Thursday, 28 November 2013

"The religion bit"

"Go and get the books off the religion bit" I said to A earlier.  Off she went to the bottom left corner of the left-hand bookcase in the living room and pulled out a pile of books.  "Why, what is it today?" she said.  "Hanukkah".  A dutifully looked up Hanukkah in the indexes and put back the Usborne Young Reading Diwali in favour of The Story of Hanukkah.

"Why do we have to look at the religion books anyway?" said C, with just enough of the whinge in his tone to get my hackles rising.  Unfortunately for him, I had just listened to the news, which was telling the sad tale of the Iranian born Bristol man who was murdered by two of his neighbours, who wrongly assumed he was a paedophile.  It followed a campaign of bullying which made me feel sick and very, very sad.

My Understanding Cultural Difference speech went on for some time.  Time enough for C to agree that looking at the books was a good idea, anyway, whether or not because he was persuaded by my argument, or because he decided that reading about Hanukkah was infinitely more interesting than listening to Mummy rant at him.

Kids have an inherent interest in what other people get up to.  They are essentially nosey.  This is why good RE books and teaching are so important. If children are brought up to understand why people look/dress/pray/don't pray/eat the way they do, and it is seen as a normal everyday thing that people are not all the same, then that is the sentiment they grow up with.  Babies are not born with prejudices, and it is our responsibility to do everything in our power to stop these from forming - for everyone's sake. Can we achieve this through "label this picture of a church"? No. But good RE encourages children to think about what makes human experience, why people might be motivated to do the things they do.

One of our favourite books when the kids were about 3-5 was this one which follows a day in the life of four children around the world. It's lift-the-flap, which always helps, but they were genuinely interested in Keiko's school, and why all of the children had to wear special school slippers rather than outdoor shoes, for example.

What Do You Believe? by Dorling Kindersley is a good one for KS2 children, and is arranged as a series of questions. It's a little crazily arranged for the adult eye, but has good snippets of information about different belief systems, including atheism. It also answers very difficult questions such as "If religions preach peace, why is everyone fighting?" and "Why do bad things happen to good people?" It doesn't give easy answers. Even the title of the book is not easy, as I would imagine most people's answer would be something along the lines of "well, I'm not really sure." Perhaps that's just me. I subscribe to Father Ted's view that the hospitals are far too full of people who thought a little bit too much about religion.

A was having a look at this book.  When asked what she thought, she said "it's good, but I can't be bothered to explain why I think that because I'm still in a mard with you for making me put my clothes away before I was properly dry".  Fair enough. It has the most gorgeous pictures, and I think will come in very handy for KS3 RE homework.

It has to be said, the food pages of any religion-based book are always the most popular in our house.  Once again, whilst I insisted that a cursory description of the actual story behind Hanukkah was given, the kids wanted to focus on what there was to eat.  "It's basically stuff fried in oil.  That's awesome." "Well, you see, it's fried in oil because.." "yeah, we know the miracle of the oil and stuff. So which side of the dreidl means you win ALL of the chocolate coins then?"

Ah well. Sharing food is an absolutely brilliant way of enhancing cultural understanding.  I am going to go with that as a reason for my offspring being obsessed by what food is eaten in other cultures and religions. Definitely food sharing as cultural exchange.  Nothing to do with the fact that they are a pair of gannets. And it's better than their previous obsession with presents which led A to declare a couple of years ago that she was going to convert to Judaism because "they get eight whole days of presents, whereas we only get one." What was that about coveting your neighbour's ass?

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Won't somebody think about the parents?

"Anyway," said C the other day, after I unreasonably asked him to get off Angry Birds and go and get dressed, "loads of kids in stories don't have parents that make them do stuff!"  This got me to thinking. In many of my very favourite stories as a child, parents play a very, very minimal role.  Even in stories that are explicitly about family life, such as Tospy and Tim, Mum and Dad are very much in the background, despite Topsy and Tim being depicted as really quite small children. The Mum in My Naughty Little Sister is really a secondary care provider. When I re-read The Wishing Chair series to the kids, I formed the impression that the mother must be on valium.  "We're going down into the garden room Mummy to see the naughty little pixie", they trill.  Mother doesn't actually say "I don't really give a flying **** where you go darlings, just leave me here to self-medicate against my dull and empty middle-class existence", but it is implied.

