Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Sniffles for Bear

A week late I found the perfect 'ill' book in the library yesterday.

When Eddie was in the depths of his poorly gloom he trailed up the stairs at one point announcing his intention to 'play some sad music on my piano because I am Not Well'. In 'The Sniffles for Bear' by Bonny Becker, illustrated by Kady MacDonald Denton, very very sick Bear is similarly in search of melancholy music from his too perky Mouse companion.
'"When someone is dreadfully ill, you sing mournful songs. Everyone knows that," growled Bear. He blew his nose with a honk.'

This is a pitch perfect book in both text and illustration. It captures both the grumpy misery of a cold and the secret pleasure that may be derived from a self pitying wallow in such grumpy misery. Bear droops himself around in a spreading, sighing, notice me sort of way very familiar to anyone who has had to play nurse. Poor Mouse finds that every suggestion he makes is wrong (also rather familiar) and is reduced to transcribing Bear's  dictated will. At least there may be a red roller skate bequest coming for his labours.

When the tables are turned and Mouse becomes the patient at the end of the book, Bear has learned exactly what comfort an ill friend requires. It's a tender friendship, deftly realised.
'Bear carefully tucked him in. "I'm sorry you're ill," he said.
"Tank you, Bear, " Mouse sniffled. And after a moment, he added, "Dat was just the ting."
Bear smiled.'

I suspect this book might be one with particular adult appeal. Perish the thought that the words 'Man Flu' should ever pass my lips but those that have a partner of either sex who requires particularly active sympathy when poorly will find much to enjoy here. Which is not to say that your children won't enjoy it too. It's good for anyone, whatever their age and whether patient or nurse to be reminded that 'this too shall pass.' Nettle soup all round then.

'The Sniffles for Bear' written Bonny Becker, illustrated Kady MacDonald Denton, pub. Walker
isbn 978-1-4063-3653-5

Tuesday, 29 May 2012


My first competition!

Here is the current state of Eddie's end of bed book mountain. Every so often I try and shift some out and back to the shelves at which point meltdown ensues and there is an outraged hour post bed time at which you can hear him muttering and padding back and forth across the bedroom floor to liberate the re-imprisoned tomes.
I just don't want him to die from crush injuries.

So, rather than 'guess the number of sweets in the jar' I'm running a guess the number of books in the bed. Whoever gets the closest will win... A Jar Full of Sweets! or alternatively a copy of whichever book in the pile catches your fancy (although I warn you getting hold of 2010 Scooby Doo annuals may be difficult). That makes sense doesn't it? In the event of a tie break Eddie will draw a name from a hat.

To enter just comment your guess at the bottom, but for reasons of postage I'm going to stick to UK only I'm afraid. If you don't have the right 'id' to comment but still want to have a punt feel free to email or tweet a guess at me and I will add it in for you. Entries will close on Friday at 12ish.

Good Luck. Off to find out the answer myself.

You can click on the photo to enlarge it for a better look. (I know you probably know that already but I didn't for AGES)

Monday, 28 May 2012

Let's Bake a Cake

Go on- let's- we deserve it. First it was the Eddie, then it was the Bill, then the husband and finally the me succumbing one by one to the lurgy last week, until we were all flippetty floppetting in one big flippetty, floppetty pile of lethargy and mild groaning. And it was the Week the Sun Came Out.
But now the Eddie and the Bill at least are recovered and back to being educated, and the rest of us are on the upward curve, and the sun is STILL out, so celebratory cake is definitely called for. There are one or two birthdays coming up too...

'Let's Bake a Cake' by Ruth Walton is one of a series of non-fiction books published by Franklin Watts that take a pleasingly sideways approach to tackling a range of subjects. Rather than a simple recipe book (although it does include a nice chocolate cake recipe I am pleased to say), it's an investigation into both the science and social geography of cake baking. Each ingredient is considered in terms of both how and where it comes from and why it helps the flavour and consistency of a cake. For flour therefore we get a short history of the process of growing and harvest of wheat, the techniques of milling and the different types of flour that emerge and a consideration of the importance of baking powder in the final product.

It may be sounding like something of a dry cake. In fact the consistency of this book is as moist and aerated as the finest sponge; lifted by bright collage-style illustrations mixed with photographs and lightened by the perfect bite sized 'facts'. I'm a sucker for any insight into factory processes: (one of my favourite CBeebies programmes remains the now venerable 'Come Outside' where Auntie Mabel and Pippin the dog visit a toothpaste factory! or a pencil factory! or a sewage works! and we get to see everything step by step.) I like the page demonstrating the transformation of sugar beet or cane into crystals. It's also a book with a social conscience touching on the importance of the fairtrade label and the differing conditions of working hens.

Eddie's current stated career ambitions are to be a poet and baker; Michael Rosen meets Mary Berry. He was very appreciative of this book; reading recipes out loud is poetry to his ears but it's nice to go one stage back. A primer before he moves on to the Encyclopaedia Gastronomique perhaps.
I'm certainly going to seek out other books in this series; 'Let's Ride a Bike' could be very useful to him; providing a delivery system for both buns and verse.
My only criticism of the book is the strangely miserable face of the Grandma who's doing the baking. Is she reflecting on the mutability of life and another year passing? Is she on a diet? Or is she just bucking the twinkly stereotype like Frank? Lighten up lady- there's chocolate to be eaten.

