Friday, 30 March 2012

The Wolf's Whistle

If you live in the UK, you may have seen this advert for The Guardian newspaper on TV  recently which sheds light in a playful way, on the 'real' issues behind the story of the three little pigs. I enjoyed this follow up article yesterday by a primary school teacher who has been using it (or perhaps the less gritty print version) to inspire debate and writing in her classroom. Today's choice;  'The Wolf's Whistle' by Bjorn Rune Lie from the ever-inspiring and beautiful Nobrow press would have slotted neatly into her lesson plan; although possibly a little dark and subtle for her six year old class.

This is the first in a promised series of fairy tale back stories; 'Behind the Tails' and I'm looking forward to the rest (we're promised the transformation of 'Hazel' from master patissier to child-eating witch and how a troll developed a taste for goat ragu).
 Albert is a wimpy comic-loving wolf from the wrong side of the docks who is bullied as the scholarship boy at his snobbish school by the three trottered 'Honeyroast' brothers. With his other misfit geek friends; Chauncey mouse, Libby stork and Vincente weasel he escapes the bullies in healthy outdoor pursuits, that will prime him for his waiting destiny:
'Every abandoned railway, forbidden rapid and disused warehouse was their playground. And the best part was: it was all free!'
Albert also dreams of becoming a professional comic artist, developing his own series 'The Wolf's Whistle', where the Lone Wolf battles his arch nemesis the evil Dr. Chorizo. Albert even has his own Superhero cloak ready and waiting under his bed.

Years pass and we catch up with Albert on his 30th birthday,working only as an anonymous dogsbody for his favourite comic publishers. Meanwhile the Honeyroast brothers with their mobster dad 'Al Prosciutto' are running the town in best corrupt gangster fashion:
They 'liked nothing better than to lounge around their pork chop-shaped pool drinking apple cider and stuffing their faces with white truffles'.
When the Honeyroast brothers arrange the destruction of a listed building to further their property empire, Albert's pals perish in the blaze. A despairing Albert sobs on a park bench, then a mysterious hobo hands him a bottle marked 'The Great Hurricane 1938':
'It's mighty powerful stuff. It will give you all the strength you'll ever need...'
It is time for the real Lone Wolf to emerge and avenge.

The subtleties of the references to prohibition America and the Great Depression were obviously lost on Bill, but he understands a Superhero creation myth when he sees one. He spent enough of his early years dressed exclusively as one. As with 'Hilda and the Midnight Giant' this is not strictly speaking a children's book but it has plenty to chew over and appreciate for all ages. Without wanting to sound horribly dry I think this would make a great purchase for a school librarian looking for a low reading level, high interest content book for older kids.
And what a beautiful and inspiring one too which could be spiralled out from in many different directions. All Nobrow books are lovely quality tactile covetable things and the printwork in this is exceptional. Not cheap but definitely worth the investment.

'The Wolf's Whistle' by Bjorn Rune Lie, pub. Nobrow isbn 978-1-907704-03-1

(for those interested in outcomes of Tuesday's caterpillar hunt here are Joseph, Harry, Georgina and Rose , who will eventually become the dull, and nastily named brown beet armyworm moth I think. They are a temporary but much loved addition to the family)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

A Butterfly is Patient

All week the sun has been shining in spectacular and very un-March like fashion. Today is set to be the warmest March day for a decade. The boys' school is shut because of the NUT strike and we're set for a picnic and ice creams in the park. In March. Have I mentioned that it's March? March!

I spent yesterday spring cleaning the garden ready to grow food for the slugs (maybe I should just write them a large cheque on cabbage leaves and cut out the Garden Centre middleman?). I saw three butterflies as I was digging; obviously primed to do a little dance in honour of today's non fiction pick 'A Butterfly is Patient' by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Sylvia Long; presciently selected from the library last week when the weather was still grey and gloomy.

This is a wonderful book from the US, evidently the third collaboration between this pairing who are also responsible for 'An Egg is Quiet' and 'A Seed is Sleepy', both titles I am keen to seek out now.

There are plenty of books that tell the story of the magical metamorphosis of caterpillar to butterfly but few that do so as spectacularly as this one. The end papers are the first treat; a kaleidoscope of wonderfully exotic caterpillars at the front and their butterfly counterparts at the back. Bill spent a long time matching up the two and picking favourites, enjoying both the diversity of their colours and shapes and the mouthfeel of saying their names ; 'Great Purple Hairstreak', 'Blue Morpho','Ruddy Daggerwing', 'Painted Jezebel', 'Moonlight Jewel'. We loved the disparity between caterpillar and butterfly and the apparent randomness of their pairings; the most spectacular scary red horned caterpillar becoming a small muted blue and green butterfly and vice versa. They are all painted with proper Zoological attention to detail and with a vibrancy to charm even the most reluctant lepidopterist.

The text within has a useful balance of butterfly fact and anecdote to inform without overwhelming; and provide readers with some good snippets of improving dinner table conversation:

'Although Monarchs weigh only as much as a few rose petals, they can fly almost 3000 miles from Canada to their winter home in Mexico.'

'A caterpillar...can grow up to 30,000 times larger than it was when it took its first bite.'

But it is the illustrations that make the book worth seeking out and savouring. The only sadness is that, as this is an American book, the butterflies represented are not to be found in our own back garden. Hmm, today would make a great day for a caterpillar hunt, maybe we can do some home grown appreciation and comparison. We'll post any discoveries on Twitter and see if we can make our own butterfly garden in due course.

'A Butterfly is Patient' written by Dianna Hutts Aston, illus. Sylvia Long,
pub. Chronicle isbn 978-0-8118-6479-4

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Operation Alphabet

I think I've mentioned before that Eddie is a boy who likes letters. They were his earliest and best pals. He used to sleep clutching a purple magnetic letter S in his hand and wake howling in the night if it was lost. Walking to the park with him used to be interrupted by his sudden drop, commando style tummy first, flat onto the pavement to 'read' the manhole covers or a crouch down to admire a car numberplate. A well fashioned letter out of playdough or preferably biscuit dough can still cheer him out of gloom when all else has failed.
Suffice to say there was little question whether a book called 'Operation Alphabet' was going to appeal to him or not.

'Operation Alphabet' is written by Al MacCuish, illustrated by Luciano Lozano and designed by Jim Bletsas. I think this is the first time (outside of a pop up book) that I've seen a designer receive equal billing on the cover of a book, but I have to say he earns his place there: This is a gorgeous object; very well designed to make book fetishists salivate (lovely lovely end papers mmmmm, super thick paper aaaaaaa).

