Monday, 6 October 2014

"SHARE IT SHARE IT": The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister.

Funny thing, sharing.  When A was a toddler, she would wend her marauding way around church halls at toddler group plucking choice plastic fripperies from other small children chanting "share it share it" as she went.  To her, "share it" meant "you have to give that thing to me because I want it."

"You've got to share" says every parent to every small child ever.  This is backed up in countless moral tales designed for little folk.  Our particular favourite in this house is The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. We were given this as a bath book when A was a baby.  We loved it from the start, mainly because the author's surname amused us.  I think that's the thing when you have very small children - life can seem to be a series of fairly dull, repetitive tasks based around bodily fluids, and so any small amusement is seized upon, because godammitweneedsomethingtolaughatorwe'lljustsitdownandweep.

The Rainbow Fish is a lovely book, and the illustrations are really very beautiful. MrM and I still remember all of the words a decade on, which suggests either that it is liltingly memorable, or that we read it every day for such an excessive number of years that it is now permanently etched into our memories.  Or perhaps a bit of both. It concerns a fish who has many pretty rainbow-coloured scales. A small fish asks for a scale.  Drama ensues.

Two things strike me:

1.There are things that it is important to share, and things that are surely not.  I mean, you make a massive cake, it's better to share.  You get given two books for Christmas that are the same - obviously giving one away is a sensible option. You share what you are able to, in a manner that suits you.  However, in this book, the fish is being asked to give away actual bodily parts.  And not just any bodily parts.  Lovely shiny ones. If I were out and about, and a person I'd never met asked me to cut some of my hair off and give it to them, I would firmly, and possibly not altogether politely, decline.  We expect toddlers to share all the time, I think mainly because it stops other mums giving us evils.  We expect our small child to climb out of the cosy coupe and let another small child have some fun in it.  But if someone came along and stood by my car menacingly and started shouting that they wanted to drive it, no way would I get out and hand the keys over! I can understand why toddlers think that sharing sucks. Even more so when this sharing involves taking off actual bits of your skin, and giving it away.

2. If a fish removed a large proportion of their scales, surely that would really hurt! The fish would look really mangy, and possibly even die (disclaimer: I am not a fish health expert, but it can't be good, can it?)

The message of the rainbow fish is if people ask for some of your really good stuff, give it to them, and they'll like you.  If you refuse, they won't play with you.  When you give them your good stuff, they will then like you, and you will all look the same, as you will have redistributed the very things that give you your unique look and persona.  Obliterate the self in order that others will deign to keep you company.  Well, sod that for a game of soldiers.  If I were the rainbow fish, I'd be keeping every single one of those scales, not being bullied into negating my very self for the sake of "sharing".  Pah.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis and Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

I love a good list of books to read.  At the back of Donalyn Miller's Reading in the Wild there are a selection of lists of books, divided by genre, which have been popular in her classroom.  I decided to work my way through some of the historical fiction, having not yet had the weak flame of hope that I might get A to actually read some fiction, extinguished from my heart.

I started with Bud, not Buddy. I'm not sure why, as it wasn't at the start of the list.  I might have been sub-consciously drawn to it given that, being an English person between the ages of 19 and 48, I had to read Nigel Hinton's Buddy at school. I was that one that you all hated, the one that actually quite liked it.

Anyway, Bud, not Buddy is actually quite like Buddy in many ways. It's a coming-of-age tale, and there's a lot about music.  It's set in the Great Depression, but that's very much a back-drop, and the story is of a boy's search for his father.  I enjoyed it greatly. Age 9+

It took me longer to get into Bamboo People, as it started off in a very stilted way, as if it really, really wanted to be a history textbook or essay, but had to be a novel instead, much against its will.  It took at least ten chapters to get going, and therefore there is absolutely no chance of A reading it - a book is lucky if it gets ten words before being shoved in the reject pile.  It's about Burma, and is, therefore, pretty grim in places - there being more child soldiers in Burma than anywhere else in the world.  However, it's a wonderful story of hope enduring in desperation.  Age 12+

"But why do you even like reading?"

Oh yes, the start of another school year. Out comes the "this is why reading is so important" speech.  It's always wonderfully well-received - never any eye-rolling, or groaning, or pretend fakey listening whilst actually thinking about Minecraft.

One of the girls this year ventured "I don't get why you would even like reading! Why do you like it?"  I think my response was along the lines of the point of the exercise not being about me and my reading but about her and her reading.  I was tempted to reply "but how can you not like it?", managing to hold it in, because I realise now, after a few decades on earth, that not everyone is exactly like me.

It did make me think though, about what the answer to that question actually is. I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. For me, it's like a safe place inside my head.  There are actual geographical places and times and memories that give me a feeling and safety, security, warmth and happiness.  Walking into the Manor Ground with my Dad and brother, smelling the liniment, and hearing the hum of the (modestly-sized) crowd; sitting in my Mum's old bedroom in my Nan's house doing my homework when I was in the Sixth Form, getting into bed early with a cuppa in my house once the children are all sleeping. I'm sure we all have these memories, these places we can go to.

When I'm reading, there's nothing else to worry about.  A book with a good story takes up all of the corners in my brain that are dedicated to worrying about my health, my family's health, whether I am a good enough wife, mother, daughter and friend, money, work, what time tomorrow I've got to be at the doctor/dentist/random after-school activity for child, whether the baby ought to be saying some words by now, whether the kids ought to spend less time watching Stampy Longnose videos, climate change, why some people do evil things.  Etc.

A good book is a nourishing break for my brain from ALLTHESTUFF. And once you've read the story and it was good, and you've connected with the characters and places, they never really leave you. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Cleo and Caspar by Stella Blackstone

In Burton Library during the week, we released BabyM from his pushchair/prison so that he could have a look around. Well, I say have a look around, what I mean, of course is pick random bits of fluff/mud/ephemera up, and quickly stuff them into his mouth, then chew.  Also stare at people who looked like they were mildly uncomfortable around babies (why do babies always do this? Do they, like dogs, sense fear?)

