Tuesday 18 December 2012

On the Sameness of Christmas

My bro is getting at me for recommending an Advent Calendar on December 17th. He has a point I suppose. But I like to think you, gentle reader, are not some Jonny-come-lately darting around the internet in a panic last minute book recommendation spree but a Quiet Ponderer who may require a year to mull the pros and cons of a particular purchase. Christmas ain't going anywhere after all.

And that is very much the point of Christmas. We like it to be the Same please. The good bits and the less good bits. I like to have turkey with the Constance Spry almond sauce I have had since childhood and none of your goose-is-actually-nicer-and-you-know-strictly-speaking-more-traditional nonsense is going to sway me.

I'm the same with my Christmas books. There are some excellent new Christmas titles I know and I'm all for them and that but there are still only two titles I actually NEED for it to Be Christmas. The first is (no surprise) Shirley Hughes' 'Lucy and Tom's Christmas' , the second 'The Tailor of Gloucester' by Beatrix Potter.

This is also poor practice from me because 'Lucy and Tom' is out of print I'm afraid and only available second hand at inflated sums. But then we don't actually own a copy ourselves. One of my first Christmas jobs at the beginning of December is to go and stake out the local library until they bring out the Christmas stock and then pounce on their copy, hawk-like. Apologies are due to other North London residents who've been denied it for the last 6 years because it has been ours all ours (cue wicked laugh and hand rubbing).

I love it so because it is a perfect evocation of a perfect Christmas through child's eyes and because it encapsulates the importance of  Sameness. I read it and recognise my own childhood Christmas's and Bill and Eddie read it as a documentary list of How Things Should Be. It's a proper lump in the throat read for me. Shirley Hughes just gets it spot on right again sigh: From the list of elaborately chosen, wrapped, hidden and re-hidden gifts Lucy and Tom choose: "A comb in a case for Granny with 'A' for Alison on it (because that's Granny's name)...a rubber in the shape of a dog for Dad to take to his office" to the exposition of the day itself; "Imagine not wanting to wake up early on Christmas Day!" the genius of Shirley Hughes is to be able to write something that can be read as truth by both grown ups and children without either feeling patronised or excluded from insider knowledge.

I suppose it is a very middle class and ever-so-slightly sentimentalised version of The Day (there's even snow)- but phooey to that. It's my fave.

I am a bit too old to have got 'Lucy and Tom' on their original outing but we had a complete library of Beatrix Potter and 'The Tailor of Gloucester' was read to me every Christmas Eve for many years. Now most Potter I find either sickly or creepy ('Samuel Whiskers'! -nightmares reborn) but 'The Tailor of Gloucester' is still a Christmas treat.

Should you not know it; it's basically 'the Elves and the Shoemaker' with added mice and a certain amount of jeopardy. I was always a sucker for anyone lying around at death's door in books when I was a child too (see 'What Katy Did', 'Heidi' or 'The Secret Garden' for instance). I did a lot of pretending to be a nearly-dead Maid Marian or Batgirl. It may be more a girl thang, or just a me-thang: My boys, thankfully, are less interested in starving and consumptive-style swoons such as that which wracks the poor Tailor. They do like Bad Simpkin the cat though.

I hadn't realised until Playing By the Book did this amazing round up of museum artefacts in children's books that the waistcoat that the Tailor must complete in time for Christmas day is a real object viewable in the V and A. A post-Christmas pilgrimage must be made one day.

mouse at work

the real finished article
And after all this posting on the Sameness of Christmas's past, I have to confess that this Christmas is going to be rather different. We're all off to Australia at the end of the week to spend two weeks in the sun with family. The blog will be on a bit of a holiday until January and I am in a flurry of trying to locate put away sunglasses, hats and shorts (the problems some people have eh?). However although there may be a few prawns on a barbecue this year there will still be almond sauce. phew.

Happy Christmas and Happy 2013!

Sunday 16 December 2012


This is not a religious household.
Aged around 5 Bill asked to go to church because he wanted to 'see what it was like'. I took him with me to the one across the road to their Festival of Nine lessons and Carols. About 10 minutes in he lean't across to me and whispered to me in a serious tone 'I wondered what it was like and now I know'. I asked him if he wanted to leave quietly but he said no. He was very pleased to get given a candle in an orange for his perseverance. We both enjoyed the experience but he has never asked to repeat it.

I was brought up more churchy with weekly trips to Sunday School to colour in pictures of Jesus and baskets of fish. Although I never chose to be confirmed it remains a part of my cultural heritage and in that spirit it is important to me that my children grow up with some sort of understanding of the stories of the Bible and the spiritual calendar of the year. They'll make their own choices in due course.

Apart from anything else they ARE pretty good stories, with a satisfying and unusual amount of violence and absolutism for small boy tastes. I remember Bill coming across the story of Adam and Eve for the first time and just boggling and boggling- "They were really never allowed back Mum?  what NEVER??"

In the same spirit the story of the Nativity is mainly fascinating to them because of King Herod; a bad guy to trump any of their Marvel or DC villains. We've got a few different nativity books around.
The first; 'The Very First Christmas' by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Elena Temporin is a tender and sweet (and Herod-free) retelling of Baby Jesus' arrival and his parade of visitors with unusual gifts. I like the simplicity of the text and the warmth and love that radiates from the illustrations.

Jan Pienkowski's 'The First Christmas' is a complete contrast. It's a small and tactile hardback of delicious beauty, exoticism and darkness. He illustrates the text from the St James bible with woodcuts of muscular angels, cavalcades of elephants, twining grapevines, climbing monkeys and creepy bats. There is detail, movement, joy and danger in every spread. There is also a lot of Herod. A book to savour and shiver with in equal measure.

