family during the day was pretty much all I could muster back then. And I didn't always manage all of those. However, now I have the freedom to eat hot food, drink hot tea, have a conversation without interruption (occasionally) and go to the loo solo. I can also pretty much guarantee that when I go to bed, I can sleep and get up quite a few hours later. Bliss. Heaven. Having older children is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

So tonight's reading. Mr M is reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to them. It's a landmark occasion, because when I read them I encouraged Mr M to read them, and was greeted by a none-too-elegant response. I told him then that when we had children I would make him read Harry Potter to them, and he agreed, thinking that would be many decades into the future. Ha! A is enjoying it, C is very much yet to be convinced.

I read C one of his library books which was Scout and Ace and the Scary Bear by Rose Impey. I like Scout and Ace. They are nice and straightforward to read, but the pictures by the brilliant Ant Parker are really lively and interesting, and Scout and Ace are cheeky, funny characters. This book got plenty of laughs from C, and turned bedtime from an over-tired stress zone to a jolly old time.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Oooh - shiny fing!

As the goblins in Mr Gum would say. Not strictly books (well not books at all), but we had an exciting delivery this morning. A set of 96 Lyra Ferby colouring pencils. We all sat and just looked at them for a while, all beautifully sharpened and arranged in a perfect spectrum in their wooden case. And then the kids got to work producing a woodland scene (A) and a three-eyed, eight-hearted monster called Uh-Uh (C). The pencils are beautiful. Really sturdy, but with excellent pigment, and good coverage. I really ummed and ahhed about buying these pencils, as they have quite a hefty price tag, and spending the best part of 30 quid seemed very excessive. However, I honestly think cheap art supplies are a false economy. Most of the pencils we have break easily, are faint and therefore very unsatisfying to use, so there is really no point having them at all. The same can be said of colouring pens, and we are waiting for our delivery of upgraded versions of these. We bought them from Baker Ross, and they arrived very quickly.

Another non-book item which we used today, from another rather fabulous company is the TTS Flip-It. TTS sell some lovely teaching resources. We have the sparkly glitter numbers, which are wonderfully tactile and fun to hang on the washing line to create sums and do some outdoor maths. Recently I invested in a Flip-It for both kids, and a selection of the Flip-It cards. The idea is that you place a card in the Flip-It, read the card, answer the question, and then flip the card to see if you were correct. It's a nice hands-on learning experience. Not great for teaching new things, I would say, but excellent for cementing knowledge that kids have already acquired. A uses them for helping with her note recognition and times tables, for example, and they are definitely a useful revision tool, because they offer a slightly more interactive experience than simply reciting tables or looking at them on a page. They are made of cardboard, so are not the most solid items known to man. If your kids are on the destructive side, might be best to steer clear. And make sure they are put away after use, because if they were trodden on, I fear they may not live to flip another card.

Oxford Reading Tree

In an audacious but ultimately foiled bid to avoid doing her clarinet practice this morning, A decided that she was going to read C three stories in a row. They picked three from the Oxford Reading Tree Time Chronicles series (I am not sure which three, but it doesn't really matter, since they are pretty much all the same book). I bought them in the same order as the Maths Quest books that have been the obsession this half-term. Unusually for me, I did not actually want to buy these books. I didn't really feel the need for any more Oxford Reading Tree books in my life. But the kids really, really wanted them, and it was against my better judgement to say "No! You are not having this collection of books that you will read and enjoy because I don't want them!" That would be fair enough if they were pornographic, or contained scenes of violence and cruelty. But they don't. And I suppose it's better than reading Danielle Steele books you have nicked off your Mum, like I did when I was 8.

