Saturday, 12 October 2013

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Truth?

I read a headline today asking (or was it telling?) me that fairy tales are ‘too Grimm for Children’. Speaking as a mother of two little girls who are more than happy to mix My Little Pony with zombies in their playtimes, I don’t think so. Personally, I’m more worried about the many, many portrayals of little girls as helpless victims that need rescued from danger because they’ve been taught by years, no generations now, of indoctrination that tell them that they need to rely on a handsome Prince to solve their woes. The D word. You know what I’m talking about.
The problem with Fairy Tales is not that they are ‘too gruesome’, it’s that they have been written down. Folk tales were originally an oral tradition, passed on down the generations and undoubtedly changed over time. Until the likes of Charles Perrault or the Grimms wrote them down, any previously told versions would just be lost.  Keep in mind that these stories had to be passed on orally and therefore had to be memorable; it’s why we have repetition and refrains, it’s why stories have to have a thrill.  Remember that boring story? Though not. I’m pretty sure that 15th Century grannies tutted as they heard their daughters passing on tales that no doubt reflected some passing 15th century fad instead of what they had been told. Art reflects the fears of society, and as the fears of society changed, so does art. While we now have a written record of folk tales from the late 17th Century until now is great as a snapshot into the past, it’s a double edged sword. We feel uncomfortable at the blood and guts. We feel uncomfortable seeing it written down. We feel uncomfortable with the past. Yet we don’t feel uncomfortable seeing the way that women are treated in 20th Century renditions of these tales on screen to us. We don’t see that these modern versions are just addressing the fears of the time, and that one of these fears is the little girls that are watching these sugar laden fantasies that want to keep them ‘in their place’. For a long time, we quite liked it. You’ve only got to look around a toystore to see that since feminism started as a growing movement toys have become increasingly gender stereotyped, to the point that last Christmas the onslaught of pink in a toy store made me feel physically sick and gave me a headache. And we should be feeling uncomfortable with it. Thank goodness we now have campaigns like Pink Stinks and Let Toys be Toys pushing the issue.
My question to you is not ‘are fairytales too Grimm’, but ‘what is it that we are scared of?’. Are strong, independent women really our current fear? Or is it just a hangover from last century? Look deep in yourself and realise that we still want our children to be healthy and safe from the darker side of society, and not the other way around.

I started out this morning to write a review of Lari Don’s Little Red Riding Hood, but it somewhat morphed into something else. I wasn't sure which of my blogs it belonged on either, so it's on both. 

Monday, 16 September 2013

Why Does Everything Happen to Me?

Winston is a dog who thinks he's hard done by and that nothing is fair. Abigail quite often feels hard done by and that nothing is fair, so it was quite nice to introduce them to each other. Winston is having a hard day because he has a thorn in his paw, and needs to get to the vet. As he walks along, his friends try to distract him with some doggy activities like digging holes and raking in bins, but Winston's paw is getting worse and worse and he lays it on thicker and thicker with each dog that he meets. Abigail, however, has spotted something. As Winston totters along in his self-absorbed world, his friends are being stung by bees or carted off in the rubbish truck. He's just a bit too worried about his paw to even notice their plights, never mind help them. There's a lesson in there, about there always someone being worse off than you, especially if you happen to be friends with Winston.

Maybe he's a jinx...

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Lola's Modern Classic

Charlie and Lola have a very special space on the Evie's Books bookshelf. Over the years I've found myself captivated by the two children, first from the TV series and then from the books. Whenever there is a Charlie and Lola book in the house, it's always top of the reading pile for both girls.

I have a particular fondness for Charlie. Yes, Lola is cute and funny and charming but Charlie is a really great big brother. I love that he has so much compassion for his sister, and that he finds gentle solutions to problems, even if he gets quite cross at first. I will not ever Never eat a Tomato is Charlie's solution to getting Lola to eat her dinner; faced with a long list of foods that Lola won't eat, he comes up with the trick of making the food exotic and tempting. Mash is cloud fluff, peas are green drops and carrots are orange twiglets from Jupiter. It's siblings without (a lot of) rivalry; it's fantastic to have a role model of an older sibling for Abigail who really struggles with being the big sister. Maybe she should adopt the mantra, 'what would Charlie do'!