'Let's Bake a Cake' written and illustrated by Ruth Walton, pub. Franklin Watts, isbn 978-0-7496-8854-7

This is a post for non-fiction Monday, hosted today by the wonderful Perogies and Gyoza; who is all about the football (or 'soccer' if you must) this week. Go visit if you've got a ball-crazed family member.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

The Frank Show

Grandparents are often too good to be true in children's books. Twinkly-eyed, apple-cheeked, bun-haired purveyors of baked treats, warm hugs and inappropriate knitwear; they can all seem to merge into one amorphous cipher for Old Person.

'The Frank Show' by David Mackintosh provides a nice antidote to such saccharine blandness. It's 'show and tell' time at school and everyone is required to provide a member of their family to present a talk on. When Mum and Dad are too busy and baby Minnie is too little, Grandad Frank becomes the only candidate in the running. But Frank is tricky; grumpy and apparently dull. He 'doesn't like noise, or today's music, or gadgets and gizmos (or new things), or haircuts, or weather, or doctors or any sort of ice cream that isn't vanilla'. Will his grandson be able to find a minute's worth of material in Frank?

As it turns out (gasp); everyone has a story to tell that's worth hearing if you only take the time to listen; even or perhaps especially, those who've been around the longest. Frank also has (amongst many other accomplishments) a green tattoo, metal in his arm from the war that can tell him when it's going to rain and a real Japanese sword under his bed. A Grandparent who can tell stories becomes a classroom accessory even cooler than a full deck of Modern Marvel Flash Cards.

For me the biggest charm in this altogether charming book are David Mackintosh's witty, busy and slightly subversive illustrations. On one page we are treated to the content's of Frank's childhood memories; a nightmarish mix of tiny clowns, pet crows, suspended crocodiles and gasworks that repays long appreciation. The chaos of both infant school playground and wartime cavalry battle charge are also well observed. Look out for the horse in a gas mask and charging unicorn. And my desire to purchase a jar of pickled onions in the supermarket this week is no co-incidence.

A funny book, a wise book and a beautiful book with just-a-bit-of-a disturbing edge. I'd be happy to show and tell it anywhere.

'The Frank Show' by David Mackintosh, pub. Harper Collins isbn 978-0-00-736400-8

Disclaimer: We received our copy by kindness of the publishers. Our views are our own.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Hero on a Bicycle

A brand, spanking new book by Shirley Hughes? Her first novel you say? Count me in; I think I've mentioned before I'm a bit of a fan.
'Hero on a Bicycle' is a tautly written thriller set in and around Nazi-occupied Florence at the end of the war. Thirteen year old Paolo and his older sister Constanza must tread a careful diplomatic path with both neighbours and occupying forces; their mother is British and their anti-Fascist father has disappeared to join the Partisans.
Paolo however, has a teenage boy's thirst for adventure and his illicit night time sorties on his bicycle soon ensure that keeping a low profile is going to get even trickier. The whole family become involved in hiding escaped Allied prisoners and aiding the local Partisans hiding in the mountains. And as the end of the war draws closer and invading troops arrive on the doorstep, the risks begin to escalate.

It's an old fashioned page turner of the best sort. There are cliff hangers a-plenty and just the right amount of Gestapo officers knocking on doors in the dead of night. Having said that it's also as infused with genuine warmth and humanity as Shirley Hughes' books for much younger audiences. The divisions between 'goody' and 'baddy' are not clear cut and the complications of being a teenager evidently don't disappear just because there's a war on. I particularly like the complicated relationship drawn between Constanza and her best friend Hilaria, daughter of wealthy, Nazi-sympathiser black marketeers: A teenage girl friendship of mutual need/envy coupled with mutual distrust that rings very true.

I think this book is probably best enjoyed read aloud as a family. It has a slightly understated air which might lead to it otherwise falling neglected on a bookshelf by those browsing for flashier delights. But as entertainment to be read around a winter fireplace or a holiday patio 'Hero on a Bicycle' will satisfy and grip all ages together; rather like the best bank holiday old movies. It falls into very nice 'installments' and as any Alfie fan knows, Shirley Hughes' prose is always a pleasure to speak. For those with older children who have fallen out of the habit of a nightly bedtime story this would make a lovely reminder of the pleasures of book sharing. Pack a copy for your next family holiday as a better alternative for evening entertainment to watching foreign versions of 'The Weakest Link.'

"Down in the cellar Paolo was standing frozen with fright. He expected a blow, or two hands reaching out from the darkness to lock in a stranglehold on his throat. But the figure a few feet away remained quite still. All he could hear was his own breathing. Agonizing minutes passed.
'Hello?' he whispered hoarsely. No answer. 'Hello?'"

