Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Giant Jam Sandwiches

Time for a contender for Favourite Picture Book Currently In House.

'The Giant Jam Sandwich' was written by Janet Burroway and illustrated by John Vernon Lord in the early 1970s and thus should fall into the category of nostalgia wallow for me. In fact I don't think it was part of our childhood library and it was simply a lucky impulse purchase a few years back. More than likely it was the combination of sweet food and the word 'giant' that attracted me. Regular blog readers may have noticed how my mind works in this respect.

I've always wondered about where this book originated but had been too lazy to find out until now. It seems very British in the placement of its story and in its pictures of village houses, rolling hills, fields and white cliffs. Yet the whole 'style' of the book; it's intricate pen and ink work, detailed colouring and generally fab early 70's vibe is much more reminiscent of a classic American picture book. The cars definitely look American.(I think I need to find some Scholarly Work to really unpick what I mean here- I am conscious that there are definitely different 'traditions' in house styles of picture books from country to country and would like to develop my eye better). It seems that it is in fact a collaboration between an American author and British illustrator: That may explain my confusion then.

It tells the story, in jaunty rhyme, of the village of Itching Down plagued by the arrival of four million wasps. The villagers hold a meeting to decide what to do about this and come to the entirely reasonable conclusion they should collaborate on trapping them in a giant jam sandwich.

This being the 1970s, it falls to the women of the town to make the dough for the giant loaf under the careful supervision of  Bap the Baker and the men to transport the cooked loaf and slice it up with a giant saw. Flying machines (including a tractor, converted with the aid of propellor blade and that ever useful standby-the bunch of balloons) raise the second slice of bread ready to trap the wasps once the first slice is buttered and jammed.

'Suddenly the sky was humming!
All four million wasps were coming!
They smelled that jam, they dived and struck!
And they ate so much that they all got stuck.
The other slice came down- kersplat!-
on top of the wasps, and that was that.
There were only three that got away,
And where they are now I cannot say.'

There are books in this house which some of us like more than others of us. There are books in this house which only one or two of us like at all. This book we all like a lot. It lends itself to recitation very nicely too, so it tends to get read in kind of 'play form' with any participant jumping in to complete the next line, take the part of Mayor Muddlenut or possibly 'squeal' on behalf of the ladies.

I have been excited to discover that Janet Burroway and John Vernon Lord worked together on another title; 'The Truck on the Track', which according to her website has just come back into print. Not it would appear here in the UK yet alas- but I shall see if I can nose it out.

For those looking for a fix of giant sweet item. The site 'Pimp my snack'  is something of a classic; they don't seem to have tackled a jam sandwich yet but I am full of admiration for what they can do with a custard cream.

'The Giant Jam Sandwich' written Janet Burroway, illus. John Vernon Lord, pub. Red Fox isbn 1849413444

Monday, 30 January 2012

Orange Pear Apple Bear

I'm avoiding putting age recommendations on my posts as I think they're of limited value. My kids can still derive a lot of pleasure from some of their simplest 'baby' books, and will also enjoy hearing quite complex texts read aloud too. Books is books I reckon and too much classification can inhibit discovery in both directions.

But this week, as promised, I am going to introduce a little more focus to my reviews by starting with something to be enjoyed by the youngest and working upwards day by day (although Friday will be a day for off piste discoveries perhaps...)

This weekend, the husband and I took ourselves off to the cinema to see 'The Artist'. If you've seen it yourself you may agree that it is a thing of great charm and exquisite construction. It certainly led us to idly pass our time in wondering how many other movies could be perfectly well told or even improved by the absence of dialogue. Anything with Jason Statham in it for instance.

It also brought to mind today's book 'Orange Pear Apple Bear' by Emily Gravett, which is similarly a thing of great charm and exquisite construction. A few years old, it has already achieved classic status as well as a cluster of its own bookish 'Oscars'. Hooray for minimalism we say today.

The book uses the words of its title to set up a series of playful juxtapositions, all beautifully demonstrated by Emily Gravett's elegant watercolours. The four items  are shown separately and then in combinations that highlight how words' meanings can change depending on placement. Thus 'Orange Bear' shows the bear coloured orange but 'Bear, Orange' shows the bear eating the orange. So very, very subtle but very lovely. And a first primer in punctuation too.

Eddie received this book as a parting gift from the mysterious Alex, a young man who 'observed' Eddie for an hour a week for the first two years of his life as part of a Masters in Psychology I think. To make his observations as unobtrusive and uncorrupting to 'real' family life as possible he was not allowed to speak or interact with us. During his hour he sat perfectly still and silent and just watched. I can't tell you how much both boys loved his visits and really looked forward to him coming; despite the fact that he never played or spoke to them. Minimalism it seems can be just as attractive in relationships. It was a very suitable present for Eddie; who continues to enjoy it. Well observed Alex.

I'm pilfering other people's pictures today as I can't find our copy. Even though we read it last week. grrrr. Could be an indication of a need to do a bookcase tidy. Other people's pictures are better of course so that's an advantage.

'Orange Pear Apple Bear', Emily Gravett, pub macmillan, isbn 1405090227

Friday, 27 January 2012

'Poetry Friday'

My Naughty Little Sister

When I was little girl, (begins all Dorothy Edwards' lovely stories- but also me today) we didn't have such things as MP3 players or even CDs or even tapes. There was an old portable record player in the playroom and a choice of about 6  singles to play on it. We had Johnny Morris reading Thomas the Tank engine stories. We had Joyce Grenfell doing her 'George Don't Do That' nursery school monologues (please follow this link if you don't know them - perfection). We had 'Lilly the Pink' by The Scaffolds and some honkytonk piano sung to by a man with a gravelly voice who's name I can't remember.

And we had two stories from 'My Naughty Little Sister' by Dorothy Edwards. It was a bit of a treat to listen to any of these records in my memory. As I was the youngest of four, they'd already seen some duty and were inclined to jump about through scratching if you moved; so I had to remain perfectly still whilst they played. They were something brought out when confined poorly to bed (along with the juice beaker shaped like an orange) and thus had Special Status.

The stories were written in the fifties and early sixties and fictionalise the pre-war childhood exploits of Dorothy Edwards and her little sister Phyllis (although neither girl's name is ever used in the books). Written in the first person, the narrator takes on the persona of the wise older sibling commenting with benign superiority on the mischief making and scrapes of her lovable little sister. It's a very clever device because any child listening to or reading the stories is directly addressed and immediately given the status of the Wise and Good themselves. New concepts and ideas are often introduced with 'Now, I know, you would never do this but...' or 'You know what I am describing but my naughty little sister didn't so I am going to tell you...'

