Sunday, 28 July 2013

Old-skool Choose Your Own Adventure

Last week I took the kids to the Tower of London for the first time.  Mr M and I went in June half-term when we had a couple of child-free days in London, and I was tempted to get the children's guide so that we could engage the kids before their visit.

"Don't get that!" says Mr M.  I assumed he was just weeping uncontrollably inside at the idea of adding yet another book to our collection.  But no.  Mr M remembered a book from his own childhood about the Tower, and wanted to find it.  "It was a Choose Your Own Adventure".  Say no more, Mr M.

I absolutely loved Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, even though I was also really, really terrified of them.  I remember one called Your Very Own Robot, which could equally have been called Die in a Variety of Quite Scary Ways.  I was always extremely risk averse in the books (as in life), but still ended up meeting a sticky end quite often.  And yet, I remember the books with fondness.

How could I resist the opportunity to combine an educational visit with some scary, nostalgic fiction?  I couldn't.  No book was purchased that day at the Tower.

Unfortunately, we couldn't find the chosen Tower book at MrsMSnr's house.  We found one about a shark, which probably would have given me nightmares for weeks, but there aren't that many sharks at the Tower.  Obviously the only available solution was to buy the book from a second-hand Amazon seller.

I can't remember if all of the Choose Your Own Adventure books were American, but Choose Your Own Adventure The Tower of London certainly is.  Published in 1984 "You" play the part of an American tourist visiting your penpal with the, unlikely even in 1984, name of Rodney, who lives at the Tower.  Obviously, in MrM and my readings of the text, Rodney speaks with an Edwardian BBC accent.  This is partly because it just seemed right, but also to try and minimise the terror, lest one of our unsuspecting children picks the story which leads the ghost of Richard III to throw you down a pit where you are destined to starve to death.

Most of the story arcs are not quite so terrifying, which is good.  They do cover a basic Who's Who of Tower of London ghosts, which is what we were after.  On balance, almost certainly more entertaining than the rather dry kids guide sold today at the Tower.  Also, we had literally minutes of fun daring and double daring each other to go and ask all of the Yeoman Warders if they were Rodney's Dad. Who can put a price on that?

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Dorling Kindersley Cook it Step by Step

I have always loved children's cook books.  Since the heady days of my Henry's Cat Fun to Cook Book, which had the best picture of Henry's Cat ever on the front of it, I have enjoyed reading them.  The recipes, however, often turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.  Although I do remember the cheese straw whiskers in said book were actually pretty good.

Anyway, there are some fab children's cookbooks around today, of which we own a fair proportion.  My favourite is almost certainly The River Cottage Family Cookbook, which groups recipes according to their main ingredient and provides background information on how and why the recipes work.  It is a little on the "you must grind the wheat and sweat in to the bowl" sack-cloth and ashes style, though, so the kids tend to prefer the glossy Usborne baking books that don't bother with such fripperies as actual dinners, and deal simply with gingerbread men and chocolate mousse.

A got the above book out of the library last week, as part of her summer reading challenge haul.  I resisted the temptation to say "but we've got loads of cook books at home!", because the rule in the library is that they borrow whatever they fancy, as long as its appropriate.  I promised that she could choose a main meal and a pudding to make on Saturday, as I knew we'd be in all day with our only plans being the very vague "tidy up".  So tonight we had burgers and gingerbread teddies (we don't actually have a person-shaped cutter) for tea.

Although the book is light on background reading, the recipes are very clear and easy to follow, and there are plenty of pictures so that the reader can see what each stage of the recipe is meant to look like, which is really valuable for the beginner cook, I think.  The burgers were actually really very good - they didn't fall to bits in the frying pan, and were extremely tasty.  The gingerbread teddies were also very palatable and were easily made by A following the instructions on her own. 