Both girls are captivated by Charlie and Lola books, and especially love finding the little treats that Lauren Child hides in her illustrations. There are always squeals of delight when the see the pea with Lola's eyes, and they have great fun counting through the list of food that Lola won't eat. Abigail would like every one to please note that Lola will eat cucumbers, because cucumbers ROCK.

I'm always fascinated by the way that the words are laid out in a Lauren Child book. The words come in different sizes, some words are in bold, some are not. Sometimes the words wind round the pictures instead of sitting by themselves in a block in a corner or at the bottom of the page. I spend a great deal of time over-analysing what this could mean. I won't go on about it for hours, but I will say this: anything that makes language vibrant and alive for both adults and children is a good thing. For a child like Abigail who just is not keen on reading, seeing her follow the words around the page and engage with them in a way she never does with school reading books is a pure joy.

Long live Charlie and Lola.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Playground Bully

This year has been kind of tough. I've lost my job, my dad has terminal cancer, I've had two car crashes which have left me having anxiety attacks and now the girl's dad is showing signs that point towards being bipolar. The kind of stuff that X-Factor Journeys are made of. I've tried to hide it, but it's been tough.

Then someone else threw their lot in the mix: the playground bully. It started with excuses, always doing something else that put a stop to playdates. Not coming to birthday parties without explanation. It moved up a gear to Facebook blocking and then being totally ignored on the first day of school, looked through as if you weren't even there. With no explanation. Top it all off with a sprinkling of social exclusion, and there you have it, bullying complete.

Mum's are great, aren't they?

Monday, 2 September 2013

Difficult Conversations

It was the first day back as a P2 for Abigail this week. When I picked her up on the first day we had a chat about things went. Fine, said Abigail. I did some playing and Grace Long's mummy died; not the sort of thing I was expecting. Once we'd established this was real (there was a note) and not a misunderstanding, the questions came.

When are you going to die, mummy?

What happens when you die, mummy?

I don't want you to die. I'm scared of dying....

Difficult questions. But important ones. We had a talk through what had happened and headed home for some quiet time. Abigail headed straight for the book case and pulled out a couple of books she wanted to read: The Heart in the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and the Gift by Carol Ann Duffy. I have to admit to feeling a little relief that we had books that did help understand the more difficult things in life.

The Heart and the Bottle, if you've never come across it, is the tale of a girl who spends time with her Grandpa, learning and asking impossible questions. Then one day, his chair is empty. In order to protect her heart the girl takes it out and puts it in a bottle. Her heart is safe, but she loses all her joy in life and grows up missing a part of herself. One day she meets a small girl on the beach who helps her break her heart out of the bottle and help her deal with her grief and bring back her curiosity about the world. Abigail was able to take her own meaning and comfort from the illustrations and there was plenty for us to talk about and try to make sense of together.

The Gift is a book that before this week, I had read once and not really understood. In fact, I was quite shocked by the way mortality was approached and wasn't sure if I would ever read it again. But this time I found a new meaning it. At some point we all have to face our own mortality, and it's usually the death of a grandparent that a child experiences first. What Carol Ann Duffy does so cleverly here is to introduce death as part of the fulfilment of life; death is not something to be seen in isolation and feared, rather to be embraced as part of the circle of life. Death is never easy, but it doesn't have to be hidden. 

Saturday, 25 May 2013

A Little Update

Well, it's been a bit quiet around here post wise, so I'd like to say thankyou to everyone who has taken the time to visit the blog. Life has been up in the air here for a while, with my dad's illness, unemployment and setting up a new business. I did think that redundancy would give me LOADS more time for blogging, but as it turns out I seem to find myself cleaning and folding clothes a lot of the time...
The good news for me is that I can now take a breath as my business is now up and running, and my dad is feeling well enough to read a lot of books (I pray it stays that way). The bad news for the blog is that I'm reading a lot of books that I sell at the moment. I don't think it's right that I review books that I sell so that's why it's been so quiet.