The book also has it's own website here which is full of interesting titbits and a great film of Shirley Hughes explaining how she came to write the book based on her own experiences.
'Hero on a Bicycle' by Shirley Hughes, pub. Walker isbn 978-1-4063-3610-8

Monday, 21 May 2012

Poorly Eddie and Nurse Matilda

I have a small and slightly feverish boy at home today. Much to the disgust of his big brother who is ALWAYS in rude health and NEVER gets a day off school harumph garumph. Poor Bill.
Eddie is often on strikingly good form when mildly feverish, talking nonsense nineteen to the dozen like the best sort of drunk. I have just abandoned the attempt to read him soothing stories in his bed. He will NOT be read to and will only read TO me. I found myself slowly closing my eyes and drifting off on his pillow as he worked his way through an animated rendition of the puzzle instructions in his Marvel Superhero Annual 2011. Something is the wrong way round here.

I need to enlist 'Nurse Matilda'; Christianna Brand's magical nanny of 1964, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, and reincarnated in movie form not so long ago by Emma Thompson as 'Nanny McPhee'. Return to source if you don't know the original books. They're marvellous and very very funny; concerning an impossibly large family of impossibly naughty children who must be brought to order by the intervention of a seemingly impossibly ugly and impossibly strict Nurse. Her methods are unorthodox but effective: When her charges are misbehaving she simply slams down her big black stick and terrible consequences ensue until the lesson is learn't.

Thus when the children decide that they won't get up from bed and will pretend they have the measles they are promptly given real measles and find they cannot get out of bed however much they want to.
"They couldn't. They just had to stay there, humped under the blankets- which were suddenly dreadfully hot and scratchy- and their noses felt dreadfully stuffy and they had pains in their pinnies and weren't at all sure that they really going to be sick. And they put up their languid hands to their hot faces and tried to wipe away the spots- and the spots wouldn't go."
To add insult to injury they must then be given Doses of three dreadful medicines; a spoonful every hour ('Hoggig meggikig', said the Baby.), and their lovely lunch of steak and kidney pudding and treacle roly-poly is given away to the village children.
So they beg nicely to be allowed to get up the next day, and Nurse Matilda taps her stick once more and grows a little prettier with each lesson taught.

I should reread this chapter to the boys tonight; in case Bill is getting any ideas about the joys of being sick and to remind Eddie how to really behave When Ill. Looking at him on the sofa now though, I think we can say it may all be catching up with him:

Maybe I'll just read them one of the glorious lists of all the wicked things the children get up to that also punctuate the book:
"'Miss Tora has cut off one of Miss Susie's plaits-'
'-and Master David has made a beard out of it and glued it on to Miss Charlotte.'
'Master Simon 'ave dress up ze dachshoooond in my best Parees 'at, and take eem for ze promenade.'
'Miss Helen has poured syrup into all the Wellington boots-'
'Miss Stephanie has grated up soap to look like cheese, and now poor Cook's dinner does nothing but foam-'
'-and all the other children are doing simply dreadful things too...'"

Then we'll all remember that there are worse things than being either poorly, or not poorly, or having to look after boys who both are and are not poorly. Cure by giggling.

'The Collected Tales of Nurse Matilda' by Christianna Brand, illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, pub. Bloomsbury isbn 978-0747576792

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Mary Plain diversions

Marked diversions because I must warn you from the outset that the books about Mary Plain the adventuring bear from the bear pits of Berne by Gwynedd Rae are currently more or less out of print. I don't normally write about books which you can't immediately read if you want to but there you go. This may be just a post for pre-existing bear enthusiasts and you have fair warning to stop reading now if you're in a Practical Frame of Mind and have no time for wallowing in someone else's nostalgia.

Now I know I said Noel Streatfeild was my favourite author and Ballet Shoes was my favourite book growing up but BEFORE she was ousted by the Fossil sisters the Mary Plain books were my very first 'chapter book' loves. I read them again, and again and again; introduced to them by my mother who had in her turn loved them I think.
Gwynedd Rae wrote the first; 'Mostly Mary' in 1930 and thirteen more, the last appearing in 1965. We can't have had them all, but most of them; some in their original edition hardback copies with illustrations by Irene Williamson and some Knight paperbacks from the 70's with illustrations by Janina Ede (which I have to confess I think I preferred). Only three books remain in my possession, but I can still recall the covers of the others incredibly clearly with that definite memory imprinting that only happens in childhood. I think an apology may be due to my older sister for those hardbacks that I DO have though. I can see they are from an issue of 1961; the year of her birth, leading me to guess they must have been an excited purchase or gift from my mother to her firstborn ready and waiting for her to 'grow into'. Bill had quite a library awaiting him by 6 weeks old or so from his impatient mother too.

Mary Plain is an orphan bear cub at Berne zoo who is befriended by the spectacled 'Owl Man' by means of the regular application of bear friendly treats (sugar carrots! condensed milk delivered by hose! cream buns!) and persuaded to leave the safety of her home and her bear twin cousins Marionetta and Little Wool and embark on a series of adventures or 'svisits' with him and his friends Bill Smith and 'The Fur Coat Lady'. These range from winning first prize in a show, to capturing Nazi spies and outwitting kidnappers, from escaping a field of angry bulls to being washed up on a tropical island . Mary is always funny, practically fearless, wonderfully manipulative, endlessly imaginative and just the best company ever. I identified so strongly with her it's possible I developed furry ears.