The story I particularly remember listening to was called 'The Birthday Party' and describes my Naughty little sister going to a party at her friend Bad Harry's house. The children sneak downstairs whilst all the 'good' children are playing 'ring-o'-roses' to have a look at the Birthday Tea.
They admire the table set out with sandwiches, cakes, blancmanges, jellies and biscuits and then:

"Bad Harry said, 'There's something else in the larder. It's going to be a surprise treat but you shall see it because you are my best girlfriend.'
So Bad Harry took my Naughty little sister out into the kitchen and they took chairs and climbed up to the larder shelf; which is a dangerous thing to do and it would have been their own fault if they had fallen down.
And Bad Harry showed my Naughty little sister a lovely, spongey trifle covered with creamy stuff and with silver balls and jelly sweets on the top."

The children proceed to dare each other to steal first sweets and silver balls from the trifle, and then the cream and sponge, until finally they are forced to eat the whole thing.

"Bad Harry said; 'Now we've made the trifle so untidy, no one else will want any so we might as well finish it all up'"

They are discovered, my Naughty little sister runs all the way home and both she and Bad Harry are so ill in the night that they never want trifle again.

As quite a good little girl myself, the transgression of this story and others sent frissons of excited appall down my spine. Vicarious naughtiness was very satisying. But despite having loved these books myself, it took me a while to introduce them to Bill and Eddie. I thought they might be too girly or feel dated to revisit. I bought an audio CD as much as out of nostalgia for myself as for them.

I was wrong; they loved them and still love them. They were of course a period piece when I was little and they don't feel any more so now. Bill is both wistful and admiring of the freedom of their childhood (as am I): My Naughty little sister is allowed to roam the local streets and visit her friends houses entirely independently from the age of 3 or 4. She travels on the train in the company of the guard alone at the same age to go and stay in the country. She goes fishing just with her big sister. Their world is populated by helpful adults; postmen, chimney seeps, window cleaners etc. who befriend and look out for them As an adult reader, I am less wistful about the sheer amount of drudgery and female labour described within: Much of their exploits occur when the sisters are left to amuse themselves whilst their mother boils the washing, beats the carpets and scrubs the floors in a seemingly continuous loop.

These books are typeset in such a way as to make them ideal transitions from picture to chapter books for new readers. They also have the added bonus of illustrations (pretty early in her career I think) by Shirley Hughes. I can't remember who read the version that I listened to, a fair few years ago, but I can say that Jan Francis does a great job on our current versions- a big recommendation for audio book fans.

'My Naughty Little Sister's Friends' written Dorothy Edwards, illus. Shirley Hughes, pub. egmont,
 isbn 978-1-4052-5335-2
I should say this is not the volume with 'The Birthday Party' in it- which I've lent out I think- but they're all good!

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy

Michael Rosen is coming to the boys' school! Anticipation has been quietly building in this house and is now reaching bubbling point. Last night:
Eddie (worried): 'But will Michael Rosen wear glasses Mum?'
Me: 'Not sure Eddie'
Eddie (definite): 'Yes. Yes he will wear glasses' (glasses are very aspirational items for that boy)
Me: 'Shall we look at some pictures of him on the computer and see?' (I'm going to need to let him down gently if he is, as I believe, spec-free.)
So we go online and find multiple images of the Great Man...showing very intermittent use of reading glasses but...
Eddie:'Oh! He has a beard.' (suitable awed pause of approbation), 'I love Michael Rosen Mum.'

We then spent a very happy half hour watching his fab performances on YouTube with Eddie's eyes shining and quivery with happiness. This a particular hit for giggles.

When the news was broken of his visit I had a shame-faced rummage through our shelves and realised the only book of his we had was the standard issue (but obviously wonderful) 'We're going on a Bear Hunt'. As Eddie a big fan of poetry generally I remedied that with a trot up the hill to the bookshop and bought 'Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy'.

 Eddie normally has to be forced to hear a book a few times before he decides whether or not he's going to 'adopt' it but not this one. This was admitted to the honoured Bed Book Stack the very same night and he's been reading it constantly since. It helps that it's illustrated by Quentin Blake of whom he wholeheartedly approves but he's always loved the 'mouthfeel' of well put together words and rhymes and these chew down nicely for him.

 'Tiffy Taffy

Tiffy taffy toffee
on the flee flo floor.
Tiffy taffy toffee
on the dee doe door.
Kiffy kaffy coffee
in a jig jag jug.
Kiffy kaffy coffee
in a mig mag mug.'

The book also came with an audio CD of  Michael Rosen himself reading them. Now I  feel a bit ambivalent about the tendency of every new picture book these days to be accompanied by a CD. They're normally far too short to be useful for journeys etc. and they make the cover more bulky to manipulate and the book less satisfying to hold.
This is a marvellous exception and has for once truly enhanced our enjoyment of the book. It's on a constant loop in the car.

The only downside of the Michael Rosen fever is Eddie's new found tendency to squash his peas on his knees at the dinner table and his attempts to stick his toe up my nose (see here). The other only downside is that I don't get to see Michael Rosen too!

'Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy' written Michael Rosen, illus. Quentin Blake, pub. Bloomsbury isbn 978-0-7475-8738-5

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Hooray For Fish

There are few articles more irritating to read than those ones (usually at the back of Sunday colour supplements) where a Supermodel angsts about how difficult it is being beautiful and how she'd rather be much fatter but she just can't put the weight on no matter how much cream she eats. Or a millionaire socialite, never out of the papers, muses how much happier he would be living in a bothy with no sanitation and raising goats.

I worry I may be about to write a post like that. Feel free to throw things at the screen.

Eddie reads too much. It's basically all he does. Well, sometimes he goes for a little run around the kitchen, he sings a bit and he does love to bake and eat biscuits. Other than that he's reading. At nursery they used to sometimes have to close the (hinged) 'book corner' to get Eddie to do something else (being a Montessori nursery the something else was usually polishing silver or window washing- so I can't say I blamed him there). When I go to bed at night, it's not that uncommon to find him still peering through the gloom at one of his favourites, a full 3 hours after I last left him there; enthusiastically 'performing' it with all the voices.