I am in two minds about the Oxford Reading Tree - Biff, Kipper, Chip et al. For the uninitiated they are the Roger Red Hat and Jennifer Yellow Hat of the current generation. Well, I say the current generation, but my cousin definitely read them when she was at school, and she is 24 this year. I think they are pretty dull, but those who grew up on them seem to hold them very dear in their hearts. In fact A almost always listens to C read his book from school, especially if it's one she hasn't read before. They have stood the test of time quite well, although I do remember A being very confused at the denouement of The Land of the Dinosaurs. In the story, Biff has taken lots of photographs of said creatures, but when she gets back home, she is devastated to find that she has no film in the camera. "What's film?" asks A, a child of the digital era.

I suppose it's similar to my long-held feelings of affection towards The Village with Three Corners and Bangers and Mash books. I doubt they were perfectly crafted pieces of literary inspiration, but I loved them all the same. Learning to read can be a very special time, and I suppose a fondness for the characters who helped you on the way is natural, especially if you go on to find pleasure in reading.

My favourite characters in the ORT books are Mum, who has the most fabulous mullet and blue eyeshadow, and Gran, who I am sure is always taking a cheeky swig out of a hipflask behind everyone's backs.

In a few short years, or possibly terms, I am sure I will be missing Biff and Chip. Luckily the Time Chronicles are aimed at an older readership, so that the "joy" can be extended. The children are somewhat older (Wilma and Aneena are at secondary school!) and the stories are historical adventures where the children seek to defend the world from the malevolent virans. They meet interesting historical characters along the way. They're not going to set the world on fire, but they did entertain A and C for an hour or so this morning.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Machines are Not People

Not the name of a book; although thinking about it, I think it sounds like C might quite enjoy it!

Picture the scene. Friend and I and our four kids in the lovely library in a town near the village where we live. All of the kids have chosen some nice books, and there is a good selection for all of them (one 5, two 8 and one 10 year old). It's particularly satisfying to find a good selection of books suitable for C, who can now read pretty well, but doesn't quite have the stamina yet for a full length Beast Quest or Astrosaurs or similar. He tends to forget which character is which, and get frustrated with himself.

Anyway, I approach the self-checkout machines with loathing and caution. They are notoriously useless, and it is very rare that I am able to actually check books out without it failing to scan some of them, and me having to join the very long queue at the desk, full of people also checking out books which have failed to scan. So, essentially a queue like there always used to be before the machines, which is now longer with extra added whinging toddlers who want to either go to the library's brilliant cafe, or go and play on the amazing park just outside (it even has a zipwire - oh yes). The machines cost time and put trained librarians out of a job. I am tempted to launch a Luddite campaign against them, but fear this might lead to me being permanently banned from the library.

Thing is, even if the machines worked, I'd still hate them. Libraries are not just places for people to go in, scan books in a machine, choose more books, scan those books into a machine, and leave again. They are one of the precious few community hubs we have left which is open access to all. They are often a refuge for the disenfranchised, particularly the elderly. Ten years ago an elderly person or lonely new mum could go the to local shop, the post office and the library, and be assured of some human contact. Now there are self checkouts in the shop and the library, and the post office is likely to be closed. It's just so depressing.

On a happier note, one of the books C chose was a Haynes Manual for Wallace and Gromit's Cracking Contraptions. He spent a long time looking at it in bed tonight and has asked for it for his birthday. Bless him I am sure he can only read about half of the words, but since he was a small toddler, C has loved looking at diagram-y type books. He often used to sit cross-legged by the book shelves, tracing particularly exciting pictures with his fingers.

This morning on the bus, he read the new bus timetable, as it was the only available reading material. I only learnt to passed my driving test a year ago, so A and C were bus veterans from a very early age. C used to have loads of different Buggy Buddies books. A did too, but she would pretty much ignore them in favour of flirting with strangers and pointing out of the window. I was very grateful for his love of books as bus journeys with toddlers are a test of anyone's patience. However, now that the kids are older, and bus journeys are optional rather than necessary for me, I permitted myself yet another moment of nostalgia this morning for a bygone age, when I would get on the bus juggling toddler, baby, double buggy, nappy bag and assorted accoutrements and bus money. It isn't actually on my CV that I used to regularly get the bus with two very small children, but it really should be. The people-management and multi-tasking skills required should not be underestimated. Even with a Buggy Buddy or two in the armoury.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Books about love for Valentine's Day

I don't really do Valentine's day, but thought it might be appropriate to blog about some of my favourite/least favourite books about love today.