But the boys most popular way to get their daily Nativity update would be our partworks-style Advent calendar with 24 installments in teeny tiny books. It's an irresistable treat each morning to read the latest news from Bethlehem: Eddie likes to intone it with Proper Gravity in between mouthfuls of minibix. This is its second year outing for us and it has already acquired Tradition Status. If it appeals to you, I highly recommend forking out for it, it is a nice thing.

'The Very First Christmas' by Louie Stowell, illustrated by Elena Temporin, pub. Usborne
 isbn 978074607705-4
'The First Christmas' illustrated by Jan Pienkowski, pub Puffin
isbn 978-0-141-50097-3
'The Story of Christmas: Story Book set and advent calendar' story retold by Mary Packard, illus. Carolyn Croll pub Workman isbn 978-0-7611-5250-7

Wednesday 12 December 2012


Bill turned 8 this weekend (must update the side of my blog). He had a Lego party.

It was...tiring.

5 minutes in -craft activity ('pimp your lego mini figure')(I didn't use the word pimp in front of my children I should clarify)(although would have complemented Bill's question of last week- 'What's a prostitute mum?') that I thought might take 20 mins completed

8 minutes in -first child says to me 'I'm BORED- can I go on the skateboard (round the kitchen)?'

45 minutes into 2 1/2 hour party ALL games and activities from my Lego list finished and I started to look extremely rabbit in headlightish.

Honour salvaged by a LOT of slightly manic musical bumps 'Dance like robots!' 'Dance like girls!' 'Now dance like poos!' and an excellent impromptu 'how to really walk like a zombie' workshop from my husband (it's all in the chest position apparently; sticking your arms out stiffly just doesn't cut it any more).

Only one child received a golf ball in the side which may or may not have cracked a rib- and given we had an internal pinata happening that's really quite good going.

I felt like I had lived so many lifetimes by the end of the afternoon that I might have attained immortality.
lego head cake colonised by pimped-up guys
Lego is big news in this house. Although frustratingly both my children are really in it just for the mini-figures- and as any parent knows they make you buy a mighty big box of bricks to get the mini figure you're after. Sometimes I look at the large tupperware box of Lego rubble we have accumulated from sets that were built and then broke and run my hands through it weeping softly  and whimpering "hundreds of pounds in there... hundreds of pounds..."


Lego and books. A newish departure for them but obviously doing well as they seem to be bringing more and more out. I note the Book People now has an entire Lego shop section on its site.

They are definitely Bill's favourite non fiction and I'm pleased but also slightly baffled by the geeky pleasure he derives from his Harry Potter Lego Enyclopaedias.

"Hey mum! MUM!!MUM!!!" ...I run down the stairs..."What is it Bill?" "LOOK how many different hairstyles the Ron Weasley mini-figure has had since 2001!" "mmm gosh yes! that is a lot mm."

He also has the 'Lego Ideas' encyclopaedia. This is a nice coffee table type book even if you don't have kids featuring insights into the world of the professional Lego builder and inspiring photos of amazing constructions. Professional Lego builder was not, curiously, an occupation that featured heavily on the wall of careers choices at the nice all girls day school I attended and that's a shame I think. The book is fantasy though- when Bill and I go through it it's difficult to relate the spectacular images shown with things that we could have a go at ourselves. The 'You can build Anything' tag line should be accompanied by a caveat-' if you have a million plus bricks colour and shape sorted to hand'

Because what it doesn't do- and I rather wish it would- is provide some guidance on how to build the spectacular creations within its pages. The next Lego book I would like please is one that shows us how to sift through the rubble in a more meaningful way to make different chassis, aliens etc. Lego is so complicated and specific in its pieces now that once something has broken it can be very difficult to work out how to use it afresh.

Then the next Lego party I hold all I would need to do is give them the container and the book and they would happily construct quietly in a corner for the whole party....wouldn't they?

Monday 3 December 2012


It's Christmas time! It's Christmas time! It's (almost nearly) Christmas time!!

I really like Christmas. Can you tell?

Would you like some Christmassy books then? Oh go'arn. You know you do really.

Bill and Eddie (and me to be honest- my stocking still gets filled) are all firm believers in the Man in the Red Suit. Insomniac Eddie is now officially on detail to see him arrive in the flesh following a triumphant sighting of the tooth fairy this weekend. For Bill, the messages he's received from the rather brilliant Personal North Pole are the clincher- if it's been on the computer it Must Be True (I fear for his future Wikipedia derived essays).

In future posts this month I'll pick out some of my old faithful Christmas stories. We're not efficient enough to wrap a book a day for Advent as others have suggested but we still have our supplies. Advent opening is complicated enough between our broad church selection of calendars representing Wheres Wally, Doctor Who, The Beano and Baby Jesus.

Today I am picking out a couple of new titles I've been sent.

'Dear Santa'  by Kathryn White and Polona Lovsin is a storybook complete with letter writing kit for sending off your own requests to Father Christmas old style if you're finding it difficult to Facetime/Skype with him.

Now I have to admit this is not my favourite- not being that keen on the anthropomorphised animals and the slightly cutesie illustrative style. This comes down to personal taste though- the boy's grandparents often choose them books with this kind of cosy aesthetic; I'm just an edgier kind girl. Also it commits the Cardinal Sin of having penguins at the North Pole which makes me suck breath in through my teeth in a tutting sort of way.


Eddie picked it up straight away, read it and then IMMEDIATELY RAIDED THE LETTER WRITING SET AND WROTE HIS OWN LETTER TO F.C.

Now that may not seem worth all the shouty capitals to you but if you knew Eddie's pen phobia then you would know that that is a very big deal indeed.

and Bill (not worth capitals but still) did the same too. It seems my sons are as much a sucker for a little stationery set with stickers as the next girl. Who'd a thunk it? Sometimes it seems all you want is a bear and rabbit in woolly hats off on an adventure.