It is (confusingly) not an alphabet book. Charlie Foxtrot is suffering from a bad case of the 'alphabet-a-heebiegeebies'. Despite knowing everything there is to know about climbing trees and building dens, about football and space rockets he knows nothing about the alphabet for a forthcoming test (maybe he could do a life skill swap with Eddie). The Secret Ministry of Letters are called to the mission; an elite team under the command of Colonel A, capable of rising to the challenge of revealing the full fun of letters. After an incident packed journey from their secret Whitehall post box home they parachute into Charlie's bedroom to sing, dance, conjour and charm him to full appreciation of their super skill; the power to form words.

"Use letters wisely or use them for fun, one at a time or by the ton.
And every time that you open a book, just think of how many letters it took!"

The story has the shaggy dog quality of a tale you might make up on the hoof to get your children through an improving country walk; lots of twists and turns and a deal of charm. The pictures are delightful; a retro 1950's world of detailed ink, pastel, paint and print recalling Ludwig Bemelmans 'Madeline' or Kathleeen Hale's 'Orlando' perhaps.

Eddie has predictably been thrilled with this book, poring over the pictures of the letters at work to study details of their uniform or see what they are up to in the background of the Ministry. We received some stickers with our copy which I keep uncovering on secret missions of their own in dark corners of the house; (they may just be hiding from our cat of course). Meanwhile I've been worrying about the punctuation marks- who seem to form the blue collar work force under the letters. I hope they're unionised for better conditions and equal status...
We're both hoping for some follow up adventures for this smile- inducing secret spy alphabet crew. I'd like to meet their even more hard working lower case friends too. Here they are at their musical best:

'Operation Alphabet' by Al MacCuish, illus. Luciano Lozano, design Jim Bletsas, pub. Thames and Hudson
isbn 978-0-500-51584-6

Disclosure: We received our copy of 'Operation Alphabet' from the publisher for review. Our opinions are our own.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Owl Babies

The Edible Book Festival has come to a close and the winners have been announced and....and...!

I didn't win. ah tarnation. ;)

It was a pretty much impossible task given the quality of the entries; all of the 74 were in with a shout frankly. The first prize went to an incredibly detailed and beautifully crafted version of Emily Gravett's 'The Odd Egg' with definite wow factor. Congratulations to all the prize winners; 'good bake' as Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood would say.

'Owl Babies' by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Patrick Benson  has always been a favourite in this house. Firstly owls are amongst my favourite and my best; who doesn't love an owl? This, extremely large in the stoneware flesh, one was always my first choice exhibit on regular childhood visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

And then one of the main characters in 'Owl Babies' is called Bill and, as we know from my last post, namesakes are always a good shortcut to garner popularity.

But 'Owl Babies' doesn't need any gimmicks to make it a lovely read...and probably doesn't need any introductions from me to you either. It's a quiet classic that has almost certainly found its way into your home already. A proper snuggle-down-and-listen bedtime story to soothe separation anxiety and give a great excuse for some extra mum cuddles.

Three baby owls wait for their mother to return from her night's hunting in a dark wood. As their bravado wanes and the wait seems longer, they huddle together for comfort. Sibling dynamics are beautifully observed from big sister superiority to little brother vulnerability but ultimately the family are united against whatever might  lurk in the darkness.
Mother owl returns; "and she came!", tension dissipates and cosy order is reinstated. The very gentlest of first scare stories for the under fives.

I decided to attempt the cover for the edible book festival partly on the basis that I couldn't find any intimidating versions of it online already and partly because I had a sudden inspiration that I could make them out of cupcakes. This had the advantage of not requiring to much engineering on my part and also we had a school cake sale coming that afternoon so I figured I could just sprinkle them with smarties and sell them anyway if it all went horribly wrong.

It turned out to be fun! My plan to use the orangey bit inside a jaffa cake to make the beaks didn't quite work out as planned but otherwise industrial quantites of buttercream icing hid a multitude of sins. I was particularly proud that the owls genuinely looked a bit scared when I had finished.

As well they might. Taking them to the school cake sale to be torn apart in a flurry of feathers by a hundred grabbing hands made me feel a bit queasy; enough to turn one into a vegecakeatarian.: 'Owl Babies- Version X Rated- When The Mother Didn't Come'...
The original
The cake tribute

'Owl Babies' by Martin Waddell, illus. Patrick Benson, pub. Walker isbn  978-0744531671

Friday, 23 March 2012

Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf

Now why did/do I like this book? :)

I have a great fondness for my name ('like a big, round, yellow lollipop' says my friend with synaesthesia), but there's no doubt that rhyming with 'wally' and otherwise being associated with a variety of milkmaids and parrots has it's downsides. And I am fortunate that my husband's fondness for a near constant infusion of tea does not make him take advantage when I am kettle bound. He probably knows he would not be my husband if he did.

But Catherine Storr's 'Clever Polly' is a namesake to be proud of and aspire to. These short stories have remained in print more or less since 1955 and are as fresh and funny as ever. I made the mistake of first trying to read them to Bill too young, reasoning that because they were short they were a good 'starter' chapter book. In fact they were way too subtle for him, and he probably wasn't familiar enough with his classic literary wolves to enjoy them properly. Now, their time has come.

Polly is a smallish girl of indeterminate age but independent habits who is plagued by a cold caller wolf who openly wants to eat her. Fortunately  Polly is possessed of remarkable wit and resourcefulness and the wolf, whilst full of the beginnings of plans, has not paid close enough attention to his fairytale heroes and their conclusions. Thus he tries to plant a beanstalk to climb up to Polly's bedroom window- but has made the critical mistake of not purchasing 'magic' beans. Or tries to huff and puff her house down with an inadequate pair of bellows. Or gets ripped off by a witch who tricks him into thinking he's invisible.

The revisiting and subversion of classic nursery tales is familiar enough but what lifts these stories above the pack is firstly the humour of the dialogue between Polly and Wolf:

'"Good morning, Wolf," said Polly. "What are you planting this time?"
"This time," said the wolf, "I've had a Really good idea. I'm planting something which will grow up to your window in a moment."
"Oh," said Polly, interested. "What's that?"
"I have planted the rung of a ladder," said the wolf. "By tomorrow morning there'll be a long ladder stretching right up to your bedroom window. I specially chose a rung from the longest ladder I could see..."'

And secondly, the genuine and delicious frisson of fear contained within the humour. Polly really does have to work to save her skin; she is clever. And in a 1950's world where she shops on her own and stays home by herself, there is no comforting sense of an adult ready to intervene at any moment if she can't talk herself out of trouble. The child reader/listener gets just enough taste of what real independence might mean to wonder how they themselves might measure up under such circumstances. In the story 'In the Wolf's Kitchen' Polly actually gets caught and imprisoned for several days and is only saved by her excellent housekeeping skills. The darkness accentuates the funniness; the delight of shocked giggles.