There are loads of picture books for children about love. Which is nice, really, although to me curling up with your child for a story is an expression of love in itself. It sends a very powerful message to them that finding time to sit with them is important to you. Also, to my mind, you should cherish the time in their lives when they actively love the sound of your voice, because there will be times where it is the last thing they want you to hear (viz A this morning telling me "I'd rather be at school than here with you!") Ouch. I had committed the terrible crime of suggesting we go out for a walk, so it was obviously deserved.

Anyway, first I will mention the classic Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. We have a copy of this which I bought for MrM when he was doing his finals, and I was very soppy. There is a message which I wrote on the cover sleeve, which is deeply embarrassing in its sentimentality. Naturally, this is the bit A and C like best. I think this is a lovely story for babies and young toddlers. I especially like the version that comes with your own cuddly little nutbrown hair. There is not really much of a plot - a small and a large hare have a competition as to which one loves the other the most. There are some brilliant pictures though. I especially like the one of the big hare whirling the little one round by his arms, ears flying in the wind :)

Secondly, I go on to one of the dumbest purchases I ever made. It was read out as one of the stories on Tikabilla once, and it very nearly made Sarah-Jane cry. This should have been a warning to me. It is a lovely story, but it is one of the saddest books I have ever read - including The Time Traveller's Wife, which made me cry for about a week. It's called Love You Forever and is written by Robert Munsch. It tells the tale of a Mum who is seen at the start, holding her newborn baby song and singing a song which goes "I'll love you forever, I'll like you for always. As long as I'm living, my baby you'll be". She continues to sing this song to him throughout his life, when he is asleep as he gets older, despite all of the mischief he gets up to. At the end, the mother is dying, and the son holds her as she dies, and sings the song to her (replacing baby with mother obv). He then goes home and takes his baby from its cot, and sings the song one last time. I am usually in several floods of tears by the the time the Mum is middle-aged, because I know what is coming next. It's a powerful tale of love lasting a lifetime, and overcoming minor tribulations, but it is very, very sad, so beware if you or your child are of a sensitive disposition.

In a similar vane, but much, much less sad is I Love you Little Monkey by Alan Durant. Little monkey gets up to all sorts of irritating acts which make his Mum grumpy, such as ruining the bed she has just made. However, despite her annoyance the book ends with a positive message about love overcoming these daily tribulations. We love the picture where the monkeys' tales make a heart shape.

Also on Tikabilla was the lovely Full, Full, Full of Love by Trish Cooke. It's a jolly tale about Sunday lunch at Granny's house. We more often than not have Sunday lunch at Granny's house, so this was a big favourite with the kids when they were a bit younger, as they identified with the child in the book, waiting impatiently for lunch to be ready. They also identified with Granny's lap being one of their favourite places to be.

Finally a dishonourable mention to the Little Bear stories by Martin Wadell. Wadell has written some truly brilliant picture books, most notably Owl Babies and the Rosie's Babies. However, he has also "blessed" the world with the stories of the deeply irritating Little Bear and his ineffectual parent Big Bear. Little Bear is the kind of kid who beats up other kids at the soft play. I just know it. And Big Bear is the parent who says things like "Oh, it's because he's bored at school and has to release his pent up rage". You'd better believe Big Bear has a stackload of back issues of Aquila in that cave. The Little Bear stories are all about love. And yet the only emotion they make me feel is anger. And they are also REALLY boring. And long. So, in summary, if you want to be bored and angry for a very long time, read them. Read the lot! One after the other. Perhaps I should start doing that in detention. "Right young meladdio. Punishment for swearing in my hearing is the whole of Can't You Sleep, Little Bear delivered in a dull monotone for the whole of break. And if you do it again it'll be Well Done, Little Bear. And let that be a lesson to you."