Father Christmas may need some legibility help with Eddie's letter(he wants Jabba the Hutt Lego) but I'm sure the elves are good at that sort of thing.

Penguins notwithstanding I have to say thanks 'Dear Santa'.

More up my street to read aloud is 'On a Starry Night' a collection of Christmassy animal tales by authors including Michael Broad, Holly Webb and Penny Dolan. For those of us who haven't been efficient with the individual 24 wrapped calendar books this provides a handy get out in providing 10 days worth of Advent suitable reading matter in one volume.

The stories range from the domestic to the myth based and include narwhals and monkeys as well as the more wintry Arctic fox and reindeers and whilst there is a definite bias towards female protagonists this book does not feel too gender niched. There's a satisfying amount of snow and weather within them- and there's nothing nicer to read aloud when you are curled up warm by the fire at home. Personally I love nothing better than falling asleep to a really good Radio 5 phone in about poorly gritted roads and snow chaos.

As to the tooth fairy sighting? Eddie states that she was the size of a small apple, with short black sticky out hair, green fairy clothes, a grey wand and a sack full of coins. He provided a witness statement the next day. Keep your eyes peeled; we're worried she may have an untreated thyroid condition in urgent need of medical attention.

'Dear Santa' by Kathryn White and Polona Lovsin, pub. Little Tiger Press,isbn 978-1-84895-461-8
'On a Starry Night' pub. by Stripes isbn 978-1-84715-258-9

With thanks to the publishers for providing review copies. Our opinions are our own.

Monday 26 November 2012

Before Jacqueline Wilson...

...there was Noel Streatfeild (Noel Streatfeild, Noel Streatfeild, Noel Streatfeild...I should write it out a hundred times after my Ballet Shoes post error: sloppy Faber, sloppy.)

A brief post following on from my Hunger Games/Flambards musings really.

Being a Mother of Boys, and still fairly tender aged ones at that I'll confess I haven't had that much to do with Jacqueline Wilson but I know plenty of Mothers of Girls who get a little exercised by their daughters' obsession with her.

Their main anxiety seems to be the quantity of fairly grown up 'ishoos' that are dealt with in her books hiding behind deceptively soothing pink and purple sparkly covers. Too much too soon seems to be the accusation.

But I say go back and reread the apparently oh-so-cosy and deliciously middle class Noel Streatfeild you were reading at 9 afresh and you may be surprised.

The impact of having a parent with depression who can't work? see 'The Painted Garden'
The impact of having a parent who's personality has been changed by a serious head injury? see 'Caldicott Place'
The impact of living in a poorly planned housing estate? see 'New Town'
The impact of being a displaced and orphaned refugee arriving in a new country? see 'Ballet Shoes for Anna'

And this is quite aside from the default setting of all her books, of children who need to be more or less entirely self-reliant; who must find their own solutions to their problems whether financial or logistical. Who must learn to make sometimes quite substantial sacrifices to achieve their dreams.

Yes Noel Streatfeild's families poverty may be relative and yes, there is nearly always a scamp of a dog and unlimited cake to support them on their way and yes;  always a happy ending but difficulty, darkness and even tragedy lurk on the peripheries. The childhoods of the 1940s,50s and 60s were apparently just as complicated as the childhoods of today and children have always been fascinated to read about how others negotiate those complications.

'From the moment they saw their village had gone a sort of silent frenzy had come over the children, then, without saying a word, they stumbled and ran all the way to where they thought the little house had been. there they knelt down and dug and dug with their fingers. But though they dug without stopping they could not find any sign of their family- just nothing- nothing at all.
Nor was the place where their own little house had been the only place where the children dug... They dug where the shop had once stood. They dug for the other cottages and the mosque. On they went, dig, dig, dig until their nails were broken and their hands covered in blood. And still they never spoke.'
                                        from 'Ballet Shoes for Anna' 1972

Monday 19 November 2012

Pinocchio and Cosmic

On Saturday, Eddie and I went to see 'Pinocchio' at the The Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington. I think I've mentioned before what a GREAT place this is; producing some of the most sophisticated children's shows I've seen. It's run on slightly military lines with strict age requirements for each show (shh- Eddie's friends who we went with were '6' for one day only- getting in to a Little Angel show is akin to being served your first pint in a pub) and child reserved seats to ensure that no child's view is blocked by an adult head.

The production was both weird and spectacular; especially the second half which genuinely thrilled me and made me cry. Eddie has been talking about it continuously since. The tickets were a total steal at £12 for the two of us. If you get a chance, do go yourself.

The theatre version of 'Pinocchio' was closer to the original Collodi than Disney. Jimminy cricket fans (if such people can exist) should know that in the book, the annoying bug gets squished against a wall by Pinocchio very early on in the action and he didn't feature at all on stage. We have a heavily abridged and rewritten book version- the Usborne 'young reader'. It's still a strange and unsatisfactory tale. Like many children's 'classics' you spend much of it in a slight state of boggle: But there's no structure! And it doesn't make any sense! And it's all horrible!- whilst your children laugh and slap their thighs with happiness. Understanding it was written as a serial and before any other dedicated children's literature existed it makes more sense but still...

What do I know? Eddie thinks it's all great apparently.

I was struck afresh in the theatre by how suitable a morality tale this is for North London's Tiger Parents. Apparently any kind of fun AT ALL will cause you to be hung or turned into a donkey. It's not very pro learning through play. As for what a good dad must look like; poor Gepetto gives up his last coin for an education for his child and must search to the ends of the earth and the bottom of the ocean for his missing son. It's all love tied up with duty and hard work and self discipline. Very tigery.

