Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Things I didn't notice about the Famous Five when I was a child.

This is potentially the first in a series, given we are currently on Book 1, and there are 20 still to go!

1) Dick is aptly named.  In fact, by rights Julian should have been called Dick, and Dick could have been called Slightly-less-of-a-dick.  How did I not notice how patronising and vile they are to their sister.  I would absolutely love it if in one of the books Anne gave them a sucker punch, followed by chinese burns, followed by a wedgie, and then ran away.  However, I am fairly sure I would have remembered that if she had.

2) Timmy the dog is called "Timothy" all the way through Book 1.  I am sure he's just Timmy later on.  Or am I imagining this?

3) George's gender ishoooos.  I remember not really being in the least bit interested that George is constantly battling some kind of inner gender crisis, that makes her extremely upset when she does something which she perceives to be "for girls", eg giving Anne a hug.  Also she makes the fisher boy call her "Master George".  A and C were very interested as to why this was.  We talked about how when the books were written there were very strong traditions as to which activities were deemed to be for boys, and which were OK for girls.  I don't remember having any interest in this myself, apart from thinking "but George is a girl's name!" at the beginning, as I had an Auntie Georgina who was always, always known as George.  In fact, I think I thought that was her given name.  And she was quite obviously a girl, as she was a Mummy who had babies!

Ah well.  From what I recall, once the mysteries get going, they are what make the books worth reading.  Because at the moment, I am finding it hard going.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl

Or Rood/Rool Dial as he will now always be to me.

A tried to read this a while ago and declared it "boring".  I said "I remember hating it too", but after visiting the museum this week, I realised I could remember what happened in it at all.  I searched out my old copy and re-read it in the evening after we got back from the museum.

Hmmmm.  There's a little bit of Dr Who in one of the wacky episodes about it.  It's about the Space Hotel launched by the USA and how the Vernicious Knids get into it in an attempt to use it to invade the earth.  Mr Wonka saves the day, and all is well.  There was meant to be a third in the series where the gang visit the White House, but Dahl never wrote it.

I didn't hate it as much as I remember hating it as a child.  But I think that's because I read it straight after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which is pretty close to writing-for-children perfection.  The Great Glass Elevator is very far from that, but as a stand-alone, it's not really all that awful.  Not a sequel to be read straight after the original though, I think.

The Famous Five

My Dad, bless him, has kept the precious collection of Famous Five books that my brother and I read, re-read and re-read again several times, and so this week I have started reading them to A.  I think I was probably around seven when I read them for the first time, and I absolutely loved them.  I always used to wonder how they managed to find such a ludicrous level of mystery and adventure wherever they went.  Looking back, they were probably not actually written to mirror reality in any way whatsoever, but I remember always being slightly disappointed when the biggest excitement on our holidays was watching all the dads perform a dance routine to Star Trekkin' by The Firm.  No smuggling, buried treasure, spy rings, and a distinct lack of potted meat and ginger beer.  I think I probably would have hated potted meat (I am not even sure I know what it is - some kind of weird pate stuff?), but that's not the point.

A seems quite keen so far.  She is a little non-plussed about how the children interact with each other.  I was really quite thrilled that she noticed the casual misogynism with which Julian and Dick speak to the girls "Why do the boys think they're so important?"  I have decided to replace the word queer with "odd", as I don't really think it's a word I want her bandying about to mean unusual.  It's quite hard to do though, because the word comes up an awful lot. 

A is also amused that the children are allowed to go off all day and do whatever they want, with no parental input whatsoever.  I look forward to seeing her enjoy how the mysteries unfold, because at the moment they are still pretty much just remarking on how queer it is that George wants to be called a boy's name, and arguing with each other.

Just Henry by Michelle Magorian

I am always a little bit reluctant to read books by Michelle Magorian.  I love Goodnight Mister Tom so much, that no books really at all, let alone others by Magorian, really ever measure up.  I tried to love Back Home, but I didn't really. A Little Love Song was a bit odd and scary. 

It took years before I got back on the proverbial horse, and I was in my early 20s before I read Cuckoo in the Nest, but I loved it.  The theatre theme made it a little different, and it had a little more of the masterful characterisation that made Mister Tom so wonderful.

Just Henry came out in 2008, and I read it this week.  It turns out I loved it.  However, Magorian has a very set rhythm to her books, and I found I was flinching half way through, as I knew something dreadful was going to happen to break the fragile equilibrium. 