I realise those of you who struggle to persuade your children to open a book may now be feeling the irritation build. 'Sheesh! To have her problems!'. you roll your eyes. 'This is actually just an excuse for Proud Mummy Boasting veiled as a moan. We see your subterfuge.'

I am proud of him. Of course I am- I am his Mum and that's my job. I also worry about him (of course I do- I'm his Mum and that's my job). His reading has come at a cost to certain other skills. He can't/won't draw or write. He can't/won't ride a bike or kick a ball. He's not terribly interested in interacting with his peers. He lives with us very happily, but slightly apart, on Planet Eddie; a planet constructed out of an inordinate number of books.

This is a rather long winded way of getting to today's review I realise- but if I'm going to the core of Planet Eddie- then I want to go back to the book where it all began for him. This was 'Hooray for Fish' by Lucy Cousins (of Maisy Mouse fame).

'Hooray for Fish' immerses you in a jolly underwater adventure through Lucy Cousin's glorious, rich-coloured paintings. It's a book to have big- don't mess around with the board book here. Little Fish swims through the sea greeting all the other fish he meets until he gets to his Mum. The text rhymes and through the variety of fish introduced, various different concepts of opposites or adjectives are taught and visually reinforced.

'Curly whirly, twisty twirly, upside down, round and round.
So many friends, so many fish, splosh, splash, splish!'

Most pages just have two fish on them but there are a few spreads with many more and lots of other funny fish to find including a strawberry fish and a bumble bee fish. I love Lucy Cousin's style. I want to take a spoon and eat it like an ice cream.

This book entered the house probably when Eddie was about 10 months old and had just learned to crawl. And thereafter that was what he would crawl to. He brought to be read umpteen times a day. He turned the pages and poured over it peacefully himself whilst his neglectful mother ran after toddler big bro. He brought it to the dinner table, the bathroom, and to bed. For about a year it was his companion until he'd sucked all the marrow he could from it and moved on to 'The Gruffalo'.

I have since given this book as a first birthday present on several occasions and the feedback I have always received is that it has become a favourite. I'm not sure why, as frankly there are many similar books for toddlers, but there's something almost visceral about this one. It channels into the 1 yr old brain so perfectly, I'd put it on my 'essential' baby reading list.

'Hooray for Fish' by Lucy Cousins, pub. Walker isbn 1-4063-0156-6

Incidently for those who would like to chew further on the thought that there is such a thing as too much reading for kids I recommend Frances Spufford's 'The Child that Books Built'; a very grown up book, part memoir, part lit. crit that analyses his own childhood retreat into literature.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Full Moon Soup and VRH

There are three other children that I have the pleasure of reading with weekly other than my own pair. I volunteer with a charity called Volunteer Reading Help. The charity pairs those with a bit of time on their hands with local schools and the idea is to give quite intense support to three young readers over the course of a year. I spend half an hour twice a week with each of them. If you live in London you may have seen the Evening Standard's 'Get London Reading' campaign which has been raising the charity's profile.

The really great thing about VRH is it's not about sitting down working through graded 'readers' with children and phonic flashcards- it's about inspiring a love of books. Each volunteer gets a lucky dip box of inspiring picture books, non-fiction and novels (plus a lot of games) and the children are encouraged to follow their noses and have a go at what excites them. With 'paired reading' children can access the texts that might otherwise be considered too complicated for them- boosting their self esteem and (hopefully) inspiring them to continue. We can also dig around and find things for them to read that might otherwise not be considered 'school worthy': My own box contains an Arsenal programme, a lot of Top Trumps and a Star Wars comic for instance.

This year I am paired with quite young, Year 1 children. This presents its own challenges- as they are essentially non-readers as yet. It's been tricky finding the right mix of fun and 'progress'; I tend to come down on the side of fun as having the more long term benefits. We spend a lot of time playing silly games: 'I Am Your Robot' is a favourite, where they read very simple CVC action words to me and I perform them to their command. We also spend a fair amount of time colouring things in and drawing pictures for our own stories. Choosing the right books that will grab them though is always interesting and sometimes unexpected. Even though they are five, they don't like to be patronised thank you.

We have been spending a lot of time enjoyably with the Usborne Puzzle Adventure books. They're funny, sometimes quite complicated and involve a lot of concentration, spotting things and working things out; all obviously developing the skills necessary for reading. The children are a lot better than me at the puzzles too which is always gratifying to them. We've been running out of them though, so I was looking in the library for something similar when I came across 'Full Moon Soup' by Alastair Graham. It's been a massive hit.

'Full Moon Soup' takes drawings of the same cross section of the same hotel and layers up the story page by page. There's no written narrative, although a bit of text at the side of each page gives hints of things to look out for. This hotel is Fawlty Towers turned up to eleven. It starts sensibly enough but as the 'story' progresses we start to see ghosts come alive, a cook change into a werewolf, characters come out of portraits, toilets fall through floors, maids become gorillas, aliens crash land into chimneys, mummy's dance with vampires and more and more until the hotel is almost reduced to rubble in the final scene. The layers of detail and the sheer variety of different stories being told means you have to keep flicking forward and back to follow through what you've missed. The two boys I read it with were both completely absorbed and genuinely excited to turn over and follow it.

It's brilliant to have stories you can 'read' yourself when you can't actually read yourself that are a little bit spooky and cool. They could tell it to me for once. And a lot less headache inducing to bespectacled adult eyes than the more ubiquitous 'Wheres Wally'.

'Full Moon Soup' by Alastair Graham, pub. Boxer Books, isbn 978-1-905417-67-4

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Phoenix

I was going to get all coherent and organised in my posts this week and get some kind of chronological thing going where I start the week with a review for the littlies and work my way up as the week progresses. It may still happen, but I've been stymied today at least by the arrival into our house on Friday of The Phoenix (look I've learnt to do links an' everything) and the hopping from foot to foot, bouncing up and down general happiness and excitement it has generated in this household over the weekend.

This is a brand new story comic which The Grandparents put us on to and were kind enough to purchase a trial subscription for. It started at the beginning of January and thus we have started with Issue 3.