For a more nuanced take on father and son relations and running away and an appreciation of just how far children's literature has come THANK GOD, you can't do better than read Frank Cottrell Boyce's 'Cosmic'.

On the side of this blog when I started it, I wrote about how I was looking forward to discovering new writers with my children and boy have we hit the jackpot here. Obviously he has been garnered with awards over the last few years, so for many children's literature enthusiasts this is old hat but me and Bill are just discovering him. I'm reading 'Cosmic' aloud to him at the moment and it's my best evening treat: Funny and profound with a cracking adventure at its heart; we're glued. And a rather better analysis of what it means to be a real dad and a real son than 'Pinocchio'. Liam gets lost in space on the rocket 'Infinite Possibility:

'I was still looking back towards the massive empty universe. But I was talking to my dad and suddenly everything was different. My dad's voice was real. The stars were just...decoration.
"Are you OK? Because if you're not, I'll come and pick you up."
"I'm OK. Anyway it's a bit far."
"Doesn't matter how far it is. I'm your dad. if you want me to pick you up, just say so."'

If only Gepetto had had a sat phone and a taxi.
Lessons for dads
'Cosmic' by Frank Cottrell Boyce, pub.Macmillan isbn 978-0-330-44086-8
'Pinocchio' by Carlo Collodi, illustrated by Mauro Evangelista, pub. Usborne isbn 978-0-7460-6332-3

Monday 12 November 2012

The Snow Bear

I'd like to write a post about my frustrations with the gender stereotyping in both content but more particularly packaging that dominates the young reader market of first chapter books. I'd like to, but it would be a pointless activity because 'Mrs H.' has already done it brilliantly here. Don't miss scrolling though the comments either and following the link to Kate Wilson at Nosy Crow's pragmatic publishing response.

It's pretty depressing to read that retail buyers are actively seeking out pink titles even in picture books now. Depressing particularly because, at the moment, it does seem to be the simple chapter book market that's the worst offender- but are they just the trailblazers for a new wave of gender-dividing-to-come for picture books and older readers too?

In that early chapter book market, series dominate to hook kids into the reading habit. Gender dividing operates most obviously at a subject matter level: Girls get the princesses and the ponies and boys get the fighting and the farts, but more insidiously I think gender  dividing also happens too often in the way those subjects are treated. Boys seem to get the lion's share of funny action, girls get more emotional journey; not very fair on either.

Whilst musing on these things through my letterbox plopped, 'The Snow Bear' by Holly Webb. It being a rainy sort of afternoon and me having a nice headcold brewing I settled down to read it. It's a lovely Christmassy tale of a girl who builds a snow polar bear and igloo with her grandfather and then goes on a magical adventure to help a real lost cub and meet a real Inuit family. Expecting (from the prolific output of its author) something rather formulaic and sentimental, I'll admit I was surprised by its depth and quality. For a short and simple book designed for young readers, there are tricksy themes of dealing with separation and change handled lightly as well as some sound insights into another culture. Traditional life in the Arctic tundra is nicely evoked.

(sidenote to say it rather reminded me of Lucy Fitch Perkin's classic 'The Eskimo Twins' and I've just discovered that all the Twins books are free to kindle now. oooo. an evening of distraction awaits...)

I started reading 'The Snow Bear' to Bill this weekend and, in front of the fire after a day of go-karting down wet muddy hills, it was a good snuggly choice appreciated by us both. I have to say though, if I didn't read it to him I doubt he'd have picked it up to read to himself. Whilst its soft silvery cover is not in-your-face girly, when I showed it to him he furrowed his brow in slight distrust. "Is that for me?" He's learnt the rules. sigh

Browsing around Holly Webb's (nicely designed and informative) website it's clear that her main fanbase is girls and that her books, to a greater or lesser extent are written, marketed and packaged with girl-appeal tuned to max. I understand that's how you may get most copies sold but it makes me  sad. Caring for animals (or caring fullstop) is not an exclusively girl-trait after all. And a good book for one is a good book for all...
'The Snow Bear' by Holly Webb, published by Stripes isbn 978-1-84715-255-8

Disclosure. We received our copy by kindness of the publisher. Our opinions are our own.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

RHCBA Blog Tour: Jonathan Meres

And so the Red House Children's Book Award Blog Tour Charabanc has rolled up at our door at last! Welcome honoured guests and read on to meet the wonderful Jonathan Meres and hear all about his shortlisted book; 'The World of Norm: May Contain Nuts'