It always works like this:

  • WW2 or post WW2 family with ishooooos.
  • New characters emerge and ishoooos start to be dealt with.
  • Some kind of resolution reached, although generally not to the satisfaction of all characters.
  • Some kind of hideous disaster strikes (eg kidnapped by nasty family, sent to hideous boarding school, sent away from loved one)
  • Final, satisfactory resolution is reached.
I really cared about the characters here, and rushed the last third, wanting to reach that happy time at the end of the book where all is resolved.  There were some very obvious morals to this tale, and I felt that it got a little preachy at times "BE NICE TO PEOPLE EVEN IF THEIR MUM AND DAD ARE ||NOT MARRIED."  However, I am no longer the target audience, and it's important that today's generation are aware that there was a time when being illegitimate had serious consequences for your future prospects and your ability to make and retain friends.

A good read for age 10+.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre

"But I hate Rool Dial" was the cry this morning from C, who tends to decide that he hates every author that his sister loves, seemingly on principle. "But what about The Enormous Crocodile that [lovely Stepmum] read to you last night?"  "Yes, I liked that."  "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?" "Yes." "The Twits?"  "Oh yes, I really loved that, it was really funny." Hmmm.

It turns out that he didn't hate either Rool Dial, or the Rood Dial museum.  Admittedly, probably his favourite part was the Twits Cafe, which had brilliantly-named and yummy tasting cakes.  The museum is small, but very interesting.  It did strike me that there were a lot of very, very young children there today, who probably didn't really get an awful lot out of it.  Definitely more interesting for A, who has read the majority of Dahl's children's books, than C who has had a few read to him, but is really too young to fully appreciate Dahl at his best.

My favourite part was looking around his writing shed, and trying out a replica of the chair.  "Writing shed" has now been added to the list of requirements for my mythical dream home.  I think that would be the difference between writing dross, and writing a hilarious and ground-breaking new children's novel.  Watch this space.

Monday, 13 August 2012


It's been a big few days for blubbing.  I don't have a proper cry all that often, and when I do it is very rarely in front of others.  I always feel better for a good sob though, and am "lucky" in that if I want to cry, I can easily bring it on by reading. 

The blub-fest today was helped on by the fact that I had very little sleep last night.  I have enjoyed the Olympics immensely, and felt that I just had to watch the Closing Ceremony in its entirety, despite the fact that it clearly wasn't as good as the Opening Ceremony, or the games themselves.

I had cried my way through the end of Hitler's Canary in the morning, but you'd have to have the heart of a statue not to cry at that.  I cried during the closing ceremony when Gary Barlow sang about stars lighting up the sky, following the death of his baby girl just last week.  Just when I had re-composed myself after that, they did a montage including Gemma Gibbons mouthing "I love you Mum" up to the heavens after going through to the final in Judo.  Gets me every time.

This morning, I was more shouty than sad, which is my general disposition these days after going to be after midnight. I never was a particular party animal even in my youth, and have found my stamina for late nights has diminished as my responsibilites have grown.  However, there were several reading-related blubbing flashpoints today.

1) Reading The Story of Wenlock and Mandeville by Barry Timms and Michael Morpurgo to C.  We have bought a fair amount of Olympic paraphenalia today (of which more later) for a significantly reduced price, including this much-longed for by C book.  I remember rolling my eyes when my colleague bought it and said it was quite moving.  It is a really lovely story and I would urge anyone with mascot-loving offspring to indulge in a copy.

2) The Olympics poem by Carol Ann Duffy.  I love a bit of Carol Ann Duffy.  I even love her after teaching her poetry to dis-engaged seventeen year olds for several years.  Her poems told from the point of view of various fictional wives of historical characters really awakened a sense of the unfairness of the way history is narrated by men and for men.  Also they are very witty poems.  Her Olympics poem is moving and heart-warming, and I am already planning how to pitch it to the teens who happen to find themselves in my classroom come September.

3) I didn't actually blub at this, but felt almost moved to.  In June, I bought C the London 2012 Destination Junior board game from the fabulous Happy Puzzle Company, for £23.99.  £23.99!  Today, in Home Bargains, I was rubbing my hands with glee at getting a cuddly Mandeville for each child to take to the Paralympics for 59 of your English pence, when I just happened to glance down at the bottom shelf, where they had Destination Junior for £3.99.  Now, don't get me wrong, we've enjoyed playing the game.  But we've only played it about four times since June, having been away on our hols and all.  So that's £5 per game.  £20 I will never see again.  £20 that will haunt me, whenever I see something that I really want, but cannot justify spending £20 on.  Still, at least it will take the place of the £25.60 which has haunted me since 2001, when I left a £6 train ticket in Mr M's room in his student house and had to buy a full price one at the station.  That £25.60 could have bought a LOT of stuff.  Especially the 60p.  You could have a cuddly Wenlock from Home Bargains for that.  Or three Team GB shower caps.