There is, you may not be surprised to hear given my identification, a thread of glorious gluttony that runs through all Mary Plain books. She eats constantly and always things that sounded completely delicious to me; hot bread and milk, cream buns, chocolate eclairs and meringues (which I always read as mer-in-gyoos and wondered what they could be). She also has an excellent, if limited wardrobe of clothes comprising a ballet skirt, striped bathing suit, nurses hat and a bus conductor's uniform. How much simpler life could be if that was all one had to choose from. She has her own style of pictogram writing too which made passages of the books fun to decipher. Lastly I commend to you her catchphrases which you may find handily cover all moments of Triumph and Despair in life:

To convey sadness and uncertainty: 'I wonder if the Twins are happy without me?'

Or when self esteem is more buoyant : 'I am an unusual first class bear with a white rosette and a gold medal with a picture of myself on it.'

"Gracious! that's the cock waking me up, it must be another day," and Mary pattered over to the window and had a look. Yes it was. How lovely! Mary liked new days. You never could tell what might happen on a new day; so many things could and especially when the day was Mary's..."

Irene Williamson's Mary
Janina Ede's version
Pictogram fun

I'm sad these books are out of print- but not surprised. I must confess I haven't shared the three I do have with my children yet. They're VERY un-politically correct; casually racist in places and full of fur, pipes, smacking and inappropriate care of entrusted wild beasts besides! Having said that, a sensitive re-write/edit would seem possible and would be so worthwhile. PUBLISHERS TAKE NOTE. They're just cracking good stories and it's a shame to lose them. More buns please.

With many thanks to Clara Vulliamy, Jane Porter and Girls Heart Books amongst others for enjoyable MP fandom on Twitter this week.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Calvin Can't Fly

Under normal circumstances one of my greatest pleasures at this time of year is spotting the return of migrating swifts. Around the end of April I start scanning the skies for wheeling black specks in the distance above. Sometimes you hear them before you see them; a distant shrieking call echoing above your head. I'm no birder but nothing seems to express joy and freedom and SUMMER more clearly to me than those little v shapes swooping in figures of eight in the blue.

This year of course There Is No Blue, and it wasn't until Saturday that the cloud cover lifted for long enough for me to find one. First swift 2012 obligingly flew past the skylight as I was reclining in the bath. Normally by mid- May they've started to gather in numbers and are easy spotting. They must be up there somewhere now, I just can't see them through the gloom. Poor things, it's a pretty shivery welcome after their long, long journey. I feel like catapulting tiny mufflers and thermoses of hot cocoa up into the air for them.

Reading 'Calvin Can't Fly; the story of a bookworm birdie' by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Keith Bendis will have to sustain me for now. I should immediately add that Calvin is a starling not a swift but it was a nice library find this week and provides a useful insight into the problems of migrating in stormy weather for the athletically challenged bird. As the youngest in our household shares more than a few features with the hero it's also a book well designed for Eddie pleasure, and pleasure it has given him.

Whilst Calvin's sixty-seven thousand four hundred and thirty-two cousins are busy discovering all the things young birds are supposed to, like grass, worms and how to fly, Calvin discovers books and there's no removing him from them. Even the insults thrown at him by his cousins 'nerdy birdie', 'geeky beaky' and 'bookworm' can't separate him from his passion to absorb all the printed matter he can lay his wings on.
When the time comes to fly south Calvin appears stuck; he still cannot fly but his family members put insults aside and unite to tow him along on a home made harness.
Their support is more than repaid when Calvin's book-learnin' leads him to identify the danger of an approaching hurricane and lead the flock to the safety of shelter.

The message of the value of difference within a community and the importance of valuing all members' contributions is not a new one and neither is the message that reading and books are important (there are a lot of books about the value of libraries to be found in libraries I've discovered; in much the same way as radio disc jockey's love to play tracks which reference how great they are). 'Calvin Can't Fly' is wittier and punchier than most though and the text is well served by Keith Bendis's lovely characterisations; he draws a great expressive starling eye. For Eddie and his mother the book is a nice reminder that even bookworms get there in the end: Calvin does learn to fly. Eddie is off on his first ever 'proper' play date this afternoon with his most recent discovery- a friend. Eventually he may even learn to kick a ball. I'm not holding my breath though- I'm still waiting to learn that one.

The other great thing about this book is that it gives me an excuse to link to a film of a murmuration of starlings. Sustaining whilst we wait for the swifts. And write the word 'murmuration' which is the best word.

'Calvin Can't Fly' by Jennifer Berne, illustrated by Keith Bendis, pub. Sterling, isbn 978-1-4027-7323-5

Monday, 14 May 2012

Mustering Fairies- Part 3 Blyton and beyond

I'm going to move all the way up to date to the 1930s (I'm contemporary me) in my fairy mustering to the prolific and ubiquitous Enid Blyton and her, to my mind, best books; 'The Wishing Chair' series and 'The Faraway Tree' series. Jam packed with fairies, elves, pixies, sprites and every other sort of magical creature these were amongst my favourite rainy day comfort reading books as a child and it's no surprise they remain top sellers today.