PS if you click on the link and wonder 'where's evie?' I should come clean that she's the girl, and I'm the mummy!

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Duck, Duck, Goose.

 I had to take a flying visit to the library yesterday morning; our books were due back, I had some errands to run and Abigail had a party in the afternoon. Under pressure from the lunch time closing time, and the speed I needed to get my errands, I decided to fly solo. This was not the sort of trip suitable for two under-fives!I stopped off in the library first so I had at least a little time to browse and decided on two stable favourites, Oscar the Cat and Oliver Jeffers. Unusually, I picked up the board book of Mr Jeffer's 'Lost and Found' (mostly the library has hard or paperback copies) and trotted off to finish my list of things-to-do.
When I got home, I dropped the books on a chair in the living room and went to unpack my shopping bags. Emily grabbed Lost and Found - she recognised the artwork - and took it over for her daddy to read. I pottered about a bit more, then noticed Emily was playing with the book. She had some of her Hello Kitty figures, and was acting the story out. Apart from being incredibly cute, it got me thinking about the format of the book. The thick card pages were giving her a leap pad into another world of imagination, almost as if she was playing with a real set. She often sits and flicks through books by herself, but this was the first time I'd seen her use one as a whole new world. Who knew there was so much in a format?

Saturday, 30 March 2013


This review is a little out-of-the-normal for me, as it's of a chapter book and not a picture book. Orion Press asked me if I would review this for them, and being keen to support Irish authors, I took them up on the offer. Hagwitch is a novel for older children by the Irish author Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick - she has also written some picture books which look good - watch this space for more reviews.

Hagwitch is a novel which is split between two eras. Lally is the daughter of a puppeteer living on a barge in modern day London, while Flea is a playwright's apprentice in 16th Century London. The style reminded me of Daphne du Maurier, with a little touch of Angela Carter added in to keep the style contemporary without losing it's magical Gothic atmosphere. I was impressed by the mature tone set by Fitzpatrick (I may just be getting old, but I had to stop listening to Radio One because I just felt it was really patronising and made me cringe). I also didn't feel like I was reading a book that had to stop and explain itself any more than a good adult's book would, or that it was dumbed down in any way. It may have been a long time ago that I was young, but I certainly remember strongly disliking several books which just struck me as hollow and talking down to me.

Lally has grown up without her mother. She, rather unusually, calls her dad Eoin, and is quite happy to take on two of the other travelling performers in the floating puppet-show as her mother-figures. It's as if she has been fostered into this theatrical family; she does ask about her birth mother, but does not dwell on her loss or feel like a victim because of it. The only company that she is in want of is someone her own age.

With the company of a boy her own age, Gilles, who comes to live on the Beetle from Paris with his mother, comes the unravelling of Lally's world. Lally's world is antiquated and isolated. The French duo introduce her to Ipads and Facebook. For the first time she admits to herself that she is just too scared to ask about her mother. She runs away and questions her relationship to Eoin; she realises that needs to experience more than just the comfort of her life on The Beetle.

The story of Flea is interspersed with Lally's story, telling of his time with the theatre and his parallel experience with a block of Hawthorne. The Hawthorne adds the supernatural element to the story. In the 16th century, it's sprite controls Flea's master, while in the present day it controls Eoin. Both men are spurred into a flurry of destructive creativity; both men are lucky enough  to have young wards who are able to see what is happening and care enough take drastic steps to save them. There's a good balance of tension and the story really picks up pace towards the end with the dark goings on surrounding what turns out to be the same cursed tree.