Now Bill had recently become an occasional eater of 'The Beano' comic and I've enjoyed it too- taking me back to rainy Saturday afternoons of my childhood in the Cambridge Children's Library working my way through their box of back issues. There's no doubt however that the format and storylines of 'The Beano' are pretty unvaried, much of the artwork is uninspiring and there's a lot of freebie plastic tat promotions attached which you have to fight through to get inside it. Not to start on their new Olympic 'Wenlock and Mandeville' strip which Truly Sucks. It all feels a bit lazy.

'The Phoenix' is as a rich and nourishing ham and vegetable soup to 'The Beano's' cuppasoup. It's put together by people who Really Love to Draw. They've obviously all been doing it obsessively on their kitchen tables since they were grasshopper size and have now seamlessly moved into sheds. They also tell Really Cool Stories. Bill's particular favourite in this issue was a strip called 'The Princess and the Peanut Butter Sandwiches' by Adam Murphy concerning the perils of making a wish for an infinite number of peanut butter sandwiches when you meet a magic unicorn. I liked the classy serial strip 'The Pirates of Pangaea' by Daniel Hartwell and Neill Cameron which features a Victorian ship full of dinosaur riding pirates. Many of the strips are in serial form and it's lovely to have the excitement of tuning in next week for the next installment. There's a huge variety of drawing styles and formats demonstrated and in the middle a long text 'proper' story too. This week it was an extract from a new book by Dave Shelton called 'A Boy and a Bear in a Boat' (link!) which was so good I immediately had to go and order it. sigh. Terrible habits I'm developing in the excuse of blogging.

The team responsible for 'The Phoenix' were also responsible for a now defunct comic called 'DFC' which passed me by alas, but has led me to the discovery of their back issue comic books of the most popular strips, many by the same artists as 'The Phoenix'. More ordering may have occurred (blush) and more may be reviewed here at a later date. Given that this was also the weekend that Bill properly got stuck into 'Asterix' I can see a comic book/graphic novel strand emerging. That'll help me get organised then.

I should add that Bill also started his own drawing at the kitchen table this weekend inspired 'Playing By the Book' style- he created Pumpkin Face and his arch nemesis Birdie Man. It's unusual for him to choose to draw and another tribute to the power of  'The Phoenix'. I'll stick them up below for fun. Along with his Lego gun collection- off topic- but how we spent our Sunday afternoon and I'm proud of my handiwork.

'The Phoenix' is currently available by subscription but might also be found in specialist comic shops like Gosh or Forbidden Planet (although when we tried to reserve Issues 1 and 2 they'd already sold out) and in some branches of Waitrose.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Eat your peas

Bill doesn't like peas. Or carrots. Or sweetcorn (he'll wolf down broccoli, spinach and a variety of beans though in case you were thinking I've completely Failed As A Mother)(...'wolf'.. may be overstating the case) It's still a puzzle. I'd go as far as to say he's almost phobic about peas. I had to individually fish them out of a shepherd's pie on a playdate recently whilst he cowered in his seat moaning; 'I can see another one mum. quick! there! under that piece of mashed potato! GET IT. QUICK....'

He shares this attribute with Daisy, the heroine of Kes Gray's wonderful 'Eat your Peas': Daisy and her Mum sit at the dinner table contemplating her plate, empty except for the hated peas.

'"Eat your peas," said Mum. Daisy looked at the little green balls that were ganging up on her plate. "I don't like peas," said Daisy.'

Daisy's Mum begins the well established practice of trying to bribe or 'incentivise' her to eat those peas. She starts small; 'If you eat your peas, you can have some pudding'...but without success. The incentives start to escalate. 'If you eat your peas, you can have some pudding, stay up for an extra half hour and you can skip your bath.'. Daisy's expression and response on each double page spread remains the same: 'I don't like peas.' The escalation escalates. 'If you eat your peas you can have 48 puddings, stay up past midnight, you never have to wash again, I'll buy you two new bikes and a baby elephant.' And escalates further: 'if you eat your peas, I'll buy you a supermarket stacked full of puddings, you never have to go to bed again ever, or school again, you never have to wash, or brush your hair, or clean your shoes, or tidy your bedroom, I'll buy you a bike shop, a zoo, ten chocolate factories, I'll take you to Superland for a week and you can have your very own space rocket with double retro laser blammers.'

This is a book which you shouldn't read aloud whilst anybody is drinking anything because they are guaranteed to start the sort of snorty giggling that makes milk come out of their nose. Nick Sharratt's deceptively simple, flat cartoon style of illustration complement the text perfectly; especially the small diagrammatic pictures accompanying Mum's promises.

Does Daisy eat her peas? Let's just say there's a nice twist, but ultimately everyone gets pudding. Mums' apparently aren't perfect beings either. This is a good reminder about the holes that may be dug in the name of Authoritarian Parenting.

There are lots of other 'Daisy' books, both in picture book form and as longer stories in simple chapter books. 'Daisy and the Trouble with Zoos' is one of the latter, and another favourite here; it's hard to resist a story of baby penguin kidnap. If Bill emulates Daisy in Pea Hatred I started getting ideas of my own from her at London Zoo's great new Penguin Beach Exhibit. Honestly, they swim so close to you, and they're very sweet, and then they'd fit in very well in this house because everyone likes to eat fish....

'Eat Your Peas' written Kes Gray, illus. Nick Sharratt, pub. Red Fox, isbn 978-1-862-30804-6

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Eddie's Garden

First up- an apology- I inadvertently reviewed an out of print book yesterday. It shouldn't be out of print but there you go; blink and it happens. Whilst this blog is intended really only to stimulate my own brain into considering what works and why in a Good Children's Book and not to sell them to others, I can appreciate that it would be annoying if you did want it. As I've shown, I have no compunction at all about reviewing the old but in the future I'll try and make sure they are the available where possible. In the mean time- try your library for big blue whale fun.

So an oldie but a goodie but also an in-the-shoppie today in the form of 'Eddie's Garden and how to make things grow' by Sarah Garland. It may be fairly obvious why this entered our house in the first place but I don't think it's just because he shares the hero's name that my own Eddie loves this.

This is a straightforward, naturalistic and gentle book; Eddie, helped by his little sister Lily and his (apparently single) Mum decides to plant a new vegetable garden. The book takes us through the process with the seasons from digging and seed choosing, to sowing, to planting out, to nurture (and the all-important slug protection), to harvest. It ends with the cooking of that (impressive) harvest and a picnic lunch outside with their Grandad. There's a good amount of information buried in the story about natural cycles, what make plants' grow and the importance of insects and birds in a garden too. This is definitely an organic plot, and Bill's favourite part of the story is when Eddie goes on a nighttime mission in his pyjamas to remove slugs by torchlight. At the end of the book there's also an appendix with much more detailed instructions about how to plan and grow a child friendly garden. It's a perfectly good first gardener's reference text.