Ordinary children discover parallel magical worlds full of adventure, very mild peril and frankly QUANTITIES of delicious things to eat. These were books I literally salivated over. Whatever you think about Blyton (and my thinkings are quite mixed) she certainly understood the way children's minds work: They're after in no particular order, independence, the ability to fly, and access to unlimited cake. The books offer all of these treats in abundance. I particularly loved 'The Folk of the Faraway Tree'. The concept of a tree which a. grows every different sort of fruit you like and b. has a selection of lands at the top many of which provide a combination of free flowing treats is pretty irresistable.

When Bill was 5 or so, I bought 'The Adventures of the Wishing Chair' and read it to him. It was only then that I discovered just how dreary they are in language and formulaic in conceit. What a shame; a childhood favourite it turned out I'd grown out of, (and there was I thinking I hadn't grown up at all). But as it turns out these are children's books in the truest sense; for children to enjoy on their own without adult as gatekeeper. Just how fairy encounters should be too I suppose. They are books to leave around your newly confident reader and let them discover solo; they don't repay being read out loud (or not if you're selfish like me and want to get something for yourself too).

'"Will you each wish for what you like best to eat?" said the magician in his kind,deep voice. "Take it in turn, please!"
A brownie next to him said, "I wish for honey-lemonade and sugar biscuits!"
At once a jug of yellow lemonade appeared by him and a plate of deliciopus sugar biscuits! The fairy next to the brownie wished for chocolate blanc-mange and a cream ice. They appeared even as she spoke the words! It was such fun to see them come.
Mollie and Peter watched in amazement as all the dishes and jugs on the table became full of the most exciting things when each little creature wished his or her wish. They had their turns too!
"I wish for cream buns and ginger-beer!" said Mollie.
"And I wish for treacle pudding and lemonade!" said Peter'

Well all right that random offering from the pages of  'The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair' makes me quite wistful for those curled up days of childhood again. Can I wish for a cup of tea and some marmite toast please?

One final and finally actually up to date offering for the sake of completeness. Bill had out from the library last year a book called 'Flax the Feral Fairy' by Tiffany Mandrake (What an appropriate name!-smirk). The first in the 'Little Horrors' series about an Academy for Badness in fairies and other magical creatures. I'm not going to make any great claims for it but he enjoyed it. If you are currently trying to keep your head above a wave of Rainbow Magic threatening to engulf your house they might provide a nice antidote.

'The Adventures of the Wishing Chair' (amongst others) by Enid Blyton, pub. Egmont isbn 978-1-4052-3958-5
Now off to Playing by the Books link up here, where you will find a whole host (fluttering? what is the collective noun for fairies?) of other winged offerings.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Fairy Mustering Part 2- Racketty Packetty House

Well hurray for first of all this post about dolls houses from Clara Vulliamy, and second of all for the distractions of Twitter preventing me giving my full attention to last night's DVD ('Limitless'- didn't really need my full attention).
They reminded me Just In Time of the wonderful 'Racketty Packetty House' by Frances Hodgson Burnett; a book not only well sprinkled with fairies but actually WRITTEN by one - the wonderfully named Queen Crosspatch herself. In best fairy fashion it was hiding in a dark forgotten corner of my bookshelf all this time.

First published in 1907 I think I can best describe 'Racketty Packetty House' as Toy Story meets Downton Abbey. Spoilt and neglectful Cynthia has been given a new doll's house; Tidy Castle full of 'all modern improvements' and has no time for her inherited shabby Racketty Packetty House, the once grand and loved toy of her Grandmamma. Racketty Packetty's occupants had originally been dressed very grandly and had grand names to match; Victoria Leopoldina and Aurelia Matilda and Charles Edward Stuart:
'For a long time they led a very gay and fashionable life. They had parties and balls and were presented at Court and went to Royal Christenings and Weddings and were married themselves and had families and scarlet fever and whooping cough and funerals and every luxury. But that was long, long ago.'
Now the renamed Meg, Peg, Kilmanskeg, Gustibus, Ridiklis and Peter Piper have fallen into disrepair and whilst irrepressibly cheerful, spend their days watching the proud new occupants of Tidy Castle leading glamorous aristocratic lives from their new position behind the nursery door. Worse still is Cynthia and her Nurse's threat to burn them and their house together. Peter Piper is the bravest:
'We are only made of wood and it won't hurt a bit. We shall just snap and crackle and go off almost like fireworks and then we shall be ashes and fly away and see all sorts of things.'

The intervention of Queen Crosspatch and her army of fairies will save Racketty House on more than one occasion. There is also a very satisfying love affair across the class divide. And a terrifying outbreak of Scarlet Fever at |Tidy Castle where all the inhabitants are left in a state of high delirium after Cynthia loses interest mid-game. And a visit from a Real Princess. It's packed full of incident as well as warmth, humour and some  great one liners.
'Every one of us is as nice as we can be. We are perfect Turkish Delights. It's laughing that does it.'