If you don't already own all of the kids' cookbooks that The Book People have ever sold, as I do, I would thoroughly recommend this one.  And put the Usborne World Cookbook in your basket too - the recipes aren't quite as well-explained but the short explanations of different world cuisines are very interesting.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell

OK, I will start with the disclaimer that the thing that made me hate these books at first was the author's irritating name.  Obviously it is not her fault that her name is alliterative, overly-cutesy, and un-necessarily first-name heavy.  However, these inadvertent faults are exacerbated by the font in which they are emblazoned across the front of the books. Think ComicSans MS but more irritating. 

Which brings me on to the covers themselves.  Now, perhaps I am old, but to me a "dork" is a geek.  Someone who one would expect to look at least a little bit geeky.  Perhaps scraggy hair and trousers which end a few inches above the ankle bone.  If there are specs, they would be NHS 80s style ones.  In brown.   The girl on the front of every single glaringly-shaded cover is categorically NOT a dork.  Unless it has completely reversed its meaning, and the girls out of Mean Girls are now what is considered to be a dork.  Somehow I do not think this is the case.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't exactly like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  But at least it was original.  Tom Gates I love, because even though it is a bit of a rip-off of the above-named series, it is actually better.  This might be because it makes more sense to me and the kids, given that it is a British series.  But it is also hilariously funny, to the point where if a child is reading it to me in an independent reading session, I always make them read a little bit longer than the others, as I am enjoying the story.

Second disclaimer.  Unlike Tom Gates I haven't read a whole book of Dork Diaries. This is mainly because, as I rapidly approach middle age, I am keen to hold on to all the brain cells I can.  I could actually feel my brain cells dying as I read the vacuous trash contained within the pages of the first in the series.  It's real "write-a-kids-book-by numbers" stuff. 

A openly admits that the books are "pretty rubbish".  She compared them to junk food. I thought this was completely fair enough.  My junk reading at her age was, as I've said before, Danielle Steele; so I'd rather she was reading this.  Probably.

Originally I told her she would have to borrow them from the library, since I was not wasting hard earned cash on them.  However, the problem with series books and libraries is that it can be difficult to ensure that you can read the books in order, and I acknowledge that this is a problem, even for very rubbish books.  (That said, we did manage, between two school and four public libraries, to borrow the entire Series of Unfortunate Events in order.  But then I was very motivated that A should read that series).  I have bought the set from the Book People, with the proviso that as soon as the books are read, they will be donated to the charity shop.  There's no way I'm giving shelf space up for these.

Admittedly, the three hours of peace that the books brought me on Sunday morning does make them seem worth their £6.99 price tag.  Perhaps worth a buy for filling those hours in the long holidays approaching.  But don't expect great literature.  Or a laugh.  Or a picture of an actual dork.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Reading to older children

During my oasis of calm reading lessons with my lovely Year 7 group, I have taken to reading The Hobbit as they sit on the beanbags reading Wimpy Kid rip-offs (often better than the original, it has to be said), and vampire trash.  Obviously I am totally happy for them to read whatever they chose.  I have to admit I only chose The Hobbit because I couldn't be bothered to go to my bag and fetch the book I was actually reading, and it happened to be on a shelf that I could reach from the comfort of my teacher chair.

I have never actually read The Hobbit myself, but I remember my Dad reading it to me when I was about 11 or 12.  The deal was, if we were in bed for 9pm, Dad would sit on the landing between my room and my brother's room and read to us.  We had The Hounds of the Morrigan, The Hobbit, Watership Down and probably some others that have faded over time.  What hasn't faded is that feeling of safety that comes with being read to. It certainly made a difference to our own reading and writing skills - listening to an expert reader read aloud from the work of an expert writer can't fail to do this. It's not like we couldn't read well ourselves by that time.  But that wasn't the point.  It was lovely that Dad took the time to read something to us that we might not necessarily have bothered to read for ourselves.  It rounded the day off nicely.  It made us feel secure.

I have been urging parents at recent meetings to continue to read to their children as they transition from primary to secondary.  They don't suddenly turn into adults when they wear a blazer instead of a brightly coloured jumper.  It is still such a valuable use of time.  I will certainly continue to read to mine, either until they move out, or ask me to stop, whichever comes sooner. It is absolutely one of my favourite times of the day.