I attempted to read the above book to BabyM, but he studiously ignored it, so, in essence, I was reading it to BestMate.  I don't think I've read aloud to BestMate since 1997, when she was treated to my earth-shatteringly poor representation of a French accent, grinding my way through the dreadful Elise ou La Vrai Vie by Claire Etcherelli. I still remember the name of the author, and that it was about a white woman dating a black man in 1960s France.  There was a "usine" involved too, if I remember correctly.

Anyway, I'm pleased to say Cleo and Caspar is a lot better than Elise Ou la Vrai Vie, albeit with a somewhat different target audience.  And in a different language.  It does deal with the theme of difference, and learning to get along in a changing world, however, as it's about a cat and a dog who are both pets in the same household. I was going to attempt a thematic discussion with BabyM, but he was too busy trying to pull bits of mud/goodnessknowswhattrynottothinkaboutit off the buggy wheels, and stuff them into his mouth.

I love Barefoot Books.  They prefer to sell through agents rather than via tax-dodging enterprises, and I've often been tempted to take up the baton.  However, my concern is mainly that I would buy all the books then keep them.  Also, goodness knows how much ephemera BabyM would successfully eat if I were otherwise engaged at toddler groups with the selling of fine literature for infants and children.  Perhaps one day, when he is keener on reading than on crawling off into the distance, spreading chaos as he goes.

Monday, 8 September 2014

My Big Book of the Five Senses by Patrick George

"That new book about the senses is a bit easy isn't it?" Well, yes, it's for your baby brother. "I read it though, it was great!"

It's true, it's very readable and funny.  Going through each of the five senses, the pictures are hilarious, often surprising, and very pleasing, in a retro, mutedly colourful kind of way. I have to hold it at arm's length to read it to BabyM at the moment, because he's a wrecking ball when it comes to books.  Actually, wrecking ball suggests a good hard bash, what he actually does is chomp large sections from the covers to eat, and rips the pages with his callous little fists.  However, frustrating as he finds it that I don't allow him to destroy this book, he does like it.  Great for toddlers and pre-schoolers, and the odd 10 year old sister...

Sunday, 7 September 2014

The reading reconnection

Oh my word, C is hard work at the moment.  Having never been in possession of an 8 year old boy before, I don't know if it's common to the species, but he appears to have morphed into a todder/teenager hybrid over the last few months, which has been a little challenging.  I, obviously, have handled this in a calm, soothing manner.  There have, of course, been no tantrums on my part.

Sometimes it can be hard to pull us both back from the bickering brink.  Luckily for C and I, there are always books.  I remember back when they were little, I would always feel so very grateful for story time, because even if we'd had a really long, hard day, stories were always happy, always snuggly, always positive.  Both older children still have a story, but often it's MrM who gets this privilege at the moment, as I put the baby to bed. I might have to wrestle it back once they've finished with Narnia

I have tried a new tack over the last couple of days with C - engage him in conversation about books whilst we're both happy. We've talked about old favourites, new obsessions (he's currently working through Harry Potter) and the book I'm currently reading for work (Donalynn Miller's Reading in the Wild. Funnily enough, as I was reading a section this evening, whilst feeding the baby, I happened upon a passage about reading forging and strengthening relationships.  This spoke so clearly to me tonight.  I think, during a testing time, it's so tempting to focus on what has gone wrong, without giving time to what goes right.  Reading gives both C and I a feeling of serenity, and a non-controversial subject to talk about when other topics seem contentious.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Creative Family Home by Ashlyn Gibson

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

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

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

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

isms... Understanding Modern Art by Sam Philips

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Toy Stories by Gabriele Galimberti

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 August 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The art book caddy

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

For the baby:

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

For the kids:

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

For the Adults:

What Are You Looking At? by Will Gompertz

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

Next up: Holiday Fun

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

Monday, 21 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Little London by Sunshine Jackson and Kate Hodges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett

I have to admit to buying this one solely to boost my order to free delivery with The Book People.  So, essentially it was a free book.  Ahem. 

It's great.  It made BabyM smile. So much so that he didn't even attempt to eat it! It's about a duck who finds an egg.  All the other birds have an egg of their own, so duck pretends the egg is his.  The other eggs hatch (in lovely cut-away pages which are a pleasure for small hands to turn in the board book version). There are particularly nice touches on these cutaway pages - the baby owl emerges from his egg able to work out complex arithmetic, for example.

The end is surprising and hilarious.  This will become a firm favourite. Emily Gravett is an extremely talented artist and the storyline is sweet and amusing. Lovely for baby to pre-school (although me, A and C also enjoyed it deeply!)

*Sigh* Oh for goodness sake, it's just like school!"

At the moment, I am preoccupied by storage.  We are due to move in the next few weeks to a house which has some chance of fitting all of our things in it, without piles of books being the main focus of all the living areas. Although, having said that, I read a very trendy-trendy looking book from the library the other week called Books Make a Home, or something similar (I am not going to do it the honour of taking any more time out of my life for it to look it up online). It was truly, truly dreadful.  Pages and pages of extremely well-lit photographs of what looked to me like piles of books and magazines all over the place.  The message of the pictures seemed very strongly to be that if you live in an extremely large, trendy, and modern house and have no other possessions at all, then piles of books everywhere can look great! Except they didn't look great, they looked really untidy. One of the suggestions was to create your own glass coffee table by putting a piece of glass on top of four equally-sized piles of books. I mean, really?
  • That would look absolutely dreadful.
  • That is surely a ludicrous health hazard.
  • Most importantly - how are you meant to read and enjoy a book that forms one of the legs of a glass coffee table? Not entirely practical, is it?
I utterly agree with the premise that books make a home, which is why I borrowed the book in the first place.  But the book itself seemed to say that "using books you will never read and that look attractive is an interior design statement which shouts LOOK HOW CLEVER AND WELL-READ I AM! LOOK! PLEASE BE IMPRESSED! I'VE NEVER ACTUALLY READ A BOOK BUT THAT DOESN'T MATTER DOES IT SAY IT DOESN'T MATTER!" Not what I want for my home, thanks very much, Mr/Ms Author of Dreadful Book.