'"Now Polly, I've really got you at last, and this time all your cleverness won't help you, for I am going to gobble you up."
"Oh very well," said Polly, obligingly. She looked round. "Where is the kitchen?" she asked.
"The kitchen?" said the wolf.
"But of course the kitchen," said Polly. "You are going to cook me, aren't you? Oh , Wolf," she said, as she looked at his surprised face, "you can't mean that you were going to eat me Raw?"'

And finally it is the loveable loneliness of the wolf and the ever-so-slight smugness of Polly that has kept these stories in print. I think it was probably one of my first experiences of split loyalty as a child reader and understanding how emotions can be manipulated by skillful writing. Because Polly always wins and always gets away and one couldn't/can't help feeling empathy for poor wolf. It's not that I wanted him to eat Polly but surely some other small girl with a different name might have been expendable?
'Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf' by Catherine Storr, pub. Jane Nissen books isbn

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Her Mother's Face

 I attended the Memorial service yesterday for someone who was a direct contemporary of mine at school. I hadn't seen her for twenty years and she wasn't one of my best friends- but still someone who shared the growing up journey with me and forever memorable to me in the way all old school friends are. She was funny, ditzy and beautiful, as well as kind and forgiving as a teenage girl in a way most of the rest of us weren't especially. She was also the single mother to a 12 year old son.

A clutch of old school friends were at the service. We'd written letters and  memories in advance to turn into a book for her son, who most of us had never met. We wanted to reveal the naughty teenage version of his mum to him (and some pretty unsuitable pictures of illicit fun were also included). Hopefully, it will be something he can appreciate in his own growing up years to come and a reminder of the joie de vivre I'm sure his mum would want him to remember her by.

My letter to him was bitter sweet to write as I also lost my mother at that age.
As it turns out my words had inspired the purchase of a book for me by another old friend, who unexpectedly pressed it into my hands in the church. The book was 'Her Mother's Face' by Roddy Doyle, illustrated by Freya Blackwood.

What she didn't know was that I'd come across just that book in the library a few weeks ago and found myself crying amongst the picture book displays. It's a beautiful, poignant reminder of both  the need to and the difficulties inherent in remembering. Siobhan loses her mother at the age of three and thereafter her father is unable to escape his grief to help keep memory alight. Siobhan searches particularly for a picture both real and imagined  of her mother's face.

'The empty space where her mother's face should have been was like a pain, a giant unhappiness that Siobhan carried with her everywhere.'

But then Siobhan is visited by a strange but comforting woman, who listens to her, dries her eyes and gives her a message for her father that will ultimately liberate him from his grief too. She also reveals that if Siobhan wants to see her mother's face all she needs to do is look in the mirror.

'At first, all she could see was her own face. But she stayed there, looking. And after a few minutes, she began to imagine another girl, very like herself, but not exactly the same.'

Siobhan grows up and has a daughter of her own, Ellen. Then one day when she looks in the mirror she sees a direct reflection of the woman who visited her and realises that (of course) she was her mother and cries.

The gentle message that our inheritance from those we have loved and who have loved us is imprinted in our faces and actions and passed on from generation to generation is beautifully expressed.
Now I can read it with less threat of dissolving, I will enjoy sharing this book with my boys as a way of opening up more conversations with them about their 'missing' grandparents. I particularly like the (almost) ending;

'Siobhan didn't live happily ever after, but she lived a long, long life, and she was happy a lot of the time. Her father lived enough to see Ellen grow into a woman.'

That's all any of us want really.  As yesterday reminded me, it doesn't always work out that way, so I am grateful there are books like this that remind us we remember just by being who we are, and the next generation can thus carry the love and legacy of those they never even met.

'Her Mother's Face' Roddy Doyle, illustrated Freya Blackwood, pub. Scholastic, isbn 978-1-407115-81-8

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Small pig

I think it's time for the husband's favourite book to make an appearance; Arnold Lobel's 'Small Pig'.
In some ways, this should have featured during my learning to read diversions of last week as it comes from the classic 'I CAN READ' (I like the urgent capitalisation) series of US origin that seems so superior to the many similar series here. The fact that the 'Frances' books are published under the same imprint gives an idea of the quality of story telling on offer.
 I'm split as to whether it's a good thing that they are 'leveled' and marketed as 'readers' or whether that again turns them into work to be joylessly ticked off and progressed through for the reader. In truth I suppose, it depends on the child. Still; hurray for the quality of 'em.

This is the only book from his childhood library that still accompanies the husband- and from his account it certainly wasn't something he read and reread as 'work' even if it originally went on the bookshelf for his Improvement. It's also one of the few pieces of fiction he references from childhood before he turned (in the manner of many boys) to reading the encyclopaedia instead. He's really useful on country walks in explaining the geological formation of landscape or  the differences between Aztecs and Incas but he knows nowt about Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Small pig lives on a farm, beloved by both farmer and farmer's wife. He leads a peaceful life where his greatest pleasure is to 'sit down and sink down in good, soft, mud.' Then, one fateful day, the urge to clean and tidy comes upon the farmer's wife and she washes the pig and hoovers all his good mud away (never a good idea to clean see?). Small pig becomes angry (there's a great picture); 'This place is too neat and shiny for me'. He runs away.
But the quest to find a satisfactory new puddle of mud proves harder than he expects; until he arrives in the city and finds a lovely pool of fresh cement. Small pig becomes stuck in the pavement and a crowd gathers.

'The farmer and his wife drive by in their car. "Look at that big crowd of people," says the farmer. "Let's stop and see what is happening."
"All right," says the farmer's wife, "but hurry. We must keep looking for our lost pig."
The farmer stops the car. "What is happening here?" he asks a man.
"Oh nothing much," says the man.
"There is just a pig stuck in the pavement."'

With the help of the fire brigade the family are reunited and the farmer's wife promises never to clean  the mud away again.

Funnily enough, the future of a small male pig on a farm is not elucidated.

Lobel's illustrations animate pig's pleasures and furies beyond the simplicity of his 'easy reading' words. It's just plain delightful in combination. The husband has great taste. Of course he does.

'Small Pig' by Arnold Lobel, pub. Harper Collins isbn 978-0064441209

Monday, 19 March 2012


Good morning, it's a fine, sparkly Spring day out there.
 A particularly excellent morning for eating cake in the sunshine and (assuming you have some sort of mobile device which you can take with you outside) you can do just that at Playing by the Book's lovely Edible Book Festival, freshly baked and open for viewing.
I am not allowed to reveal my own contribution yet- but I was excited to find the book that I wanted to review today beautifully evoked there amongst the (gulp) 73 entries.