I ended the story with a real sense of belonging, what it is to be part of a small community with a sense of family. Both Lally and Flea are separated for a time from their families but don't lose the bond they have forged. Their respective stories show that is ok to care, that it's normal for families to fight and that it's normal to get through it. And all nicely told without being sentimental about it.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Silence Will Fall

I don't think a picture book has left me pondering what it all means hours after I've sat down and read it to the girls. I read Ben Morley's The Silence Seeker to them this morning. They are off playing now, and I'm still trying to make sense of it; I guess that might be the point. Take some stereotypes, challenge them, then leave a big open ending for you to fill.
The Silence Seeker is the story of Joe, who asks his mum about the Asylum Seekers who have moved in next door. He doesn't quite understand and thinks the boy next door  is a 'Silence Seeker', and wants to help. The reasons for the family seeking asylum are only revealed to us through Joe's mum: 'he has come from far away, looking for peace and quiet'. No attempt to give Joe an understanding of war, or oppressive regimes, or any other reason a family may seek asylum; but I guess it's just a true reflection of how we sugar coat everything for our kids.
Joe takes his neighbour for a walk, trying to find a nice quiet spot for him. Every quiet space Joe can think of is filled with people. Some just having fun, some being antisocial, as well as some homeless people. This city is loud and scary. On a deeper level, it exposes a bit of the darker side of our society and made me think about how we are so quick to judge others, and how hypocritical we can be about ourselves as the perfect society about to be over-run. Fear can work both ways. Joe is upset to find that his neighbours have spirited away in the night. Have they been driven out, or rehoused? Have they been deported? We never find out. It's up to us to draw our own conclusions, to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see what thoughts might be staring back at us.
I'm leaving the first stereotype in the book to last. This book is a story of a black boy and a white boy, who on the cover are sitting together on the steps outside their building. There's a lot of jumping to conclusions in our everyday lives about where people are from. How often do trolls post 'send them home' when they see a black or Asian person accused of something, with only an assumption of someone's origin from their skin colour. Can you be British and black? Are white people ever oppressed? The best thing about picture books is they can make you look at yourself without saying a word. 

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Emily's Top Books

Emily is just at the age where she likes the same books over and over. So, to celebrate world book day, here's her top 5 books:

Chu's Day, by Neill Gaiman. Say it out loud, and have a smile. Emily loves following the story of Chu and his sneezing and is delighted to join in: ahhh AHHH AAHHHH...
The illustrations are quite traditional, but with a nod to modern life. It's hard not to have a chuckle at the little mice at their computers in the drawers that used to contain index cards. That's progress for you!

The Hueys in the New Jumper, by Oliver Jeffers. Emily just loves the simple illustrations, the bright orange jumper and chatting about what the Hueys are up to, especially the tiny Huey who gets ever so upset. I have to read this about 5 times a day at the moment.

Green Eggs and Ham, By Dr. Suess. Now, this is a little too long for Emily to sit through at the moment, but she loves the beginning, skips a bit of the middle and loves the end. She instantly recognises any Dr Suess book and greets it with a cuddle and an 'IT'S SAM!' whether he's in the book or not. She loves Sam and his ham.

We had this book from the library for ages, because every time I tried to return it Emily thought the world was ending. I'm actually a bit worried if she sees this blog it'll remind her, so I've distracted her with Peppa Pig and some crisps. Bad mummy. Soren Lorensen is in this book (Lola's invisible friend) and Emily loves trying to spot him.

Emily was given a big bag of Maisy books for a Christmas present, and this is her favourite one; it's a great picture of a modern library. Maisy goes to find a book and a quiet spot to read, but finds computers, photocopiers and an aquarium amongst the books. There's a story time for all her friends before they check their books out and go outside to play, and Maisy gets a quiet spot to read her book.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

And they all look just the same.

Until a few weeks ago, this house was Oliver Jeffers free. I had heard of him and knew he was from Belfast, but had just never got round to reading one of his books. On one of our 'cup of tea' visits to No Alibis bookstore (this is where Emily drags me in off the street and plays with the tiny tea-set in the children's section), I picked up a couple of Oliver Jeffers' books. One of them even had an extra little picture drawn in it by Oliver himself. Got to love special touches like that.

I took them home, and they were a hit. It's not often the two year old AND the four year old will sit together to read a book, but these worked like magic. When we hit the library last week, it was no surprise that we came home with a couple of additions to the collection. So far we've read Stuck, The Way Back Home, The Heart in the Bottle and The Hueys in the New Jumper. Given the frequency that Huey is shoved in my hand, I'd call it as the favourite of the week. I'm even having problems trying to blog about it because every time I pick it up Emily is on my knee like a shot wanting it read to her.