Anyway, back to actual useful book storage.  You know, the kind that displays books in an attractive way, but makes you want to look and them, and actually facilitates this. That kind. Although, apparently, this kind makes your living room a tiny bit like school.  Ah well, you can take the teacher out of school, and all that.

I bought the box from the Great Little Trading Company when they had a stonking sale.  At full price, it is a little wince-making.  But they are always having sales, so I suggest you sign up for the email newsletter and wait for a nice little "Please buy our stuff!" email to drop into your inbox.

It's called the Book Caddy, and is basically a white box with a  handle to store some books.  There is a little chalkboard area on the front.  Originally I put all of our WWI books in there, as a prelude to some village commemorations of the centenary said event.  The kids had a look at them.  BabyM tried to eat them.  A rolled her eyes and said the statement in the title of this post.  We all carried on happily.

This week A said "We're doing myths and legends in literacy. I suppose we could put some of our books on that in the book box thing." "OK" I said, trying to hide my intense excitement that she was playing along with me.  Our box now looks like this:


It's quite Marcia Williams box-set heavy, but that's not a bad thing, in my opinion.  Marcia William's cartoon versions of myths are great. I am fully aware that most of the lure of helping with the box, was being allowed to write with the special chalk pen when we had finished filling the box.  Tbh I was slightly upset at not being able to do that bit myself.
I suggested (with probably what was, on reflection, a bit too much enthusiasm) that we did a week each, where we put in favourite books from our shelves, that we would like to recommend to the rest of the family.  "Oh, really, Mummy! If it's not making the house into school, it's like making it into Waterstones or something!" How can anyone really have any objection to living in a branch of Waterstones? OK, so the bedding is not all that comfy, and you might want some cooking facilities.  But other than that, I don't see a problem. Bagsie the Birmingham New Street branch.  There are plenty of decent eateries nearby, and the stairs and particularly attractive.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Putting together a Story Sack.

I've always absolutely loved the idea of Story Sacks.  The idea is that instead of just having a simple story to read, you make the process of experiencing a story more interactive for a child. As well as a copy of the book, you include in the cloth sack a toy based on the book, a board game to play with themes relevant to the book, a science-y type game to play (again based on the book), and a non-fiction text which builds on some of the themes in the fictional book (or vice versa if the book you are basing the Story Sack is non-fiction).

I used the guide here to show me how to put together my Story Sack.

I chose to create mine based on The Three Little Pigs, since I was absolutely sure we had a copy of said text lying around somewhere. After all, I have three children, the eldest of whom is 10, and I am a total bibliophile, therefore I must have a copy, surely. Hmmmm. The longest single task in the creation of this Story Sack was looking for the blasted book, which it turns out I didn't have anyway! I ended up ordering the Nick Sharratt lift-the-flap version from Amazon, which turned out to be very satisfactory indeed.

Then, there was the task of finding other items for the sack.  Happily, I did have all of these things lying around, more or less. This was very satisfying - to make something more concrete somehow, more enriching than they were when scattered around random rooms in my house.

First of all I had, from years ago, a wooden puppet version of the story from the Early Learning Centre. The kids refused to let me get rid of this, thankfully, and used to use it to act out the story and put on little shows.

For the game, I used a Nursery Rhyme sequencing board game which was another old favourite.  The aim of the game is to get all of the elements of a famous fairy tale in the correct order, by throwing the dice and picking up cards with parts of the story on them. The Three Little Pigs is one of the eight stories included.

The science game was fun to create :) My friend kindly donated some large stones from her garden, I harvested some sticks from a tree in my garden and found some raffia in the garden shed to act as straw. I then put them all in a Lock n Lock box and added a card to the top asking several questions about the properties of the different materials in the box, and which one would be the best to make a house out of.

Finally I chose Home Around the World by Kate Petty and From Mudhuts to Skyscrapers by Christine Paxmann to act as non-fiction texts about buildings and safe places to live.  One for BabyM, and one for the others, should they choose to get involved in the Story Sack action.

BabyM just wanted to eat the Story Sack, although the others were interested.  In fairness, BabyM is far, far too young for the idea, I just got a little over-excited about it. I am looking forward to sharing it with him when he's big enough not to try and eat the raffia, and chuck the three little pig figures across the room...

Monday, 21 April 2014

Carnegie Shortlist 2014 - Rooftoppers and All the Truth That's in Me.

Even though I am not at work this year to share my thoughts about the Carnegie shortlist, I am reading the shortlist as normal, as I always enjoy it so very much. 

I only started this week, but have managed to get through two of the titles already.

The first, I must admit, I was disinclined to like after the bio on the first page states very prominently that the author was born in 1987.  I felt it was a boast, until I realised that the target audience of the novel would consider anyone born before the 1990s to be "well old" anyway.

For someone fresh out of secondary school she writes very well.  The novel, Rooftoppers is very good.  The relationship between the main protagonist and her guardian is real and touching.  The novel itself seemed somewhat derivative of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.  However, there is a quote from Pullman endorsing the book on the front cover, so he obviously sees it as a homage, rather than a cheeky nicking of ideas.

I loved the first 7/8 of the book, but the ending felt rushed, unrealistic and incompletely explored, and was rather disappointing. A good read, none the less, for ages 9+.

Over the last two days I have read All the Truth That's In Me by Julie Berry.  What an outstanding book.  I was heartbroken, angry, speechless, upset and joyful all in a great deal of very short chapters.  I've only read two books, but I have a feeling this one is going to be my favourite. Set in pioneer America, it conjures up an extremely compelling picture of a society beset by lies and prejudice, and it has an exciting and satisfying resolution. Wonderful, and highly recommended for older teenagers, perhaps as a moving-on point from Celia Rees' Witch Child series, or as a text to read to enhance understanding of The Crucible, that old GCSE stalwart.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Adrian Mole - helping generations of teens through their growing pains.