 Despite a very bookish upbringing, I think the number of picture books we actually owned as children was substantially more limited than my sons' current personal libraries. 'Swimmy' by Leo Lionni was one of the few though and all I can say is lucky us that it was.  We had a beautiful hardback copy (in fact most of our picture books were lovely substantial hardbacks; quality over quantity- still intact despite mine being the fourth pair of hands to pick up many of them). It's impossible to guess how many times this book must have been read to me and then by me; but I might have given Eddie's Gruffalo habit a run for the money.
Having fewer books can mean a deeper connection with those few perhaps and the imprint left by 'Swimmy' meant it was one of the first books I bought for then baby Bill. I ordered it from (small voice) Amazon without checking properly and of course what arrived was not the splendid hardback of my memory but a thin half size paperback reissue. Still a great story but not quite the same.

It comes under Category Classic but if you've not come across it; it's the story of one small black fish who, Nemo-like, finds himself the last one standing in an ocean full of danger. Undaunted he gathers together a new band of tiddlers and together they swim in formation to scare the predators away. A straightforward hymn to the power of collective action and great Union leadership -I'm pretty sure the Tory-Topsy-and-Tim-corrupter  
friend's father of my childhood would not have been a fan.
It's a book that really oozes class and elegance both in the economy and beauty of the text and the  evocative watery block print illustrations. An extract:

'He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly...
a lobster who walked about like a water moving machine...
strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread...
a forest of seaweeds growing from sugar candy rocks...
an eel whose tail was almost too far away to remember...'

Such poetic and expressive imagery; and in a book designed for the smallest people. It makes me feel almost emotional that Leo Lionni should have created something so perfect and profound.

'Swimmy' by Leo Lionni currently published by Random House US (amongst others- but all American editions I think- now I feel better about the Amazon thing) isbn 978-0394826202

Friday, 16 March 2012

Learning to read diversions; Usborne, Egmont and more

Here's all the other stuff I've gleaned but haven't said in the other posts in a lazy Friday list ...

1. 'Reading Eggs' is a phonics based online 'learn to read' system which started out in Australia I think. It's not particularly cheap (although they normally give you a reasonable free trial to see if you like it) but I found it excellent if you don't have ishoos with your kids attaching themselves to a screen. Moshi Monsters-like, you have a house to decorate by earning points and each lesson you complete also gives you a new character to play with. Allowing Bill to complete it whilst Eddie watched over his shoulder probably did more to teach them to read than anything I did. Tiger mothering whilst I drank tea and read the paper- perfect (obviously we also do loads of more nourishing activities too involving mud, trees and eggboxes ;)..)

2. The Egmont 'Bananas' range seemed to have some of the more interesting and attractive looking stories for confidence building once they'd got going.

3. Ditto the Usborne 'Learn to Read' and 'Young Reader' series. At some point I shall probably write a love letter post to Usborne- it's very rare that I dislike any of their books- and for reference titles they're the tops. If you're minded to invest in any of their 'reader' titles check out the compendium volumes which stick a few together and are much more economical. Bill has read this book cover to cover multiple times; it's been a brilliant investment, in fact I just had to retrieve it from his bed to photograph.

Less good that it's so gendered but there are plenty of others of varying complexity and different appeal. This one has 18 stories in it, including  pretty good versions of Sir Gawain and Treasure Island; some from their Stage 1 young readers and some from their stage 2 ( equates to independent readers who need confidence building- on the verge of chapter book stuff). Definitely ticks the box of supportive 'reader' that is also proper book.

4. Had some success with  the further along VRH kids with the Dorling Kindersley Readers; although even at level 1 they're relatively complex. These would be very worthwhile checking out for the stereotypical reluctant reader  fiction-phobe; lots of Star Wars, Marvel and Natural History titles. Ooo just seen they've got a Pokemon one, I know a few people who might be interested in that...

5. When you have a child who teaches himself, then you don't need any dullery-dull dull readers at all; easy peasy. All children will get to a point where they can and want to do that I guess but at very different ages depending on developmental priorities and learning styles (I would rather Eddie had prioritised wiping his bottom efficiently first to be honest). Therefore the Steiner type school of thought of just leaving them to it/starting much later is almost certainly right. I am just too controlling- the fact that I recognise it is no excuse.

Having done these posts this week I will return to proper individual consideration of proper individual books next week. Assuming you don't have me marked as some kind of  drooling ,clawing, staring, smiling, pushy mother monster now and will return.

In all seriousness, clearly the most important thing you do as a parent to get your child to read is read to them and read to them and keep on reading to them whilst scattering the house with books, comics, graphic novels, pizza leaflets, cartoons, poetry, newsprint, recipes, Top Trumps, puzzles and plays and hope that eventually they break the surface of  the mound of printed matter panting and clutching something in their hand that they'd like to look at.
That's my excuse for the state of the house anyway.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Learning to read diversions; Franklin Watts

Why do reading schemes have to look like and be so obviously reading schemes? Why are they so distinguishable by both adult and child at 20 paces from 'proper' books? Leveled and colour coded to provide a point of instant playground comparison. 'What level are you on then?' is something I've heard children ask each other on numerous occasions; great for those who wish to swank but confidence destroying of course for those who are getting stuck.
The great thing in theory about volunteering with VRH and working one to one with developing readers is that we use real picture books and not readers. The children are free to choose whatever they fancy. The problem with this of course is that what they fancy can be frustratingly difficult to decode and then they get discouraged.

What I would like, please, is a range of beautiful books of different shapes and sizes, illustrated by all our best and lovely illustrators that beginning readers might be able to pick up and access without knowing they were 'doing' reading practice. Can't we get a bit sneakier and more imaginative in designing these objects? I sense the US, with Dr Seuss as a founding father (put him on Mount Rushmore surely?) is better at this; Arnold Lobel and now apparently fab pigeon-on-bus man Mo Willems spring to mind. Julia Donaldson's 'Songbirds' are good but should just be the starting point. I am trying to form my own collection of titles where I find them (Vivienne Schwartz's 'There are cats in this book' has proved a great book giving day purchase for VRH box incidently) but it remains a bit hit and miss.