'"What makes plants grow?" asked Eddie.
"What makes you grow?" asked Mum.
"Food," said Eddie.
"Drink for me," said Lily.
"That's just what plants like,"said Mum. "Food from the earth, rain to drink, air to breathe and sun for light and warmth."'

My real pleasure in this book and it's strength I think is in the warmth and humour of the family relationships displayed both in the writing and in Sarah Garland's lovely illustrations. Just like in Shirley Hughes's families; there is a real respect shown for children's opinions and independence of thought. It's Eddie's garden and Eddie's project- his mum just helps him facilitate it. She even takes Lily's worm eating habit calmly; an excellent role model for the possibly less sanguine mother reading it.
I do experience a certain frisson of garden envy too I must admit. Our own attempts at vegetable growing have been pretty woeful in comparison to Eddie's apparently easy bounty. I think it's the fatal combination of Organic and Lazy that is our downfall. I am nowhere near dedicated enough in the art of midnight slug removal and strangely Bill and Eddie seem to prefer reading about it to carrying it through themselves. They'd probably do it for money. Still, they are very keen waterers, we've had modest sunflower success and you never know maybe 2012 will, finally, be our year of the coveted bean den.

There are two other 'Eddie' books; 'Eddie's Kitchen and how to make good things to eat' which takes a similar approach to cooking with Eddie and Lily making bread, spaghetti in sauce, salad and carrot and orange cake (complete with recipes at the back) and 'Eddie's Toolbox and how to make and mend things'. In this newest volume, those who share my pleasure in back story extrapolation will be pleased to know that a dishy single Dad moves in next door to Eddie and proves Very Handy about the house...(More prosaically it also shows you how to make a bird feeder from scratch.)

 'Eddie's Garden and How to Make things Grow' by Sarah Garland, pub Frances Lincoln,
isbn 978-1-84507-089-2

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Bigger than a Blue Whale

I think my boys run against stereotype (and quite right too- who likes a stereotype?) in generally having a marked preference for story over non fiction in their reading choices. Nevertheless reference books are obviously important and I do my best to bring in titles that will excite us all. History gets a lot of attention; partly due to the satisfyingly large cache of dead King Bills and King Eddies that the British Royal lineage can supply and partly due to the sheer amount of exciting Doom and Weaponry on offer. The frankly terrifying Black Death exhibit at the Museum of London is a well appreciated haunt of ours.

The other  broad 'topic' that we regularly return to (other than toucans for which Eddie has something of a pash.) is Size. The bigger the better. The larger number the better. The contemplation of the infinite best of all.

This is difficult for any of us to get our heads round which I suppose is why we keep coming back to it. The Wonderwise series of reference titles is a fantastic resource. There are 20 of them, covering a wide range of topics, and in theory designed for the 3-6s or so I guess. We have them all (following a lucky find deal on the book people once), and have enjoyed them all, but our favourite is called 'Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There is?' by Robert E. Wells. Here is the introduction:

'This is a book about the UNIVERSE , and other Very Big Things. So it uses Very Big numbers-even MILLIONS and BILLIONS.
To remind you just how big those numbers are, first try counting to a smaller number- ONE HUNDRED. At normal speed that should take about one minute. Keep counting, and you'll reach a THOUSAND in about 12 minutes.
If you decide to continue counting to a MILLION, don't plan on doing anything else for a while. Counting for a steady 10 hours a day, it will take about 3 weeks.
If you are REALLY ambitious and would like to count on to a BILLION, you'd better make that your career. Counting 12 hours a day, it will take you more than 50 years!
This book has some HUNDREDS and THOUSANDS, and LOTS of MILLIONS and BILLIONS. Will it give you big ideas? You can count on it!'

This is seriously useful stuff to me. I can't tell you how much time I spent on long car journeys as a child counting in my head and wondering how feasible it was to count to a million before we reached my Granny's house. Unsurprisingly, not at all as it turns out.

The book takes the starting point of a blue whale's fluke and then escalates out from there to provide visual evidence of how much bigger other things are. We move through a whole blue whale,  Mount Everest, Earth, the Sun, Antares, the Milky Way and finally the Universe. The comparisons are startling shown in this way. There is a great picture for instance, of a putative 100 whales in a jar, and then a platform of 20 of those whale jars to show the size of Everest. It's a book designed for nurseries and Key Stage 1 children and it seriously makes me a little dizzy to read.
Bill became quite obsessed with big numbers after this- so much so- that he got into his first serious falling out with his best friend in the playground about whether Googolplex was a real number or whether he'd made it up.: 'My dad says it doesn't exist'...'well my mum says it does so nyah'...Hang on boys, apparently there aren't even a googol atoms in the Universe so I'm not sure it matters. And my brother told me that so it must be true.

'Is a Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is?' written Robert E. Wells, pub. Franklin Watts isbn 978-0-7496-6222-6

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Willoughby wolves

An unashamed return to a very old classic today. Joan Aiken is another author of my childhood who is proving entirely pleasurable to revisit and 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' may be her finest book. As I write that I immediately think of about 10 more of her books that I love and start my own internal argument. Hmm, yes, let's not rank them but merely observe that she was both a terrific writer for children and terrifically versatile; able to 'do'  nail-chewing drama, snot-inducing funny, domestic magic and Eastern European folklore with equal ease. Don't miss her short story collections- especially if you come across any of the out of print ones. If you find a copy of 'All but a Few' send it to me...

I read 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' to Bill over Christmas. It's the first in a sequence of books she wrote set in a mythical period of English history: 'Shortly after the accession to the throne of Good King James 3rd in 1832. At this time, the Channel tunnel from Dover to Calais having been recently completed, a great many wolves, driven by severe winters, had migrated through the tunnel from Europe and Russia to the British Isles'. To some extent it stands apart from the rest of the sequence though as the story is the most complete in itself.
I love the idea of wolfish peril from the Chunnel; rather more romantic than a Sangatte full of desperate asylum seekers, but presumably equally infuriating to a mythical 1832 Daily Mail.