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked – apart from ‘Sorry, what did you say your name was?’ and ‘Is this your car, sir?’ is ‘What’s The World of Norm about?’  To which I generally reply, ‘It’s about £5.99.’  Once the laughter has subsided – and on a good day this can quite literally take anything from between one and three seconds - I usually explain that it’s about a boy called Norm.  (The clue’s in the title, folks.)  So, essentially The World of Norm is about Norm’s world.  But now for the clever bit.  Well I think it’s clever anyway.  You see, apart from Norm being an abbreviation of Norman, it’s also an abbreviation of normal.  So we’ve got the world of Norm, as in Norm – but also as in ‘the norm.’  Which is dead handy because the world of Norm is normal.  Or at least relatively normal.  There’s nothing in the three books so far that couldn’t actually happen.  OK – so some of the stuff might not happen.  But the point is it could happen.  Consequently there are no vampires, or wizards in The World of Norm.  Not that there’s anything wrong with vampires or wizards (he adds hastily) but basically we’re talking real life here.  Ever so slightly exaggerated for comedy purposes.  But really not that much.  These are (hopefully) recognisable domestic situations and scenarios that readers can actually relate to.  Like being unfairly blamed for stuff your younger siblings have done for instance.  Like constantly craving the latest phone or gadget – but more crucially, never having the money to buy it.  Like best friends.  Like perfect cousins.  Like everything being just so unfair.  Like stuff, basically.  Just lots and lots of stuff.  Any questions so far?  Excellent.  In that case I can now let you into a little secret.  That thing about ‘the norm’ I just told you?  Complete coincidence.  OK, a very happy coincidence.  A very handy coincidence.  But a coincidence nevertheless.  We’d already settled on the title of the series before I even realised.  I say we.  That’s me and my editor.  Or my editor and I.  Whatever.  Anyway it had already been decided.  Norm wasn’t even originally going to be called Norm – he was going to be called Norman.  And the whole point of having a central character called Norman was so that if the book ever did get published – and it was by no means certain that it would  – and the book went on to become part of a series – the series could be called….wait for it….The Chronicles of Norman.  Having said that, it was always my intention for Norm’s world to be rooted firmly in reality and to be, for want of a better word, ‘normal.’  There never were going to be any dragons.  Norm was never going to invent a machine and travel back in time.  Frankly, in the unlikely event that he ever did, knowing Norm’s luck he’d only travel back in time ten minutes.  And if he ever walked into a wardrobe in search of a faraway, magical land?  He’d probably end up in IKEA.  So it tickles me whenever a reviewer or interviewer picks up on the title thing without me explaining it first.  But I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.
'The World of Norm: May Contain Nuts' by Jonathan Meres has been shortlisted in the Younger Readers category of the Red house Children's Book Award 2013. The Red House Children's Book Award is the ONLY national children's book award entirely voted for by children. It is owned and coordinated by the Federation of Children's Book Groups and sponsored by Red House.

Yay! Go Norm!

Should you have failed to set your alarm clock, ring your day planner, mark your diary or programme your iphone, blackberry or other electronic communication device, here are the other Blog-Hop participants where you can hear from all the other shortlisted authors.

The Book Sniffer @maybeswabey
5minutespeace @LucyRoseT

Book Reviews for Mums  @Bookreviewsmum  

Read it Daddy!  @Readitdaddy 

Babbleabout @babbleaboutbks 

Child-Led Chaos @ChildLedChaos

Library Mice @librarymice 

Playing by the Book @playbythebook

Mr Ripley’s Enchanted Books @Enchantedbooks

Friday 2 November 2012

Hunger Games and Flambards diversions

These are the kind of crazy thoughts that happen to you when you spend 10 days locked in the Wood Green Crown Court waiting room; a place that might, Quite Literally, be the real limbo.

So, back in the spring, whilst taking a donkey through the foothills of Spain, I caught up with that popular-amongst-the-young-people trilogy of books; 'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins.
There is a phrase in our family parlance to convey lukewarm praise which originally relates I think, to a response my father once gave to a mousse-based pudding my mother presented him with early in their marriage: "It slips down" (he was more of a steamed suet enthusiast). That phrase pretty neatly sums up my Hunger Games reading experience - I swallowed them whole happily but with almost no chewing or digestion required. Pulpy, initially enjoyable but with a rather nasty aftertaste as the violence and bleakness escalated through the series.

A couple of weeks afterwards I happened to get involved in a Twitter conversation about them and what age they were suitable for. When twitter chum @Elephantthai (who is, by the by, an extremely funny and gifted  poet- please go and visit her website here and then offer her a publishing deal) mentioned that her 10 year old was reading them I had a bit of internal shudder and found myself a lone voice saying that I thought that she shouldn't be. Which in turn led me to examine my beliefs about censorship and how that works and realise I was being a bit of an idiot. Which was in turn good news for Eddie and his desire to watch certificate 12 superhero movies...

And since that conversation I've discovered plenty of friends' 10 year olds are also gobbling these books up, which makes me feel very, very old and rather square.

For what was I reading when I was 10? Not violent, dystopian fantasy but pony stories of the sort I described here, interspersed with a bit of Antonia Forrest, Lorna Hill and Joan Aiken.
 Judy Blume, and her sanitary towel belts and bust improvement schemes was as risque as I got.

One of my other favourites, which even then I certainly recognised as a cut above the Pullein Thompson sisters and their ilk, was K.M. Peyton. Thanks to my wonderful discovery of all-titles-pony at Jane Badger books I recently snapped up her 'Fly-by-Night' pair and classic 'Flambards' trilogy at knock down price. And it was the latter that I re-read under the flickering strip lights of the waiting-room-to-Hell in Wood Green last week.

So here's my thesis, you know what?

They're actually, whisper it, not that different from 'The Hunger Games'

Both revolve around a feisty and brave heroine with superior outdoor skills forced into pragmatic decisions at a time of war. Both involve difficult romantic choices. Both have a succession of main characters being maimed and/or killed; experiences which teach their protagonists the art of emotional protection. Both have a redemptive child figure who is put in mortal danger.

I could expand the parallels but it might all get a bit too nerdy.

Anyway my main revelation was how much darker Flambards was than I remembered it. In my head it was mostly love and planes and ponies whereas in fact it's a lot more fear and death and land management...

You read differently when you're 10 to when you're 41 and ultimately that provides more reassurance to me that censorship is unnecessary. The 10 year old 'Hunger Games' fans will find a completely different story to the one I found; the one that they are ready to hear.

Having said that I think they'd find K. M. Peyton provides a vastly superior read...

And anyone who would like to enter into my madness and discuss the ins and outs of how Christina would get Sweetbriar from the Cornucopia in time or how Katniss might react to being asked to loop the loop knows where to find me.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Happy Halloween with Tamara Small

Hot on the heels of our SCOOP interview with the Fearsome Beastie back here. I am delighted to welcome the latest biographical subject of Giles Paley-Phillips and Gabriele Antonini to the Little Wooden Horse on this- Officially Spookiest of Days; Tamara Small.