One of the ranges in the library that I find most useful in this respect (although they still look too uniform not to be clocked as work by the kids) are those published by Franklin Watts; Tadpoles, Leapfrogs, Reading Corner and particularly the more complex Hopscotch have all made for pretty good foraging. They're often genuinely funny, they use a good mix of illustrators and they cover a great variety of styles and topics from traditional fairy tales to some imaginative historical titles: It's hard to resist a book called 'Henry 8th Has to Choose'.

I actually even bought a couple; 'Beowulf and Grendel' is by Martin Waddell and  illustrated by Graham Howells and is part of the Hopscotch 'adventure' range which also covers King Arthur, Robin Hood and Blackbeard amongst others. It tickled me that it was possible to introduce one's children to the roots of Anglo Saxon story telling in under 500 words. It's really bloodthirsty. The boys love it.

'Grendel filled a huge, dragon-skin bag with human flesh. Blood dripped from the bag as he dragged it back to his lair.'

I'm not going to subject you to the picture that accompanies that text, you might be eating a biscuit by your computer or something. But it's pretty cool.

oh go'arn can have a bit of Thursday gore.
That'll make them want to pick it up and carry on won't it?

'Beowulf and Grendel' by Martin Waddell, illustrated byGraham Howells, pub. Franklin Watts isbn 978-0-7496-8563-8

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Learning to read diversions; Oxford Reading Tree

I spent a while after posting yesterday musing on whether I had been unfair on poor old Peter and Jane. Does the process of learning to read (at least in the early stages) have to be so supportively repetitive that feeling like you want to stab out your eyeballs with cocktail sticks for sensation as you work through the books is just a necessary phase?

Having rejected P 'n J and knowing Bill to be able to sound out those words that worked to sound out  I cast about for alternatives in the library and discovered Julia Donaldson's 'Songbirds' range for Oxford Reading Tree. Hurray for Julia! No cocktail sticks required; these were pithy, varied and fun for both Bill and much more importantly obviously ;), me. He still talks about the story of the Red Man and the Green Man who live in the traffic lights and the chaos that results when they go on holiday. We liked those. And hurray also for the fact that they employed more than one illustrator and style in the making of them; anything to keep us awake and guessing.

These are a recent addition to the Oxford Reading Tree canon. Since the late 1980s or so (judging from Mum's hairstyle, earrings and the children's red striped wallpaper choice) the majority of Primary School children in this country have been taught to read by Biff, Chip, Kipper and Floppy the dog. With the beginning of the Phoney Phonics War  I sense their star has been on the wane; and they are not currently in use at the boys' school. They are being reinvented in synthetic phonic form- but too late for us-and for the school who have invested in the fairly knuckle-chewing, cheek-slapping, quick-jog-around-the-room-and-back-to them but Local Authority Approved Get The Job Done, Rigby Star series instead. sigh.

I started to get some Biff and Chip 'classic-style' out of the library as Bill progressed to quicker recall reading. I approached them with a sense of gloom and foreboding but was pleasantly surprised by how involved we both got. If you haven't hung out with them; Biff, Chip and Kipper (strange names I know- presumably Very Evidence based for Supportiveness) move into a new house and during the course of some renovations discover a secret room, a precise miniature replica of their house, a mysterious box and a magic key.
Once you get to level 5 or so the 'magic key begins to glow' with predictable regularity in each book, shrinking the children and transporting them on a range of educational adventures. They get to influence the design of the sphinx, meet Queen Victoria, party with pirates and fool around with Laurel and Hardy amongst many other fun times. Not revolutionary but interesting enough for Bill to actively request me to get the next one out so he could read on. And for me to (cough) read ahead to find out what happens. I see the appeal and why they were so ubiquitous for so long. We were a little sad to reach the end of them

I imagine if I were a teacher reading them every year for a twenty years they might start to pall.

Last year the bookpeople (online book discounters- my dirty little secret haunt when not visiting Proper Bookshop) started offering something called the Time Chronicles which turned out to be a whole new set of Biff and Chip books- revisiting them when they were all 3 or 4 years older and offering first 'chapter' book experiences. They were a good deal so I bought 'em for Bill and me to find out what happened next.

Cool! It turns out that all those magic key adventures were just testing and training the children for their future role as Time Runners saving humanity throughout history from the threat of the evil alien Virans. Mr. Mortlock, the school caretaker (who I always marked as a man of mystery- often appearing in the background of the original books  having trouble with his baseball cap and glasses) is actually a centuries old Time Guardian who has been watching them carefully before revealing their true purpose. Each book involves a different dangerous mission into the past to stop the Virans interfering with the Web of Time (and involving a nice trot through different historical events too) We were hooked and Bill rattled through them reading in long chunks non stop during daylight hours for the first time. Like a less scary Dr. Who primer.
I love the fact that Roderick Hunt was able to return to these characters over 20 years after he'd first invented them and imbue his old very simple stories with whole new layers of secret meaning. He and Alex Brychta the illustrator must have had fun letting all their conspiracy theories loose and I loved having mine realised.

'Readers' that both you and your children actively choose to read. Now that is a bit revolutionary.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Learning to read diversions; Ladybird beginnings.

I want to write some posts about the process of teaching my kids to read and the relative drearinesses or otherwise of the various reading 'scheme' books we have come across in that journey.
I realise I'm dipping my toes into possibly controversial waters in doing so however- so I'll 'fess up at the outset I have no qualifications or expertise to pontificate on this subject (well, I hope I won't pontificate), no strong feelings about synthetic phonics versus whole word recognition or whatever the current controversies are and no wish to evangelicise results of paths followed. This is intended as an interesting diversion only for anyone who has opened their child's bookbag and flicked through its contents with a heavy heart and a sense of gloom at having to spend the next 15minutes dutifully ploughing through whatever it contains.

The first controversy I may be unravelling seems to be teaching your child to read at all. I did (whispered confession) actively teach Bill to read and provide alternative support around that beyond what he got from school. I felt vaguely shady in doing that; encountering the terrifying tiger mother that lurks within and allowing her a small piece of steak before (hopefully) locking her firmly back in a very small cage, buried very, very deep in an underground bunker.
Here's the thing though; I love to read and both boys appeared to love books and being read to. I was just impatient hungry to help them unlock that experience further. We're all guilty of wanting our children to share our enthusiasms- so I hope it wasn't that different to those that put their babies into an Arsenal strip and buy them their first season ticket at an inappropriately young age-just my version of it. I gave them their first chocolate cake too soon too.

My mum taught me to read. We had a complete set of Ladybird 'Peter and Jane' books that had already seen service for my older siblings and I did a little each day. When I finished a book I got a sweet. When I finished a level I got a packet of dolly mixture. This may have set up some less beneficial lifelong habits that accompany my love of books but I have matured; now it's squares of dark Green and Black chocolate.
I accordingly purchased my own 'starter' set of key word Ladybird books when I thought I'd start introducing some learn-to-read material to Bill- on the 'it was good enough for me' principle (but no dolly mixture).