The story concerns privileged rich girl Bonnie who lives in the splendour of remote Willoughby Chase surrounded by loving servants and much indulged by her kindly parents. Her mother however is sick and must be taken on a round the world recuperative voyage by her father, and so impoverished orphan cousin Sylvia is brought to the house to be a playmate, and distant relative Miss Slighcarp engaged as Guardian and governess to take charge of both. There is a fantastic set piece early in the book detailing Sylvia's epic 24 hour train journey to reach Willoughby, sharing her compartment with the shadowy Mr Grimshaw. The train is held up and they are set upon by wolves.

'Sylvia screamed. Another instant, and a wolf precipitated itself through the aperture thus formed. It turned snarling on the sleeping stranger, who started awake with an oath, and very adroitly flung his cloak over the animal. He then seized one of the the shattered pieces of glass lying on the floor and stabbed the imprisoned beast through the cloak. It fell dead.
"Tush" said Sylvia's companion, breathing heavily and passing his hand over his face, "Unexpected- most."'

 You can see from this extract that the language Aiken uses is rooted in the time period and is not always easy. Once I started reading it aloud I worried that it might be a too complicated choice and Bill seemed to be losing interest early- but a wolf leaping through a window and being stabbed through the heart is a pretty good wake up and from that point the story really accelerates in pace and he was hooked.

Miss Slighcarp and Mr Grimshaw turn out to be Proper Bad 'Uns. Once Bonnie and Sylvia are left in their care they proceed to sack all the servants and sell off all the household goods whilst keeping the girls prisoner. Worse still, news comes that the ship with Bonnie's parents in has sunk with no survivors and the girls are now completely in Miss Slighcarp's power. An ill planned escape goes wrong and the girls are taken to be drudges in Mrs. Brisket's School for Orphans. The miseries they endure there are recognisable to an adult reader familiar with Dickens or |Jane Eyre but for Bill were eye popping stuff. At the end of a particularly wretched chapter he was pleading with me to read on: 'I just need to know they'll be all right mum. I need to know.' Ah. Proper suffering. That's what I look to induce in my children through the written word. Great.

Relief does come in the final third of the book with their rescue by Bonnie's goose-farming, wolf savvy friend Simon who becomes the hero of the rest of the books in the sequence. The girls travel by foot to London, secure support and return to Willoughby with reinforcements for the final denouement and confrontation. As Miss Slighcarp is denounced, Bonnie's parents return miraculously recovered (I thought I could reveal that because you might have guessed.) and all is restored.

''"But Aunt Sophy," said Sylvia,"your tale must be so much more adventurous than ours! Were you not shipwrecked?"
"Yes, indeed we were!" said Lady Green laughing,"and your uncle and I spent six very tedious days drifting in a rowing-boat, our only fare being a monotonous choice of grapes and oranges , of which there happened to be a large crate in the dinghy, fortunately for us. We were then picked up by a small and most unsanitary fishing-boat, manned by a set of fellows as picturesque as they were unwashed, who none of them spoke a word of English...On this boat we received nothing to eat but sardines in olive oil. I am surprised these shocks and privitations did not carry me off, but Sir Willoughby maintains they were the saving of me"'

I am very happy for Bill to read as much 'Cows in Action' and 'Beast Quest' to himself as he likes but I like to save the really good stuff to read to him myself and this is really good stuff.

'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' Joan Aiken, pub. Random House isbn 978-0-099-45663-6

Monday, 16 January 2012

Ronny Rock

I was feeling mildly guilty about my slight preferences for nostalgia in reviewing but then found and completely fell for an almost new book in the children's bookshop this weekend. I bought it, brought it home to Bill, who read it in one sitting and satisfactorily made very similar snorty pig laughs all through that I myself had done in the shop.

'Ronny Rock starring in Monster Cake Meltdown' is by Merryn Threadgould and illustrated by Bruce Ingman. The Bruce Ingman factor was what made me initially pick it up; I was already a fan of his witty line and paint pictures  in  Allan Ahlberg's 'The Runaway Dinner'. Then the front cover reads; 'if you like cakes and bunging buns about and stinky stuff then this is the book for you!!'. Well yes. As previously discussed, we certainly like cakes and buns in this family and although personally I am less of a fan of the stinky stuff I know the rest of the household would disagree. Sold.

This is a format of book I'm not sure I've seen before: Picture book in size and indeed chocka full of great pictures, the story is divided into modest 'chapters' and has a reasonably meaty amount of text. It's a great crossover for newly confident readers. Even for established readers (and their, ahem, possibly text pushy mothers) it's nice to be reminded that pictures still rock and to feel that a publisher is prepared to invest in something a little more luxurious than the normal small, thin paperback with the pages already yellowing.

The story is of Ronny Rock; ' a very lucky boy'. He lives with his dad above his dad's baker's shop and he is allowed to choose a different cake every day for his lunch and for his tea because 'Mr Rock thought cake was good for growing boys.' This fact is accompanied by an inspiring diagram of some of the different sorts of cake baked by Mr Rock and the calculations needed to demonstrate that that equals 728 cakes a year. (Bill marked this fact with a small intake of breath; '728 cakes mum! 728.'). Ronny helps his dad with his special orders for birthday cakes; lovingly described by both writer and illustrator and familiar to any parent who has been faced with an overly complex cake request: I liked 'Sophie Barm wants a cake of some mice playing hopscotch on a cat'. (see also this weekend's Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/14/elaborate-birthday-cakes?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038 )
One Friday, single parent Mr Rock goes to the cinema leaving Ronny in the care of cool but lovably gormless teenager Kieran and during their game of bun ping pong a missing cake request letter is discovered. Disaster. Kieran and Ronny must work to fufill the order on their own before it is due to be collected the next morning. The monster cake they construct is based on hated teacher Mr Bunt 'who had left teaching to become a slug farmer' and has a few monstrous twists for authenticity all Ronny's own. The next morning in the cake shop Ronny starts to worry about some of those twists but-too late- the cake is already being shown to the birthday boy and... well... it shouldn't be spoiled, but it's a cracking climax that involves fainting girls in pink princess dresses and a riot in the bakery. Crowd pleasing stuff for 7 year old boys and their mothers.

Bruce Ingman's pictures ping between and around the text; it's graphically really exciting to look at. Some are reasonably conventional full colour spreads opposite a page of text but the story is also told in diagrammatic form, comic strip form and laid out like a cookbook at points. Less confident readers will find much to draw them in. I hope it does well because I'd like more please.