So what's it about? It's a pretty black-and-white thing in the land of the Hueys.  They all think the same,do the same; they even look the same. Then one day, one of them decides he'd like to wear a jumper. The Hueys lurch from the initial shock of having someone be different, to all wanting to be different. Of course by all wanting to be different in their natty orange jumpers, they all end up being one of the crowd again. Things need to move up a notch for them all to be individuals, and they do. It's a subtle but insightful look into the world of peer pressure, herd mentality and individualism.

What works so well in this book is the way that the pictures and the story interact. There really doesn't need to be a lot of words to get the story moving along. Emily loves looking at the little guys in their new jumpers, and will chat away about who looks sad; there's really no pressure from lots of text, it works as a picture book for her. Abigail though, being that bit older, gets the 'joke' of everyone ending up still all being the same. She was curious as to why it had to be a bright orange jumper (my take was it was a bold statement) and was having a go at trying to read some of the little asides herself. I really appreciated that these little asides when the Hueys speak were handwritten. We live in a typeset world these days, where writing by hand as a grown up is falling by the wayside. It's important that we don't forget about longhand, maybe even use it now and again. Just in case.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

My Read it Dad (2)

I've spent a few days thinking about what to blog about next. You see, after I posted last week, my dad phoned to tell me he has pancreatic cancer and has about a year left with us. I'm still trying to digest this news, but hoping we can make the best of the time we have left with him.
Here's to the man who took me out on endless bike rides, and who told me that they sent hairdressers to the moon. Love you dad.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

My Read It Dad

Readitdaddy has laid down a challenge to parents everywhere to make 2013 the year that we all read to our children more, because as mums and dads we are just not doing it enough. So with that in mind, I wanted to pay tribute to my own dad, and all the stories that he read to me when I was a wee tiny nipper.

Amongst all the ladybird books and Mr Men, when I was five he decided to read me the whole Chronicles of Narnia, out loud. Night after night he was there, finishing each night with his characteristic slamming of the book closed and wobbling his false tooth at me before lights out. As my choice of them all, I'm picking The Magician's Nephew as the one which really got me hooked on books. I was thrilled by the adventures of Digory and Polly as they were zapped through worlds by Uncle Andrew's magic rings, inadvertently taking the White Witch with them into Narnia.  I'm not sure why this book captivated me more than all the others in the Chronicles of Narnia. Perhaps because it was that last to be written and that made it more accomplished, but more likely because it was the first book my dad took time out from his full time job and part time OU Degree to read to me.

Sadly, I don't remember being read much to after this, but I think that's because I was reading independently by then. There was a LOT of Enid Blyton, followed by Laura Ingalls Wilder,  When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and the Diary of Anne Frank. Maple syrup has a special place in my memory, as does Darell from Mallory Towers, a scruffy rabbit, bilingualism  and coming of age in a secret annexe with a boy named Peter. That's all down to my dad, who took time out to read to me. Thanks dad. x

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Baby Brains

I popped into Eason's yesterday when I was out with the girls, thinking we might pick up an Oliver Jeffers book but the girls thought better of it. While Emily was busy covering the floor with Peppa Pig books and running around with a copy of Green Eggs and Ham shouting 'MINE!' at everyone, Abigail was quietly insisting that we bought Baby Brains by Simon James because it was her favourite book at school. This was the first time she'd mentioned a book from school so I left Mr Jeffers for another day. I'm really glad she did as we both enjoyed it a lot.
Before Baby Brains is born, he is played music and read to - his parents want him to be very, very clever. And it works. The morning after he gets home, his mum finds him sitting in the living room reading the newspaper. Next it's off to school, university and astronaut academy.. We both enjoyed the pictures of the baby in ridiculous situations, like hanging over the bonnet of a car or floating in space. Abigail's favourite moment in the book is when Baby Brains shouts 'I WANT MY MUMMY!' in the middle of a space walk and is flown back to earth as fast as they can get him. It's a great book for grown ups too as it's a real poke at pushy parents who just need to let their children be children. As an aside I'm always really windy about books with babies having to have bottles of formula in them, so I was pleased (and surprised) that this was all about Baby's brains, and not what he is fed. We were also both pleased that there are more books about Baby Brains, Baby Brains Superstar and Baby Brains and Robomum.
It was lovely to share a book that Abigail chose for herself, as she's never shown a real preference when we've been in the library or bookshop before. She has great taste, so I'm looking forward to the next one.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