Maths Quest by David Glover

I bought the complete set of Maths Quest books from The Book People a while ago. At the time, they were a bit hard for A, and she did do some of them with supervision from Mr M, but preferred the Usborne Puzzle adventures which she could do herself.

However, she has now clearly grown into them, since she sat for 90 minutes solving the clues in The Museum of Mysteries. C sat alongside her - it was his job to remember which page they had to turn to next. It's a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure puzzle book - you have to solve the maths puzzle to work out which page to go turn to. It's the most maths I have ever seen A voluntarily do, and therefore has already repaid the money I spent on it (which probs wasn't very much anyway, given it was from The Book People).

A great buy for your little mathematicians (reluctant or otherwise!) Some puzzles are harder than others, and A required some help with some of them (and she is quite good at maths, thanks to my strong mathematical genes obv), but the concept is extremely good, and it was enough to amuse both kids for an extended period of time in that late afternoon grumpy phase that children have. Well, I say children, but to be quite honest, I am not immune to a touch of the 5pm grumpies myself.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Usborne Big Colouring Book

Without wanting to sound like Mrs Smug of Smug Avenue, Smugville, I have been a pretty good parent today. A has been slightly tired and emotional all day - still recovering from Saturday's sleepover shenanigans and post-birthday blues. C has been a little poppet, however, as if to offset his sister's sullen growling.

This morning after a hearty breakfast of porridge, we all went out for a run/scooter ride in the fresh air. C and I fully appreciated the fresh air. A whinged the whole way round. When we got back, after lunch, a couple of Storyteller tapes and a couple of recorded episodes of the current favourite TV prog Jungle Run, I went downstairs and took out The Usborne Big Colouring Book. If I ever suggest to the kids that they do some colouring in, they look at me as though I have suggested they run around the park naked. "Why would I want to do that?" their expressions enquire. However, if I get said colouring book off the shelf and start colouring in myself, it is suddenly the best thing to do ever. The minute I leave, however, the colouring book has to go away, or else anarchy breaks out. Clearly, they just like sitting doing colouring with Mummy. Which is fine by me.

Today we coloured for an hour and a half. During this time I taught them the Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain method of remembering the colours of the rainbow, and we discussed the merits and demerits of Crayola colouring pens. We also discussed what colours we were going to use for that snail, this elephant or the big robot with the lightning flash. We even skipped a page today - this kind of anarchy is usually unheard of, but it is half-term.

We like this colouring book. It's slightly in the style The Anti-Colouring Book by Susan Striker and Edward Kimmel. This book is a great concept. The pages are left for the colourer to complete and then colour, making it more of a creative exercise than the traditional colouring book. The Usborne book takes elements from this, but there is still a lot to colour for those who prefer their colouring old-school. There are also blocks of colour ready-done, which helps out the young colourer when their hands get tired.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Dorling Kindersley's Children Just Like Me and the many spin-offs.

My Mum bought me the first two of these books, Children Just Like Me,and Celebration! in my teens to help me with my homework. All of the books follow the same basic format - a double-page spread focusing on one child. Spread across the page there are lovely photographs and nuggets of information about both the child concerned, and the country. It's like a soap-opeara for kids version of geography. I LOVED it, despite being that little bit too old for it. In fact, I loved it so much, that I bought myself the French version Des Francais Comme Moi on a holiday a few years later. Both of these will serve as history books for my kids, since the world has changed a great deal since the 1990s.

I bought A Life Like Mine and A Faith Like Mine for the kids a couple of years ago. These are slightly more updated versions, published in the mid-2000s. A enjoys looking at them, although is slightly too young for them yet, I think. However, I think they're amazing - a really good format without too many huge tracts of text for the beginning or reluctant reader. I use the Celebration! book with my students during their work on Spring festivals, and they produce a version based on their own lives. The book always goes down very well, although it is starting to look a little dated.