This was an error. Peter and Jane are really, really dull. I boggle slightly at the rave reviews on Amazon for them. Lovely collectables for their classic font and illustrations (and gender stereo-typing) but unbelievably dull to learn to read from-however supportive the science behind them. Besides which Bill had an understanding of how to phonically build words before he developed an eye for whole word recognition so these were the wrong starting place for us at least. They sat on the shelf unloved by any of us.
Other  Ladybird books were much more useful/popular however. Their 'Read it Yourself' leveled fairy tales remain some of Eddie's absolute favourites and the classic re-issued 'Danger Men' is cracking:

'Some men jump from an aeroplane, then the aeroplane falls into the sea.
The men fall into the sea some way from the aeroplane.
There is some ice in the sea.
The men are in danger, but other brave men are going to help.'

They are so well designed for small hands to carry about; satisfying objects that haven't been fiddled about with too much over the decades. I like all their non-fiction titles, the brilliantly simple but exciting 'Extreme Weather' and 'Vikings' were much enjoyed by both my boys and the VRH kids I've passed them onto.
It's a shame these don't seem to be currently in print, but then I'm not sure anyone buys their Ladybird books new anyhow. Baskets of 10p priced recycled dog eared copies are the foundations of any decent church jumble sale or school 'fayre' and one of my favourite things to rifle through. Ladybird may need to consider making their books less hard wearing if they are worried about their profits.
not my favourite


I'll continue with some more 'reader' musings throughout this week. I shouldn't leave Ladybird however without mentioning their other favourite sibling pair; 'Topsy and Tim', also constants in various reissues since my childhood. My relationship with them is corrupted. They used to be read aloud to me by the strange rabidly right wing father of a friend who would insert his own pro-Tory anti- Labour government of the 70s narrative into the text: 'Then Topsy shook nice Mrs. Thatcher by the hand whilst Tim spanked naughty Mr. Callaghan over the fence and into the field with the bull...' A strange weekly experience whilst waiting for Brownies to begin.
Right, time for a chocolate square.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Poetry Friday

As my dear brother was good enough to point out my misspelling of Noel Streatfeild's name yesterday. I am going to offer him a little treat today in the form of a poem that I once used to perform as my party piece at the Christmas dinner table.
I discussed earlier this week my trouble with reading aloud books that require regional accents from me and the sniggering they can provoke from my husband. But long before there was the husband there was the brother to do the sniggering. Philistines. sniff.
Years of expensive 'Speech and Language' classes, spoken poetry/reading competitions and strange 'Lamda' perfomance exams (do these things still exist?) punctuated my childhood. I thought myself really rather good at it- a natural actress. And I was especially proud of my West Country burr employed to the full in my animated rendition of Rudyard Kipling's 'A Smugglers' Song'. Here's the first verse.

"If you wake at midnight and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark-
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
and watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!"

It's very important you see to stretch and flatten out that 'ar' on 'darling' and leave off the g- daaahlin' and please try to say 'Gentlemen' as 'Gennilmin' to maximise the pleasure of your listening audience...

How he laughed. Meanie. That's why I'm not 'Ballet Shoes's' Pauline now see?

Smugglers seem to feature quite frequently as a romantic idea in Children's Literature. Odd because the concept of them is very difficult to explain to a curious 7 year old. 'So are they baddies or goodies? And who are the Inland Revenue? I don't really understand mum.' 'It's complicated Bill, it's complicated'.

I was delighted to find 'A Smuggler's Song' so well represented on YouTube in both spoken and sung form. Here's a couple for your pleasure.
First as performed by Murray Lachlan Young:
Although he seems to have completely failed on the accent front. I can't think he would have got his Lamda certificate (although I like the atmospheric hoof noises and whinnying- I should have added some half coconuts to my performance clearly)

And then an old sung recording with music by Kipling too allegedly. Jaunty! But where's the Cornish accent?

No one's doing it Properly! ;)

Poetry Friday is hosted here today by Myra at Gathering Books. Thank you Myra and Happy Birthday!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Ballet Shoes

It's another Day of Note today; International Women's Day- one that I'm sure you will have heard of and even be marking in some way without me mentioning it.

As a 'sah' mother of sons I am conscious that I'm often pretty lazy about their feminist education in a way that I wouldn't be if I had daughters. They've shown themselves to be capable of some fairly startling gender divide assumptions at times and while I'm prepared to cut them some slack on the basis that most of it is simply ego-fueled small child self obsession; 'I am the coolest. I am a boy: Boys are the coolest', I'm considering a bit of active reprogramming.

Reading Bill Noel Streatfield's 'Ballet Shoes' may seem a pretty small step in raising boys to the Sisterhood but you know, it's a start. In fact I'll take the fact that he was perfectly happy to have  a mauve book with a picture of a girl lacing pink shoes on the cover read to him as some grain of comfort.
Noel Streatfield was my Absolute. Favourite. No-questions-asked author as a child and 'Ballet Shoes' was my Absolute. Favourite. No-questions-asked of her books. Therefore re-opening it as an adult to read to Bill felt a bit soul- exposing.
'This was your favourite mum wasn't it?' 'Yes Bill' 'I'll listen extra carefully then.''Thank you'

If you don't know this classic, it's the story of three adopted orphans; Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil 'collected' by the flaky Great Uncle Matthew who then disappears on an overseas expedition leaving them to be brought up by his saintly niece Sylvia and her indomitable old retainer nurse Nana. When the money he left runs out, they are forced first to take in lodgers to their enormous crumbling house on London's Cromwell Road, and then to send the girls out to earn their keep as performers through attendance at 'Madame Fidolia's Academy of Dancing and Stage Training'. Pauline shows herself to be a talented actress and Posy's precocious feet are those of a Prima- Ballerina to be. Only Petrova is miserable in the limelight. She has a passion for engineering and ambitions to fly; thankfully she finds support in the form of the lodger Mr. Simpson who ('oh heaven!') owns a garage and can offer afternoons of engine tinkering to offset the misery of performing.

All that stage sparkle and pinkery may sound distinctly anti-feminist but in fact, given its publication date of 1936 it's a surprisingly gritty girl read. Sylvia is very open about her own lack of education leaving her completely ill equipped to earn her own living and determined that the Fossil sisters should have the ability to be independent. The girls themselves invent their own surname and make a yearly vow 'to try and put our names in history books because it's our very own and nobody can say it's because of our grandfathers.'