u-Draw, I watch

When the u-Draw tablet was launched a couple of years back, I looked at it and thought 'no-one would pay £50 for that', and I was right. It was just too expensive and in the end it's developer, THQ, filed for bankruptcy just before Christmas. They must have sold all the remaining stock off at rock bottom prices as I managed to pick up a copy for less than £10 in HMV. Abigail's been playing with it for nearly two hours now (£10 really well spent in my book). I'm guessing that when I have to curb her screen time it'll make me very unpopular...
But before I do that, a quick review. Setting up involved a trip to Google because the instructions were rubbish. Once it was up and running, the four year old set about drawing and the 2 year old watched. A nice bit of peace on a Sunday morning is always a bonus. U-draw has a lot in common with apps we have for the ipod; different colours, tools and effects are all there, but as you use a stylus on a tv-sized screen it's much more fun to work with and easier to add detail. Once you've finished the drawing, it can be saved on your x-box or exported to the u-Draw gallery where it can be shared with the world or just saved to your desktop. Daddy also pointed out it would be great for homework projects as you can print the pictures out. This is a massive bonus in our house, where we  go through craft supplies at a faster rate than sweeties.
If you want to draw, there are tutorials, projects and free drawing. There are also colouring books, dot-to-dot and a few games if you want to do something a bit different. The game we tried first (Alien Splat) frustrated Abigail and the dot-to-dot was too detailed for her as yet, but she enjoyed doing the maze game where you use the tablet in the same way you would use a wii-mote to guide your way through. To get the most of the tablet I'd recommend doing a few of the drawing tutorials as I didn't find some of the functions particularly intuitive. Abigail really enjoyed the colour tutorials which introduced her to some new concepts, like contrast and shades. I was impressed that it turned drawing into a family activity that everyone could enjoy, but most of all loved the 'replay' feature where you can watch the drawing being done in fast motion.

u-Draw is also available for the PS3 and Wii. I avoided the Wii version as it came bundled with a Disney Princess Game *cringe*

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The River Cottage Baby & Toddler Cook Book

When it comes to cooking for babies, the masses will head for Annabel Karmel cook books because, let's face  it, they are well promoted and readily available. I quite like her baby cook book, but I really don't like her association with Clare Byam Cook, who makes her living promoting controversial advice about breastfeeding, so I was really glad when this number popped up in 2011.
While the book comes under the River cottage umbrella and foreworded by Hugh, the book is written by Nikki Duffy and is packed full of useful [non-biased] information about feeding babies as well as the recipes. It is a recipe book, after all.
It's split by season which is nice (I would not thank you for a winter strawberry myself), giving you a taste of what is available throughout the year. As with all cookbooks, there are gems of recipes, and those that you know the entire household would turn it's nose up at. Which is all fine, no-one from River Cottage is going to turn up and force feed you fish and fennel pizza. Even if you were to try no recipes from the book, the nutritional information Nikki packs the book with is really useful. On top of offering suggestions of how to adapt the recipes for babies, she also offers up the incorporation of purees into grown up meals, and a whole table of suggestions of what to do if you have a glut of something. Pea puree? Very Masterchef. It's not all 'posh nosh' though. I'm sure there are many out there who would struggle to roast a chicken or make a bolognese sauce from scratch. Basic recipes done well.
As for Evie's house? Our favourite recipes are for the sweet stuff. My favourite is the rice pudding made with coconut milk, served cold in the summer with raspberries or strawberries. A close second is the baked peaches, while or sheer cunningness is the apple and cheese on toast. There are lots of good, cheap wholesome meals in this book: pea risotto, carrot and lentil soup and frittata among them. It's not just a book for sitting on the shelf, it's practical and worth a look.