I was really saddened to hear of the death of Sue Townsend.  Although I know she said herself that she wouldn't "make old bones", part of me hoped that she would be proven wrong, and that she would go on for as many years as old Bert Baxter himself, smoking woodbines, buying a Communist newspaper and eating nothing but pickled beetroot.

She spoke at the Oxford Union when I was at university, and I went to see her.  She seemed like the sort of person you could have a good chat with if you ended up being stuck together waiting at a bus stop, or similar. By which I mean she seemed down-to-earth, wry, interesting.

She was certainly an exceptionally talented writer.  Not only the Adrian Mole series, but her other works were often hilariously funny, but heart-breaking, all at the same time.  Whenever I see the Queen on TV, I always feel a bit warmer towards her because of her close and trusting relationship with her neighbour Violet in The Queen and I and Queen Camilla, even though, of course, both Violet and the relationship, are completely fictional. 

I was introduced to Adrian Albert Mole when I was 8 and a half. I often have very clear memories of where I acquired books which turned out to be lifelong favourites, and this is no exception.  My Nan and Grandad lived in Wolvercote, near Oxford.  In order to buy a 3-bed semi in Wolvercote now, you have to be independently wealthy, or some kind of hedge-fund gambling crazer, but back in the 1960s when Nan and Grandad bought their house, you could buy a family home in a pleasant village within walking distance of Oxford on the income of a factory foreman and home help. The past is, indeed, another country.

Anyway, there were regular jumble sales at Wolvercote Village Hall. This place seemed huge, and miles away from Nan's house (it was neither), and there were often jumble sales.  Mum and Nan would always take us along, about which we often moaned.  I wouldn't moan now - a) because I'd dearly love to be able to spend some time, any time, with my dear old Mum and Nan again, and b) because you just don't really get jumble sales any more, do you?  Even bring-and-buy sales seem not to occur with the regularity they once did.  I'll blame ebay, I think - that fits in nicely with my prejudices.

So, it was at one of these Wolvercote Village Hall jumble sales that I acquired The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, aged 13 3/4. I thought it must be a children's book, because it had a picture of a Noddy toothbrush on the front.  I bought several books (I was allowed because they were only 5p each, and it meant that Mum and Nan could look at jumpers and cream jugs, and other really boring things that adults are interested in).  When Mum came over to pay the lady at the stall said "How old is she?  I'm not sure this book's totally suitable?"  Mum explained that I was 8, and, yes I was tall for my age, wasn't I, and that she'd long since given up trying to control what I read, and that I probably wouldn't understand any bits that I shouldn't, because I didn't know any swear words and wasn't very worldly-wise. This was all an accurate representation, so off I went, clutching my Adrian Mole.

I am glad I read it so young, as I knew that whatever teen trauma came up (and they certainly did), I never had it as badly as Adrian Mole.  There were a few copycat type series, such as Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, which were more overtly trying to help you with puberty and nowhere near as rude or funny.

There are so many expertly drawn characters in the series.  The first few are still my favourites - I found the hope that teenage Adrian still has for his future deeply touching, and did feel that the later novels were a touch dark, and not quite so life-affirming (perhaps not a surprise given what Sue Townsend was going through). 

If you've not read the series, I would strongly encourage you to do so. They paint the whole of life in its true colours.  A real gift to the world.  Thank you, Sue Townsend, for sharing your gift with your readers. And thank you Adrian Mole, for being an even bigger geek than me.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Things you don't appreciate as a teen

In my school we had several things that mattered to the average teenager.  A big field with big trees which you could sit under, chat, and look at pin-ups of Mark Owen; a music room with massive keyboards and headphones so that you could play the same note repeatedly without the teacher actually realising, and several large structures you could hide behind and be out of the view of snooping teachers.

We also had a library.  I properly hated the library.  I can't remember the librarian's name, but she was an utterly joyless woman, and, even though I was an extremely good girl, I used to delight in tormenting her.  My friend and I would find a book (the more ridiculous the better) and sit and giggle over it until we were kicked out of the library. This happened a great deal until the Sixth Form when we had to go there because that's where the computers were, and we were treated with justifiable suspicion.

It wasn't really a very good library.  We had a fantastic library in the village where I read every book and was so well behaved that I was offered a job, so it obviously wasn't libraries per se, but just the singularly dull and oppressive library at school where all the books were at least a decade out of date, and nobody was allowed to smile.

It's a shame, because a good school library is an absolutely wonderful thing.  I am lucky enough to work in a school where the library is the jewel in the crown.  The librarian is extremely well-read and knows the children extremely well, and recommends books which will both interest and stretch them.

So many school libraries were lost in a ridiculous false-economy.  Reading is so unbelievably crucial, and reading for pleasure is a habit which should be cultivated about all others. Librarians are utterly passionate about this, and work hard to ensure that reading is promoted throughout the school.

I am fairly sure I *would* have appreciated this. A wonderful booklet produced by Lin Smith, the librarian at Ecclesbourne School in Derby, which was shared by Lin to all the school librarians that she knows.  I don't know Lin personally and I haven't been in this particular school's library, but this work strikes me as a labour of love, and contains some excellent recommendations for books to engage teenagers in reading for pleasure.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

You know it's been a good day when...

1) You have spent two hours in a library looking at books for mooching with, rather than books for study.

2) Your daughter allows you to read her a poem and expresses pleasure and interest in said poem.

I would quite like it if schools shut on a Wednesday every week. I don't want to completely ditch school altogether, obviously, as then I would not have a job, and I would be unable to keep up the level of patience required for the amount of pottering around at child pace that we have done today.  But to be freed from the time restraints of the school run for a day has been absolutely wonderful.  There has been a great deal of wandering going on.  There was nothing to rush for at all. The kids spent an hour playing spies in the park, an hour looking at books, two hours pottering around their favourite museum.  BabyM and I very much enjoyed the company, especially the bit where we ate chips and cake for lunch with friends (well, I say we, BabyM did not partake). The kids got on like they used to before the shadow of puberty started to loom large over their inseperability.  I am absolutely and completely exhausted, but it has been a golden day.

They now have plenty of reading material, and it seems a shame to send them back to school tomorrow.  But I don't think "they had to read their library books, and the baby and I will miss them" counts as exceptional circumstances.