'Tamara Small and the Monsters' Ball' is a reassuring read for anyone who defies my predictions and is actually terrified of the vampires, ghosts and ghoulies that will be thronging in our streets this evening. Tamara, our heroine, receives a hairy monstrous visitor who scoops her and her gallant Ted from her bed in the dead of night. Luckily, his intention this time is not to eat her but simply to take her to the Halloween party to end all parties; the Monsters' Ball where everything that normally just goes bump in the night congregates to bump 'n grind this night away.

Tamara's dancing proves such a monster hit that she even receives a special sweet surprise to reward her before she is returned home (more of which to follow...)

Welcome Tamara and your gallant Ted and Happy Halloween! You're a brave pair: After your Monsters' Ball trip does anything scare you now and what tips can you give the rest of us on how to be brave?

Going up stairs at night time; you never know what might be just behind you! I recommend running as fast as you can...

Excellent advice. I may try it on Eddie who is always strangely slow on that final stair trip up to bed.

How are your new Monster Chums? Is it true that Werewolf is being hired for the next series of 'Strictly'? Can you give us a hint as to who his partner might be?

They are okay actually; although one of the vampires woke up too early the other day and got sunburnt. Yes, Wolfie will be on 'Strictly' and will be partnering Mandy Dingle! (shh don't tell anyone else though)

I think we all look forward to seeing Mandy and Wolfie's body popping reinvented rhumba.

Do you hang out with The Fearsome Beastie at all? How do you avoid being eaten?

We have met but with all the attention he's been getting he's a bit arrogant now. I think he's sold out big time!

I'm sorry to hear that. I'd heard rumours he'd been in talks with Mr. Gove about a new role in schools being put on Special Measures...

Any Special Measures yourself for Halloween this year? What will you and Ted be up to?

We'll mostly be consuming mountains of slime cake!

Ah yes. The infamous Slime Cake. I have to say I feel a bit uncertain about the yumminess of that. Do you really rate it?

It's awesome, although it's made from bogies, baby possets and alligator drool it really is one of the most scrummy things around! It's a Mary Berry recipe you know?

Mary Berry! ah well in that case... I can quite see the appeal for my children now I know that bogies are one of the main ingredients. They are Fine Connoisseurs of Interior Nose Contents.

Thank you Tamara and have a slice of this one before you go.
'Tamara Small and the Monsters' Ball' written by Giles Payley Phillips, illustrated by Gabriele Antonini and published by Maverick isbn 978-1-84886-100-8

With thanks to the author for providing our copy and allowing interview time with his heroine on a very busy day for her.

Friday 26 October 2012

Red House Children's Blog Tour!

If you think the Little Wooden Horse hasn't been neighing about much recently that's because we are locked in the Crown Court Waiting Room doin' Jury Service.
I have completed a 700 piece jigsaw and re-read a lot of classic K. M Peyton.
Back to blogging next week.

In the meantime- we are very excited and honoured to be taking part in THIS!!

The Red House Children's Book Award Blog Tour.

Hurray. Roll on Friday for the first stop!

Monday 15 October 2012


Eddie seems to be re-entering one of his periodic phases where he tries to defeat sleep. After bidding him a tender goodnight at about 7.45 yesterday, we became aware of a dramatic reading taking place of his Superhero Squad books filtering down the stairs as we watched 'Downton Abbey' at 9. By the time the ITN news was over at 10.30 and I was ready for bed myself , the dramatic reading had turned into thunderous footsteps running back and forth along the bedroom floor. Intervention was necessary.
"It's really late Eddie, lights need to be off now."
"No! I just love my Lego so much and I need to carry on playing with it."
"Eddie. It's time to go to sleep"
"I am not sleeping. Don't switch out my light and go away"
The only solution at that point was to scoop him up and lie with him until he went to sleep. He lay beside me whispering breathily;
"It's all dark!" (holding out his arms and splayed fingers) "I am full of darkness!" then (somewhat Star Wars influenced) "I have a bad feeling about this!"

Of course having previously blogged about the arbitrary nature of fears, a fear of the dark at some point in your life may be almost universal. Personally, I find even the tiniest chink of light abhorrent when I am trying to go to sleep but I know it wasn't ever so. Plus I do have company in my bed to help fight off any attackers that come under cover of night and Eddie no longer does. I feel for him; Bill loved to share his room with Eddie whilst he was plagued by such fears and then promptly abandoned him when he'd outgrown them. He was finding the late night dramatic renditions of favourite books a little distracting in his own quest for sleep.

I may need to bring out Jill Tomlinson's classic 'The owl who was afraid of the dark': A soothing hymn to the different  pleasures that can only be found at night. Out of the library at the moment though we have Joyce Dunbar's 'The Monster who ate Darkness' illustrated by Jimmy Liao and it's also a goody.

Jo-Jo can't sleep because of the darkness under his bed and the thought there might be a monster there. As it turns out there IS a monster; a very small and hungry one, who starts eating all the darkness away. He sucks up all the darkness in the house, getting bigger and bigger as he does so, then from around the world and finally all the darkness in the sky.

"Now there was no more darkness.
There was no dawn and no dusk.
There were no shadows and
hardly any dreams.

There was only light.
The stark and staring light."

The problems this causes to both the natural world and to Jo Jo himself are beautifully elucidated. The now enormous and lonely monster returns to comfort Jo Jo and the darkness slowly seeps back to its proper homes.
I love Liao's monster, who manages to convey much of the scary/cozy dilemmas of the dark itself. Generally the book's balance between mystery and humour is nicely weighted in both text and illustration. It is a comforting book. 

The only trouble is I think Eddie identifies more with the monster than with Jo-Jo...