Modern stories often have a similar level of parental absence or benign neglect. JK Rowling has talked about Harry Potter having to be an orphan in order that he has the freedom to engage in death-defying exploits which no loving parents would reasonably want their small 11 year old to be engaged in.  She gets round Ron and Hermione having parents through Ron's having so many that they can barely keep track of who's doing what, and Hermione's parents being utterly disengaged from the wizarding world in a "oh you fought a large basilisk?  That's nice, dear" kind of way.

In the Mr Gum series, Polly is allowed to roam around with a feral dog and a man old enough to be her grandmother, without a by-your-leave from her parents. The Baker Street Boys series (which, though enjoyable does seem rather interminable at the moment) has a variety of urchins whose parents are absent for various reasons (death, imprisonment, forced repatriation to Australia), and so they live alone with one of the girls acting as housekeeper and doing all of the cooking (hmmm).

The trouble with parents, is they want you to do boring stuff, like getting dressed, eating nutritious foods and getting "healthy exercise." And who really wants to read a story about a child who eats some Weetabix, gets their waterproofs on and goes out for a walk across the fields. Not C, that's for sure.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Dorling Kindersley What's Where in the World

Let's pretend I bought this for the kids.  That's right.  I certainly didn't buy it because my general reaction to this question is "No idea." 

UK geography I can do.  I know my Wrexham from my Worcester, from my Shrewsbury from my St Albans. This is almost exclusively down to the fact that I spent the second decade of my life following a second-rate football club around the country, generally to places off the beaten tourist trail.

However, expand the map a little and I flounder, helpless. I had absolutely no idea up until about 3 months ago that Jamaica was off the coast of the USA. And I just had to google that to make sure that it was actually true. I think partly because I've never been outside of Europe (and not really very far into that continent!), but also because I was born without the spatial awareness gene that other people seem to be blessed with.  And I don't just mean, I have poor spatial awareness.  I really do have negligible to none.  For example there is a room at work that I must have been in 20 times, and I still have to ask a handy Year 7 for directions when I go.

Therefore when I clapped eyes on this book I knew it had to be mine.  That is, the kids'. Obv.  And actually it is fascinating.  There is such a wealth of information in here about the world.  From the basics, such as where the highest mountain peaks are, to where different animals are found, to a map showing rates of literacy across the globe.  It's a great book for promoting discussion, even if the conversations it prompts are not always comfortable ("but why is the life-expectancy only 43 there, Mummy!?  43 is young!")

Obviously the down-side of something so tied in to current affairs, is that, long-term, it will become outdated.  But for now, hugely recommended for children age 8 and up.

Monday, 18 November 2013

A book is for life, and also for Christmas.

I was an absolutely brilliant sleeper as a child.  Honestly, you just have to ask my Dad, who is willing to tell how I slept through the night from about the age of 6 weeks, which was in stark contrast to my brother, whose eyes resolutely refused to close for about the first decade of his existence.

Sadly, my children take after their uncle rather than their mother.  I have often railed against the unfairness of this, but God/the fates/Mother Nature don't seem to be listening.  That said (touching all of the wood in the house, and even venturing into the garden to touch some more), BabyM seems a distinctly better sleeper than his siblings so far.  Long may it continue.

However, there was one night of the year where I didn't really sleep at all. Christmas Eve.  On one memorable occasion, when I was about 13 and therefore really old enough to know better, I slept for half an hour and woke for the day at half past midnight.  I think I had a sleep after lunch and Top of the Pops, but was essentially awake for the duration.  This was the worst year, but up until I was 24 and had a child of my own, I probably only slept for 3 or 4 hours in total on that night of all nights.