The poem, by the way, was from A Poet's Guide to Britain by Owen Sheers. I picked it up and opened it at a poem by U A Fanthorpe (one of my favourites) about a place very near where we live.  This was obviously a sign that I should borrow it. It's about Swarkestone, where, apparently, Bonnie Prince Charlie decided he didn't really like England much after all. I very much know how he felt, since I can't drive over that blasted bridge without clipping the curb.  Obviously that was what made Charlie turn back. 

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The evolution of Usborne

BabyM has another new book.  Much as he and I adore Moo, Baa, La, La, La, there are only so many times a day that I can stand to read it.  Plus it was an Usborne book which didn't look like an Usborne book, so I had to investigate.

I've said before that I love Usborne very much indeed.  I have been to Usborne book parties where I have had more Usborne books than the sales rep! I did briefly toy with becoming a rep for them or for Barefoot Books, who I also deeply love, but then realised I would probably just buy the stock and then keep it, which would not make me an awful lot of money.

There is still something about the old-school illustrations where the children have fat plaits, chubby legs and arms and snub noses, and the grown-ups all look slightly alarmed but good-natured, that makes me feel very safe.  A feels the same.  I know this because when she is feeling like she wants to be little again, she goes and finds the Farm books with Poppy and Sam and Rusty the dog at her Granny's house and squirrels them off somewhere to read them for a while, taking herself back to a time when the most pressing matter was "but can you find the little yellow duck?"

Baby Stuff has changed since A was a baby.  Now you can buy bouncy chairs that cost more than an Ikea Poang, and pushchairs that cost more than a roadworthy car (yes, OK, I admit, mea culpa, but it is a *very* nice pushchair). TV has changed.  A was born in 2004, when Teletubbies, the Tweenies and the Fimbles still reigned supreme on CBeebies.  Now there is a knight called Mike.  Now, no disrespect to the name Mike, but it's not really a medieval name, surely?  Michael yes, Mike? Not so much. It's like have Dave the Knight, or Steve the Archduke.

Anyway. Usborne, too is changing.  The That's Not My series did exist when A was little, but it was things you might expect babies to actually have, like a dog, cat, dolly, or toy tractor.  Now you can purchase (and, yes, when I say you I do mean me) That's Not my Meerkat (it had to be done) and That's Not my Prince (bought for the staunchly republican MrM in his Christmas stocking). Perhaps you can buy actual meerkats and princes for babies now - I am a little out of the loop.

Peep Inside the Zoo, the new book on the scene, has almost an Usborne font, with almost Usborney pictures.  But they've got that modern darkened watercoloury-type feel.  It's very attractive, but it's not quite Usborne.  Well not my Usborne anyway.  Perhaps I am getting old. How depressing. Now where's my copy of Things People Do?

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Reading by stealth - Minecraft and board games

I am quite lucky in that my boy (well the one that can read!) has inherited a love of reading, and often has to have a book prised off him at some ludicrous hour of the evening.  However, I am all too aware that this is not always the case, particularly with the male of the species.

I was in Burton-upon-Trent this week, which is not a town with a  huge amount to recommend it.  That said it does have a wonderful library and a very, very good Waterstones.  It's very small, but seems to magically have what you need, and the displays are always wonderfully thought out, and generally lead me to part with a few quid (a fool and his money, and all that).

Anyway, I was on a mission for the Minecraft Combat Handbook for C.  He already has the Beginner's Guide and the Redstone Handbook.  I have not the first idea what Redstone is, but C has internalised and can churn out the entire contents of the book at will, and will readily do so to the unwary person who asks an innocent question about the workings of the game.

When I walked in there were piles of a book and my spirits rose.  Alas, it was the Construction Handbook, and not the Combat one.  There was a gamble to be made.  A and C get to choose a book from the Book Fair after Parents Evening at school if their report is good.  Since, without wishing to be an irritating boasty parent, they are pretty much angels at school, their reports are always good, and we always end up with them choosing a book from the relatively uninspired selection in the school reception.  I decided to pre-empt the good reports and get the books before in a bookshop where I knew the books were good. However, C had said that there were Combat Handbooks at school, but not many left.  I bought the construction one, hoping it would be OK, and then ordered the combat version from the Book People when I got home.  This was considered VERY OK.

If a child has an interest, run with it.  It doesn't matter if they only want to read about Minecraft - let them.  Yes, it's not as good as if they were reading a selection of different, challenging texts, but I don't know anyone who lives in an ideal world, so instead of striving for that, I find it's generally easier to offer a selection, and just run with it if they get stuck in a rut.  Chances are he won't want to read them next year, but if he's enjoying them so much now, then who cares?

Minecraft guides (Beginners, Redstone, Combat and Construction) are available from many outlets. And if you live near Burton, they are readily available, since over Christmas they ran out, and have now gone slightly overboard to make sure that doesn't happen again.  100 copies of the Construction handbook, anyone ;)

Moving on in the week, today has been wonderful.  MrM's team won 5-0 against the local rivals, we had a lovely lunch out with some fabulous friends, and then ate cake for tea.  Since we were winning at parenting today, we decided to really push the boat out with a  board game.  C had Forbidden Desert for his birthday.  It's a co-operative game, since we have some not very good losers in the family (not just me). I also think that with the age gaps we now have, competitive games are going to be quite tricky for a few decades, since, although BabyM does not play yet, he will take a decade or so to catch up on the others (although of course he is so much younger than the rest of us, that when we've all gone senile he can thrash us at board games then). Forbidden Desert is fab.  There are lengthy instructions though, so allow yourselves half an hour family reading time to really understand what it is you have to do.  There you go, then you've covered another genre.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Moving on from the doom and gloom of North Korea...

Well, actually, not moving on from doom and gloom at all.  A has now finished watching all 5 series of Horrible Histories on DVD and has read all of the books.  I am frantically scouring libraries, bookshops and ebooks to try to find something which will continue to fuel her love of reading history.