Today we went for an afternoon visit to the Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall. We are National Trust members, and are lucky enough to live quite near to this brilliant place, so often go for a couple of hours to get some fresh air into the kids and to have a look in the fabulous museum. There is a story-telling room with some bookshelves, a dressing up box, soft play shapes for building and a screen to make a stage. Mr M and I like this room, partly because it has nice comfy sofas. Anyway, today, as the kids were playing Castle Destruction, I looked on the shelf and found a Dorling Kindersley book called Children in History, which is the same basic idea as the other books, but for a child in a particular period in history. A was even persuaded away from Castle Destruction to have a look at it, much to her brother's annoyance. Sadly, after a little search on Amazon and ebay, this particular book looks to be unobtainable. Hey ho. Hopefully it will stay on the shelves at the museum for long enough for me and A to have a look at it again.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Eight years of reading to my baby girl

It is A's birthday today, and I am feeling very nostalgic. In fact, this morning, I had a quiet blub because she suddenly seems so grown up and big.

I know I am biased, but A is amazing. I won't detail her amazingness here for fear of turning into one of those parents who buys Aquila magazine (yeah, I know), but she makes my life so much more wonderful by being in it.

A was born at a very, very dark time in my life. I was very unsure of exactly what to do with her, although I always tried my very best, but often felt as though I was blundering in the dark (and often I was blundering in the dark to go and feed her for the 17th time in one evening).

I remember the day the darkness started to lift. I can't remember exactly how old A was, but it was a beautiful bright sunny afternoon. A and I were both sporting strappy vests. We had had a morning at home and I remember looking outside and deciding to take her for a walk. I put her in her sling and set off down the road. We used to live by a railway station, set slightly out of a city centre. We took a walk by the riverside into town and up to the cathedral. The sun was beating down on my shoulders and onto A's little broderie anglaise sunhat. I remember looking down at her and she gave me the most enormous heart-melting grin. I had a sudden awareness of what a wonderful person she was, and such a feeling of excitement that I would get to spend the rest of my life being her Mum.

Some of my happiest memories with her are of sitting her on my knee and reading a story. When she was a crawling baby, we would go to the library, come back and spread the books we had chosen around the living room floor. She would crawl to each book in turn, bring it back to me, and we would read it. This could go on for well over an hour at a time. With a first baby, it is impossible to know what is normal and what is not, but certainly, at the age of 9 months, C did not do this. He would have been more likely to try to eat the books or chuck them around the room. Of the two, however, C has got into reading at an earlier age. I think A used to enjoy the sitting on Mummy's knee aspect of reading, more than the actual books. But that's OK. I used to enjoy that aspect too.

I caught A staring at me the other day, and said "What?" or something equally eloquent. "I remember when you used to be young, Mummy." For a moment I was a little bit put-out. I think I offered a slightly sardonic "hmmm". Later, I thought, she does remember when I used to be young. And she helped me to grow up. God bless you, best daughter a Mummy could have. Happy 8th birthday.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog and The Pigeon Wants a Puppy by Mo Willems

Why would you ever read incoherent TV tie-ins or simpering tales about pale pink diamond encrusted ballerinas, when books like this exist? Mo Willems is an author worth your time. No ballet-dancing mice in these. No contrived dialogue, or lazily drawn pictures in these.

I bought Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog in The Works years ago, in one of those 4 books for a fiver promotions they do. A pointed at it and said "gah!", which to my mind meant "please buy me this book, Mummy!" A said "gah" a lot, which goes some way to explaining why we have such an inordinately huge number of books.

I read it when we got home, and then remember telling Mr M when he got in from work that he just had to read this book, even though A was already asleep upstairs. It was an instant hit.