And it's the sheer amount of drudgery for both children and adults to achieve economic independence which impresses me re-reading it now: this is no shallow tale of X Factor sparkle. The girls have a structured daily timetable of education, exercise and practice that occupies their every waking moment from 7.30am to 7pm bedtime. Bill was impressed and incredulous; 'when do they get to play?'. Of course poverty is relative, and although the Fossils have to pawn some possessions to buy a posh frock for auditions they still live in a house with 'staff' in the form of a cook and a housemaid. The contrast of a child needing to work in order to eat in a world with no welfare state is reinforced in the character of Pauline's friend Winifred whose talent and cleverness is not matched by beauty and who is doomed to be forever the understudy.
'Winifred pulled up her socks.
"There's needing money and needing money," she said wisely. "If I could get this job, Mother'd put half away for me, but even what's left would mean the extra stuff Dad needs to get well. He's had an operation and doesn't seem to get right after it. Then there's the clothes wanted for all of us, especially shoes. Oh it would be wonderful if I could get it!"'
She doesn't get it. Pauline does and Streatfield is clear eyed in all her books about the pragmatics and compromises involved in the pursuit of dreams.

The book has a famous ending; the girls are to go their separate ways, Pauline to Hollywood, Posy to study ballet with a Maestro in Czechoslovakia and Pertrova to live with the returned Great Uncle Matthew in a house by an aerodrome:
'"What different things we are going to do!" said Pauline.
"In such different places," added Posy.
"I wonder"-Petrova looked up-"If other girls had to be one of us, which of us they'd choose to be?"'

How I pondered this question. It was always a split between Posy and Pauline I'm afraid- poor Petrova - set to win a Nobel prize-didn't get a look in. Surprisingly Bill was similarly split. He enjoyed 'Ballet Shoes' but it was a fairly polite enjoyment- I have to accept it didn't grab him by the heart as it did me (possibly too much detail about the particularities of child performer licencing laws- certainly more than I remembered).

What I didn't expect is that I should turn out to be Nana! But there you go; Noel Streatfield was right about the need for pragmatism in the female life. Happy International Women's Day whoever you turned into.
'Ballet Shoes' by Noel Streatfield, pub. (not edition shown) by Orion isbn 978-1842556795

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Arabel's Raven

Today is apparently World Read Aloud Day, not to mention also National Crown Roast of Pork Day (although that may just be in the US I think...I'm not sure I know what a Crown Roast is). There's always something to celebrate of course, whatever the day of the year, but Reading Aloud is an especially good one and worthy of note in this blog. If you'd rather just find out about the Crown Roast try here. That's a fine piece of pork.

Every day is Read Aloud day in this house of course given the ages of our children. But I hope that every day will remain a Read Aloud day for many years to come. My lovely Pa read aloud regularly to me until about the age of 10 I think, and after then there were occasional cosy nights on holiday when he'd scare the pants off all of us with an MR James ghost story ('Whistle and I'll come to You' *shiver*) around the fire. The husband courted me with his willingness to read classic pony stories to me of an evening. Now, I thoroughly enjoy getting stuck into increasingly complex stories with Bill. Having just completed 'Black Hearts in Battersea' we may have reached Hobbit time if I can't find a copy of 'Night birds in Nantucket' (although I remember that as being less good). I'll be sad if and when he dismisses my services.

So I offer you a fantastic book to read aloud today- partly because it was written especially for that- in the form of  another Joan Aiken; 'Arabel's Raven'.
Completely different from the spooky melodrama of the Willoughby Wolves reviewed here, 'Arabel's Raven' and the other 'Mortimer' books were originally written to be read aloud for the BBC children's programme of the 1970's 'Jackanory'.
'Jackanory' was a staple of my childhood telly. A different book was read aloud in five fifteen minute installments over the course of a week by an actor with no frills or furbelowes beyond the occasional cut to an illustration. If you missed a day- tough- there was no iplayer or recorder then of course. I'm in danger of sounding like a right old fogey, and I should say that I think there are many things about 'modern' telly for kids which are wildly superior to what we were offered then, but at its best 'Jackanory' was mesmerising, despite or perhaps because of its simplicity.
Bernard Cribbins was a Jackanory regular and the 'Mortimer' stories were written especially for him to read. I remember snorting, roaring, weeping, wetting myself with laughter watching him- and news that there was about to be a new one was the closest we got then to 'event' telly.
It's very sad then, that amongst the vast quantities of nostalgia clips available on YouTube there doesn't seem to be any Cribbins doing Jackanory. Still I'll offer you the original titles to preface my review and a snippet of equally wonderful Kenneth Williams to demonstrate just how minimalist telly got to be then.

'Arabel's Raven' is the first story in a series about small girl Arabel and her pet raven Mortimer and all the chaos that owning a raven with a beak for trouble can cause.
The books are built on about 80% dialogue which makes them perfect for reading aloud. You'll need a good line in funny voices, but the quality of the writing and differentiation of the voices makes it a joyful experience.

"One morning Mr. Round and Mr. Toby Round and Mrs. Jones were all very busy arranging a display of new issues in the shop window. When they had finished they discovered that Mortimer had eaten the spiral staircase.
'Mrs. Jones, you and your bird will have to go. We have kind, long suffering natures, but Mortimer has done eight hundred and seventeen pounds, sixty-seven pence' worth of damage. You may have a year to repay it. Please don't trouble to ever come in again.'
'Glad I am that I haven't such a kind, long-suffering nature,' snapped Mrs. Jones, and she dumped Mortimer on top of her wheeled shopping-bag and dragged him home.
'Stairs!' she said to Arabel, 'What's the use of a bird who eats stairs? Gracious knows there's enough rubbish in the world- why can't he eat tonic bottles, or ice-cream cartons, or used cars, or oil slicks, tell me that? But no! he has to eat the only thing that joins the upstairs to the downstairs.'
'Nevermore!' said Mortimer.
'Tell that to the space cavalry!' said Mrs. Jones"

Mortimer redeems himself by the capture of a band of jewel thieves in this story, although the sword Excalibur comes off less well as I remember in a subsequent volume when he becomes the first raven to drive a lawnmower. As first read-aloud farce they can't be bettered. Despite being somewhat hampered by not being Bernard Cribbins when I read these to Bill he was also pretty giggly at their escalations. And they're illustrated by Quentin Blake. What more do you need? Happy Reading Aloud today and every day.