The great thing is that you can actually read it Right Now if you choose as it's out of copyright and available on line. Here's the Wikisource link.

And here's my copy, complete with fairies courtesy of illustrator Harrison Cady and my own fairy end paper addition.

Fairy gold.
'Racketty Packetty house' by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illus. Harrison Cady many different editions available.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Mustering fairies- part 1 The Classics

I'm roaming round the house mustering all the fairies I can. It's a task set me by the lovely Zoe at Playing By the Book who is hosting a link up of fairy and elf book posts on Monday as the first in her new monthly round up of titles on specific subjects: A great idea in principle; it will be a one stop shop resource to turn to when you're looking for inspiration in a particular area. The only problem is how few fairy offerings I can find.

Now as I am a Mother of Boys you may not find this as surprising as I do. Whilst it's true we dodge  the Rainbow Magic Fairies bullet and our picture book shelves are reasonably free of pink sparkles, both boys but Eddie in particular are big 'fairy story' fans. We have purchased several classic anthologies of traditional stories retold and I would recommend them all. We have 'The Hutchinson Treasury of Fairy Tales' and 'Quentin Blake's Magical Tales'. We have both of Joan Aiken's wonderful collaborations with Jan Pienkowski 'A Necklace of Raindrops and 'The Kingdom under the Sea'. We have Helen Cresswell's 'At the Stroke of Midnight' (now out of print sadly). We even have a rather wonderful ancient, inherited copy of The Brown Fairy Book by Andrew Lang: There are ten 'colour' books of these fabulous dense and comprehensive anthologies of fairy and folk stories, first published at the turn of the 20th century. Beautiful facsimile editions are available and I think they remain wonderful items for any (non- fairy) godparent to purchase as Proper Gift. But here's the thing about these and all of the preceding mentioned lovely books.

There aren't that many fairies in them.

 Magical beings and entities abound, sorcerors, monsters, witches and goblins. Beautiful fairies adorn the cover but aside from the odd wingless godmother, fairies in the Tinkerbell/Tooth conception of them don't appear. In my mustering I came across William Allingham's famous poem; 'The Fairies'; the 'Up the airy mountain, Down the rushy glen, We daren't go a-hunting For fear of little men' one. I was struck by how dark it was. I suspect the sanitisation of the fairy into something benign and twinkly and exclusively female is a relatively modern phenomenon- perhaps even begun by J. M. Barrie and continued by the famous fake Cottingley fairy photos and Cicely Mary Barker's rather lovely Flower Fairies (I had SUCH a lovely Flower Fairy notelet set once upon a time sigh). There must be scholarly work aplenty documenting this and I am intrigued enough to seek it out if anyone would like to direct me?

front cover of the Brown Fairy Book
 Oo an Elf-Maiden at least (again from Brown Fairy Book)

Cottingley fairy. Well I'm convinced.

Slightly stretching the definition of fairy out of necessity therefore I'm going to offer you one last solid classic recommendation from the pre-sanitised fairy days of 1872; George Mcdonald's  'The Princess and The Goblin', and 'The Princess and Curdie' favourites of mine from being read to me by my father and top of the pile to read to the boys next.

Now. Again these book could not be said to be fairy packed HOWEVER I think they are worth including in a round up on the grounds that  Irene the eponymous Princess's great great grandmother is a beautiful and magical shape shifting being with powers of enchantment. It is also necessary to believe in her to see her, so although I don't think she's ever overtly labelled as fairy I think we can call her one. She may be slightly on the large side and wingless but she has plenty of the requisite power and grace without any of the tweeness and I think that's preferable. They are at any rate great and magical reads that any Fairy Fan is going to get plenty out of. Plus there are obviously loads of goblins, who I feel must be related to fairies if only rather distantly.

Irene; the Princess and Curdie a miner's son must rescue both themselves, each other, and the kingdom from a series of sorties by the terrifying and acquisitive goblins who live deep in the mountain, and Irene's 'fairy' grandmother's interventions are critical to their success.
They are books which probably pilfer widely from much of the best traditions of folk lore and are fairly well infused with a dose of Victorian sentimentality but nevertheless remain gripping and satisfying reads for both child and adult. A solid recommendation for a Fairy Bookshelf for those who don't require their magical beings too dainty.

'her grandmother was dressed in the loveliest pale-blue velvet, over which her hair, no longer white, but of a rich golden colour, streamed like a cataract, here falling in dull gathered heaps, there rushing away in smooth shining falls. And ever as she looked, the hair seemed pouring down from her head, and vanishing in the golden mist ere it reached the floor. it flowed from under the edge of a circle of shining silver, set with alternated pearls and opals'

Now that's hair. Who needs wings?

I've taken up enough of your attention so I'm splitting this post in two and present my more modern musterings separately.

'The Princess and The Goblins' and 'The Princess and Curdie' by George Macdonald widely available in various different editions and also as cheap/free Kindle downloads if that's your thing.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Children of Green Knowe

Have I mentioned much that it's rained a lot recently? I think I just might have made fleeting reference. It's got to the point where I am planning to make stew, jacket potatoes and crumble for supper today. I'm going to put the calendar back  a few months and tell myself it's lovely and mild for January and feel cheerful instead of grumping that it's all terribly un-May like.
In light of this decision a proper meaty and nourishing book is called for; and one not short of rain and floods either, in the form of Lucy M. Boston's wonderful 'The Children of Green Knowe'. I read it to Bill in the depths of winter when it was all very dry and mild. It would be much more appropriate now.