Thankfully my own children (perhaps recognising their mother's limitations) have always been reasonably reasonable with their own cake requests. 'I'd like a round chocolate one with smarties on please'. Good boys. I hope this doesn't go giving them ideas....

'Ronny Rock starring in monster Cake Meltdown' written Merryn Threadgould, illus. Bruce Ingman pub. Walker isbn 978-1-4063-3597-7

Saturday, 14 January 2012


Simms Taback also died!

Again a few weeks ago...It's amazing what you glean from looking at more up to date people's blogs.
Simms Taback is, I think, relatively unknown here in the UK sadly. We were fortunate to receive a copy of his biggest Caldecott medal winning hit in a baby book gift basket from the States (great idea) when Bill was born. Seven years later 'Joseph Had a  Little Overcoat' is still one of everyone in the house's  favourite books; receiving the Official Eddie Bed Book Tower mark of approval too.

It's a simple idea, executed to perfection. Based on an old Yiddish song it's the story of an Eastern European Jewish man's coat that gets 'old and worn' and gradually gets recycled into a jacket, waistcoat, scarf, handkerchief and button. When the button is finally lost, Joseph 'made a book about it' demonstrating the moral 'you can always make something out of nothing.' Very contemporary in these times of fashionable thrift for reasons ecological and financial.

Simms Taback was really an illustrator rather than writer and it's the pictures that make this book a treasure trove. Gorgeous, jewel-like colours and plenty of quirky detail ensure there's always something new to draw you in. The shrinking of the coat is accomplished visually in a series of clever cut outs. It's also full of Yiddish in-jokes; 'mix a shlemiel and shlimazel and you'll get a shmegegge' passes me by but I like finding them- a newspaper headline reads 'fiddler on roof falls off roof'... Just as 'Peepo' faithfully recreates wartime Croyden so this offers a glimpse into an exuberant, joyful, pre-Holocaust world of European Jewish community. That's not part of my ancestry to the best of my knowledge but if it is part of yours than this is a book your children  should own.

Quirky fact of the day; Simms Taback was also the designer and illustrator of the first Mcdonald's Happy Meal box. Now there's a claim to fame.

'Joseph had a Little Overcoat', Simms Taback, pub. (in US) Viking isbn 0670878553

to the best of my knowledge there is no British edition of this book (I used to anglicise the text as I read it, as a waistcoat is referred to as a 'vest' and braces as 'suspenders'- but acknowlege this as unecessarily fernickerty of me) and you may therefore have trouble purchasing it in a Proper Bookshop here. It is, however, available from the dread but useful Amazon.

Edited on Sunday to add that Bill, learning of the sad news of Simm's death staged his own mini tribute in the form of choosing to eat his gingerbread man down 'Joseph's overcoat style' through the different garments and down to a button.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Food and Frances

Russell Hoban died!

Well actually it seems he died a month ago, and he was 86 so it's not that surprising but I'm only just catching up with this news and I'm sad.
It does give me a lovely excuse to wallow in nostalgia once again and revisit his 'Frances' books. These were favourites of mine as a child and I'm glad to say also currently in favour with the younger generation in this household too.

It is slightly embarrassing to me (but not altogether surprising) to realise how many of my best top childhood book memories are based around the food they contained . Virtual eating was a big pleasure for me then and thinking about it, I enjoy a good cookbook now. I realised that my children shared this attribute when we all found ourselves poring over the chapter devoted to chocolate cakes in Nigella Lawson's 'Feast' recently having a healthy debate about which we should make next...(chocolate malteser cake won again despite some controversial support for the chocolate coconut Bounty cake) This is not the last time food is going to appear as an influence here.

The 'Frances' books of which I think there were about 7 but not all still in print are domestic stories of a girl and her family and her imaginative engagement with the world. Actually not dissimilar to Lauren Child's Lola. Except the girl and family in question are a family of badgers. I know, I know, I said I didn't like anthropomorphised tales but- there you go- my blog, my rules.
'Bread and Jam for Frances' was and is my favourite almost certainly because it's the foodiest. Frances doesn't like the look of her soft-boiled egg at breakfast so she decides she's going to forgo eggs in favour of bread and jam in the future. She sings a song to her egg...Frances sings a lot of songs and they're all excellent...for example:
'Poached eggs on toast, why do you shiver
With such a funny little quiver?'
At dinner time she feels the same way about her breaded veal cutlets with string beans and baked potatoes and again turns to bread and jam.
Clever Mother and Father of Frances model exactly how savvy parents should approach this problem of nourishing home cooked meal rejection by calmly accepting the new status quo and serving Frances bread and jam for every meal and snack thereafter (I should have reminded myself that that was the way to do it pre-conceptually...clearly works better that force feeding carrots into your weeping toddler's mouth in seething fury yelling 'But You Liked Them Yesterday'...heigh ho).
And thus slowly bread and jam starts to lose it's appeal, Frances's songs become a little more melancholy:
'Jam for snacks and jam for meals,
I know how a jam jar feels-
and in the end she cracks and asks for her own plate of spaghetti and meatballs at dinner and rediscovers the joys of a varied diet. High five Mother and Father badger. result.

The real hero of this story is Frances's best friend at school; the gluttonous Albert. There's a fabulous  full 3 pages in the middle of the book devoted to a loving description of Albert laying out and consuming his packed lunch at school while Frances slightly mournfully compares her bread and jam. I'm quite tempted to treat you to the full description but it's REALLY long so I'll give you the final third.

'He took a bite of sandwich, a bite of pickle, a bite of hard-boiled egg, and a drink of milk. Then he sprinkled more salt on the egg and went around again. Albert made the sandwich, the pickle, the egg and the milk come out even. He ate his bunch of grapes and his tangerine. Then he cleared away the crumpled-up waxed paper, the eggshell, and the tangerine peel. He set the cup custard in the middle of the napkin onhis desk. He took up his spoon and ate up all the custard. Then Albert folded up his napkins and put them away. he put away his cardboard saltshaker and his spoon. He screwed the cup on top of his thermos bottle. He shut his lunch box, and put it back inside his desk, and sighed.
"I like to have a good lunch." said Albert.'