'Arabel's Raven' by Joan Aiken, illus. Quentin Blake, pub. Barn Owl books, isbn 978-1-903015-14-8

Tuesday, 6 March 2012


I'm posting about Rastamouse today not so much in the spirit of hard sell- 'you must get this book'- I like them, I don't necessarily love them- but more as a place to air my and the husband's increasing anxieties about irregularities in government in the state of Mouseland. Rather like our 'Peepo' obsessing, the Rastamouse books are forming a staple of dinnertime conversation for us post bedtime story at the moment. That in itself is a recommendation I guess; there are plenty of books which we are very happy never to return to once we've turned off the light and said goodnight.

Eddie's Rastamouse enthusiasms pre-date the CBeebies television show but have certainly been solidified by the Easy Crew's animated incarnation. We have all three books written by Michael De Souza and illustrated by Genevieve Webster; 'Rastamouse and the Crucial Plan', 'Rastamouse and Da Bag-a Bling' and 'Rastamouse and the Double Crossin' Diva'. They demand some good patois skills to read aloud which challenges me almost as much as the Yorkshire brogue I had to accomplish reading Bill 'The Secret Garden' recently. Both reduce the husband to stifled giggles, which earn him some hard stares over the top of my glasses.

If you haven't come across him, skateboarding Rastamouse, with his friends Scratchy and Zoomer manage to combine successful careers in a super-cool reggae band with alternative careers as crime-fighting special agents. They are at the beck and call of the shady President Wensleydale, who can call on them on his special radio at any time to solve the problems of Mouseland. They variously solve the cheese thieving of lonely chef criminal Bandulu, the orphan kidnapping of audience-lacking rapper Bagga T and the bus-jacking of diva-wannabe Missy D. It's all good stuff. The text has a bouncy rhyme which is fun to read. The illustrations  are in-your-face Lucy Cousins-esque bright and cheery.

Still we feel there is a dark, dark core at the centre of the Rastamouse universe.

First off, President Wensleydale has the air of a military dictator who- I don't think it's speculating too much at all to say- may have earned power in a bloody coup. He wears a blue uniform at all times, complete with peaked cap marked 'President' in case anyone is any doubt. He often appears flanked by two nameless, wordless mice also in blue uniform who may or may not be something to do with a savage secret police.

Where are the police anyway? Why does all responsibility for crime solving fall to three frankly under-qualified reggae stars who stage sting operations of dubious legality and reckless orphan endangerment?

And having 'solved' the crime- where is Mouseland's due legal process? Rastamouse takes it upon himself to accept the baddie's apology as sole restitution. They are then found employment in the Mouseland orphanage where frankly the most basic CRB checks seem to be absent. This can't be right.

Why are there so many orphans in Mouseland anyway? What happened to their parents and why is there no programme to move away from this outdated large scale institutionalism to more modern practices of small group fostering? The level of child abandonment seems further evidence of a bloody recent past to me.

And who is it that thinks a diet composed entirely of cheese pies is any way to feed a community?


Are there books which obsess you and your family in this way?  I should add that the album of music from the TV show is surprisingly good, forming the backdrop to much of our life last summer. Here's a taster to warm you on a grey day:

'Rastamouse and the Crucial Plan' written by Michael De Souza and Genevieve Webster, illus. Genevieve Webster. pub. Little Roots, isbn 978-0-9546098-1-8

Monday, 5 March 2012

Puffin Peter

A new book  by Petr Horacek is always going to catch my eye. He's a beautiful illustrator and his board books for babies rank amongst the best. Not least because they're actually designed as board books for babies and not simply scaled down, thickened up books for older children repackaged for pushy parents.

'Puffin Peter' is not a board book but it does feature puffins, penguins, and toucans which are respectively Bill, my, and Eddie's favourite birds. And it has the happiest shade of yellow cover. I leapt upon it in the library and brought it home for us all to enjoy a little sunshine yellow in a weekend of constant rain.

It's a simple story and frankly probably an overly familiar one told better by Julia Donaldson in 'Monkey Puzzle'. Best puffin friends Peter and Paul become separated during a storm. Peter is helped by a passing friendly whale who takes him on a journey across the seas to try and reunite him with his pal. But Peter's description of Paul leaves room for misinterpretation and a few wrong turns along the way before their reunion can be effected. (note- take a Proper History first before taking your passenger all the way to the Antarctic coastline and then the Tropics. tsk tsk, eyes cast to the sky...)

I forgive completely the too well trammeled path of the prose however because it's just. so. pretty to look at. He does that trick I remember from primary school of painting over paper that's been rubbed with a wax crayon. Really effective for conveying the oily, glossy sheen of a seabird's plumage.

A very smiley book to put into the hands of any two/three year old you know, (or older if they just happen to be a toucan fetishist too.) And don't miss his board books if compiling a baby's first library.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Friday bake off

Can't post today. I have a head full of cake and I must meet my Old Nemesis; Piped Icing. Why? I'm taking part in Playing by the Book's Edible Book Festival.

Go here if you would like to take part too.

I am not good at icing and making neat pretty things. I have been therefore wracking my brains as to what to attempt. Bill was in favour of making a Ronny Rock inspired Mr Bunt monster cake as reviewed here- but you know- fishy teeth- I want to be able to eat it too. Plus it looks quite hard! I have ALWAYS wanted to make this chocolate fudge banana cake from Quentin Blake's fab 'All Join in' -

but the scale of it is a little daunting...and both my children are inexplicably 'off' bananas presently so they've vetoed it. So what have we gone for? My lips are sealed in the interests of anonymity in judging. Let's just say it's definitely a classic cover and I've yet to find another cakely interpretation to make me feel inadequate online. Wish me luck and have a go yourselves-especially you Nathalie my Cake Queen friend!
Further inspiration/intimidation available on Pinterest here.

I'll reveal all in a few weeks time- even if it's just a picture of me weeping in a mound of crumbs. At least there's a cake sale at school today so I know whatever I produce will find a good home if I add enough sprinkles.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Happy World Book Day!

Quite my favourite day in the school calendar. I spotted a complete Hogwarts including a He-Who-We-Dare-Not-Speak-his-Name, two Where's Wallys, Tintin and Snowy, Danny the Champion of the world, five Winnie the Witches, a (insert appropriate collective noun- ?Posy) of Princesses, a Cyberman, Pippi Longstocking, a bat, a Jedi and two lions for starters in the school playground this morning.
So here's the Fellow Reviewers:

Hiccup and Toothless from Cressida Cowell's 'How to Train your Dragon' series (dressed to book illustrations not to film version- I hope you appreciate the purity of the interpretation ;))

Poser :)

and....can you guess? I'll make you guess...

did you guess?

Spring had sprung! The cat has caught his first frog in the garden for the season. Hope the sun is shining on you too. Happy World Book Day.