With this in mind, when A and C were tiny I instigated the Christmas morning book bag.  They have a large linen bag with an embroidered Father Christmas, which is filled with books.  The idea being that, if they should wake at 4am, they can read until Daddy gets up.  Daddy is always the last up on Christmas morning in our household, due to the fact that he is neither a child, nor does he approach Christmas as a child.  He is allowed to sleep until 6am, and then is piled on, by children, wife, and this year, as an extra special treat, baby.  We tend to prise his eyes open until he is forced to accept the inevitable.  It always takes him what seems like about 3 years to put on his dressing gown.  I have taken to buying myself a book, and placing it in our joint stocking, so as to discourage him from suing me for divorce every Boxing Day.

The Christmas book bags have always gone down quite well.  A is far too flitty on Christmas morning to read fiction. She hardly ever reads fiction anyway, and Christmas morning is really not the time to encourage deep, protracted reading sessions. C loves fiction, so does tend to get some in his Christmas bag, but generally they are filled with books with small sections, or activities which can be abandoned at will when Daddy eventually gives in to familial peer pressure, and shuffles, bleary-eyed, downstairs to get the camera out.

Books which have been successful over the years are as follows:

  • For toddlers and pre-schoolers, Nick Sharrat's mix-and-match books are Christmas morning stalwarts. Our family favourite is Mixed Up Fairy Tales, but there are several different titles available.  Children have to make up their own stories by choosing from several different parts of sentences.  So you might have "A handsome prince kissed a frog, and was chased by a bowl of porridge." For non-readers, the pictures tell the story, but this is good for a sibling pair where one can read and the other can't, as it's quite easy to read.  C used to love A reading it to him, as he got to take part too, by choosing which parts of the sentence he wanted.
  • Also by Sharrat is my all-time fave You Choose. The sticker version would be a good choice for Christmas.  Utterly suitable for non-readers, and plenty to look at. There are even festive characters within the book - see if you can spot Father Christmas, or the turkey dinner.

  • For slightly older children, Usborne sticker books are fabulous.  A has particularly enjoyed the Sticker Dolly Dressing series over the years, although this is somewhat fiddly, so probably not ideal for those with poor fine-motor skills, as the frustration of ripping a beautiful skirt is not to be underestimated.
  • Also by Usborne, the puzzle adventures are worth looking at for children who can read independently.  They are not difficult, but are sufficiently challenging to hold interest. This version is particularly attractive, and hard-backed, so durable for carting about on your adventures.

  • For older children, a cook book is generally well-received.  A enjoys planning her future baking exploits whilst tucking into her customary Christmas breakfast of chocolate orange.  This year she has this one. I got in in The Works for £12.  Although not marketed at children, there are photographs for each step and it's very clearly written and extremely comprehensive.  She also has the Horrible Histories Spies book, as, for her birthday treat, she is going to the exhibition based on the book at the Imperial War Museum.  A tie-in book based on a future expedition is always a nice plan - one year I bought an Usborne art gallery sticker book, which we took with us on a trip to the National Gallery, and searched for all of the paintings depicted in the stickers.  As I recall A enjoyed this *almost* as much as I did ;)

  • For teens, in my experience, the most popular book ever is The Guinness Book of Records. I think this is probably down to the fact that it allows them to look at detailed photographs of bodily parts that they would not otherwise have convenient access to.  This is not to say that the book is unsuitable, but there are numerous photos of heavily tattooed or pierced folk, or those who are about the length of a normal classroom ruler.  For teens, with an obsession to be normal, these pictures can be quite comforting (OK, my nose is a little big, but I don't have  tattoo of a spider web covering my entire face and torso, and I am more than 30cm tall). Apparently Ripley's Believe it or Don't is along similar lines, and goes down a storm. 
  • I always used to have Jean Greenhowe knitting booklet at Christmas, but I accept that I was not, in many ways, a typical teen...
I always finish the job with a magazine.  Generally one I refuse to buy during the rest of the year, because they come adorned with plastic tat and are full of adverts for more plastic tat.  But for the rest of the year, they have the Pheonix comic, and when you've gorged on prime fillet steak all year, sometimes you just want a burger. And a chocolate orange, and a few Ferrero Rocher.  And perhaps some Pringles...