It's cartoon-strip style and very simply drawn. The amount of different emotions Willems can express with a certain shape of an eyelid or flutter of pigeon wing is incredible. The conceits in the stories are simple. The pigeon finds a hot dog that the duck wants to eat. The pigeon wants a puppy, until he meets one and is terrified. The text is minimalist and snappy. You can tell it's American. but it doesn't pose a comprehension barrier for a British toddler. (Aside - not like when I used to read Judy Blume et al as a pre-teen. I used to get really confused when they said things like "That's it! Period" Why, I thought, do Americans regularly refer to menstrual bleeding when they are trying to emphasise a point? It was many, many years before I realised that period in fact meant full-stop. It all made a lot more sense then).

A and C loved these books as babies, toddlers, and they still enjoy reading them now. They particularly enjoy Mr M's dramatic renditions of Hot Dog, which are delivered in his own personal performance-art style. I am quite sure you will enjoy creating your own Pigeon reading style.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Aquila magazine

A is big into magazines at the moment. I have a bit of time for Jacqueline Wilson magazine. Some of it is fluffy tosh, but there's a lot about writing in there, and A adores it. Moshi Monsters magazine is also OK, and one that she will sit with for a while. She also quite likes the RSPB's Bird Life magazine, but did once famously say "there's a little bit too much about birds in it." I dread to think if they ever do a customer survey. "What would you change about the magazine?" "Less about the birds, please".

Anyway, I am a sucker for trying new magazines. A friend mentioned Aquila a while back. When I looked at the website, it was a little bit "a magazine for your gifted child." It made me wrinkle up inside. I felt that it was a magazine aimed at parents whose facebook status is always something like: "So proud of Tarquin. He is now fluent in 12 different dead languages." Parents of kids who are "so clever they get bored at school and have to express themselves with their fists". I have an unspoken fear that I could turn into one of those parents. As I penned "I was wondering if you had any plans to move C up a level in his reading books, as he is finding these quite easy now", the voice in my head was mocking me. (DISCLAIMER 1: the occasional boast post is obviously a natural part of parenthood. DISCLAIMER 2: Of course there are bright kids who are bored at school. But instead of whacking other kids, clever kids should see it as a life lesson. Huge swathes of even really happy lives, where you have a great family and amazing job are really, really, really boring. School was useful training for me for deeply boring life experiences such as having a young baby, waiting in Specsavers and committee meetings).

However, they recently changed their selling tactic to "for kids who enjoy challenges". That sits much better with me. All kids should enjoy challenges. And not just the challenge of how to manage the Survival Endless in Plants vs Zombies when all of the extra plants cost 50 more sun for every new planting. Yes indeed. Challenges are good.

Anyway, I succumbed and ordered a subscription. The magazine arrived today. We are impressed. In fact, I am not convinced A is asleep yet. She likes the varied content and the unpatronising tone. So thumbs up. But if it starts making me excuse A's rare flashes of bad behaviour on her rampant creativity, please feel free to slap me.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

National Libraries Day

"Why isn't there a childrens' day?" we used to whinge, in that irritating tone that all kids have. The predictable response? "Every day is children's day". Of course, I knew what they were getting at. But I still contend that it wasn't, because we didn't get a box of chocolates, some slightly decrepid daffodils and breakfast in bed every morning. Anyway. Every day should be Libraries day.

My Mum didn't drive, so when we were little, day trips had to be local. My two favourite places in the world to go were WHSmith and the library. When I took an ill-advised trip back to my childhood shopping precint last Spring (ill-advised because it reminded me of Mum and I cried pretty much constantly, embarrassed A, and looked unhinged), it was the library which really set me off. It has been refurbished, but still stands in the same carpark. It used to smell of lovely new books. I would sit for a very, very long time, choosing which books to take home with me - for free! Such excitement! Much more exciting, really, than WHSmith, where you actually had to have some money to take stuff home. I could read whatever I wanted! Such freedom.

When we moved to the Midlands, I became a familiar face at the village library. I think I read every book in the teen section. In fact they eventually offered me a job, as I was in there so much! I turned it down, as I already had a part-time job, and I think I am rather too fog-horned of voice to be a good librarian.