I should say that reading this book aloud used to drive my husband slightly insane. He really couldn't see the point of these long descriptions, meanwhile Bill, Eddie and I would be salivating, hanging on each word. He's not as food orientated as the rest of us. Reading this book as a child in 70's Britain, where sandwiches were made from white sliced bread and might contain a strange substance called 'sandwich spread'. Albert and Frances's packed lunches seemed unbelievably, wonderfully exotic...at the end of the book she has olives and a lobster salad sandwich for goodness sakes. Now Eddie requested 'rye' for his own sandwiches last week...we've clearly moved on. Mother and Father Badger...I'm learning.

'Bread and Jam for Frances', written Russell Hoban, illus. Lillian Hoban, pub Harper Collins isbn-13 978-0060838003

Thursday, 12 January 2012


This one's a bit newer at least, although again Neil Gaiman is not exactly a struggling unknown. I picked this up when our local lovely independent bookshop was closing down and selling off its remaining children's stock. sob.
'Instructions' is a difficult to categorise curiousity, but one I am drawn back to and so, more importantly, are my boys. It is what it says; a series of instructions for navigating an adventure or possibly a life in a kind of fairy tale format with no particular order or end in sight. In the illustrations by Charles Vess, an heroic hybrid fox/cat (no- it is a cat I think- a Maine Coon perhaps) strides through a landscape inhabited by figures familiar by name or type from traditional tales around the world. It feels a little as though you've entered a Serious version of Shrek-land. The colours are muted, almost sombre; purposefully timeless, the pictures are just the right side of scary.

Sample instruction;

that giants sleep too soundly;
that witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot,
hearts can be well-hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.'

I can imagine that this sort of semi-profound semi-nonsense might really irritate some but it beguiles me. There is an undercurrent of humour throughout and a playfulness that stops it becoming pompous.

Were I a primary school teacher I can see this would be a fantastic starting point for a module discussing traditional tales, oral traditions and a spot of creative writing getting children to make their own book of instructions. That almost sounds like a criticism (!) but is not intended as such- it's not 'worthy'. I find both Bill and Eddie quite often coming back to this for more and it's one that, whilst not absorbing them for long periods, seems to spark off other thoughts and conversations. Eddie tends to like to spot fairy tale characters he knows within the pictures but Bill will ponder the 'answers' to the instructions and spin off on his own narrative tangent from it in interesting ways.

chewy. whimsical if that word doesn't make you wince. and  a Nice Object which would make a quirky Christening or new baby gift. I should add here that this is probably the gift for boys (although not by any means a book for just boys- but it is a definite 'he' being instructed) and Gaiman and Vess have collaborated on another title; 'Blueberry Girl' which apparently celebrates the mother /daughter relationship; I have yet to read but would love to hear comments from anyone who has.

'When you reach the little house,
the place your journey started,
you will recognise it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden
gate you never saw before but once.
And then go home.
Or make a home.
Or rest.'

'Instructions' written Neil Gaiman, illus. Charles Vess, pub, Bloomsbury isbn 978-1-4088-0864-1

Wednesday, 11 January 2012


I realise that in moving seamlessly from Roald Dahl to the Ahlbergs I'm not exactly in the territory of hidden gems or New Worlds but a glass or two of red wine with a friend in the pub last night reinvigorated a debate about the back story of 'Peepo'. This dominated my sleep deprived, raddled brain in the early days of parenthood to such an extent I thought it worth visiting. Plus, you know, they're the Ahlbergs, they've got to to get an early starring part.

Board book 'Peepo' was given to Bill when he was about 3 months old and as we were just embarking on the crazed idea that we might get him into some sort of bedtime routine, it was the book I picked to read to him nightly to introduce the concept of a full stop to the day. To be frank, advanced and genius-like though he obviously was, he wasn't going to get much more out of it at that stage than listening to the rather nice lullaby lilt of the rhyming text. It reads aloud well (of course it does, it's the Ahlbergs). It was our 'Go the f*** to sleep' book.

The book tells the story of  a day-in-the-life of a family during the second world war from the perspective of a baby. Each spread contains a cutout peephole which when turned reveals a lovingly rendered vignette of family life, rich in detail and tiny new things to spot. This is a great book for going through with an 18 month old or so, who's going through a language spurt and wants to point at tiny ladybirds, bricks, or teacups etc. on pages (although in the case of 'Peepo' some of the language they may acquire may be of little practical use to them, 'hairnets' and 'stocking nets' anyone?)

Reading it night in and night out however the detail began to torture me in unexpected ways. There is a backstory revealed here which the casual reader might miss at first. Dad starts the day in his civvy clothes and is doing dad type jobs around the house but the book ends with him in full soldier garb kissing his baby goodnight and ...goodbye? NOOOooo! I became increasingly concerned that this was a first tragedy for the very young; 'When did you last see your father?' in picture book form. I did like the fact that in the middle page, Grandma takes the baby and his big sisters to the park- presumably to give Mum and Dad a bit of a break- nudge nudge- and in the next panel on their return Dad has changed his clothes and Mum has fallen asleep. As long as she's not pregnant again... NOOOooo!!

Sharing these worries with my husband I began to dig deeper. He entered fully into the spirit of the inquiry and reassured me with the fact that a particular silhouette of an aeroplane in the distance (we're talking miniscule here) of the park scene is clearly of a model that wasn't introduced until late 1944 so we must be nearing the end of the war. Comforting nerdery. There's also a nice picture of Mr. Churchill on the wall with Union Jack and USA flags entwined so the Yanks are in. In one picture there's a calendar on the wall that I squinted at repeatedly to get an angle...without much joy for my unravelling mind. I started trawling the internet to look for interviews about the book to reassure me but came up with nothing. I even went as far as looking through back issues of Picture Post to try and identify the cover that Mum is holding while she dozes.

At some point I suppose, Bill began to sleep better, so did I, and we all wanted a bit more variety in our reading matter. Few texts can survive  the level of scrutiny and unpicking that I subjected 'Peepo' to and remain fresh. I pore over it more happily now still appreciative of the detail. I can see it will have a second life as soon as Bill gets onto the Second World War as inevitable school topic- it's a great recreation of the home front. And, after all, as my friend remarked in the pub last night..'Maybe he's just in the home guard?'

Still, if you're planning an Ahlberg baby gift for a new parent you know...to save potential trauma you might like to go for 'The Baby Catalogue' or 'Each Peach, Pear, Plum' instead?

'Peepo', Janet and Allan Ahlberg, pub Penguin Books, isbn 0-670-87176-1