We have recently acquired several books about WW1, being the 100th anniversary of its start, there are lots to be had at the moment.  We've not got round to looking at all of them yet, but a particularly wonderful one has been The History of the First World War in 100 objects.  It's not aimed at children, and in fact, the text is too dense for them (and, sometimes for me I must admit - I do mainly just look at the pictures!), but the objects have fuelled some very interesting discussions with both kids.  It's quite expensive, but the good old Book People have it at a heavily reduced price at the moment. Highly recommended for adults, teenagers and younger children to look at with a parent - some of it is highly upsetting so you will want to pick and choose which bits you read with them.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Big Bang Fair and scientific inspiration

Yesterday we went on a day out (we've not been on a day out for aaaages, Mummy!), which I had been a bit nervous about, not having been out and about much as a family of five.  I considered this to be good training for when I take all three children to London alone after Easter (I am currently in denial that this is going to be anything other than plain sailing, despite the fact that BabyM seems to have forgotten to emerge from the other side of the 4 month sleep regression, despite now being a venerable 6 months old).

Anyway, it was a bargain that tempted me out of my comfort zone, when I would normally be sitting drinking tea and eating Sunday lunch prepared by MilM. I am sure she was devastated to have a week off from cooking for and entertaining her eldest son, his wife and many children, but she handled the disappointment well.

We went to the NEC's Big Bang Fair, where the tickets are completely and absolutely free; as are all of the things that you can do / watch / participate in inside.  There must be an awful lot of money pumped in to this by lots of organisations, but the general idea is to inspire kids to consider further education in the sciences. I enjoyed science at school, with the notable exception of physics.  I think this was probably more to do with my physics teachers (one of whom smelt dreadful, and the other one took an instant dislike to me - probably because I invariably did my homework at the back of the room at the start of the lesson) than the subject, but anyway. Back then the teachers seemed unconcerned about encouraging girls to study sciences. I got top grades in GCSE science, but was not approached by any of my teachers to consider A-Levels. I am not sure that I would have done, but the fact that I was not encouraged, and was allowed to quietly drop all three would probably not happen now. Perhaps then I would have a useful degree.  Although in fairness, I think I was destined to teach, and am not sure that me in a room with thirty youths and various poisonous and flammable materials is a very good idea at all.

I digress. A has said for years that she wants to be a food scientist. C varies between Rollercoaster Tester and Game Designer.  However, yesterday he decided he wants to be a chemist.  This is mainly because the nice chemist man asked him lots of questions that he could answer, and flattered him, then gave him colouring pencils and a sticker.  Perhaps they should rename the fair the Bribe Kids to Study Science Fair. Not quite so snappy perhaps.

Still, they learned lots, and were very inspired, and MrM and I enjoyed the show put on by the man that eats vile things on Incredible Edibles on the telly. BabyM liked looking around at everything, smiling at random strangers, and eating our lanyards.  He did NOT like the explosions, which happened frequently, and at random. Bless him.

I predict a resurgence of interest in our science books. We have a few.  For littlies, these are great. I have read several of them on many more occasions than I care to remember.  Might be worth reading them through yourself first: some sensitive kids might balk at the food chain one, and some sensitive parents might balk at the one that hints about the birds and the bees.

Moving on this contains both cartoons and experiments, which is a particularly engaging combination.

For older children How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients is an approachable introduction to the wider questions of how stuff is made up of other smaller bits of stuff.

The Big Bang Fair is on every year, and there are events spread throughout the country during the year. We will definitely be making our way there again next year. It's aimed at ages 7-16, and there is a fair bit of waiting around involved, but the activities and shows, are, in general, worth the wait.  The gumpf says to allow three hours to see everything, but we were there for five and only really went in one of the halls, so next year will be heading down for the entire day.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

It started with a picture. I won't link to it here, as it's actually more shocking to Google "North Korea night lights" and see a series of pictures of Asia. China and South Korea show twinkling lights, concentrated in the major cities, but sprinkled throughout. North Korea is devoid of light.  There was a link to the picture on Mumsnet. Somebody said "light pollution is not a measure of civilisation." I totally agree.  She went on to say that what went to show the lack of civilisation are the tales that come out from the country, mainly from those who have managed to escape from it.  A book, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick was recommended.

Ah, the beauty of the kindle! Within five minutes, I was reading said book. It is a particularly humbling read. My Lenten promise this year was to spend less time procrastinating online, and more time doing craft, and reading spiritually fulfilling things.  Although some of the spiritual stuff so far has been quite good, nothing, NOTHING has made me feel more thankful for my ridiculous amount of luck than reading this.

I don't really watch the news, as I am a worrier at the best of times.  I prefer to give to the charities, and get them to sort it out.  I realise that this is ridiculously cowardly, and I am not proud, but what I know of current affairs tends to come from books (and, about North Korea from Team America). I remember the death of Kim Jon-il a few years ago, but I did not really think about the significance).

This book taught me more about North Korea than I had ever known.  It is absolutely enthralling, and utterly heart-breaking. The tales of famine and loss, and the lies pedalled by the government left me feeling bereft and sick.

I told A and C about the book, obviously a greatly-watered down version.  They were both aghast. It led us to have a look at some of their geography books to see what infants are taught about the country.

I looked first at an absolutely beautiful book that C had for Christmas: Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska. It's a book I would love to display on my wall, the pictures are so rich and beautiful. It does not, however, show every country, and North Korea is not there.

The Philip's Infant School Atlas merely states that "Korea is split into 2 countries: North Korea and South Korea".

The DK Children's World Atlas goes further, stating that North Korea is very poor, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

DK's What's Where in the World tells the full tale, if one is apt to find it. The series of infographics reveal the stark realities of life in the country, as well as the more positive statistics, such as the very high levels of literacy.

Nothing to Envy is not a book for a child. A mature teenager, possibly, but not a child.  But What's Where in the World is an excellent starting point for discussing the realities of life for people across the world.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The ritual of reading - The Crocodile Who Didn't Like Water

BabyM has a new book. BabyM mainly enjoys books that belonged to his sister and brother, that I haven't had the heart to get rid of.  Classics such as Dear Zoo, Moo, Baa, La, La, La and the Usborne Touch and Feel Fairies book that made A say "oook!" every time she saw the picture of the little snowman on the snow fairies page.