'The Monster who ate Darkness' by Joyce Dunbar, illustrated by Jimmy Liao, pub. Walker
 isbn 978-1-4063-0867-9

Monday 8 October 2012

Into the Forest

Thanks first of all to Anne-Marie and Helen for confirming to me on the previous post the sheer scope and lack of rules that apply to fear. I must also share this text I received on the subject from my bf because I love it so much...
"I foolishly mentioned to M that Van Gogh, who they are doing in art at school, had cut off his ear (I know, what was I thinking?) and now she is frightened of raisin toast because that is what we were eating while we were having said discussion about the post-impressionists...Similar to Bill's Dr. Who behaviour- she sidles away, makes to exit room or in extremis will say:'please could you hide that toast, it's making me think about the ear.'"

So. Who will provide me with a book where a one eared Lady Artist pops out of a trapdoor with a piece of raisin toast in hand, chucks it blase into a swampy pond full of gaping mouthed carp before being TOLD OFF by a dalek waggling its antenna disapprovingly, which then has a happy ending?

Cos that's what we need apparently.

I'd hazard a guess Anthony Browne could give it a go. Obviously if he did the Lady Artist would actually be a gorilla.

He must be amongst the best author/illustrators for giving form to fear in all its messed up glory; although I think it's hard to say whether his books can provide comfort exactly. I admire his work intensely and my children are often drawn to it but it's not exactly a cosy experience for any of us. These are picture books that provide lightening flashes to illuminate the darkest recesses of one's head and you are entitled to ask the question whether that illumination will always be helpful. If there were monsters you were hoping to keep locked up in your own personal cupboard, a session with an Anthony Browne book may throw open the doors.

I barely know where to begin in reviewing a book like 'Into the Forest'. Layers of fairy tale lore and meaning are layered on top of each other within a contemporary framework which might or might not be about a family break up. If that sounds like a sentence which could be a candidate for Pseud's Corner I apologise but every spread in the book could generate its own mini thesis, and nothing is presented as certain. Anxieties about loss, about isolation, about parental absence are all there as well as what true bravery might mean but they are not neatly packaged into a footnoteable formula. The book resists being filed away as a 'topic friendly' resource for a particular set of circumstances.

For me, this makes the book all the more rich  for opening up discussions with a child (a biggish one). On a happy day you might just enjoy spotting all the different fairy tale references hidden in Browne's shifting and ever-revealing landscapes. On an unhappy day this is exactly the book where you'll stop reading it halfway through and hear the story about how somebody called your child a 'tit' at lunchtime today and he couldn't find anyone else to play with...

 Anthony Browne's books are weird; really weird at times and that's why they work. His imaginings are so particular, so precise they can offer something universal. Because we're all weirder than a simple monster under the bed.

 More's the pity.

'Into The Forest' by Anthony Browne, pub. Walker isbn 1-84428-559-6

Thursday 4 October 2012

What's scary?

Here is a list of the things that have frightened my children over the years.

Things which have frightened Bill:
age 1. Balloons and the threat of them bursting unexpectedly. Parties became problematic briefly.
age 2. The part of The Wiggles Big Red Car DVD where Captain Feathersword gets a black face from bending over the exhaust pipe and it backfiring unexpectedly.
age 3 onwards The part of The (seminal sequel obviously) Jungle Book 2 where Mowgli is told off by his adoptive father for venturing into the jungle without permission.
The very minor character the 'lady artist' from Mairi Hedderwick's Katie Morag stories, following her unregulated appearance in a fevered nightmare which is still much talked of.
The forgetting of soldier doll 'Clever Bill' from the suitcase and his weeping on the steps of Emily's house in William Nicholson's lovely book of the same name (which I would review here if not for it's very OOP-ness)
The Bad Baby forgetting to say please in Raymond Briggs' 'The Elephant and the Bad Baby'.
The lack of a necessary 3p in Shirley Hughes' 'Dogger'.
The bit in Toy Story 3 where Buzz is reset to factory settings.
now. All of the above, apart from the balloons and the Wiggles, and in addition Doctor Who which he would like to watch but seems to always end up moving into the kitchen halfway through; 'Are you okay Bill?' 'I just need to do something for a bit in here Mum...Has it finished yet? Are they alright? What's happening?'

Fundamentally he hates transgressions, good people doing something bad and anybody being told off. This makes him quite an easy child to be the parent of but not exactly an alpha male risk taker. I don't think he will ever be a successful candidate on 'The Apprentice'. Luckily his aspirations run more to dominance in 'The Great British Bake Off' anyway.
It does mean that there are some picture books that simply cannot be read in his hearing. He finds them too upsetting. Hence the fact that the other night I was able to read him the final battle against Smaug the dragon from 'The Hobbit' but he exited the room when Eddie chose 'Dogger'. Have to say I'm with Bill, I know which writer puts me more effectively through the emotional wringer.

Things which have frightened Eddie:

age 2. The opening credit sequence of doors opening and shutting from 'Monsters Inc.'
age 4. The lion sticker on his cupboard door which had been there for two years and I never knew he was frightened of until the time Bill moved out of his bedroom and then he stopped being able to go to sleep in case it attacked him now his brother was no longer available for it to eat first....
now. sleep. Not exactly scared of it but he sets out to defeat it every night in a bare knuckle tussle til dawn.

That's about it. He's made of pretty stout stuff.