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

My ideal school run (aka The Wild Weather Book by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield)

In my head, if you buy a book about something, you then become better at doing the things the book tells you about.  My bookshelf can, in many ways, be seen as a portrait of what my life would be like if I was the idealised version of myself that I gave up striving to be a few years ago. This idealised version of me is absolutely brilliant at getting outdoors with her kids, whatever the weather.

This tempting title was in the latest Book People and, realising that my natural tendency in poor weather is to snuggle under a blanket mainlining cups of tea and Cadburys chocolate fingers, I decided it would be a good one to have on the shelf, especially given that we have to go out of the house at least ten times a week for the school run, so we might as well get maximum enjoyment out of it.

Ah, the school run.  The way there - calmly strolling through the crisp, golden countryside, discussing current affairs, and the minutiae of the day ahead. The way back, laughing together at an amusing anecdote from the day whilst walking our beautiful red setter who doesn't smell, moult, poo or get dirty.

Obviously, that's the ideal me. The real me is slightly scared of both current affairs and dogs.

What actually happens is this. In the morning we are left with precisely 14 nanoseconds to get shoes, coats and gloves on before we have to leave RIGHT NOW OR WE ARE GOING TO BE LATE.  Then I CAN'T FIND MY KEYS WHERE ARE MY KEYS KIDS CAN YOU SEE MY KEYS THERE THEY ARE GET OUT OF THE HOUSE NOW OUT I DON'T CARE IF YOU ONLY HAVE ONE SHOE ON.  We then spend the walk there discussing how youshouldhavelearnedyourspellingsbeforenowwhydoyoualwaysleavethingstothelastminuteIdon'tknowwhereyougetitfrom.
By the time we get to school, an almost calm has descended when we realise we are all actually going to miss each other all day, and kisses are dispensed as pills to counter the ill-effects of the previous twenty minutes of ill-tempered sniping. 

The afternoon.  2pm.  The sun is high in the autumnal sky, and it smells all lovely and fresh, like Britain is meant to smell.  3pm.  A huge, menacing, black cloud edges quietly onto the horizon. 3:10pm Said cloud unleashes its entire contents onto the heads of assorted mums, dads, childminders, grandparents and children and drenches them to the very core of their M&S undies.  The conversation goes thusly.  "Heymummyinictifinishedapictureanditwasofstarwarsandmyfriendsaidblahblebhalbablahblabbbbmmmmmd"
"ICAN'THEARYOUYOUHAVEYOURHOODUPANDAREFACINGAWAYFROM ME" "Yes,ok,andthenblamhablahblahbla".  Ad infinitum.  Complete the picture with A gazing at us as though she is just ever so slightly above it all and BabyM wailing his little heart out, because really Mummy I hadn't quite finished that feed actually.

Anyway. As I was looking through The Wild Weather Book with C earlier, I pondered on how it was a bit like the Autumn and Winter chapters of Nature's Playground, a book I read a while back. I googled the authors and realised that they are in fact the self-same people.

Nature's Playground is a better, more comprehensive book.  We have found the activities in there to be really inspirational; I enjoyed making the fairy house almost as much as the kids did, in actual real life, and this activity is also included in The Wild Weather Book. In fact, there is an awful lot of crossover.  However, it is worth having both books, and indeed The Stick Book if it takes your fancy, because the smaller books are much more portable.  Nature's Playground is not one to cart around in your rucksack - it's a substantial tome.

I noticed that they have a city version coming out in May, and I will certainly be looking out for that one. I will be putting it in my family adventure rucksack. Which I actually do have.  It only ever really comes out during school holidays when I reach as close to the person depicted on my bookshelves as I ever manage. Never mind - she's almost certainly completely insufferable.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Baking, and the interaction of the web and the book.