4) The magazine of the British Heart Foundation.  Specifically this story:  As I was reading it C said, "Mummy, you look really sad reading that magazine, there are tears and everything - stop reading it!"  I explained what the story was about and why it was so, so sad, and a bit happy at the same time.  He thought that people who received donated organs were somehow re-born as newborn baby, which would be pretty cool, if a little bit difficult for their families, practically speaking.  After I explained further he said "What a lovely thing for that nice lady to do".  Such a beautiful, smiling face looking up from the page. Such a heartfelt story.  These things never fail to get the tears moving. 

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Hitler's Canary by Sandi Toksvig

Having gone through a phase of reading only tween gothic fiction, I have now moved on to tear-jerking WW2 novels.  This has been somewhat accidental - my purchase of Hitler's Canary by Sandi Toksvig came about as a direct result of the BOGOF in Oxfam the other day.  I had vaguely heard someone recommending it once, and so decided that, since it was free, and Sandi Toksvig always makes me laugh on the radio, it was worth a shot.

What a brilliant book.  Before this year, I had absolutely no idea of the role of Lithuania or Denmark in the Second World War, despite having studied this period of history a lot at school.  Hitler's Canary is the story of Bamse, the ten-year old son of an actor and cartoonist; a happy middle-class family in Copenhagen.  It tells the story of how ordinary Danish families helped over 7,000 Jews to escape the concentration camps to find freedom in Sweden.  It also makes the crucial point that some Germans did extremely good things, and some Danes did extremely cruel things.  It is the story of human nature, good and bad, and the difference that a few good people can make.  Brilliant for age 9/10+.

Lots of books make me cry, but there were LOTS of tears at the end of this one.  This book educates the reader, but through a story, not in a history-shoehorned-into-novel kind of way.  It's all about the characters.  But then, isn't life all about the characters?

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Derbyshire Walks with Children by William D Parke

I decided since it appeared to be summer this week that we should go out in the fresh air and experience nature.  This did not go down too well with the younger contingent.

I bought Derbyshire Walks with Children by William D Parke ages ago in a National Trust bookshop, and dragged it out from its resting place this morning to have a flick through.  We decided on the walk nearest to us.  Unfortunately, it was also the longest in the book, at 4 miles.  This, I discovered, was a tiny little bit ambitious for a first proper walk, even for a child whose Mum is a little bit allergic to driving.  C was distinctly lagging by the end, despite having scoffed an ice-cream from a convenient van mid-way through the walk.

MrM and I laughed a little at the "interesting facts" in the book, which are punctuated by a little smiley face.  However, in fairness to the facts, in context the kids were actually interested in them, and they were keen to find the next number, so that they could hear the fact.  So take that Mr and Mrs M, clearly William D Parke is more interesting than you gave him credit for!

The walk was great, and was fairly clear as to where we had to go.  I am fairly confident that I could take the kids for one without MrM, who is a much more competent navigator than me.  Highly recommened for those living in or around the Peaks.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The most-argued over book.

It's been a big day for books.  We've just come back from a holiday in Wales, where, wonderfully, we didn't have to pack all of our things into a teeny bag each.  An entire case of books came with us - a few recipe books because I had time to cook, some books with family friendly walks, and a LOT of kids books.  A is now on to no.9 in the Series of Unfortunate Events.  C and I are now on book 23 of the seemingly never-ending Beast Quest series.  So, having come back from a holiday where we read our way through a case of books, new reading material was required.

We headed to the library which I normally frequent with my best friend in our regular Wednesday meet-ups (not that we are in any way set in our ways).  Normally this means I choose the books from this library.  Today the kids had their say.  I tend to let them go a bit mad in the library, given that the books are free, but forgot that today we had come on the bus, rather than in the car.  My back suffered for it.

So, we have a bulging bag chock full of wonderful library books.  Having missed the bus, we nipped into the nearest shop to wait, which happened to be Oxfam.  BOGOF on kid's books.  Somehow we come out with My Big Book of Practical Jokes.  A book so awful, it doesn't even have an author.  Cue half an hour of arguing over who gets to read it first "But you've got SO many other books!  This one doesn't even have an author!"  Both kids united in slamming Mummy for saying something so completely ridiculous.  Is it September yet ;-)