However, when a librarian friend posted a link to The Book People with a picture of the cutest little crocodile I have possibly ever seen, it would have been rude not to. The Crocodile Who Didn't Like Water is an absolutely gorgeous book, with many witty little touches, and hilarious pictures.  BabyM smiled through the whole thing.

Cuter still was the fact that when I sat BabyM on my lap and said "Look! A story!" I noticed C put down his tablet, abandoned Minecraft, and sat down next to me and listened.  He filled in the rhymes at the end of the sentences and laughed along with the story. At the end, he said "OK, can I go back to my tablet now?" I hadn't actually asked him to sit and listen, but it's so ingrained in him that when someone reads a story, you drop what you're doing and engage, that he thought the story was for him too. And he loved it.  Very heartwarming indeed.

Monday, 24 February 2014

My latest finds for the kids

The blog has been sadly neglected throughout February. The trouble with having a baby, looking for a new house, and family members who have the audacity to have birthdays and things, is that blog time is limited.

Anyway, I have not abandoned reading, or looking for wonderful new reading material. There have been a few stand-out reads over the past month or so.

Firstly, I nicked a recommendation my cousin made to someone else on Facebook.  This is why I love and adore Facebook.  Before it existed, I didn't know what anyone was reading really, except for people I saw on an extremely regular basis. Now, people share all sorts of snippets of information about what they are reading.  I know I generally enjoy the same kind of books as my cousin, and, in fact, I had the book on my kindle, waiting to be read, having heard a short extract on the radio once.  The book in question is Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. This is not a children's book, but I would have loved it as a teen.  It is based on a traditional fairy tale, and follows the shape of the tale.  The characters are beautifully drawn. It is extremely sad, but in a very lovely way.

 Secondly, I noticed that Craft by Dorling Kindersley was available in the Book People catalogue.  We LOVE Dorling Kindersley and craft, so thought this would be right up our street.  There are some fabulous ideas in it, and C has already painted a watermelon mug at the ceramic cafĂ©, based on one of the ideas in the book.  Simple, but really, really effective.

Another revelation has been Q&A a day for kids, which we bought from Amazon.  I can't even remember how I stumbled across this, but we've only been doing it for a month, and there have already been some classics.  Basically there is a question for every day, which you ask your children, and then you note down their response.  Gems so far include "Give some advice on how to keep a friend:" "Don't punch them in the face". Describe what one of your parents does for a living: "My Dad goes to a boring office to read boring things on a boring computer and tell boring people boring things about boring subjects". Harsh, but probably will still raise a smile when we look back on the book in a few years.  For teens and adults there is Q&A a day - fine for 10+ - you just have to substitute work for school.

Friday, 17 January 2014

The trouble is, I just really hate Edmund

A's godfather bought her a beautiful set of the Narnia series for her first communion a couple of years back.  Now that MrM has finished reading Harry Potter to A (of which more at some point in the future!), they are going to work their way through CS Lewis's series.  We think that C would probably enjoy them too, and since A has already read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe at school, I am reading it to C as a catch-up, whilst MrM reads The Tales of Beedle the Bard as an interim measure.

Anyway, the books themselves which are in a rather lovely slipcase, and are reproductions of the first editions, are an absolute joy to read.  The paper just feels right, and it's really pleasant to turn the pages.  They are printed in a beautiful typescript, reminiscent of the longer Enid Blyton books, which I really love.  I sometimes read an extra page, just because I like the way it is set out.

C was unsure at first, but is now hooked. I am always heartened to see that a book can capture the imagination of many generations of children.

It's a gripping tale, and, truly, an iconic story.  And I *know* Edmund is not meant to be a sympathetic character.  I have so far resisted saying to C "What I want to know is, why don't they all just wrestle Edmund to the ground and give him a Chinese burn and a killer pinch?" That's what I would have done, if he'd been my brother.  Except, I probably wouldn't have done, in the world of CS Lewis.  I probably would have known my place, and bitten my tongue, and made him a sandwich, whilst looking downcast.

Hopefully I will be able to temper my extreme hatred of Edmund enough to actually enjoy the story...

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Busy Toes by C. W. Bowie

I am sure by the time A was the age BabyM is now, I was reading several books a day to her.  I am also fairly sure that by the time A was the age BabyM is now, I knew her exact age in weeks, days, and potentially minutes.  I know that BabyM was born some time in the latter half of last year, and is about four months old, but the size of a rather larger baby.

Anyway, I was having a moment of maternal guilt yesterday, which coincided with the others being out and BabyM and I being at a loose end.

I picked up Busy Toes by C.W. Bowie, which was a favourite of A's when she was small.  One of the good things about loving beautiful books, is that BabyM has a rather lovely library of his very own, as I kept all of the really special baby books. 

This one is particularly beautiful.  It has an unusual colour palette for a baby book - oranges and purples rather than the boring selection of pastels some books employ. It appealed to me at the time, because I found lots of books of baby faces which were on offer were very white-dominated. This book has faces and, more importantly for the subject matter, toes, of many different hues.

It has rhyming text which is easy to learn, and plenty of opportunities for tickling baby toes, or pretending to eat them if that takes your fancy (one of the great pleasures in life, in my opinion).

BabyM was somewhat underwhelmed.  In fact, he was rather more interested in listening in to his brother's bedtime story last night.  Perhaps he is a genius. Or perhaps he was actually working on his grand plan to flick my glasses of my face and make me pick them back up and put them on.  Again.

Friday, 10 January 2014

The Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth

Another week, another teen dystopian trilogy.  One, I would say, much more obviously and unabashedly teen. The Hunger Games is less self-conscious in its audience.