This is the first in the series of six Green Knowe books, first published in the 1950s and 60s. I am lucky enough to have them in beautiful first edition hardbacks, complete with extraordinary etched illustrations by the author's son Peter Boston. They are books of rare richness of language and complexity, written with clarity but also a sophistication that pays proper respect to the abilities of their reader. Lucy Boston is able to channel into how it is to be, think and play as a child without patronage and very few authors match that.

Toseland or Tolly  is an only child, whose mother has died and whose father and step mother live in Burma. He is sent from boarding school to spend the Christmas holidays with his great-grandmother in her mysterious and ancient ark-like home Green Knowe, regularly surrounded by the flood waters of the fens and only accessible by boat. As he explores his new home and gardens and gets to know his magical and ageless Granny he becomes aware of the other inhabitants that live there; ghost children and pets of generations past who can compensate for his loneliness.

The 'story' of the book is loose and it is unusual in not being broken into conventional chapters. The discovery and progression of Tolly's friendship with the ghostly Toby, Linnet and Alexander, seventeenth century victims of the Plague is interspersed with their own stories from childhood. The book is I suppose relatively uncontemporary in it's focus on description and evoking atmosphere over plot. It is above all, an eloquent study in how to enjoy being alone. Having said that, there is a terrifying set piece towards the end where a cursed topiary version of Green Noah is brought to life in a thunder storm and Tolly is only rescued by the intervention of a ghostly peacock and a stone statue of St. Christopher. That counts as plot then.

I am going to give you the opening paragraph of the book. Call it my little food parcel of meaty nourishment for you in the rain.

"A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly, dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him. He was alone as usual. There were two women opposite him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train-more stop than go-and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water- not sea or rivers or lakes, but senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train-noise was quite different, softer than a boat."

I love the way Lucy Boston has noticed and reproduced what a child notices so accurately. Beautiful books.

'The Children of Green Knowe' by Lucy M. Boston, illustrated by Peter Boston, pub. Faber and Faber
isbn 978-0571231461

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

A Wild Rumpus

We have lost one of the Great Masters today; Maurice Sendak has died. Other people are writing more eloquently than I can of the playfulness and profundity of his work. All I can say is I felt a pang of loss when I heard the news and when I told Bill so did he.

And so it was on with last year's World Book Day Max costume and time for a spontaneous family bedtime wild rumpus.

Hope you're enjoying one of your own somewhere Maurice; the true King of all Wild Things.

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Jelly that Wouldn't Wobble

A few months ago Eddie came out of school with great excitement bellowing 'It's Jelly Day! It's Jelly Day!'. They had made jelly at school ('red, orange, green'). They had walked like jellies at school ('you have to walk all wibbly!') They had talked like jellies at school ('you have to talk all wobbly!') They had undertaken the serious taste testing of jelly at school too ('orange is best'). Jelly day. I was really jealous. I wanted me some of that jelly fun.

Today is a bank holiday and it's raining because that is what the weather does now (may need to find a Noah's Ark How To guide to review this week) and Bill and the husband have gone to admire the forces of destruction at the Imperial War Museum so it's time for Eddie to show me how it's done and share a bit of his jelly expertise. Thankfully we have just the book to inspire us in the form of 'The Jelly who Wouldn't Wobble' by Angela Mitchell and illustrated by Sarah Horne; a pleasingly silly tale of a dessert who seems determined to cheat destiny.

89 year old imperious Princess Lolly has ordered her favourite pudding for her birthday party but when the chef carries out the magnificent red royal jelly it turns out to have other ideas. It doesn't want to be eaten and refuses to wobble. Prodding, rocking and scaring the jelly don't work and it falls to the smallest guest to think laterally about what will make a jelly shiver when all else fails.
I'll admit to feeling a little sorry for the jelly. It brought to mind the cow in Douglas Adams' 'Restaurant at the End of the Universe' who comes to your table and recommends different cuts from itself. The boys, predictably enough, had no such compunction; pudding is pudding whether it has eyes and opinions or no.  They were particularly impressed by the reward of 1001 chocolate sovereigns earned by the smallest guest for producing the necessary wobble.They'd make poor moral vegetarians but serviceable mercenaries apparently.

In truth Sarah Horne's jelly is drawn with a great grouchy menace that suggests it might well eat you if you didn't get in with your spoon first. It also looks delicious. I guess I might as well have a piece too. It is Jelly Day after all- it would be rude not to.