My two don't love the library, quite as much as I did yet, but they are getting there. We were going to go today (it being National Libraries Day, and also ours are due back), but were scuppered by a birthday party for one of C's friends. All of the local libraries now have reduced opening hours on a Saturday. We had to make do with reading the ones we hadn't got round to reading yet (Laugh out Loud by Fiona Waters and I Know Someone with Dyslexia by Sue Barraclough). A chose that one as she knows I work with people with dyslexia, and she wanted to learn more about it. I wouldn't have wanted to buy it, as it's quite short and not exactly a riveting read, but libraries are there to disseminate knowledge, and this is what they do.

A and C also love their school library. We are very lucky that theirs has one, as does the school I teach in. I use it every day. It is a source of great joy to me that my Year 7 group turn to the books before the internet when they have to research a topic. They have come to know and trust the school librarian, and are beginning to know and trust books too.

We go to many different libraries. Our village does not have one (a source of some angst for me - it really needs one), but we do live within driving/bussing distance of several. All are special in their own way, and all are ALWAYS busy whenever we go. Communities need libraries with proper, trained librarians, rather than a Tesco-stylee self checkout thingy.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012


The other evening, C was reading his latest enthralling Biff and Chip odyssey. He got to the end of the page and I said "bing!". C seems to accept others making seemingly random noises. A asked "What are you doing Mummy?" "Storyteller! You know, when it makes a bing noise when it's time to turn the page." Cue blank looks.

"Storyteller. Funny fella". I think that's how the marketing bumf went. But why would you need marketing when you have the PERFECT PRODUCT. Because that, to my mind is what Storyteller is.

Storyteller played a very, very large part in teaching me to read. And, MUCH more importantly, it made me excited about books, reading and stories. If you are unfamiliar with Storyteller, and are in your early 30s, you can feel justified in telling your parents that you were a deprived child. Storyteller was the best thing to come out of mid-1980s Britain, publishing-wise in my humble opinion. It was a monthly publication, with a magazine, a tape, and an activity book, each with several stories, both one offs and serialisations. Some were classics, some specifically written for the series. All were wonderfully written and wonderfully read. We used to order it in to the local newsagent and get ludicrously excited when it was time for the next installment.

It was not cheap. I used to cost £1.95 per issue, which was quite a lot of money, back in the day, when you think you could have bought an Enid Blyton for 99p. However, it was so, SO worth it.

We had Storyteller 2, the second installment. My friend Jo, being that bit younger, had Little Storyteller and I used to seethe with jealousy that I didn't have that too. When A was about 3 I bought her the Little Storyteller series from ebay. She quite liked it, but was too young to follow the stories from the tape by reading the magazine, which is the best bit. Also the tapes had not been stored well, and were dying a death. They are now pretty much unusable, which is sad, but they have both pretty much grown out of Little Storyteller now anyway. I also bought the first series, which we did not own, but have not yet got round to checking if the tapes still work on that one (fingers firmly crossed).

So, after I had made the bing noise, A decided that she must listen to Mummy's old tapes. I went and dug them out, worried that our tapes would also have perished. But, hurrah! Clear as a bell! Luckily, we still have a tape deck as part of one of our music systems and so A and C curled up with the magazine folder (oh yes, we had the blue folder, and the blue tape box), propped up against the TV stand. They took it in turns to turn the page when it binged. For four hours. It took them a little while to get used to archaisms such as "getting tapes out" and "changing the side", but they were fine after a while. They were entranced by the pictures. A said "I love how the pictures help you think of the story." She said she felt as though she were there. I almost shouted "YES! ME TOO!" and I think she was a little scared. I had a wonderful time, reliving childhood memories of the wonderful stories, but it was even more wonderful to watch A and C following every single word on the page, completely entranced.

Tonight she asked to listen to Storyteller, rather than watch TV or go on the computer. IN YOUR FACE, modern technology." Marshall Cavendish, if you are listening, I implore you. Bring back Storyteller.