I read this because I saw a trailer for the film at the cinema, and thought it looked good.  My friend, who pretty much likes all of the same books I do, said that she had read it already, and enjoyed it.  It's so reassuring to get a good recommendation from someone with similar taste. I sometimes find choosing a book to be a bit of a gamble, and I hate not to finish a book I've started.  This can sometimes lead to the Middlemarch effect - I end up fighting my way through a book which I don't enjoy very much at all, with the sort of grim determination I really ought to reserve for running, where the pain is actually worth something in the end, rather than just the feeling of "well, that book was crap, and I'll never get those hours back again." I remember my Mum struggling through War and Peace for a really long time.  She was about two-thirds in when she finally admitted defeat, saying "they all had really similar Russian names, and I didn't have a clue which character was which." That's an awful lot of book to read without knowing who was doing what, or why!

Anyway, I digress, as the Divergent Trilogy is gripping from the off.  The two central characters are well-drawn, and the reader does care about them. The female lead is strong, and one senses that the woman playing her will need more than just the one facial expression that Whatsername wears in Twilight. The idea for the Dystopian society is interesting and well thought out. Teenagers must, at 16, pick from one of five Factions. This community is the most important setting for the people in the society (Faction before Family). They pick according to their nature: Abnegation are selfless, Dauntless - brave, Candor - honest, Erudite - knowledgeable and Amity - peace-loving. Those who fail the initiation into their chosen Faction become Factionless - a fate which some commit suicide to avoid. I can imagine that as a teen my friends and I would have spent some time analysing which Faction we would have joined (I think I would have plumped for Amity, where they eat lots of fruit, and drug the bread to make everyone happy).

There is tension within the tightly-knit community from the start of this book.  The reader quickly realises (with the help of a quick visit to Wikipedia if you're not familiar with US geography) that the book is set in a future Chicago.  One gets the impression that the characters' world is not the whole world, and Roth creates a feeling of them being watched extremely cleverly, and drops subtle hints that reminded me of M Knight Shyamalan's film The Village.

The first book was by far the best, for me, and promised a great deal. The second two books were almost a little rushed.  I felt like there should perhaps have been less characters and a slightly more streamlined plot - there were bits that seemed a little extraneous.

I won't give too much of the plot away, as that's the beauty of the book.  However, if I had read it as a teen, I would have been EXTREMELY upset by the ending of the final book.  Those with sensitive teens might want to tread carefully, or at least get ready for being cried on, copiously.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Michael Rosen's Sad Book

I bought this book many years ago to try to explain to A why I had days where looking at a bag of chestnuts in the supermarket could make me cry. Why I might always have to turn my face away from mums and daughters sharing a cuppa on a Christmas shopping trip.  Why I always, always ran to change the channel when the advert for Cancer Research with the girl in the wedding dress came on.

Today marks the ten year anniversary of my Mum's death.  Ten years is a long time.  In ten years I have become a mother, become a wife, had several jobs, made many friends. There are many important people in my world that my Mum never knew, including three of the most important people I will ever know.  Mum has never seen how my daughter has her eyes that crinkle deeply when she smiles.  Mum will never see how her eldest grandson loves to fold clothes, and likes to make sure things are arranged just so for the morning before he goes to bed, just like she did.  Mum will never get to chuck her youngest grandson under the chin, or carry him about on her chest as he falls asleep.

I am very, very lucky in my life, and have far more materially and spiritually than I deserve, or could have hoped for.  But every day there lurks the deep sense of having been cruelly and forcibly robbed of someone I should have had for longer than I did. 

When the person that loved you first and always dies, there is a swift adaptation to be made. There is a lot of growing up to do.  A bit of the playfulness inside me died too, forever.  Up to that point, I had blindly trusted life to eventually work out OK in the end.  I don't trust life as much any more.

Although, of course, life has worked out OK in the end.  Because I have survived; as have the others who were left behind.

It has not been easy.  Not for my Dad, who lost the person he had shared most of his life with, and who had never lived on his own. Not for my brother. We should have been nearing old-age ourselves before having to deal with the family dwindling away. Not for my husband, who had to deal with my grief.  Not for my daughter, who had to live without a Nanny, and with a mother of her own who was shell-shocked with grief at her birth, which is not how things should be.  Not for my mother-in-law who had to be two grandmothers (a job she excelled at) and also look after a very needy 24 year-old extra child of her own. My Mum's death robbed us all of valuable time and forced upon us heavy responsibilities.

I have become someone who answers questions like "Will your Mum and Dad be coming to see the play?" with "oh well, Dad might come, but my Mum's dead, but it's OK!", keen to protect the feelings of the person who asked the question.  And it *is* almost always OK.  Except it never actually is, really. 

This book sums up these feelings so very well.  It's never really OK.  But it kind of has to be, because that's how it is.

Two things have upset me over the years.  One, that people have said "Oh, I couldn't cope without my Mum!" I know people didn't mean to imply that she died because I didn't need her enough, but that's how it felt.  I couldn't cope without my Mum, and yet I have.  Death doesn't really give you a choice.  Also "she's there in spirit".  This is such a common thing to say.  Heck, I've said it myself.  But really, being "there in spirit" is a hopelessly awful version of actually being there, isn't it? "There in spirit"doesn't get to kiss a sleeping grandchild.  "There in spirit" can't make mince pies. "There in spirit" doesn't smell of a lovely mixture of Youth Dew, Elnett hairspray and furniture polish. "There in spirit" doesn't get to see her grandchildren's excited faces when she picks them up from school.  She deserved that.  She deserved to grow old.

When I got into university, my Mum said "Oooooh, you'll be able to get married in the college chapel!" I responded with something along the lines of "ohmygodyou'resosadasifI'dgetmarriedinthecollegechapellikeamassivesaddo".

Well, I did get married in the college chapel, to my soul mate, eight months after Mum died. "There in spirit" couldn't help me choose my dress and veil, help me put it on, tell me I looked beautiful.  My cousin and Auntie did that instead.  They were wonderful.  We all cried.  "There in spirit" couldn't comfort us. I didn't want my mum "there in spirit", just "there".

Little things will always upset me on sad days.  Many, many people over the years have comforted me, and I thank you. You are the candles in the dark, in the picture on the last page of this book, which never fails to make me cry.