The point of this is that being scared is a strange thing. The things one finds genuinely terrifying are often so specific as to be uncategorisable. I think I can safely say Bill is the Only Person in the World scared of that lady artist picture. I can remember the terror of lying awake in the early morning listening out for the menacing  rumble and clank of the milk float arriving. I am also not a big fan of ponds full of ornamental Koi carp (mouthing mouths at the surface- shudder). Given that most of us are scared of something it has always provided hugely fertile territory for children's authors and illustrators but, precisely because of the uniqueness of fear, success is not always guaranteed. I can remember helping out in Bill's class in Reception and the teacher asked the class what they were scared of. Lots of answers were proffered cheerfully; 'Vampires!', 'Monsters!', 'Spiders!' 'Witches!' but I'd hazard a guess that no-one actually revealed what they were really scared of, only what they'd been taught they should be. Bill certainly didn't say a Scottish island immigrant who gets given the wrong paint brushes and I didn't say something terrible happening to my children (which is really all that frightens any parent I guess).

So, books that can confront and provide generic comfort to the specific, that can be properly extrapolated from is what we are after. Over the next few posts I'll try to find some that might do just that (just in time for the distinctly non-frightening Halloween). What are your suggestions? What's scary to you?



Tuesday 25 September 2012

Cookbook diversion

There are ways in which I think I've succeeded as a mother to date; specifically really that my children are still alive and about the size they're supposed to be. That's considerably better than I've managed with any house plant over the years.
There are a few other ways in which my 7 year maternity report might read 'could do better'. One of these is in the feeding of my children. As well as North London being packed with 4 year olds apparently reading Tolkien it is also packed with toddlers apparently enthusiastically choosing between the 'moules' and the rabbit in restaurants. Not my children.
Mine aren't as bad as some. The things-they-will-eat list definitely runs into double figures. It's a shame that the Venn diagram intersection between their two lists of things-they-will-eat is so small but there you go. It gets even more complicated when they have friends round to play who also have lists. I sometimes think I should just open a canteen with hot plates as I prepare 4 different vegetable and protein options for four different people.

The thing that makes feeding your children fraught these days is this new fangled notion of a healthy and varied diet full of fruit and veg. It really complicates the business. Time was there only were about four things to eat anyway and eat them you did on a rotation. Everywhere was also freezing all the time so you could eat huge quantities of delicious fat and get away with it because you had to break the ice in the basin each morning just to brush your teeth.

I have some insight into the diet of my dad as a child in the 20s and 30s as my granny kept a little notebook where she wrote down all of the weights of her children (until they were 16! the shame!) and also notes on their baby diet. All of her babies were given dripping on a spoon as a first weaning food, and then progressed on to beef soup and bread. As far as I can tell there was no hint of a vegetable for months. Aged about 5 my father had a nasty bout of pneumonia which I guess he was lucky to survive in those pre-antibiotic days. The prescription to build him up thereafter was a pint of cream daily. Those were the days my friends, those were the days.

My 70s childhood was during the heady days of the beginnings of convenience food. I remember my mother's huge excitement when she learned a new Bejams (forerunner of Iceland) was opening round the corner and she would be able to stock the chest freezer with Findus crispy pancakes anytime she wanted. It was a strangely schizophrenic diet in that era I think- lots of old school 'proper' roasts, pies, liver casserole and hot puddings mixed with fancy new stuff like Heinz toast toppers, butterscotch Angel Delight and primula cheese spread in a tube. Pasta was spaghetti and rice an exotic treat from the Chinese take away (although occasionally we had 'riced' potatoes...)

And so to the cookbooks. One of my favourite novelty salvages from my childhood is 'The Busy Mother's Cookbook' by Patsy Kumm. Published in 1972, with chapter titles like 'Jiffy ways with food', 'Emergency action' and 'Meals from Mince', it's blissfully of its time. When I saw that the Book People were offering rather a nice discount on some new upstart cookbook called 'The Busy Mum's Cookbook' by Mary Gwynn I couldn't resist investing for comparison. Plus frankly I needed the help.

Here are the two together:
Both have their list of storecupboard essentials. Times have changed. Where Patsy places her faith in packet soup, crisps and evaporated milk, Mary goes for chorizo and butternut squash. But both are packed with similar quantities of sage advice:
Patsy: 'Over the years, I've hunted for a book like this, and not found it. I've discovered cookery books on preparing quick meals that seem to assume..that you want to live on eggs or salads...I've read books on feeding children...that are packed with ways of making rice pudding rainbow coloured or concocting Hansel and Gretel out of sponge cakes. Which wasn't what I needed to know at all.'
Mary: 'All mums work by definition- and that's before you even begin to consider taking on paid employment...what many of us lack is time and increasingly skill and confidence in the kitchen. But we share a common goal; the desire to feed our families food that is good for them and, even more important, that they will eat.'
Cookbooks have also changed, full colour spread photos are now essential where once we only got instructions. Mary Gwynn's version definitely wins the coffee table vote.
And one has to say, reading some of Patsy's 'jiffy' recipes it's probably just as well that there aren't photos...
I really like the Mary Gwynn cookbook and I can see that it will be useful to me as she cooks in a similar way to me; her recipes are both 'do-able';often one pan and a few ingredients, and tasty. The only problem will be to get my children to actually eat them. They were weaned on butternut squash (not dripping) but they'll fall to the floor and roll around as if poisoned if offered it now and they look with great suspicion on anything that has all its ingredients mixed together: What have I hidden in there? This stage will pass I know. In the meantime I think both Bill and Eddie would love to move back to the seventies and be fed this:
(minus the green pepper and with the mushrooms fished out for Bill but with broccoli on the side, no broccoli for Eddie but he'll eat Bill's mushrooms.)
but tonight perhaps we can see if they'll eat this 2012 version-
(with green beans instead of beansprouts, pepper on the side for Eddie only and NOBODY TELL Bill about the peanut butter...)sigh. 
Must do better.
'The Busy Mum's Cookbook' by Mary Gwynn, pub. Simon and Schuster, isbn 978-0--85720-353-3 a current bargain on thebookpeople.co.uk. 
Recommended for those with expandable 'lists'.