Having enjoyed this smile-inducing silliness I then followed the instructions of the Jelly Master. We walked like jellies.
We made and wobbled our own jelly; orange because that is Officially the Tastiest, bunny-shaped because that is Officially the Cutest.
It was much more co-operative than Princess Lolly's.
and then we ate it. It was delicious.
Should you be feeling a little grey and gloomy this rainy May I can thoroughly endorse the Jelly Day Cure. Get wobbling.
'The Jelly That Wouldn't Wobble' by Angela Mitchell, illustrated by Sarah Horne, pub. Maverick
isbn 978-1-84886-079-7
Disclosure: We received our copy by kindness of the publisher. Our opinions are our own.
I suddenly recall an infamous plate of lime green jelly gone wrong from my school canteen. Not only did that Not Wobble it was quite possibly sentient too. Cubes of it were discovered stuck to pieces of playground equipment for months afterwards.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Hurray for author school visits

Just a quick post tonight, and to be honest the title says it all. The boys' school has been incredibly fortunate to have not just one but three authors visit them in the last few months. First up, the one, the only Michael Rosen- Coo get them! He did 'chocolate cake' and everything. As Bill reminisced just this morning; 'Michael Rosen can almost take off his whole face Mum and that's really clever.' (only almost mind)
Next, the lovely Helen Peters of course (she couldn't very well NOT speak to her own kids' school)(but hurray that all our kids get the benefit). I hear today that 'The Secret Hen House Theatre' is already being reprinted- great news indeed.

This afternoon we had a flying visit from Ciaran Murtagh, the writer of many CBBC shows and author of the 'Dinopants' series and now 'Genie in Training'. It fell to my lot to meet him, offer him tea and set up tables for the book signing to follow so for the first time I actually got to attend the event.

Wow. He was BRILLIANT. In just 45 minutes he managed to get the whole school producing quantities of ideas to write a story about a 'Spooky Sponge' involving extreme tactics to avoid the washing up, a belly ache of epic proportions and the consumption of a toilet . He also levitated a 3rd year on his magic carpet. He made everyone, teachers included, weep with laughter. He generated enough infectious energy to power a light house. Most importantly he made the business of writing and generating stories seem accessible to all and FUN.

In a month where SATS tests are being taken and approved writing rules and formulae must be followed to Achieve Standards, for once even I was happy that space was being made for talk of poo. Addressing the problem of how to get a T Rex into pants  may not be the most intellectually stimulating literature but boy did it make that hall happy. And if you want to get children reading AND writing, getting silly in a school seems a pretty good way of doing it to me.

Thanks Ciaran.
'Genie in Training' by Ciaran Murtagh, pub. Piccadilly isbn 978-1-84812-226-0

Topically there's also a nice piece in the Guardian today about how schools can make the most of author visits. Read it here.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Leo Geo

'Leo Geo- and his miraculous journey through the center of the earth' by Jon Chad is a book designed to appeal to a lot of different types of geekery going on in our household. It appeals to my book-as-fun-and-beautiful-object fetish: It is a very long, thin hardback and you have to turn it first on its side and then upside down as you follow the story. Ooo- unusual! It appeals to the husband's love of intricate linework and pen and ink hatching excellence. Ooo- detail! It appeals to Bill's love of terrifying monster encounters and outlandish machinery. Ooo- scary! And it's also Quite Educational which is obviously good for all of us but particularly Eddie, who is fond of a fact.

Leo Geo is the Morph-like featureless hero who takes us on an adventure to the centre of the earth and out the other side, courtesy of a giant drilling machine, a whole network of handy tunnels, ladders and the odd ancient civilisation and unexpected mining community. En route he imparts a wide range of different scientific factoids about his encounters and we get to learn about the constituent layers and features of the earth as well as other diversions onto crystal formation, thermal generation, magnetism, the limbic system and possibly too much about the digestive tract of a quadclops ('hurray!' say the boys). There's no attempt to dumb down, rather a revelry in scientific language and precision labeling. Geeky text- and none the worse for that. Sample speech bubbles as he negotiates that quadclops:

"'The membrane in our noses that lets us smell is called the olfactory epithelium. phew I could do without mine right now.'
'Oops! I had intended to sneak up on this ugly brute!'
'I think the monster means to masticate me!'
'Ugh! This is the worst! Wait! This monster might have the same sort of digestive system as other mammals...'
'I'll use science to get out of this pickle!'
'Yuck! I made it through the ileum and colon and managed'"

The mix between 'real' science and fantasy earth contents might confuse or irritate some but I (and Bill) found it more engaging than a purely straight approach. It's clear enough when we're going off piste from the truth. (and -aha-oho-who really knows what's down there anyway hmm?) For kids who like Science Facts and Science Fiction in equal measure (and I know there are plenty out there) this book would be heaven.

Text aside though I'm with the husband in principally admiring this book for it's beautiful black lines. There is detail to pore over and savour. An awful lot of very lovingly drawn rocks and some pretty darn cool monsters too: It's a great visual reference for those developing their drawing passion. Pretty!

(and apologies for the photos which are not going to do that prettiness justice)

'Leo Geo and his miraculous journey through the center of the earth' by Jon Chad, pub. Roaring Book Press isbn 978-1-59643-661-9. another US import- so Gosh, Amazon or similar required.

Side note- Jon Chad apparently works at the Center for Cartoon Studies. Now doesn't that sound a nice place to study?
I'm labelling this post non-fiction which may be a little controversial.