A and I have been fans of the Great British Bake Off since the Spring.  We went on what would have been a wonderful holiday in Brittany, which was somewhat less stellar than it should have been due to a number of factors.  1) I was pregnant, and still somewhat sick, and also was unable to indulge in copious amounts of French wine, which always makes a French holiday pass in an even more pleasant haze.  2) The weather was like Britain, but we had had to travel for pretty much a day to get there. 3) A picked up some kind of horrible virus and was sick and tired for the whole week.  She is normally an 100mph kind of character, but spent most of the holiday slumped in front of the TV.  Happily BBC2 were repeating all of the previous series of GBBO, and it was just the thing for lazy slumping.  It made the holiday a lot more bearable for the pair of us (MrM and C were a little less keen, so found other ways to amuse themselves, like swimming, seeing the sights and other things you are actually meant to do on holiday.)

Anyway, there has just been a new series of GBBO, which A and I have watched together, often in our pjs on a Friday after school.  This, coupled with the fact that I am currently mainly stranded at home with a car-hating baby, means that I am cooking a lot.  Particularly baking.  Whilst this is not ideal for me to get back into my jeans, we do all feel spectacularly well-fed at the moment.  I am virtually living off Banana Oat breakfast bars, the recipe for which was in a Sainsburys magazine the last time I was on maternity leave.  I am so au fait with the recipe now, that I don't have to look at it, and am almost at the point where I don't have to weigh the ingredients, and can judge it by sight. This is fine, since it has oats and fruit in, so is virtually a health food.

Anyway, to the point.  Up to now, my experience of book/web direct interaction has been the links they give you in Usborne books. Fine, to a point, but I'd really rather the kids actually looked in the book to help them with their homework.

However, I have now discovered the nirvana of web/book interactivity.  Eat Your Books. For a subscription fee which is similar in price to a good cook book, you can upload the names of all of your cookbooks.  The site provides an index of all of the recipes in your books. You can, therefore, search for all of the recipes for goulash in your books, pick out the appropriate books and peruse the recipes.  It takes out the angsty "I'm sure I have a recipe for this somewhere", where you look through every single book good old Delia has ever published.  So far A, C and I have searched for caramel cornflake cake, chocolate beetroot cake, Christmas pudding and, in a shock departure from cake, but not straying too far from the processed carb mothership, bread sauce. 

There should be a site like this for children's books.  "I'm sure I have a page of info somewhere on the development of toilets from hole in the ground to automatic flushes".  For now, we'll be content with knowing that an index of all our baked goods exists online, and feel safe that we will never have to live without a random-vegbox-inspired loaf cake for want of a good recipe.

Monday, 4 November 2013

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

"A new classic" says a quote from someone who gets paid to do this sort of thing above the blurb.  A new classic about a post-apocalyptic world, set in the not-too-distant future?  Ought to be quite my cup of cha.

Hmmm.  It's decidedly flimsy for a classic.  Quite short, and really quite thin on plot.  In fairness, I was already judging by about page 4.  I have this thing about names.  I'm very interested in them, and really hate it when a writer doesn't seem to do their name research properly.  In the Hunger Games, the names felt right.  Unfamiliar, but not impossible to pronounce.  In this book, the main character is sent to live with her aunt and cousins, deep in the English countryside. Two of the names are plausible but seem to have very Americanised spellings (Penn (presumably short for Penelope) and Edmond.  But the 9 year old girl is called Piper.  I know that Piper has increased in popularity in the UK over the last decade or so, but a 9 year old farmer's daughter called Piper in 2004?  I think not.  I called her Pippa in my head, which made me feel a little better (I told you I had a thing). It's really annoying since Rosoff has actually lived in the UK for a couple of decades, and therefore should know better.

Names aside, this felt like a book which was written in the hope of a film adaptation. It feels like reading the spin-off of the film adaptation. There is very, very little depth of character, and the "oh, now we're in love" bit reminded me of Romeo and Juliet, which always irritates me, because there doesn't appear to be any build up whatsoever to this love which is supposedly worth dying for.

Anyway, I was distinctly underwhelmed. However, it might be good for a reluctant reader teen, as it deals with a lot of popular themes of teen literature at the moment, but doesn't require the investment of time that many other novels written for teens do.